Sophia Kropotkin (and a trip to Hartlepool)

Notes and an extract on the life of an under-researched figure of revolutionary Europe.

There are many frustrating aspects of researching the lives of historic women revolutionaries. While many were extraordinary thinkers they were usually relegated to supporting roles, often through the outright sexism of male tastemakers, insidious “cultural standards” of the time which systematically backgrounded the female family of Great Men and assumed roles, by necessity or choice, that favoured support of others rather than the gathering of personal glory. Sophia Kropotkin falls into all of these categories.

Born Sophia Grigoreivna Ananieva-Rabinovich in 1856, she was a powerfully-motivated political in her own right. Hailing from a middle-class Kievan family, she was part of a generation of young women who took full advantage of the radicalism of the 1860s which swept through Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire and secured herself a full education, initially specialising as a biologist, though in time she would contribute work in chemistry and geography as well.

In her youth she spent time in Siberia and first became interested in revolutionary activities around 1873, aged 17. She moved to Switzerland with the First International in full swing, where she would meet her husband to be, Peter Kropotkin, marrying him in 1878. She was clearly an intellectual heavyweight, winning her Batchelor of Science in Geneva in 1881, and Kropotkin references her as a primary source of criticism and feedback, further noting in Memoirs of a Revolutionist that through the late 1880s, while he was in prison, she had studied with Charles Wurtz, one of France’s most eminent chemists, to gain her doctorate of science. Sophie’s hand was also working away in the background for Elisee Reclus and his magnum opus Geography, as well as helping keep an eye on Le Revolte while Peter was jailed.

A regular correspondent both on her own merit and on Peter’s behalf, she was a fluent writer of English and French as well as her native Russian, producing insightful works on everything from farming in Flanders to the higher education of women in Russia. Her interest in solidarity work led her to establish, with Mrs Howe, the Committee to Help Administrative Exiles in London in the first decade of the 20th century.

But biographies of Sophia are scarce, and information mostly stems from her work supporting Peter. Indeed in his own autobiography, while clearly proud of her achievements, the more famous Kropotkin does not mention her once by name. The article which made the biggest splash for Sophia was about her experience of supporting Peter in prison, The Wife of Number 4,237. And the achievement she is most often lauded for was the creation of an archive in Moscow dedicated to his works before her death in 1941. Though the latter should not be undersold, as by the mid-1920s it was the only cultural outlet working independently of the State holding uncensored lectures. It was considered enough of a threat that Stalin had it forcibly taken over and closed in 1938, with many of its committee members being arrested. Sophia refused to even touch the official State pension.

Stories of events she was directly involved in are of particular interest in trying to show what sort of person a woman who spent more than 40 years as a trusted figure at the heart of revolutionary Europe might have been — as late as 1928 she was still being cited as someone who “knew where all the safehouses were”. The following extract from Anarchism in North East England, printed with the kind permission of the author, thus offers a brief insight into what might be otherwise unregarded activities (though as ever the reports cited are filtered through the gaze of Victorian journalism):

Speaking in Hartlepool

An often unreported, or little known fact amongst the anarchist press, is that Sophia Kropotkin, the ‘wife’ of Peter Kropotkin, would, for a number of years also tour the country giving lectures on ‘Russian Freedom’ and ‘Life in Siberia’ to fascinated audiences. So it was that she would cause quite a bit of an intellectual stir in the North East with her lecture on the present state of Russia at West Hartlepool Town Hall on March 6th 1908.

“The platform at the Town Hall, West Hartlepool, last night was occupied by Princess Kropotkin, who lectured on “Russia” to a large audience. Princes Kropotkin’s husband was imprisoned on account of his political views. He escaped and since then the Princess has shared his exile in Switzerland, in France, and latterly in England. As the Princess remarked during her lecture, it is a special trait of the Russian woman that she follows her husband in all his distress. The audience, in applauding the remark, were not only expressing their appreciation of the characteristic, but were paying a tribute to the Princess herself, who has nobly borne her part, and has suffered loss of wealth, position, and friends in the cause of Russian freedom.”
(Northern Daily Mail. Friday, March 6th. 1908.)

The Princess often gave accounts of the life and hardships as well as the rigour of the climate amongst the population of Siberia “But these she added were nothing to what the people had to endure from the unscrupulous and corrupt Russian government officials and traders”. After describing the beautiful aspects of the country, its flowing wheat fields, fertile and rich in minerals;

“But Siberia, Princess Kropotkin was careful to add, wants, like Russia to be rid of the present regime which is a calamity for both. Her remarks on the sufferings of the Russian exiles were listened to with sympathetic interest, and it was apparent by the way in which she spoke of many of the prisoners as “my friends” that the Princess keeps in close touch with her unfortunate compatriots. Several pitiable pictures of Russians on the way to Siberia were shown. The number of exiles was given as 78,000 men and women.
“In conclusion, she said that when she spoke of those who were suffering in Siberia all the hardships one could imagine, she hoped that their sufferings would not be in vain, and that when happier days came to Russia and Siberia, they would remember the noble men and women who had suffered for the sake of their country. At the close of proceedings, the audience expressed their sympathy with the Russian prisoners, which the Princess promised to convey to them.”
(Northern Daily Mail. Jan 11th, Feb 26th, March 2nd, March 6th. 1908. And Bexhill On Sea Observer Oct 16th 1909, Glasgow Daily Record, Feb 13th 1915.)