THE two years that I worked with the Circle of Tchaykóvsky, before I was arrested, left a deep impression upon all my subsequent life and thought. During these two years it was life under high pressure,--that exuberance of life when one feels at every moment the full throbbing of all the fibres of the inner self, and when life is really worth living. I was in a family of men and women so closely united by their common object, and so broadly and delicately humane in their mutual relations, that I cannot now recall a single moment of even temporary friction marring the life of our circle. Those who have had any experience of political agitation will appreciate the value of this statement.
Before abandoning entirely my scientific career, I considered myself bound to complete the report of my journey to Finland for the Geographical Society, as well as some other work that I had in hand for the same society; and my new friends were the first to confirm me in that decision. It would not be fair, they said, to do otherwise. Consequently, I worked hard to finish my geographical and geological books.
Meetings of our circle were frequent, and I never missed them. We used to meet then in a suburban part of St. Petersburg, in a small house of which Sophie Peróvskaya, under the assumed name and the fabricated passport of an artisan's wife, was the supposed tenant. She was born of a very aristocratic family, and her father had been for some time the military governor of St. Petersburg; but, with the approval of her mother, who adored her, she had left her home to join a high school, and with the three sisters Korníloff--daughters of a rich manufacturer--she had founded that little circle of self-education which later on became our circle. Now, in the capacity of an artisan's wife, in her cotton dress and men's boots, her head covered with a cotton kerchief, as she carried on her shoulders her two pails of water from the Nevá, no one would have recognized in her the girl who a few years before shone in one of the most fashionable drawing-rooms of the capital. She was a general favorite, and every one of us, on entering the house, had a specially friendly smile for her,--even when she, making a point of honor of keeping the house relatively clean, quarreled with us about the dirt which we, dressed in peasant top-boots and sheepskins, brought in, after walking the muddy streets of the suburbs. She tried then to give to her girlish, innocent, and very intelligent little face the most severe expression possible to it. In her moral conceptions she was a "rigorist," but not in the least of the sermon-preaching type. When she was dissatisfied with some one's conduct, she would cast a severe glance at him from beneath her brows; but in that glance one saw her open-minded, generous nature, which understood all that is human. On one point only she was inexorable. "A women's man," she once said, speaking of some one, and the expression and the manner in which she said it, without interrupting her work, are engraved forever in my memory.
Peróvskaya was a "popularist" to the very bottom of her heart, and at the same time a revolutionist, a fighter of the truest steel. She had no need to embellish the workers and the peasants with imaginary virtues, in order to love them and to work for them. She took them as they were, and said to me once: "We have begun a great thing. Two generations, perhaps, will succumb in the task, and yet it must be done." None of the women of our circle would have given way before the certainty of death on the scaffold. Each would have looked death straight in the face. But none of them, at that stage of our propaganda, thought of such a fate. Peróvskaya's well-known portrait is exceptionally good; it records so well her earnest courage, her bright intelligence, and her loving nature. The letter she wrote to her mother a few hours before she went to the scaffold is one of the best expressions of a loving soul that a woman's heart ever dictated.
The following incident will show what the other women of our circle were. One night, Kupreyánoff and I went to Varvara B., to whom we had to make an urgent communication. It was past midnight, but, seeing a light in her window, we went upstairs. She sat in her tiny room, at a table, copying a programme of our circle. We knew how resolute she was, and the idea came to us to make one of those stupid jokes which men sometimes think funny. "B.," I said, "we came to fetch you: we are going to try a rather mad attempt to liberate our friends from the fortress." She asked not one question. She quietly laid down her pen, rose from the chair, and said only, "Let us go." She spoke in so simple, so unaffected a voice that I felt at once how foolishly I had acted, and told her the truth. She dropped back into her chair, with tears in her eyes, and in a despairing voice asked: "It was only a joke? Why do you make such jokes?" I fully realized then the cruelty of what I had done.
Another general favorite in our circle was Serghéi Kravchínsky, who became so well known, both in England and in the United States, under the name of Stepniák. He was often called "the Baby," so unconcerned was he about his own security; but this carelessness about himself was merely the result of a complete absence of fear, which, after all, is often the best policy for one who is hunted by the police. He soon became well known for his propaganda in the circles of workers, under his real Christian name of Serghéi, and consequently was very much wanted by the police; notwithstanding that, he took no precautions whatever to conceal himself, and I remember that one day he was severely scolded at one of our meetings for what was described as a gross imprudence. Being late for the meeting, as he often was, and having a long distance to cover in order to reach our house, he, dressed as a peasant in his sheepskin, ran the whole length of a great main thoroughfare at full speed in the middle of the street. "How could you do it?" he was reproachfully asked. "You might have aroused suspicion and have been arrested as a common thief." But I wish that every one had been as cautious as he was in affairs where other people could be compromised.
We made our first intimate acquaintance over Stanley's book, "How I Discovered Livingstone." One night our meeting had lasted till twelve, and as we were about to leave, one of the Korníloffs entered with a book in her hand, and asked who among us could undertake to translate by the next morning at eight o'clock sixteen printed pages of Stanley's book. I looked at the size of the pages, and said that if somebody would help me, the work could be done during the night. Serghéi volunteered, and by four o'clock the sixteen pages were done. We read to each other our translations, one of us following the English text; then we emptied a Jar of Russian porridge which had been left on the table for us, and went out together to return home. We became close friends from that night.
I have always liked people capable of working, and doing their work properly. So Serghéi's translation and his capacity of working rapidly had already influenced me in his favor. But when I came to know more of him, I felt real love for his honest, frank nature, for his youthful energy and good sense, for his superior intelligence, simplicity, and truthfulness, and for his courage and tenacity. He had read and thought a great deal, and upon the revolutionary character of the struggle which he had undertaken, it appeared we had similar views. He was ten years younger than I was, and perhaps did not quite realize what a hard contest the coming revolution would be. He told us later on, with much humor, how he once worked among the peasants in the country. "One day," he said, "I was walking along the road with a comrade, when we were overtaken by a peasant in a sleigh. I began to tell the peasant that he must not pay taxes, that the functionaries plunder the people, and I tried to convince him by quotations from the Bible that they must revolt. The peasant whipped up his horse, but we followed rapidly; he made his horse trot, and we began to trot behind him; all the time I continued to talk to him about taxes and revolt. Finally he made his horse gallop; but the animal was not worth much,--an underfed peasant pony,--so my comrade and I did not fall behind, but kept up our propaganda till we were quite out of breath."
For some time Serghéi stayed in Kazán, and I had to correspond with him. He always hated writing letters in cipher, so I proposed a means of correspondence which had often been used before in conspiracies. You write an ordinary letter about all sorts of things, but in this letter it is only certain words--let us say every fifth word--which has a sense. You write, for instance: "Excuse my hurried letter. Come to-night to see me; to-morrow I shall go away to my sister. My brother Nicholas is worse; it was late to perform an operation." Reading each fifth word, you find, "Come to-morrow to Nicholas, late." We had to write letters of six or seven pages to transmit one page of information, and we had to cultivate our imagination in order to fill the letters with all sorts of things by way of introducing the words that were required. Serghéi, from whom it was impossible to obtain a cipher letter, took to this kind of correspondence, and used to send me letters containing stories with thrilling incidents and dramatic endings. He said to me afterward that this correspondence helped to develop his literary talent. When one has talent, everything contributes to its development.
In January or February, 1874, I was at Moscow, in one of the houses in which I had spent my childhood. Early in the morning I was told that a peasant desired to see me. I went out and found it was Serghéi, who had just escaped from Tver. He was strongly built, and he and another ex-officer, Rogachóff, endowed with equal physical force, went traveling about the country as lumber sawyers. The work was very hard, especially for inexperienced hands, but both of them liked it; and no one would have thought to look for disguised officers in these two strong sawyers. They wandered in this capacity for about a fortnight without arousing suspicion, and made revolutionary propaganda right and left without fear. Sometimes Serghéi, who knew the New Testament almost by heart, spoke to the peasants as a religious preacher, proving to them by quotations from the Bible that they ought to start a revolution. Sometimes he formed his arguments of quotations from the economists. The peasants listened to the two men as to real apostles, took them from one house to another, and refused to be paid for food. In a fortnight they had produced quite a stir in a number of villages. Their fame was spreading far and wide. The peasants, young and old, began to whisper to one another in the barns about the "delegates;" they began to speak out more loudly than they usually did that the land would soon be taken from the landlords, who would receive pensions from the Tsar. The younger people became more aggressive toward the police officers, saying: "Wait a little; our turn will soon come; you Herods will not rule long now." But the fame of the sawyers reached the ears of one of the police authorities, and they were arrested. An order was given to take them to the next police official, ten miles away.
They were taken under the guard of several peasants, and on their way had to pass through a village which was holding its festival. "Prisoners? All right! Come on here, my uncle," said the peasants, who were all drinking in honor of the occasion. They were kept nearly the whole day in that village, the peasants taking them from one house to another, and treating them to home-made beer. The guards did not have to be asked twice. They drank, and insisted that the prisoners should drink, too. "Happily," Serghéi said, "they passed round the beer in such large wooden bowls that I could put my mouth to the rim of the bowl as if I were drinking, but no one could see how much beer I had imbibed." The guards were all drunk toward night, and preferred not to appear in this state before the police officer, so they decided to stay in the village till morning. Serghéi kept talking to them; and all listened to him, regretting that such a good man had been caught. As they were going to sleep, a young peasant whispered to Serghéi, "When I go to shut the gate, I will leave it unbolted." Serghéi and his comrade understood the hint, and as soon as all fell asleep, they went out into the street. They started at a fast pace, and at five o'clock in the morning were twenty miles away from the village, at a small railway station, where they took the first train, and went to Moscow. Serghéi remained there, and later, when all of us at St. Petersburg had been arrested, the Moscow circle, under his and Voinarálsky's inspiration, became the main centre of the agitation.
Here and there, small groups of propagandists had settled in towns and villages in various capacities. Blacksmiths' shops and small farms had been started, and young men of the wealthier classes worked in the shops or on the farms, to be in daily contact with the toiling masses. At Moscow, a number of young girls, of rich families, who had studied at the Zürich University and had started a separate organization, went even so far as to enter cotton factories, where they worked from fourteen to sixteen hours a day, and lived in the factory barracks the miserable life of the Russian factory girls. It was a grand movement, in which, at the lowest estimate, from two to three thousand persons took an active part, while twice or thrice as many sympathizers and supporters helped the active vanguard in various ways. With a good half of that army our St. Petersburg circle was in regular correspondence,--always, of course, in cipher.
The literature which could be published in Russia under a rigorous censorship--the faintest hint of socialism being prohibited--was soon found insufficient, and we started a printing-office of our own abroad. Pamphlets for the workers and the peasants had to be written, and our small "literary committee," of which I was a member, had its hands full of work. Serghéi wrote two such pamphlets one in the Lamennais style and another containing an exposition of socialism in a fairy tale, and both had a wide circulation. The books and pamphlets which were printed abroad were smuggled into Russia by thousands, stored at certain spots, and sent out to the local circles, which distributed them amongst the peasants and the workers. All this required a vast organization as well as much traveling about, and a colossal correspondence, particularly for protecting our helpers and our bookstores from the police. We had special ciphers for different provincial circles, and often, after six or seven hours had been passed in discussing all details, the women, who did not trust to our accuracy in the cipher correspondence spent all the night in covering sheets of paper with cabalistic figures and fractions.
The utmost cordiality always prevailed at our meetings. Chairmen and all sorts of formalism are so utterly repugnant to the Russian mind that we had none; and although our debates were sometimes extremely hot, especially when "programme questions" were under discussion, we always managed very well without resorting to Western formalities. An absolute sincerity, a general desire to settle the difficulties for the best, and a frankly expressed contempt for all that in the least degree approached theatrical affectation were quite sufficient. If any one of us had ventured to attempt oratorical effects by a speech, friendly jokes would have shown him at once that speech-making was out of place. Often we had to take our meals during these meetings, and they invariably consisted of rye bread, with cucumbers, a bit of cheese, and plenty of weak tea to quench the thirst. Not that money was lacking; there was always enough, and yet there was never too much to cover the steadily growing expenses for printing, transportation of books, concealing friends wanted by the police, and starting new enterprises.
At St. Petersburg, it was not long before we had wide acquaintance amongst the workers. Serdukóff, a young man of splendid education, had made a number of friends amongst the engineers, most of them employed in a state factory of the artillery department, and he had organized a circle of about thirty members, which used to meet for reading and discussion. The engineers are pretty well paid at St. Petersburg, and those who were not married were fairly well off. They soon became quite familiar with the current radical and socialist literature,--Buckle, Lassalle, Mill, Draper, Spielhagen, were familiar Dames to them; and in their aspect these engineers differed little from students. When Kelnitz, Serghéi, and I joined the circle, we frequently visited their group, and gave them informal lectures upon all sorts of things. Our hopes, however, that these young men would grow into ardent propagandists amidst less privileged classes of workers were not fully realized. In a free country they would have been the habitual speakers at public meetings; but, like the privileged workers of the watch trade in Geneva, they treated the mass of the factory hands with a sort of contempt, and were in no haste to become martyrs to the socialist cause. It was only after they had been arrested and kept three or four years in prison for having dared to think as socialists, and had sounded the full depth of Russian absolutism, that several of them developed into ardent propagandists, chiefly of a political revolution.
My sympathies went especially toward the weavers and the workers in the cotton factories. There are many thousands of them at St. Petersburg, who work there during the winter, and return for the three summer months to their native villages to cultivate the land. Half peasants and half town workers, they had generally retained the social spirit of the Russian villager. The movement spread like wildfire among them. We had to restrain the zeal of our new friends; otherwise they would have brought to our lodgings hundreds at a time, young and old. Most of them lived in small associations, or artéls, ten or twelve persons hiring a common apartment and taking their meals together, each one paying every month his share of the general expenses. It was to these lodgings that we used to go, and the weavers soon brought us in contact with other artéls, of stone-masons, carpenters, and the like. In some of these artéls Serghéi, Kelnitz, and two more of our friends were quite at home, and spent whole nights talking about socialism. Besides, we had in different parts of St. Petersburg special apartments, kept by some of our people, to which ten or twelve workers would come every night, to learn reading and writing, and after that to have a talk. From time to time one of us went to the native villages of our town friends, and spent a couple of weeks in almost open propaganda amongst the peasants.
Of course, all of us who had to deal with this class of workers had to dress like the workers themselves; that is, to wear the peasant garb. The gap between the peasants and the educated people is so great in Russia, and contact between them is so rare, that not only does the appearance in a village of a man who wears the town dress awaken general attention, but even in town, if one whose talk and dress reveal that he is not a worker is seen to go about with workers, the suspicion of the police is aroused at once. "Why should he go about with 'low people,' if he has not a bad intention?" Often, after a dinner in a rich mansion, or even in the Winter Palace, where I went frequently to see a friend, I took a cab, hurried to a poor student's lodging in a remote suburb, exchanged my fine clothes for a cotton shirt, peasant top-boots, and a sheepskin, and, joking with peasants on the way, went to meet my worker friends in some slum. I told them what I had seen of the labor movement abroad. They listened eagerly; they lost not a word of what was said; and then came the question, "What can we do in Russia?" "Agitate, organize," was our reply; "there is no royal road;" and we read them a popular story of the French Revolution, an adaptation of Erckmann-Chatrian's admirable "Histoire d'un Paysan." Every one admired M. Chovel, who went as a propagandist through the villages, distributing prohibited books, and all burned to follow in his footsteps. "Speak to others," we said; "bring men together; and when we become more numerous, we shall see what we can attain." They fully understood, and we had only to moderate their zeal.
Amongst them I passed my happiest hours. New Year's Day of 1874, the last I spent in Russia at liberty, is especially memorable to me. The previous evening I had been in a choice company. Inspiring, noble words were spoken that night about the citizen's duties, the well-being of the country, and the like. But underneath all the thrilling speeches one note sounded: How could each of the speakers preserve his own personal well-being? Yet no one had the courage to say, frankly and openly, that he was ready to do only that which would not endanger his own dovecote. Sophisms--no end of sophisms--about the slowness of evolution, the inertia of the lower classes, the uselessness of sacrifice, were uttered to justify the unspoken words, all intermingled with assurances of each one's willingness to make sacrifices. I returned home, seized suddenly with profound sadness amid all this talk.
Next morning I went to one of our weavers' meetings. It took place in an underground dark room. I was dressed as a peasant, and was lost in the crowd of other sheepskins. My comrade, who was known to the workers, simply introduced me: "Borodín, a friend." "Tell us, Borodín," he said, "what you have seen abroad." And I spoke of the labor movement in Western Europe, its struggles, its difficulties, and its hopes.
The audience consisted mostly of middle-aged people. They were intensely interested. They asked me questions, all to the point, about the minute details of the workingmen's unions, the aims of the International Association and its chances of success. And then came questions about what could be done in Russia and the prospects of our propaganda. I never minimized the dangers of our agitation, and frankly said what I thought. "We shall probably be sent to Siberia, one of these days; and you--part of you--will be kept long months in prison for having listened to us." This gloomy prospect did not frighten them. "After all, there are men in Siberia, too,--not bears only." "Where men are living others can live." "The devil is not so terrible as they paint him." "If you are afraid of wolves, never go into the wood," they said, as we parted. And when, afterward, several of them were arrested, they nearly all behaved bravely, sheltering us and betraying no one.