IN the middle of May, 1862, a few weeks before our promotion, I was told one day by the captain to make up the final list of the regiments which each of us intended to join. We had the choice of all the regiments of the Guard, which we could enter with the first officer's grade, and of the Army with the third grade of lieutenant. I took a list of our form and went the rounds of my comrades. Every one knew well the regiment he was going to join, most of them already wearing in the garden the officer's cap of that regiment.
"Her Majesty's Cuirassiers," "The Body Guard Preobrazhénsky," " The Horse Guards," were the replies which I inscribed.
"But you, Kropótkin? The artillery? The Cossacks?" I was asked on all sides. I could not stand these questions, and at last, asking a comrade to complete the list, I went to my room to think once more over my final decision.
That I should not enter a regiment of the Guard, and give my life to parades and court balls, I had settled long ago. My dream was to enter the university, --- to study, to live the student's life. That meant, of course, to break entirely with my father, whose ambitions were quite different, and to rely for my living upon what I might earn by means of lessons. Thousands of Russian students live in that way, and such a life did not frighten me in the least. But how should I get over the first steps in that life? In a few weeks I should have to leave the school, to don my own clothes, to have my own lodging, and I saw no possibility of providing even the little money which would be required for the most modest start. Then, failing the university, I had been often thinking of late that I could enter the artillery academy. That would free me for two years from the drudgery of military service, and, besides the military sciences, I could study mathematics and physics. But the wind of reaction was blowing, and the officers in the academies had been treated during the previous winter as if they were schoolboys; in two academies they had revolted, and in one of them they had left in a body.
My thoughts turned more and more toward Siberia. The Amúr region had recently been annexed by Russia; I had read all about that Mississippi of the East, the mountains it pierces, the subtropical vegetation of its tributary, the Usurí, and my thoughts went further, --- to the tropical regions which Humboldt had described, and to the great generalizations of Ritter, which I delighted to read. Besides, I reasoned, there is in Siberia an immense field for the application of the great reforms which have been made or are coming: the workers must be few there, and I shall find a field of action to my tastes. The worst was that I should have to separate from my brother Alexander; but he had been compelled to leave the University of Moscow after the last disorders, and in a year or two, I guessed (and guessed rightly), in one way or another we should be together. There remained only the choice of the regiment in the Amúr region. The Usurí attracted me most; but, alas! there was on the Usurí only one regiment of infantry Cossacks. A Cossack not on horseback, --- that was too bad for the boy that I still was, and I settled upon "the mounted Cossacks of the Amúr."
This I wrote on the list, to the great consternation of all my comrades. "It is so far," they said, while my friend Daúroff, seizing the Officers' Handbook, read out of it, to the horror of all present: "Uniform, black, with a plain red collar without braids; fur bonnet made of dog's fur or any other fur; trousers, gray."
"Only look at that uniform!" he exclaimed. "Bother the cap! --- you can wear one of wolf or bear fur; but think only of the trousers! Gray, like a soldier of the Train!" The consternation reached its climax after that reading.
I joked as best I could, and took the list to the captain.
"Kropotkin must always have his joke!" he cried. "Did I not tell you that the list must be sent to the grand duke to-day?"
Astonishment and pity were depicted on his face when I told him that the list really stated my intention.
However, next day, my resolution almost gave way when I saw how Klasóvsky took my decision. He had hoped to see me in the university, and had given me lessons in Latin and Greek for that purpose; and I did not dare to tell him what really prevented me from entering the university: I know that if I told him the truth, he would offer to share with me the little that he had.
Then my father telegraphed to the director that he forbade my going to Siberia; and the matter was reported to the grand duke, who was the chief of the military schools. I was called before his assistant, and talked about the vegetation of the Amúr and like things, because I had strong reasons for believing that if I said I wanted to go to the university, and could not afford it, a bursary would be offered to me by some one of the imperial family, --- an offer which by all means I wished to avoid.
It is impossible to say how all this would have ended, but an event of much importance --- the great fire at St. Petersburg --- brought about in an indirect way a solution of my difficulties.
On the Monday after Trinity --- the day of the Holy Ghost, which was that year on May 26, Old Style --- a terrible fire broke out in the so-called Apráxin Dvor. The Apráxin Dvor was an immense space, more than half a mile square, which was entirely covered with small shops, --- mere shanties of wood, --- where all sorts of second and third hand goods were sold. Old furniture and bedding, second-hand dresses and books, poured in from every quarter of the city, and were stored in the small shanties, in the passages between them, and even on their roofs. This accumulation of inflammable materials had at its back the Ministry of the Interior and its archives, where all the documents concerning the liberation of the serfs were kept; and in the front of it, which was lined by a row of shops built of stone, was the state Bank. A narrow lane, also bordered with stone shops, separated the Apráxin Dvor from a wing of the Corps of Pages, which was occupied by grocery and oil shops in its lower story, and had the apartments of the officers in its upper story. Almost opposite the Ministry of the Interior, on the other side of a canal, there were extensive timber yards. This labyrinth of small shanties and the timber yards opposite took fire almost at the same moment, at four o'clock in the afternoon.
If there had been wind on that day, half the city would have perished in the flames, including the Bank, several Ministries, the Gostínoi Dvor (another great block of shops on the Nevsky Prospekt), the Corps of Pages, and the National Library.
I was that afternoon at the Corps, dining at the house of one of our officers, and we dashed to the spot as soon as we saw from the windows the first clouds of smoke rising in our immediate neighborhood. The sight was terrific. Like an immense snake, rattling and whistling, the fire threw itself in all directions, right and left, enveloped the shanties, and suddenly rose in a huge column, darting out its whistling tongues to lick up more shanties with their contents. Whirlwinds of smoke and fire were formed; and when the whirls of burning feathers from the bedding shops began to sweep about the space, it became impossible to remain any longer inside the burning market. The whole had to be abandoned.
The authorities had entirely lost their heads. There was not, at that time, a single steam fire engine in St. Petersburg, and it was workmen who suggested bringing one from the iron works of Kólpino, situated twenty miles by rail from the capital. When the engine reached the railway station, it was the people who dragged it to the conflagration. Of its four lines of hose, one was damaged by an unknown hand, and the other three were directed upon the Ministry of the Interior.
The grand dukes came to the spot and went away again. Late in the evening, when the Bank was out of danger, the Emperor also made his appearance, and said, what every one knew already, that the Corps of Pages was now the key of the battle, and must be saved by all means. It was evident that if the Corps had taken fire, the National Library and half of the Nevsky Prospekt would have gone.
It was the crowd, the people, who did everything to prevent the fire from spreading further and further. There was a moment when the Bank was seriously menaced. The goods cleared from the shops opposite were thrown into the Sadovaya street, and lay in great heaps upon the walls of the left wing of the Bank. The articles which covered the street itself continually took fire, but the people, roasting there in an almost unbearable heat, prevented the flames from being communicated to the piles of goods on the other side. They swore at all the authorities, seeing that there was not a pump on the spot. "What are they all doing at the Ministry of the Interior, when the Bank and the Foundlings' House are going to take fire? They have all lost their heads!" "Where is the chief of police that he cannot send a fire brigade to the Bank?" they said. I knew the chief, General Annenkoff, personally, as I had met him once or twice at our sub-inspector's house, where he came with his brother, the well-known literary critic, and I volunteered to find him. I found him, indeed, walking aimlessly in a street; and when I reported to him the state of affairs, incredible though it may seem, it was to me, a boy, that he gave the order to move one of the fire brigades from the Ministry to the Bank. I exclaimed, of course, that the men would never listen to me, and I asked for a written order; but General Annenkoff had not, or pretended not to have, a scrap of paper, so that I requested one of our officers, L. L. Gosse, to come with me to transmit the order. We at last prevailed upon the captain of one fire brigade--who swore at all the world and at his chiefs--to move his men to the Bank.
The Ministry itself was not on fire; it was the archives which were burning, and many boys, chiefly cadets and pages, together with a number of clerks, carried bundles of papers out of the burning building and loaded them into cabs. Often a bundle would fall out, and the wind, taking possession of its leaves, would strew them about the square. Through the smoke a sinister fire could be seen raging in the timber yards on the other side of the canal.
The narrow lane which separated the Corps of Pages from the Apráxin Dvor was in a deplorable state. The shops which lined it were full of brimstone, oil, turpentine, and the like, and immense tongues of fire of many hues, thrown out by explosions, licked the roofs of the wing of the Corps, which bordered the lane on its other side. The windows and the pilasters under the roof began already to smoulder, while the pages and some cadets, after having cleared the lodgings, pumped water through a small fire engine, which received at long intervals scanty supplies from old-fashioned barrels which had to be filled with ladles. A couple of firemen who stood on the hot roof continually shouted out, "Water! Water!" in tones which were simply heart-rending. I could not stand these cries, and I rushed into the Sadóvaya street, where by sheer force I compelled the driver of one of the barrels belonging to a police fire-brigade to enter our yard, and to supply our pump with water. But when I attempted to do the same once more, I met with an absolute refusal from the driver. "I shall be court-martialed," he said, "if I obey you." On all sides my comrades urged me, "Go and find somebody, --- the chief of the police, the grand duke, any one, --- and tell them that without water we shall have to abandon the Corps to the fire." "Ought we not to report to our director?" somebody would remark. "Bother the whole lot! you won't find them with a lantern. Go and do it yourself."
I went once more in search of General Annenkoff, and was at last told that he must be in the yard of the Bank. Several officers stood there around a general in whom I recognized the governor-general of St. Petersburg, Prince Suvóroff. The gate, however, was locked, and a Bank official who stood at it refused to let me in. I insisted, menaced, and finally was admitted. Then I went straight to Prince Suvóroff, who was writing a note on the shoulder of his aide-de-camp.
When I reported to him the state of affairs, his first question was, "Who has sent you?" "Nobody --- the comrades," was my reply. "So you say the Corps will soon be on fire?" "Yes." He started at once, and, seizing in the street an empty hatbox, covered his head with it, and ran full speed to the lane. Empty barrels, straw, wooden boxes, and the like covered the lane, between the flames of the oil shops on the one side and the buildings of our Corps, of which the window frames and the pilasters were smouldering, on the other side. Prince Suvóroff acted resolutely. "There is a company of soldiers in your garden," he said to me: "take a detachment and clear that lane--at once. A hose from the steam engine will be brought here immediately. Keep it playing. I trust it to you personally."
It was not easy to move the soldiers out of our garden. They had cleared the barrels and boxes of their contents, and with their pockets full of coffee, and with conical lumps of sugar concealed in their képis, they were enjoying the warm night under the trees, cracking nuts. No one cared to move till an officer interfered. The lane was cleared, and the pump kept going. The comrades were delighted, and every twenty minutes we relieved the men who directed the jet of water, standing by their side in a terrible scorching heat.
About three or four in the morning it was evident that bounds had been put to the fire; the danger of its spreading to the Corps was over, and after having quenched our thirst with half a dozen glasses of tea, in a small "white inn" which happened to be open, we fell, half dead from fatigue, on the first bed that we found unoccupied in the hospital of the Corps.
Next morning I woke up early and went to see the site of the conflagration. On my return to the Corps I met the Grand Duke Mikhael, whom I accompanied, as was my duty, on his round. The pages, with their faces quite black from the smoke, with swollen eyes and inflamed lids, some of them with their hair burned, raised their heads from the pillows. It was hard to recognize them. They were proud, though, of feeling that they had not been merely "white hands," and had worked as hard as any one else.
This visit of the grand duke settled my difficulties. He asked me why I conceived that fancy of going to the Amúr, --- whether I had friends there, whether the governor-general knew me; and learning that I had no relatives in Siberia, and knew nobody there, he exclaimed, "But how are you going, then? They may vend you to a lonely Cossack village. What will you do there? I had better write about you to the governor-general, to recommend you."
After such an offer I was sure that my father's objections would be removed, --- and so it proved. I was free to go to Siberia.
This great conflagration became a turning-point not only in the policy of Alexander II., but also in the history of Russia for that part of the century. That it was not a mere accident was self-evident. Trinity and the day of the Holy Ghost are great holidays in Russia, and there was nobody inside the market except a few watchmen; besides, the Apráxin market and the timber yards took fire at the same time, and the conflagration at St. Petersburg was followed by similar disasters in several provincial towns. The fire was lit by somebody, but by whom? This question remains unanswered to the present time.
Katkóff, the ex-Whig, who was inspired with personal hatred of Hérzen, and especially of Bakúnin, with whom he had once to fight a duel, on the very day after the fire accused the Poles and the Russian revolutionists of being the cause of it; and that opinion prevailed at St. Petersburg and at Moscow.
Poland was preparing then for the revolution which broke out in the following January, and the secret revolutionary government had concluded an alliance with the London refugees; it had its men in the very heart of the St. Petersburg administration. Only a short time after the conflagration occurred, the lord lieutenant of Poland, Count Lüders, was shot at by a Russian officer; and when the Grand Duke Constantine was nominated in his place (with the intention, it was said, of making Poland a separate kingdom for Constantine), he also was immediately shot at, on June 26. Similar attempts were made in August against the Marquis Wielepólsky, the Polish leader of the pro-Russian Union party. Napoleon III. maintained among the Poles the hope of an armed intervention in favor of their independence. In such conditions, judging from the ordinary narrow military standpoint, to destroy the Bank of Russia and several Ministries, and to spread a panic in the capital, might have been considered a good plan of warfare; but there never was the slightest scrap of evidence forth coming to support this hypothesis.
On the other side, the advanced parties in Russia saw that no hope could any longer be placed in Alexander's reformatory initiative: he was clearly drifting into the reactionary camp. To men of forethought it was evident that the liberation of the serfs, under the conditions of redemption which were imposed upon them, meant their certain ruin, and revolutionary proclamations were issued in May, at St. Petersburg, calling the people and the army to a general revolt, while the educated classes were asked to insist upon the necessity of a national convention. Under such circumstances, to disorganize the machine of the government might have entered into the plans of some revolutionists.
Finally, the indefinite character of the emancipation had produced a great deal of fermentation among the peasants, who constitute a considerable part of the population in all Russian cities; and through all the history of Russia, every time such a fermentation has begun, it has resulted in anonymous letters foretelling fires, and eventually in incendiarism.
It was possible that the idea of setting the Apráxin market on fire might occur to isolated men in the revolutionary camp, but neither the most searching inquiries nor the wholesale arrests which began all over Russia and Poland immediately after the fire revealed the slightest indication that such was really the case. If anything of the sort had been found, the reactionary party would have made capital out of it. Many reminiscences and volumes of correspondence from those times have since been published, but they contain no hint whatever in support of this suspicion.
On the contrary, when similar conflagrations broke out in several towns on the Vólga, and especially at Sarátoff and when Zhdánoff, a member of the Senate, was sent by the Tsar to make a searching inquiry, he returned with the firm conviction that the conflagration at Sarátoff was the work of the reactionary party. There was among that party a general belief that it would be possible to induce Alexander II. to postpone the final abolition of serfdom, which was to take place on February 19, 1863. They knew the weakness of his character, and immediately after the great fire at St. Petersburg, they began a violent campaign for postponement, and for the revision of the emancipation law in its practical applications. It was rumored in well-informed legal circles that Senator Zhdánoff was in fact returning with positive proofs of the culpability of the reactionaries at Sarátoff but he died on his way back, his portfolio disappeared, and it has never been found.
Be it as it may, the Apráxin fire had the most deplorable consequences. After it Alexander II. surrendered to the reactionaries, and --- what was still worse --- the public opinion of that part of society at St. Petersburg, and especially at Moscow, which carried most weight with the government suddenly threw off its liberal garb, and turned against not only the more advanced section of the reform party, but even against its moderate wing. A few days after the conflagration, I went on Sunday to see my cousin, the aide-de-camp of the Emperor, in whose apartment I had often seen the Horse Guard officers in sympathy with Chernyshévsky; my cousin himself had been up till then an assiduous reader of "The Contemporary" (the organ of the advanced reform party). Now he brought several numbers of "The Contemporary," and, putting them on the table I was sitting at, said to me, "Well, now, after this I will have no more of that incendiary stuff; enough of it," --- and these words expressed the opinion of "all St. Petersburg." It became improper to talk of reforms. The whole atmosphere was laden with a reactionary spirit. "The Contemporary" and other similar reviews were suppressed; the Sunday-schools were prohibited under any form; wholesale arrests began. The capital was placed under a state of siege.
A fortnight later, on June 13 (25), the time which we pages and cadets had so long looked for came at last. The Emperor gave us a sort of military examination in all kinds of evolutions, --- during which we commanded the companies, and I paraded on a horse before the battalion, --- and we were promoted to be officers.
When the parade was over, Alexander II. loudly called out, "The promoted officers to me!" and we gathered round him. He remained on horseback.
Here I saw him in a quite new light. The man who the next year appeared in the role of a bloodthirsty and vindictive suppressor of the insurrection in Poland rose now, full size, before my eyes, in the speech he addressed to us.
He began in a quiet tone. "I congratulate you: you are officers." He spoke about military duty and loyalty as they are usually spoken of on such occasions. "But if any one of you," he went on, distinctly shouting out every word, his face suddenly contorted with anger, --- "but if any one of you --- which God preserve you from --- should under any circumstances prove disloyal to the Tsar, the throne, and the fatherland, take heed of what I say, --- he will be treated with all the se-veri-ty of the laws, without the slightest com-mi-se-ra-tion!"
His voice failed; his face was peevish, full of that expression of blind rage which I saw in my childhood on the faces of landlords when they threatened their serfs "to skin them under the rods." He violently spurred his horse, and rode out of our circle. Next morning, the 14th of June, by his orders, three officers were shot at Módlin in Poland, and one soldier, Szur by name, was killed under the rods.
"Reaction, full speed backwards," I said to myself, as we made our way back to the Corps.
I saw Alexander II. once more before leaving St. Petersburg. Some days after our promotion, all the newly appointed officers were at the palace, to be presented to him. My more than modest uniform, with its prominent gray trousers, attracted universal attention, and every moment I had to satisfy the curiosity of officers of all ranks, who came to ask me what was the uniform that I wore. The Amúr Cossacks being then the youngest regiment of the Russian army, I stood somewhere near the end of the hundreds of officers who were present. Alexander II. found me, and asked, "So you go to Siberia? Did your father consent to it, after all?" I answered in the affirmative. "Are you not afraid to go so far?" I warmly replied, "No, I want to work. There must be so much to do in Siberia to apply the great reforms which are going to be made." He looked straight at me; he became pensive; at last he said, "Well, go; one can be useful everywhere;" and his face took on such an expression of fatigue, such a character of complete surrender, that I thought at once, "He is a used-up man; he is going to give it all up."
St. Petersburg had assumed a gloomy aspect. Soldiers marched in the streets, Cossack patrols rode round the palace, the fortress was filled with prisoners. Wherever I went I saw the same thing, --- the triumph of the reaction. I left St. Petersburg without regret.
I went every day to the Cossack administration to ask them to make haste and deliver me my papers, and as soon as they were ready, I hurried to Moscow to join my brother Alexander.