Peter (or Pyotr) Kropotkin was born in Moscow. His father, Prince Alexei Petrovich Kropotkin, belonged to the old Russian nobility; his mother, the daughter of a general in the Russian army, had remarkable literary and liberal tastes.
In 1857, at the age of fifteen, Kropotkin entered the Corps of Pages at St Petersburg. Only a hundred and fifty boys – mostly children of the nobility belonging to the court – were educated an this privileged corps, which combined the character of a military school endowed with special rights and of a Court institution attached to the imperial household. He remained there till 1862, reading widely on his own account, and giving special attention to the works of the French encyclopaedists and to French history. Before he left Moscow Prince Kropotkin had developed an interest in the condition of the Russian peasantry, and this interest increased as he grew older. The years 1857-1861 witnessed a rich growth in the intellectual forces of Russia, and Kropotkin came under the influence of the new Liberal-revolutionary literature, which indeed largely expressed his own aspirations.
In 1862 he was promoted from the Corps of Pages to the army. The members of the corps had the prescriptive right of choosing the regiment to which they would be attached. Kropotkin had never wished for a military career, but, as he had not the means to enter the St Petersburg University, he elected to join a Siberian Cossack regiment in the recently annexed Amur district, where there were prospects of administrative work. For some time he was aide de camp to the governor of Transbaikalia at Chita, subsequently being appointed attaché for Cossack affairs to the governor-general of East Siberia at Irkutsk.
Opportunities for administrative work, however, were scanty, and in 1864 Kropotkin accepted charge of a geographical survey expedition, crossing North Manchuria from Transbaikalia to the Amur, and shortly afterwards was attached to another expedition which proceeded up the Sungari River into the heart of Manchuria. Both these expeditions yielded most valuable geographical results. The impossibility of obtaining any real administrative reforms in Siberia now induced Kropotkin to devote himself almost entirely to scientific exploration, in which he continued to be highly successful.
He quit the army in 1867 and returned to St Petersburg, where he entered the university, becoming at the same time secretary to the physical geography section of the Russian Geographical Society. In 1873 he published an important contribution to science, a map and paper in which he proved that the existing maps of Asia entirely misrepresented the physical formation of the country, the main structural lines being in fact from south-west to north-east, not from north to south, or from east to west as had been previously supposed.
In 1871 he explored the glacial deposits of Finland and Sweden for the Russian Geographical Society, and while engaged in this work was offered the secretaryship of that society. But by this time he had determined that it was his duty not to work at fresh discoveries but to aid in diffusing existing knowledge among the people at large, and he accordingly refused the offer, and returned to St Petersburg, where he joined the revolutionary party.
He visited Switzerland in 1872 and became a member of the International Workingmen’s Association at Geneva. The socialism of this body was not, however, advanced enough for his views, and after studying the programme of the more violent Jura Federation at Neuchâtel and spending some time in the company of the leading members, he definitely adopted the creed of anarchism and, on returning to Russia, took an active part in spreading the nihilist propaganda.
In 1874 he was arrested and imprisoned, but escaped in 1876 and went to England, removing after a short stay to Switzerland, where he joined the Jura Federation. In 1877 he went to Paris, where he helped to start the socialist movement, returning to Switzerland in 1878, where he edited for the Jura Federation a revolutionary newspaper, Le Révolté, subsequently also publishing various revolutionary pamphlets.
In 1881, shortly after the assassination of the tsar Alexander II, Kropotkin was expelled from Switzerland by the Swiss government, and after a short stay at Thonon (Savoy) went to London, where he remained for nearly a year, returning to Thonon towards the end of 1882. Shortly afterwards he was arrested by the French government, and, after a trial at Lyons, sentenced by a police-court magistrate (under a special law passed on the fall of the Paris Commune) to five years’ imprisonment, on the ground that he had belonged to the International Workingmen’s Association (1883). In 1886 however, as the result of repeated agitation on his behalf in the French Chamber, he was released, and settled near London.
In 1902 Kropotkin published the book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which provided an additional means for animal and human survival, beyondsurvival of the fittest.
“In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense – not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavorable to the species. The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.” – Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), Conclusion.
Prince Kropotkin’s authority as a writer on Russia is universally acknowledged, and he has contributed largely to the Encyclopædia Britannica, including an entry on anarchism in the 1910 edition.
Major Works of Prince Peter Kropotkin
– Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution
– The Conquest of Bread
– Fields, Factories and Workshops
– The Great French Revolution
– Memoirs of a Revolutionist
– Ethics (unfinished)
– Listen, Anarchist
– Appeal to the Young