Justice, April 9 1910


Source: Peter P(etroff), “Contrasts,” Justice, April 9, 1910, p. 3;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

After escaping from persecution and prison I came to Geneva, with its beautiful surroundings. It was spring, when everything in Nature was awakening to new life. I was staying with some of my old friends — the bride of my friend and teacher who was with me in prison, a student of Geneva University — her sister a student of Paris University, and their brother a doctor of philosophy, a pronounced individualist and sceptic.

The term was nearing its end, and work was slackening, in anticipation of the approaching vacation. Every day, about 3 o'clock, at my friends’ house, which stood before the Salave, were gathered many Russian students, and at the common tea-table we indulged in endless discussions beginning with poetry and ending with politics. We were always lost in the heat of our arguments, until our friend the doctor, a great lover of Nature, interrupted with his suggestions for rambles in the neighbourhood. He would take us to his favourite haunts, the choicest spots in this delightful region.

The wide, blue sky; the gentle spring breeze; the unhindered movement; the careless chatter and laughter echoing among the hills; and the place impressed me vividly, and I felt the irresistible intoxication of Nature.

But having been so long in prison I had become, so used to all my movements being controlled by others, and the change was so sudden, that I fancied myself back at times. I was as in a dream. I asked myself: Am I free; can I shout; go and run wherever I like, and nobody to stop me?

* * *

My friends and I were sitting on the shore of the lake and reading one of the latest works of the poet Balmont. It was the latter end of April. The sky was blue and clear, only light, fleecy clouds were skimming across it, and the rays of the sun were reflected on the placid surface of the water. The trees and bushes around were putting on their new coats of green. On the opposite shore were the most picturesque views; here and there, among the hills, were visible many green patches, which, in the sunlight, took various shades. Far away could be seen the highest peaks of the Alps; the flying clouds seemed to mingle with the snow on the summits, and, reflecting the rays of the sun, appeared like white pebbles. Listening to the poetry, I lost myself at times in gazing at the water reflecting the surrounding picture with its various soft colours. I felt like a bird escaping to a new world opening in front of me.

* * *

The sun was setting as we went home. The others being occupied in preparing for tea, I was standing at the window looking at the fiery after-glow, when our sceptic, the doctor, came in.

“I have brought something very interesting,” he said. “What, do you think?”

Laughing, I told him.

“Oh, something for tea; put it on the table.”

“Oh, no; not quite so simple as that — something else.

After a few more attempts to unravel the mystery, he put on the table some tickets for the opera “Mignon” — it was really a good idea for me to spend the evening at this pretty light opera.

Before tea was over it got dark, and we had to hurry to the theatre. We arrived just as the curtain rose. The music was soft and caressing and the scenery was a counterpart of what we had seen during the day. While Mignon was singing “Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen blühen?” I fancied myself looking on the scenes of the day. Never before had an opera made such an impression on me.

When we came out it was such a lovely moonlight night — clear and starry — that we felt disinclined to go home, and made our way to the Rhone. We came to a place where the river runs through a miniature gorge; on one side is a little hill clothed to its summit with trees. The moon shining through the trees was reflected in the falling water. It was very quiet, only the rush of water disturbed the peace. So impressive was it all, we did not speak.

“What a magnificent picture!” I exclaimed after a pause.

“Yes, it is beautiful; but do you grasp all its grandeur?” said the doctor. “I suppose you are thinking now about class antagonism — you think, perhaps, how many poor creatures there are in the world who cannot enjoy it. You do not take these good things as they are without analysing and pulling them to pieces.”

“Do you think that a proletarian’s brain is constructed otherwise?”

“Certainly, they are not trained; and even those of them who are most educated cannot appreciate it when they are always occupied by ‘class-struggle’ and with ideas of class conflict.”

“Yes, they are different, but only in that they have the advantage. I think because they (the intellectual proletarians) are deprived of enjoying Art and Nature at her best, and because they have not the opportunity to see so much, they are better able to understand it. Forbidden fruit is the sweetest. I, myself, remember I used to go round the town and its surroundings never thinking about its beauties until I was obliged to sit hour after hour in a small cell with a small window, through which could be seen only a patch of the sky. When I came out one evening into a square brightly lit by electricity, with which I had been familiar, things before unnoticed now struck one with their beauty. I stopped gazing for some time at the picture. A revolutionary who is compelled to see the worst side of life has more desire and more enthusiasm for all that is best and greatest. And we enjoy them better than you. You, who are always familiar with them, get surfeited, and your sensibilities are blunted.”

* * *

“Well,” he went on, more genially, as we turned home, “but seeing all these charming things, does it not stimulate you to try, and escape from all the miseries in which you put yourself? Now, seeing this glorious spring, does it not urge you to another, better life? but now you are thinking of going back to all the old suffering. Have you not a moral right to live and enjoy freedom? Why should you endanger your own freedom fighting for the freedom of others? Is it right — is it logical?”

“Oh, I've heard these arguments before, but I asked myself, under worse conditions, the same question. It was in the early part of 1905, after being seven months in fortress and four months in prison, they put me in a military prison, where I was the only political prisoner. I had been sitting for two months in a dark room, without books, without sufficient food, and without any hope of release. Seeing that it was impossible to endure these conditions, I declared a hunger strike. It was the fifth day of the strike, but none of the officials cared about it. They did not even know, as the guard and officers were being changed every day. The pangs of hunger and the loneliness were palling upon me. I paced my prison from end to end, and by the door was standing a stolid-faced soldier. My feelings were so keen I had to speak to somebody, but when I got close to him I noted the callous face, and I thought it would be all the same to him if he ran me through with his cold steel; he would still stand unmoved. I walked away and renewed my monotonous pacing. To stop the strike, I thought, was impossible. It is too serious a weapon to play with, but to continue .... In my imagination I was going over the scenes in the outside world. I thought how happy I should be if I could see my friends for a moment, but I came again face to face with the sentry — he was still there. He was the embodiment of the whole horrible regime, which kept me there cut off from all the world. My thoughts became so gloomy, the present was so dark, and the past and the future which I could imagine were so charming, that unwillingly there came doubt in my mind whether I was going the right way. For some moments this train of thought possessed me, and the doubt grew. Giving vent to these thoughts, I asked myself, ‘Well, what other way was possible — could I live under this system of society without, revolt?’ and at once my mind was enlightened. I answered myself; ‘No, that, is the only way.’ You intellectuals from other classes who justify our struggle are thinking if you should sacrifice your freedom and ‘save the human race,’ but we proletarians are compelled by all our surroundings to revolt. We have nothing to lose but our chains; we have everything to gain. We have a world to win.”