My Life



During the raids of January, 1898, I was arrested, not in Nikolayev but on the estate of a wealthy landowner, Sokovnin, where Shvigovsky had found a job as a gardener. I had stopped off there on the way from Yanovka to Nikolayev with a large brief-case filled with manuscripts, drawings, letters, and all manner of other “illegal” material. Shvigovsky hid the dangerous packages for the night in a hole, along with cabbages; and at sunrise, when he was going out to plant his trees, he took it out again to turn it over to me for our work. It was just at that very moment that the police suddenly invaded the place. Shvigovsky managed to drop the package behind a water-barrel, when he was in the hall, and whispered to the housekeeper, who gave us our dinner under supervision of the police, to take it away from there and hide it. The old woman decided that the best thing was to bury it under the snow in the garden. We were quite sure that the papers would never get into the hands of our enemies. When spring came the snow melted away, but a fresh crop of green grass covered the package, which had swollen somewhat with the spring rains.

We were still in prison. It was summer. A workman was cutting the grass in the garden when two of his boys who were playing there stumbled on the package and gave it to their father. And he, in turn, took it to the landowner, who was so terrified at the sight of it that he went to Nikolayev at once and turned it over to the chief of the secret police. The handwriting on the manuscripts was evidence against many of our people.

The old prison in Nikolayev had no decent accommodation for political prisoners, especially for so many of them. I was put into the same cell with a young bookbinder named Yavitch. The cell was a very large one; it could hold about thirty, but there was no furniture of any sort, and it had very little heat. There was a big square opening in the door that looked out on an open corridor leading straight into the courtyard. The January frosts were very bitter. A straw mattress was spread on the floor for us to sleep on at night, and was taken away at six o’clock in the morning. It was torture to get up and dress ourselves. Yavitch and I would sit on the floor, in hats, over coats and rubbers, pressing close to one another and leaning against the stove, which was barely warm, and would dream away for two hours or more at a time. It was the happiest part of the day for us. We were not being called up for cross-examination, so we would run back and forth from one corner to the other, trying to keep warm; we talked about the past and hoped wonderingly about our future. I began to teach Yavitch some thing about the sciences. Three weeks passed in this way.

Then there was a change. With all my belongings, I was summoned to the prison office and given over to two tall gendarmes, who drove me by horse to a prison at Kherson. It was a building even older than the other. My cell was roomy, but it had only a narrow window that did not open, and was protected by heavy iron bars through which little light could enter. My isolation was absolute and hopeless. There was no walking, nor were there any neighbors. I couldn’t see anything through my window, which had been entirely sealed up for the winter. I got no parcels from outside, and I had no tea or sugar. Prisoner’s stew was given to me once a day, for dinner. A ration of rye bread with salt was breakfast and supper. I had long discussions with myself as to whether I should increase my morning portion at the expense of the evening one. The morning arguments in favor of an increase seemed quite senseless and criminal at night; at supper-time, I hated the person who had treated himself at breakfast. I didn’t have a change of linen. For three months I had to wear the same underwear, and I had no soap. The vermin there were eating me alive. I would set myself to taking one thousand, one hundred and eleven steps on the diagonal. That was my nineteenth year. The solitude was unbroken, worse than any I ever experienced afterward, although I served time in nearly twenty prisons. I didn’t have even a book, a piece of paper or a pencil. The cell was never aired. The only way I could gauge the comparative purity of the air was by the grimace that twisted the face of the assistant warden when he sometimes visited me.

Biting off a piece of the prison bread, I would compose verses while I walked on the diagonal. I turned the populist song Dubinushka into a proletarian Machinushka, and I composed a revolutionary Kamarinsky. Although they were most mediocre, these verses became very popular later on. They are reprinted in the song-books even to-day. There were times, however, when I was sick with loneliness. And on such occasions I would be exaggeratedly firm with myself and count out another one thousand, one hundred and eleven steps in shoes already worn out.

At the end of the third month, when a straw-filled bag, prison-bread, and lice were the fixed elements of existence, as much so as day and night, one evening the guards brought me a great bundle of things from that other, utterly fantastic world; there were fresh linen, covers and a pillow, white bread, tea, sugar, ham, canned foods, apples, oranges – yes, big bright-colored oranges! Even to-day, after thirty-one years, I list all these marvellous things with emotion, and I even pull myself up for having forgotten the jar of jam, the soap and the comb for my hair. “Your mother sent them,” said the assistant warden. And little as I knew about reading the thoughts of people in those days, I could tell from his tone that he had been bribed.

A little while later, I was taken on a steamer to Odessa, where I was put into solitary confinement in a prison built only a few years before, and the last word in technical equipment. After Nikolayev and Kherson, the Odessa prison seemed a perfect place. Tapping, notes, “telephone,” and shouting through windows – in other words, communication service – were continuous. I tapped my verses written at Kherson to my neighbors, and they sent me news in return. By way of the window, Shvigovsky managed to tell me of the discovery of the brief-case, so that I had no trouble in avoiding the trap that Lieutenant-Colonel Dremlyuga set for me. At that time, I must explain, we had not yet begun to refuse to give evidence, as we did a few years later.

The prison was overcrowded after the thoroughgoing spring arrests. On March 1st, 1898, while I was still at Kherson, the first congress of the Social Democratic Party met at Minsk and drew up its constitution. There were nine members there, and most of them were caught in a wave of arrests that followed their meeting. A few months afterward, no one talked about the congress any more. But what followed it affected the history of man. The manifesto adopted there limned the future of political struggle as follows: “The farther we go to the East of Europe, the more cowardly and dishonest, in a political sense, do we find the bourgeoisie; and the greater, correspondingly, becomes the political and cultural task confronting the proletariat.” There is a certain historical piquancy in the fact that the author of the manifesto was the notorious Peter Struve, who later became the leader of liberalism, and still later the publicist of the clerical and monarchist reaction.

During the first few months of my stay in the prison in Odessa, I received no books from the outside, and so I had to be content with the prison library, which was made up mostly of conservative historical and religious magazines covering several years. I studied them insatiably, and learned through them to know all the sects and heresies of ancient and modern times, all the advantages of the orthodox church service, and the best arguments against Catholicism, Protestantism, Tolstoyism, and Darwinism. “The Christian consciousness,” I read in the Orthodox Review, “loves true sciences, including natural sciences, as the intellectual kinsmen of faith.” The miracle of Balaam’s ass, who entered into an argument with a prophet, could not be disproved even from the point of view of natural science. “Isn’t it a fact, for instance, that parrots and even canary-birds can talk?” This argument by the archbishop Nikanor occupied my mind for several days, even in my dreams.

The investigations of devils and their chief, the Prince of Darkness, and of their dark kingdom, were constantly amazing to me, and diverted my rationalist mind with their codified stupidities of thousands of years. The exhaustive description and study of Paradise, with detailed bits about its location and inner structure, ended melancholically with: “The precise location of paradise is not known.” And, at tea, at dinner, and during my walks, I repeated this sentence: “Regarding the geographical longitude of the felicitous paradise, there is no precise information.” I seized on every opportunity to indulge in theological bickering with the police sergeant Miklin, a greedy, malicious fellow and an inveterate liar, who was extremely pious and well read in the holy books. He used to hum hymns as he hurried from cell to cell, his dangling keys ringing out as he climbed the iron stairs.

“Only for one single word, ‘Christ’s mother’ instead of ‘God’s mother,’” he instructed me, “the heretic Anus’s belly burst.”

“And why are the bellies of the heretics to-day still intact?” I retorted. “These are ... these are different times,” he replied, in an offended tone.

Through my sister, who had come from the country, I managed to get four copies of the Bible in different languages. So I read the Gospels, verse by verse, with the help of the little knowledge of German and French that I had acquired in school, and side by side with this a parallel reading in English and Italian. In a few months, I made excellent progress in this way. I must admit, however, that my linguistic talents are very mediocre. Even now I do not know a single foreign language well, although I stayed for some time in various European countries.

For their meeting with relatives, the prisoners were transferred to narrow wooden cages separated from the visitors by a double grating. When my father came to see me for the first time, he imagined that I was always kept in that narrow box and was so overcome at the thought that he could not speak. In answer to my questions, he only moved his bloodless lips in silence. Never will I forget his face. My mother came forewarned, and was much calmer.

Echoes of what was taking place in the outside world reached us in bits. The South African war hardly touched us. We were still provincials in the full sense of the word. We were inclined to interpret the struggle between the Boers and the English chiefly as an instance of the inevitable victory of large capital over small. The Dreyfus case, which was then at its climax, thrilled us by its drama. Once a rumor reached us that a coup d’état had been carried out in France and that monarchy had been restored. We all felt deeply ashamed. The guards went rushing through the iron corridors and up and down the staircases trying to stop our banging and shouting. They thought we had been served inedible food. But no! It was the political wing of the prison protesting excitedly against the restoration of monarchy in France.

The articles dealing with freemasonry in the theological magazines aroused my interest. Where did this strange movement come from? I asked myself. How would Marxism explain it? I resisted the theory of historical materialism for quite a long time, and held to that of the multiplicity of historical factors, which, as we know, even to-day is the most widely accepted theory in social science. People denote as “factors” the various aspects of their social activity, endow this concept with a supra-social character, and then superstitiously interpret their own activity as the result of the inter action of these independent forces. Where did the factors come from, that is, under the influence of what conditions did they evolve from primitive human society? With these questions, the official eclectic theory does not concern itself.

It was in my cell that I read with delight two well-known essays by an old Italian Hegelian-Marxist, Antonio Labriola, which reached the prison in a French translation. Unlike most Latin writers, Labriola had mastered the materialist dialectics, if not in politics – in which he was helpless – at least in the philosophy of history. The brilliant dilettantism of his exposition actually concealed a very profound insight. He made short work, and in marvellous style, of the theory of multiple factors which were supposed to dwell on the Olympus of history and rule our fates from there.

Although thirty years have gone by since I read his essays, the general trend of his argument is still firmly entrenched in my memory, together with his continuous refrain of “ideas do not drop from the sky.” After Labriola, all the Russian proponents of the multiplicity of factors, Lavrov, Mikhaylovsky, Kareyev, and others, seemed utterly ineffectual to me. Many years later I was wholly at a loss to understand some of the Marxists who had succumbed to the influence of the sterile treatise on Economics and the Law, written by the German professor, Stammler. It was just another of the innumerable attempts to force the great stream of natural and human history, from the amoeba to present-day man and beyond, through the closed rings of the eternal categories – rings which have reality only as marks on the brain of a pedant.

It was during that period that I became interested in freemasonry. For several months, I avidly studied books on its history, books given to me by relatives and friends in the town. Why had the merchants, artists, bankers, officials, and lawyers, from the first quarter of the seventeenth century on, begun to call themselves masons and tried to recreate the ritual of the medieval guilds? What was all this strange masquerade about? Gradually the picture grew clearer. The old guild was more than a producing organization; it regulated the ethics and mode of life of its members as well. It completely embraced the life of the urban population, especially the guilds of semi-artisans and semi-artists of the building trades. The break-up of the guild system brought a moral crisis in a society which had barely emerged from medieval. The new morality was taking shape much more slowly than the old was being cut down. Hence, the attempt, so common in history, to preserve a form of moral discipline when its social foundations, which in this instance were those of the industrial guilds, had long since been undermined by the processes of history. Active masonry became theoretical masonry. But the old moral ways of living, which men were trying to keep just for the sake of keeping them, acquired a new meaning. In certain branches of freemasonry, elements of an obvious reactionary feudalism were prominent, as in the Scottish system. In the eighteenth century, freemasonry became expressive of a militant policy of enlightenment, as in the case of the Illuminati, who were the forerunners of revolution; on its left, it culminated in the Carbonari. Freemasons counted among their members both Louis XVI and the Dr. Guillotin who invented the guillotine. In southern Germany, freemasonry assumed an openly revolutionary character, whereas at the court of Catherine the Great it was a masquerade reflecting the aristocratic and bureaucratic hierarchy. A freemason Novikov was exiled to Siberia by a freemason empress.

Although in our day of cheap and ready-made clothing hardly anybody is still wearing his grandfather’s surtout, in the world of ideas the surtout and the crinoline are still in fashion. Ideas are handed down from generation to generation, although, like grandmother’s pillows and covers, they reek of staleness. Even those who are obliged to change the substance of their opinions force them into ancient moulds. The revolution in industry has been much more far-reaching than it has in ideas, where piecework is preferred to new structures. That is why the French parliamentarians of the petty bourgeoisie could find no better way of creating moral ties to hold the people together against the disruptiveness of modern relations than to put on white aprons and arm themselves with a pair of compasses or a plumbline. They were really thinking less of erecting a new building than of finding their way back into the old one of parliament or ministry.

As the prison rules demanded that a prisoner give up his old exercise-book when he was given a new one, I got for my studies on freemasonry an exercise-book with a thousand numbered pages, and entered in it, in tiny characters, excerpts from many books, interspersed with my own reflections on freemasonry, as well as on the materialist conception of history. This took up the better part of a year. I edited each chapter carefully, copied it into a note-book which had been smuggled in to me, and then sent that out to friends in other cells to read. For contriving this, we had a complicated system which we called the “telephone.” The person for whom the package was intended – that is, if his cell was not too far away – would attach a weight to a piece of string, and then, holding his hand as far as he could out of the window, would swing the weight in a circle. As previously arranged through tapping, I would stick my broom out so that the weight could swing around it. Then I would draw the broom in and tie the manuscript to the string. When the person to whom I wanted to send it was too far away, we managed it by a series of stages, which of course made things more complicated.

Toward the end of my stay in the Odessa prison, the fat exercise-book, protected by the signature of the senior police sergeant, Usov, had become a veritable well of historical erudition and philosophic thought. I don’t know whether it could be printed to-day as I wrote it then. I was learning too much at a time, from too many different spheres, epochs, and countries, and I am afraid that I was too anxious to tell everything at once in my first work. But I think that its main ideas and conclusions were correct. I felt, even at that time, that I was standing firmly on my own feet, and as the work progressed, I had the feeling even more strongly. I would give a great deal to-day to find that manuscript. It went with me into exile, although there I discontinued my work on freemasonry to take up the study of Marxian economics. After my escape abroad, Alexandra Lvovna 1 forwarded the script to me from Siberia, through my parents, when they visited me in Paris in 1903. Later on, when I went on a secret mission to Russia, it was left in Geneva with the rest of my modest émigré archives, to be come part of the Iskra’s archives and to find there an untimely grave. After my second escape from Siberia, I tried to recover it, but in vain. Apparently it had been used to light fires or some such thing by the Swiss landlady who had been intrusted with the custody of the archives. I can’t refrain here from conveying my reproaches to that worthy woman.

The way in which my work on freemasonry had to be carried on, in prison, where literary resources at my disposal were of course very limited, served me in good stead. At that time I was still comparatively ignorant of the basic literature of the Marxists. The essays by Labriola were really philosophic pamphlets and presumed a knowledge that I didn’t have, and for which I had to substitute guesswork. I finished them with a bunch of hypotheses in my head. The work on freemasonry acted as a test for these hypotheses. I made no new discoveries; all the methodological conclusions at which I had arrived had been made long ago and were being applied in practice. But I groped my way to them, and somewhat independently. I think this influenced the whole course of my subsequent intellectual development. In the writings of Marx, Engels, Plekhanov and Mehring, I later found confirmation for what in prison seemed to me only a guess needing verification and theoretical justification. I did not absorb historical materialism at once, dogmatically. The dialectic method revealed it self to me for the first time not as abstract definitions but as a living spring which I had found in the historical process as I tried to understand it.

Meanwhile, the tide of revolution was beginning to rise all through the country. The historical dialectics were also working marvellously there, only in a practical sense, and on a huge scale. The student movement vented itself in demonstrations. The Cossacks knouted the students. The liberals were indignant at this treatment of their sons. The Social Democracy was getting stronger, and was becoming an integral part of the labor movement. Revolution was no longer a privileged avocation in intellectual circles. The number of workers ar rested was increasing. It was easier to breathe in the prisons, despite the overcrowding. By the end of the second year, the verdict in the case of the South Russian Workers’ Union was announced: the four principal defendants were sentenced to exile in eastern Siberia for four years. After this we were still kept for over six months in the Moscow transfer prison. I used the interim for intensive studies in theory. Then for the first time I heard of Lenin, and studied his book on the development of Russian capitalism, which had just appeared, from cover to cover. Then I wrote and smuggled out of prison a pamphlet on the labor movement at Nikolayev, which was published soon after that in Geneva. We were sent away from the Moscow prison in the summer. There were interludes in other prisons. It wasn’t until the autumn of 1900 that we reached our place of banishment.


1. [Alexandra Lvovna Sokolovskaya, who was exiled to Siberia with the author, and became his wife]