DURING the two years of which I am now speaking many arrests were made, both at St. Petersburg and in the provinces. Not a month passed without our losing some one, or learning that members of this or that provincial group had disappeared. Toward the end of 1873 the arrests became more and more frequent. In November one of our main settlements in a suburb of St. Petersburg was raided by the police. We lost Peróvskaya and three other friends, and all our relations with the workers in this suburb had to be suspended. We founded a new settlement, further away from the town, but it had soon to be abandoned. The police became very vigilant, and the appearance of a student in the workmen's quarters was noticed at once; spies circulated among the workers, who were watched closely. Dmítri Kelnitz, Serghéi, and myself, in our sheepskins and with our peasant looks, passed unnoticed, and continued to visit the haunted ground. But Dmítri and Serghéi, whose names had acquired a wide notoriety in the workmen's quarters, were eagerly wanted by the police; and if they had been found accidentally during a nocturnal raid at a friend's lodgings, they would have been arrested at once. There were periods when Dmítri had to hunt every day for a place where he could spend the night in relative safety. "Can I spend the night with you?" he would ask, entering some comrade's room at ten o'clock. "Impossible! my lodgings have been closely watched lately. Better go to N." "I have just come from him, and he says spies swarm his neighborhood." "Then go to M.; he is a great friend of mine and above suspicion. But it is far from here, and you must take a cab. Here is the money." But on principle Dmítri would not take a cab, and would walk to the other end of the town to find a refuge, or at last go to a friend whose rooms might be searched at any moment.
Early in January, 1874, another settlement, our main stronghold for propaganda amongst the weavers, was lost. Some of our best propagandists disappeared behind the gates of the mysterious Third Section. Our circle became narrower, general meetings were increasingly difficult, and we made strenuous efforts to form new circles of young men who might continue our work when we should all be arrested. Tchaykóe;vsky was in the south, and we forced Dmítri and Serghéi to leave St. Petersburg,--actually forced them, imperiously ordering them to leave. Only five or six of us remained to transact all the business of our circle. I intended, as soon as I should have delivered my report to the Geographical Society, to go to the southwest of Russia, and there to start a sort of land league, similar to the league which became so powerful in Ireland at the end of the seventies.
After two months of relative quiet, we learned in the middle of March that nearly all the circle of the engineers had been arrested, and with them a young man named Nízovkin, an ex-student, who unfortunately had their confidence, and, we were sure, would soon try to clear himself by telling all he knew about us. Besides Dmítri and Serghéi he knew Serdukóff, the founder of the circle, and myself, and he would certainly name us as soon as he was pressed with questions. A few days later, two weavers--most unreliable fellows, who had even embezzled some money from their comrades, and who knew me under the name of Borodín--were arrested. These two would surely set the police at once upon the track of Borodín, the man dressed as a peasant, who spoke at the weavers' meetings. Within a week's time all the members of our circle, excepting Serdukóff and myself, were arrested.
There was nothing left us but to fly from St. Petersburg: this was exactly what we did not want to do. All our immense organization for printing pamphlets abroad and for smuggling them into Russia; all the network of circles, farms, and country settlements with which we were in correspondence in nearly forty (out of fifty) provinces of European Russia, and which had been slowly built up during the last two years; and finally, our workers' groups at St. Petersburg and our four different centres for propaganda amongst workers of the capital,--how could we abandon all these without having found men to maintain our relations and correspondence? Serdukóff and I decided to admit to our circle two new members, and to transfer the business to them. We met every evening in different parts of the town, and as we never kept any addresses or names in writing,--the smuggling addresses alone had been deposited in a secure place, in cipher,--we had to teach our new members hundreds of names and addresses and a dozen ciphers, repeating them over and over, until our friends had learned them by heart. Every evening we went over the whole map of Russia in this way, dwelling especially on its western frontier, which was studded with men and women engaged in receiving books from the smugglers, and on the eastern provinces, where we had our main settlements. Then, always in disguise, we had to take the new members to our sympathizers in the town, and introduce them to those workers who had not yet been arrested.
The thing to be done in such a case was to disappear from one's apartments, and to reappear somewhere else under an assumed name. Serdukóff had abandoned his lodging, but, having no passport, he concealed himself in the houses of friends. I ought to have done the same, but a strange circumstance prevented me. I had just finished my report upon the glacial formations in Finland and Russia, and this report had to be read at a meeting of the Geographical Society. The invitations were already issued, but it happened that on the appointed day the two geological societies of St. Petersburg had a joint meeting, and they asked the Geographical Society to postpone the reading of my report for a week. It was known that I would present certain ideas about the extension of the ice cap as far as Middle Russia, and our geologists, with the exception of my friend and teacher, Friedrich Schmidt, considered this a speculation of too farreaching character, and wanted to have it thoroughly discussed. For one week more, consequently, I could not go away.
Strangers prowled about my house and called upon me under all sorts of fantastical pretexts: one of them wanted to buy a forest on my Tambóv estate, which was situated in absolutely treeless prairies. I noticed in my street--the fashionable Morskáya--one of the two arrested weavers whom I have mentioned, and thus learned that my house was watched. Yet I had to act as if nothing extraordinary had happened, because I was to appear at the meeting of the Geographical Society the following Friday night.
The meeting came. The discussions were very animated, and one point, at least, was won. It was recognized that all old theories concerning the diluvial period in Russia were totally baseless, and that a new departure must be made in the investigation of the whole question. I had the satisfaction of hearing our leading geologist, Barbot-de-Marny, say, "Ice cap or not, we must acknowledge, gentlemen, that all we have hitherto said about the action of floating ice had no foundation whatever in actual exploration." And I was proposed at that meeting to be nominated president of the physical geography section, while I was asking myself whether I should not spend that very night in the prison of the Third Section.
It would have been best not to return at all to my apartment, but I was broken down with fatigue, after the exertion of the last few days, and went home. There was no police raid during that night. I looked through the heaps of my papers, destroyed everything that might be compromising for any one, packed all my things, and prepared to leave. I knew that my apartment was watched, but I hoped that the police would not pay me a visit before late in the night, and that at dusk I could slip out of the house without being noticed. Dusk came, and, as I was starting, one of the servant girls said to me, "You had better go by the service staircase." I understood what she meant, and went quickly down the staircase and out of the house. One cab only stood at the gate; I jumped into it. The driver took me to the great Nevsky Prospekt. There was no pursuit at first, and I thought myself safe; but presently I noticed another cab running full speed after us; our horse was delayed somehow, and the other cab passed ours.
To my astonishment, I saw in it one of the two arrested weavers, accompanied by some one else. He waved his hand as if he had something to tell me. I told my cabman to stop. "Perhaps," I thought, "he has been released from arrest, and has an important communication to make to me." But as soon as we stopped, the man who was with the weaver--he was a detective--shouted loudly, "Mr. Borodín, Prince Kropótkin, I arrest you!" He made a signal to the policemen, of whom there are hosts along the main thoroughfare of St. Petersburg, and at the same time jumped into my cab and showed me a paper which bore the stamp of the St. Petersburg police. "I have an order to take you before the governor-general for an explanation," he said. Resistance was impossible,--a couple of policemen were already close by,--and I told my cabman to turn round and drive to the governor-general's house. The weaver remained in his cab and followed us.
It was now evident that the police had hesitated for ten days to arrest me, because they were not sure that Borodín and I were the same person. My response to the weaver's call had settled their doubts.
It so happened that just as I was leaving my house a young man came from Moscow, bringing me a letter from a friend, Voinarálsky, and another from Dmítri addressed to our friend Polakóff. The former announced the establishment of a secret printing-office at Moscow, and was full of cheerful news concerning the activity in that city. I read it and destroyed it. As the second letter contained nothing but innocent friendly chat, I took it with me. Now that I was arrested, I thought it would be better to destroy it, and, asking the detective to show me his paper again, I took advantage of the time that he was fumbling in his pocket to drop the letter on the pavement without his noticing it. However, as we reached the governor-general's house the weaver handed it to the detective, saying, "I saw the gentleman drop this letter on the pavement, so I picked it up."
Now came tedious hours of waiting for the representative of the judicial authorities, the procureur or public prosecutor. This functionary plays the part of a straw man, who is paraded by the state police during their searches: he gives an aspect of legality to their proceedings. It was many hours before that gentleman was found and brought to perform his functions as a sham representative of Justice. I was taken back to my house, and a most thorough search of all my papers was made; this lasted till three in the morning, but did not reveal a scrap of paper that could tell against me or any one else.
From my house I was taken to the Third Section, that omnipotent institution which has ruled in Russia from the beginning of the reign of Nicholas I. down to the present time,--a true "state in the state." It began under Peter I. in the Secret Department, where the adversaries of the founder of the Russian military empire were subject to the most abominable tortures, under which they expired; it was continued in the Secret Chancelry during the reigns of the Empresses, when the Torture Chamber of the powerful Minich inspired all Russia with terror; and it received its present organization from the iron despot, Nicholas I., who attached to it the corps of gendarmes,--the chief of the gendarmes becoming a person far more dreaded in the Russian Empire than the Emperor himself.
In every province of Russia, in every populous town, nay, at every railway station, there are gendarmes who report directly to their own generals or colonels, who in turn correspond with the chief of the gendarmes; and the latter, seeing the Emperor every day, reports to him what he finds necessary to report. All functionaries of the empire are under gendarme supervision; it is the duty of the generals and colonels to keep an eye upon the public and private life of every subject of the Tsar,--even upon the governors of the provinces, the ministers, and the grand dukes. The Emperor himself is under their close watch, and as they are well informed of the petty chronicle of the palace, and know every step that the Emperor takes outside his palace, the chief of the gendarmes becomes, so to speak, a confidant of the most intimate affairs of the rulers of Russia.
At this period of the reign of Alexander II. the Third Section was absolutely all-powerful. The gendarme colonels made searches by the thousand without troubling themselves in the least about the existence of laws and law courts in Russia. They arrested whom they liked, kept people imprisoned as long as they pleased, and transported hundreds to Northeast Russia or Siberia according to the fancy of general or colonel; the signature of the minister of the interior was a mere formality, because he had no control over them and no knowledge of their doings.
It was four o'clock in the morning when my examination began. "You are accused," I was solemnly told, "of having belonged to a secret society which has for its object the overthrow of the existing form of government, and of conspiracy against the sacred person of his Imperial Majesty. Are you guilty of this crime?"
"Till I am brought before a court where I can speak publicly, I will give you no replies whatever."
"Write," the procureur dictated to a scribe: "'Does not acknowledge himself guilty.' Still," he continued, after a pause, "I must ask you certain questions. Do you know a person of the name of Nikolái Tchaykóvsky?"
"If you persist in your questions, then write 'No' to any question whatsoever that you are pleased to ask me."
"But if we ask you whether you know, for instance, Mr. Polakóff, whom you spoke about awhile ago?"
"The moment you ask me such a question, don't hesitate: write 'No.' And if you ask me whether I know my brother, or my sister, or my stepmother, write 'No.' You will not receive from me another reply: because if I answered 'Yes' with regard to any person, you would at once plan some evil against him, making a raid or something worse, and saying next that I named him."
A long list of questions was read, to which I patiently replied each time, "Write 'No.'" That lasted for an hour, during which I learned that all who had been arrested, with the exception of the two weavers, had behaved very well. The weavers knew only that I had twice met a dozen workers, and the gendarmes knew nothing about our circle.
"What are you doing, prince?" a gendarme officer said, as he took me to my cell. "Your refusal to answer questions will be made a terrible weapon against you." "It is my right, is it not?" "Yes, but--you know....I hope you will find this room comfortable. It has been kept warm since your arrest."
I found it quite comfortable, and fell sound asleep. I was waked the next morning by a gendarme, who brought me the morning tea. He was soon followed by somebody else, who whispered to me in the most unconcerned way, "Here's a scrap of paper and a pencil: write your letter." It was a sympathizer, whom I knew by name; he used to transmit our correspondence with the prisoners of the Third Section.
From all sides I heard knocks on the walls, following in rapid succession. It was the prisoners communicating with one another by means of light taps; but, being a newcomer, I could make nothing out of the noise, which seemed to come from all parts of the building at once.
One thing worried me. During the search in my house, I overheard the procureur whispering to the gendarme officer about going to make a search at the apartment of my friend Polakóff, to whom the letter of Dmítri was addressed. Polakóff was a young student, a very gifted zoölogist and botanist, with whom I had made my Vitím expedition in Siberia. He was born of a poor Cossack family on the frontier of Mongolia, and, after having surmounted all sorts of difficulties, he had come to St. Petersburg, entered the university, where he had won the reputation of a most promising zoölogist, and was then passing his final examinations. We had been great friends since our long journey, and had even lived together for a time at St. Petersburg, but he took no interest in my political activity.
I spoke of him to the procureur. "I give you my word of honor," I said, "that Polakóff has never taken part in any political affair. To-morrow he has to pass an examination, and you will spoil forever the scientific career of a young man who has gone through great hardships, and has struggled for years against all sorts of obstacles, to attain his present position. I know that you do not much care for it, but he is looked upon at the university as one of the future glories of Russian science."
The search was made, nevertheless, but a respite of three days was given for the examinations. A little later I was called before the procureur, who triumphantly showed me an envelope addressed in my handwriting, and in it a note, also in my handwriting, which said, "Please take this packet to V. E., and ask that it be kept until demand in due form is made." The person to whom the note was addressed was not mentioned in the note. "This letter," the procureur said, "was found at Mr. Polakóff's; and now, prince, his fate is in your hands. If you tell me who V. E. is, Mr. Polakóff will be released; but if you refuse to do so, he will be kept as long as he does not make up his mind to give us the name of that person."
Looking at the envelope, which was addressed in black chalk, and the letter, which was written in common lead pencil, I immediately remembered the circumstances under which the two had been written. "I am positive," I exclaimed at once, "that the note and the envelope were not found together! It is you who have put the letter in the envelope."
The procureur blushed. "Would you have me believe," I continued, " that you, a practical man, did not notice that the two were written with different pencils? And now you are trying to make people think that the two belong to each other! Well, sir, then I tell you that the letter was not to Polakóff."
He hesitated for some time, but then, regaining his audacity, he said, "Polakóff has admitted that this letter of yours was written to him."
Now I knew he was lying. Polakóff would have admitted everything concerning himself; but he would have preferred to be marched to Siberia rather than to involve another person. So, looking straight in the face of the procureur, I replied, "No, sir, he has never said that, and you know perfectly well that your words are not true."
He became furious, or pretended to be so. "Well, then," he said, "if you wait here a moment, I will bring you Polakóff's written statement to that effect. He is in the next room under examination."
"Ready to wait as long as you like."
I sat on a sofa, smoking countless cigarettes. The statement did not come, and never came.
Of course there was no such statement. I met Polakóff in 1878 at Geneva, whence we made a delightful excursion to the Aletsch glacier. I need not say that his answers were what I expected them to be: he denied having any knowledge of the letter or of the person the letters V. E. represented. Scores of books used to be taken from me to him, and back to me, and the letter was found in a book, while the envelope was discovered in the pocket of an old coat. He was kept several weeks under arrest, and then released, owing to the intervention of his scientific friends. V. E. was not molested, and delivered my papers in due time.
I was not taken back to my cell, but half an hour later the procureur came in, accompanied by a gendarme officer. "Our examination," he announced to me, "is now terminated; you will be removed to another place."
Later on, each time I saw him I teased him with the question: "And what about Polakóff's statement?"
A four-wheeled cab stood at the gate. I was asked to enter it, and a stout gendarme officer, of Circassian origin, sat by my side. I spoke to him, but he only snored. The cab crossed the Chain Bridge, then passed the parade grounds and ran along the canals, as if avoiding the more frequented thoroughfares. "Are we going to the Litóvskiy prison?" I asked the officer, as I knew that many of my comrades were already there. He made no reply. The system of absolute silence which was maintained toward me for the next two years began in this four-wheeled cab; but when we went rolling over the Palace Bridge, I understood that I was on the way to the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul.
I admired the beautiful river, knowing that I should not soon see it again. The sun was going down. Thick gray clouds were hanging in the west above the Gulf of Finland, while light clouds floated over my head, showing here and there patches of blue sky. Then the carriage turned to the left and entered a dark arched passage, the gate of the fortress.
"Now I shall have to remain here for a couple of years," I remarked to the officer."
"No, why so long?" replied the Circassian, who now that we were within the fortress had regained the power of speech. "Your affair is almost terminated, and may be brought into court in a fortnight."
"My affair," I replied, "is very simple; but before bringing me to a court you will try to arrest all the socialists in Russia, and they are many, very many; in two years you will not have done." I did not then realize how prophetic my remark was.
The carriage stopped at the door of the military commander of the fortress, and we entered his reception hall. General Korsákoff, a thin old man, came in, with a peevish expression on his face. The officer spoke to him in a subdued voice, and the old man answered, "All right," looking at him with a sort of scorn, and then turned his eyes toward me. It was evident that he was not at all pleased to receive a new inmate, and that he felt slightly ashamed of his rôle; but he seemed to add, "I am a soldier, and only do my duty." Presently we got into the carriage again, but soon stopped before another gate, where we were kept a long time until a detachment of soldiers opened it from the inside. Proceeding on foot through narrow passages we came to a third iron gate, opening into a dark arched passage, from which we entered a small room where darkness and dampness prevailed.
Several non-commissioned officers of the fortress troops moved noiselessly about in their soft felt boots, without speaking a word, while the governor signed the Circassian's book acknowledging the reception of a new prisoner. I was required to take off all my clothes, and to put on the prison dress,--a green flannel dressing-gown, immense woolen stockings of an incredible thickness, and boat-shaped yellow clippers, so big that I could hardly keep them on my feet when I tried to walk. I always hated dressing-gowns and slippers, and the thick stockings inspired me with disgust. I had to take off even a silk undergarment, which in the damp fortress it would have been especially desirable to retain, but that could not be allowed. I naturally began to protest and to make a noise about this, and after an hour or so it was restored to me by order of General Korsákoff.
Then I was taken through a dark passage, where I saw armed sentries walking about, and was put into a cell. A heavy oak door was shut behind me, a key turned in the lock, and I was alone in a half-dark room.