Nonfiction > Upton Sinclair, ed. > The Cry for Justice

Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968).
The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.  1915.
In a Russian Prison
(From “Memoirs of a Revolutionist”)

By Peter Kropotkin

(The Russian author and scientist, 1842–1921, who renounced the title of prince and spent many years in a dungeon for his faith, has here told his life story)
ONE day in the summer of 1875, in the cell that was next to mine I distinctly heard the light steps of heeled boots, and a few minutes later I caught fragments of a conversation. A feminine voice spoke from the cell, and a deep bass voice—evidently that of the sentry—grunted something in reply. Then I recognized the sound of the colonel’s spurs, his rapid steps, his swearing at the sentry, and the click of the key in the lock. He said something, and a feminine voice loudly replied: “We did not talk. I only asked him to call the noncommissioned officer.” Then the door was locked, and I heard the colonel swearing in whispers at the sentry.  1
  So I was alone no more. I had a lady neighbor, who at once broke down the severe discipline which had hitherto reigned among the soldiers. From that day the walls of the fortress, which had been mute during the last fifteen months, became animated. From all sides I heard knocks with the foot on the floor: one, two, three, four,… eleven knocks; twenty-four knocks, fifteen knocks; then an interruption, followed by three knocks, and a long succession of thirty-three knocks. Over and over again these knocks were repeated in the same succession, until the neighbor would guess at last that they were meant for “Kto vy?” (Who are you?), the letter v being the third letter in our alphabet. Thereupon conversation was soon established, and usually was conducted in the abridged alphabet; that is, the alphabet being divided into six rows of five letters, each letter marked by its row and its place in the row.  2
  I discovered with great pleasure that I had at my left my friend Serdukóff, with whom I could soon talk about everything, especially when we used our cipher. But intercourse with men brought its sufferings as well as its joys. Underneath me was lodged a peasant, whom Serdukóff knew. He talked to him by means of knocks; and even against my will, often unconsciously during my work, I followed their conversations. I also spoke to him. Now, if solitary confinement without any sort of work is hard for educated men, it is infinitely harder for a peasant who is accustomed to physical work, and not at all wont to spend years in reading. Our peasant friend felt quite miserable, and having been kept for nearly two years in another prison before he was brought to the fortress—his crime was that he had listened to Socialists—he was already broken down. Soon I began to notice, to my terror, that from time to time his mind wandered. Gradually his thoughts grew more and more confused, and we two perceived, step by step, day by day, evidences that his reason was failing, until his talk became at last that of a lunatic. Frightful noises and wild cries came next from the lower story; our neighbor was mad, but was still kept for several months in the casemate before he was removed to an asylum, from which he never emerged. To witness the destruction of a man’s mind, under such conditions, was terrible. I am sure it must have contributed to increase the nervous irritability of my good and true friend Serdukóff. When, after four years’ imprisonment, he was acquitted by the court and released, he shot himself.  3

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