It was the political theory of anarchism that encouraged Philip O’Sullivan to study the environment and geography. Anarchism asks fundamental questions such as: how should society be organised? Why should we obey authority and the state? How can individual freedoms and community needs be reconciled? What links humans and nature? Some fascinating answers linking geography with anarchism come from the writings of a Russian anarchist prince called Peter Kropotkin.
In the following podcast you can listen to the Philip being interviewed by Andy Morris, which introduces you to Kropotkin's life and ideas. Philip is interviewed by Andy Morris from The Open University’s Geography Department.
Andy Morris (AM): Hello, I'm Andy Morris and I'm joined today by my colleague from the Geography Department at The Open University, Philip O’Sullivan, to find out a little about the fascinating work and extraordinary life story of Peter Kropotkin, a Russian geographer who died almost a hundred years ago but who still provides us with some interesting insights today.
So, Philip, who was Peter Kropotkin?
Philip O’Sullivan: Hi Andy, Peter Kropotkin was born into the aristocracy of Tsar Sasha in Moscow in the early 1840s. He was an explorer, a scientist and a geographer. He was a revolutionary who at one time made a daring escape from prison in Russia. He was later imprisoned again in France. He moved to western Europe in the 1870s. He became the leading figurehead and theorist of the international anarchist movement from around about the 1880s until his death in Russia in 1917. He was educated at an elite military school, his father being of sort of noble birth. He became an army officer. He led several important geographical and geological expeditions in eastern Siberia and Manchuria but he became disillusioned with that. He resigned his commission in 1867. He continued his sort of fieldwork, researching and publishing geographical works. He did those for the Russian Geographical Society until 1871.
AM: Before we go on, Philip, I have to just take you back to this daring prison escape. Can you just tell us a bit more about that?
PO’S: Yes, he was imprisoned in Saint Petersburg in a military sort of hospital wing. And by sort of secret messages, things hidden in watch cases, and sort of dressing up as somebody else in disguise he managed a sort of roof top escape into a waiting carriage where they sped through the streets of Saint Petersburg. And in fact that night he dined with friends and family in the most expensive restaurant in Saint Petersburg because he thought it was the last place the police would look for him. He led a very very interesting life.
AM: He certainly did by the sounds of it. So, I mean, there are so many things here going on but just really to bring it back to this seemingly sharp distinction as well between Kropotkin, the army officer, and Kropotkin, the revolutionary. How does he kind of go from being one to the other?
PO’S: Good question. It comes from sort of a life changing decision he was faced with. He was away on a geographical expedition of Finland in 1871. He received this telegram offering him the post of the Secretary of the Russian Geographical Society, so it sort of struck him then he had this choice. He was either going to become sort of an establishment-type, scientific figure of the establishment, pursue his scientific career. But also, when he had been in Siberia in his youth as an army officer, he was struck by the poverty of the people there. And then when he was in Finland he was struck by the poverty of the Finnish peasants too. And he was increasingly being influenced by socialist ideas from western Europe. So he decided he had this choice: was he going to be an establishment scientific-figure or was he going to devote his life to becoming a revolutionary and helping the people? And he chose the latter.
AM: Okay. So I guess this then really heralds the beginning of that extraordinary phase in Kropotkin’s life, doesn’t it?
PO’S: It does. So he went back to Saint Petersburg and he joined the underground revolutionary movement there and that’s when he’s imprisoned in 1874 for these sort of underground activities. He escaped, as I mentioned, a couple of years later in 1876. He made his way to England, which was a safe refuge place at the time. A year later he moved to Switzerland. He then had to move on to France because he was seen as a sort of undesirable political activist. He was arrested in France for political reasons essentially and sentenced to five years in prison there. It was a very strange time actually because he still in a sense did pursue this sort of double life, Andy, because while he was in prison he was receiving support from the Royal Geographical Society in London – some of the most notable sort of academics and scientists of the day who were helping him: supplying him with materials and maps and books and articles he needed to continue his sort of geographical and scientific studies, while at the same time he was sort of writing revolutionary and anarchist pamphlets as well. So he was in with sort of support actually in lobbying from some of these sort of scientific establishment figures in London. He was released from prison in France in 1886 and he moved back to England where he settled and he lived there until 1917.
AM: So in England he sounds like he manages to settle and combine his political activism and his geographical and other academic writing.
PO’S: That’s right. He sort of lived, in a sense, a double life but he was accepted across all parts of society really. He earned his living, if you like, he earned his keep, by writing geographical articles for the journal, Nature. And he wrote regular, small scientific columns for the Times newspaper, but at the same time he was writing these sort of anarchist pamphlets and essays, which were then sort of collected into books. I suppose the three most famous books he wrote around this time, the first would be The Conquest of Bread. It was published in 1892. It really is a sort of fuller statement of his anarchist communism and sort of the perfect anarchist society he envisaged. Factories, Fields and Workshops is another book, which should be of interest to anybody interested in the environment in geography. It was published in 1899. Again, a collection of essays but what he did there was he sort of discussed the integration of urban rural economies. You know there should be – fields and factories – should be somehow together and not – not separate. And then 1902 was the date he published Mutual Aid, which is probably his most famous work. He was a Darwinist but he argued against social Darwinism the sort of you know competitive nature of race of the fittest. He believed that it wasn’t actually competition but it was actually cooperation between species, which he’d observed as sort of a scientist, and a naturalist, which was the guiding factor in evolution. So he tried to project those sort of scientific views of cooperation in nature on to the way he thought society should be ordered. He only returned to Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 where, having encountered the poverty and conditions there, he actually engaged and pleaded unsuccessfully with Lenin, both by letter and actually in person, to act on the failings of the new regime and the fact that it hadn't improved the working conditions for the poor people.
AM: And I guess by the time of the Revolution he would have been getting towards the end of his life wouldn't he?
PO’S: That’s right. He died in February 1921, forty miles from Moscow. He lived on a farm with his wife. He wasn’t really involved politically and his funeral was attended by twenty thousand people so he was still a much loved figure.
AM: Okay. So why have you chosen to highlight Kropotkin’s work to OU students interested in geography and what do you think it still offers us today?
PO’S: The way geographers think about a range of related issues today from ethnicity and race to social inequality to issues of urban regional planning, to issues about the environment and how we produce and consume food, all of those are seen in Kropotkin’s writings and he was also very influential in the emergence of radical geography in the late 1960s and ‘70s. So I would argue his ideas, the ideas he developed over a hundred years ago are still a centre of concern to contemporary geographical theory and thinking on the environment as well. You may not find any direct references to him or some of his writings in our OU modules but his interest and ideas are contained in so many of our modules. In DD102, for example, the strand on connecting and ordering lives. In DD103 the theme of inequality as well as many other issues are explored in our Level Two and Three Geography in Environment modules. All contain essential key ideas, which Kropotkin wrote about a hundred years ago and which are still relevant and contested today.
AM: Great. Well, thanks very much Philip for joining me today.
If you want to find about more about Kropotkin's life and ideas, and how they connect to specific Open University modules, read Kropotkin – The Geographer, Anarchist and Russian Prince, which also includes a list of books and websites on Kropotkin and anarchism.
Read more articles from Geography Matters
Is it possible to manage the risks presented by nature, such as too much rain at the wrong time of the year and very harsh frosts?Listen now ❯Weather derivatives - the financialization of weather
Carol Brown-Leonardi investigates how Britain’s exit from the European Union has affected the perceptions and decision-making of mixed nationality couples to stay and live permanently in Finland or the United Kingdom.Listen now ❯The European Union and the impact on mixed nationality relationships in northern Finland
A starling in the countryside is just a starling, but when it enters the city it becomes a pest. Andy Morris discusses how pests exist when nature is ‘out of place’.Read now ❯Nature, space and the shifting geographies of human-starling relations
How can ‘thinking through making’ facilitate new kinds of geographical enquiry?Read now ❯Investigating environmental futures through speculative design
James Torcello via Flickr under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license
Climate Change, Coastal Erosion and Flooding: The Thames Gateway and London
Climate change will lead to sea level rises and this will lead to enhanced coastal erosion. Professor David Humphreys explores the challenges that this will pose for the Thames Gateway in south-east England.Read now ❯Climate Change, Coastal Erosion and Flooding: The Thames Gateway and London
What does environmental change sound like? Dr George Revill argues that sound can be a powerful way of conveying how places are transformed by climate change.Listen now ❯Sounds of environmental change
We live at a key moment in environment and society relations. Take a snapshot of the range of themes and issues explored in the OU module DD213 Environment and society through this introductory video.Watch now ❯Introduction to Environment and society
This free course, From Brexit to the break-up of Britain?, sets the experience of Brexit in the context of the UK. It first analyses Brexit as a symptom of the political, economic and social geography of the UK, focusing on its uneven development in a country increasingly dominated by London and the South East of England. It then considers how the divisions within the UK (within England as well as between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) were reflected in the voting patterns of the 2016 referendum. Finally, the course reflects on the implications of these short-term and long-term trends for the UK’s future as a multinational state.Learn more ❯From Brexit to the break-up of Britain?
The idea of climate change is increasingly well-known, but it can be hard to understand its effects in human terms. Professor David Humphreys describes how he experienced Climate Change first hand when working in Bangladesh for The Open University.Read now ❯Climate change's causes, effects and geographies of responsibility
Explore your opinions alongside experts and other learners, to see whether a vote to leave the EU should have taken place.Take part now ❯Was it right to hold a Referendum on Brexit?
Potential NHS staff from outside of European Economic Area (EEA) will shortly find it easier to secure permission to work in the UK. Yet doctors and nurses from the EEA may no longer have the right to do so. Dr Parvati Raghuram looks at how the NHS has depended on foreign workers since its creation.Read now ❯International health service: How the NHS has always relied on overseas labour
Download your free 'A City in the Making' poster to accompany the OU/BBC series 'The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway'.Read now ❯Download your free 'A City in the Making' poster
A technological revolution is underway improving the lives of many who may benefit from additional assistance says human geographer, Dr Oliver Zanetti.Read now ❯The navigation apps that help the visually impaired
This free course will help you to navigate your own path through the complex landscape of smart cities. You’ll hear from smart city innovators and entrepreneurs, city leaders, communities and business, connecting with learners from around the world to reflect on issues facing smart cities of different sizes and situations.Learn more ❯Smart cities
The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license
How do you know you are in a smart city?
Integrated urban technology is less apparent when it is functioning well says, Gillian Rose, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford.Watch now ❯How do you know you are in a smart city?
Cutting-edge research is enabling the development of new potentially life-changing prototypes aimed at serving those with disabilities says, Dr Oliver Zanetti.Watch now ❯Five smart technologies helping the visually impaired
Shonil Bhagwat explains the yogic way of understanding how individual actions relate to global challenges.Read now ❯Can yoga help us achieve sustainable development goals?
How do cities bring places, relationships and networks together, and what sorts of politics do they create?Watch now ❯My Interest in Cities is Really an Interest in the Way People Live
This interactive map is a world first. It gives you the chance to explore a major international meeting on climate change as if you were there.Take part now ❯United Nations Climate Change Conference - COP21
The Earth in Vision project explores the BBC archives of environment themed television and radio programmes from the last 70 years, looking at the potential of these archives as a digital resource as well as to illustrate the potential of digital broadcast archives for researchers.Watch now ❯Earth In Vision: A Collection
How have the films and radio programmes broadcast by the BBC shaped how we understand environmental change issues? Joe Smith shares his journey through the archives in the second part of a two part podcast series.Read now ❯Dropping the population bomb - 50 years of BBC environmental broadcasting, part two
Athole McLauchlan under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license
Fifty years of BBC broadcasting about environmental change issues
How have the films and radio programmes broadcast by the BBC shaped how we understand environmental change issues? Joe Smith shares his journey through the archives in a two part podcast series.Listen now ❯Fifty years of BBC broadcasting about environmental change issues
How does tax avoidance create links between distant places and people? Why is something legal associated with such secrecy and morally dubious behaviour? Michael Pryke explains.Listen now ❯The Secret Geographies of Finance
Steve Pile looks at the changing geographies of sugar.Read now ❯Another spoonful? Understanding the Place of Sugar - Part Two
Sugar is a Contradiction - explore the cultural paradox of this ubiquitous ingredient, with Professor Steve Pile.Read now ❯One Lump or Two? Understanding the Place of Sugar - Part One
How do national parks manage the demands of different users, whilst still conserving natural beauty?Listen now ❯Protecting Landscapes and Creating the Right Tools for the Job
Peter Wood shares his experiences researching cyclists - on both sides of the Atlantic.Listen now ❯Researching cycling in the US & the UK
Despite voters in 2014 choosing to stay in the United Kingdom, Gerry Mooney believes that in the long run, an Independent Scotland is inevitable. He explains why.Listen now ❯Why I believe 'yes' is only a matter of time
What can family photos tell us about households, gender roles and emerging technology? Professor Gillian Rose explores her research on family photography, and how this work interacts with her own experiences.Watch now ❯Family photos and what they mean
Does geography influence peoples’ sense of security and well-being?Watch now ❯Coping on the Coast: moral economies and liminality at the heart of things that matter
What technological challenges are faced by communities seeking to understand environmental change at different geographical scales?Read now ❯‘Citizen sensing’ and new forms of environmental monitoring
The UK government has confirmed that despite the path chosen by the US, the UK would honour the Paris Agreement. Here Shonil Bhagwat looks at the motivations and implications behind the US decision, and how international action on climate change will go on.Read now ❯Should we be worried about the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement?
The recent UK general election saw many parties pledge to ‘improve’ the environment. Vicky Johnson considers progress can be measured by more closely connecting the environment to economics.Listen now ❯Should Economics and the Environment work together?
Learn about MK’s unique history of transport innovation, and how The Open University has been a part of the experiment.Watch now ❯Milton Keynes and the roots of 'Smart' transport
Why research Milton Keynes? Professor Gillian Rose introduces a study of how cities are increasingly using digital data to improve their management and create new ways of living.Watch now ❯Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes
Sir David Attenborough and The Open University have had a long-standing relationship since the university's birth. David explains how that relationship came about and how it has developed over the years.Watch now ❯Sir David Attenborough and The Open University
Where is Weetabix actually from? Prof. John Allen investigates.Read now ❯The Curious Geography of Weetabix: A Cereal Tale for Our Times
Stories about migrants, asylum seekers and refugees make media headlines almost every day. John Allen asks, what's the role of borders in this movement of people?Read now ❯Europe’s Borders in Question
Nick Bingham discusses 'smart cities' and how digital technologies are changing the ways in which cities are planned and maintained.Read now ❯Digital urban infrastructures: Smart cities in the making
Exploring the costs and benefits of expanding Heathrow, using a geographical analysis.Read now ❯Heathrow third runway: who and where will benefit?
Jenny Meegan under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
Change in the West of Ireland
Introducing a collection of articles asking 'How can unique and distinctive regions, like the West of Ireland, retain the qualities that make them unique while continuing to modernise and interact with the wider world?'Read now ❯Change in the West of Ireland
According to some estimates the snows of Kilimanjaro could vanish completely by 2030.Read now ❯The vanishing snows of Mount Kilimanjaro
The question of how Hungary approaches the memories of its Communist past has echoes for all cities with painful pasts.Read now ❯What is to be done about Lenin? Coping with the relics of past regimes
As people come to live in urban spaces, how do they come to terms with their surroundings? Gillian Rose explains some of the ways we make sense of our modern surroundings.Listen now ❯Mapping the city, taming the city
The public have been badly served by politics and the media on climate change. The presence of a David Attenborough blockbuster on the topic in a primetime slot shows things have changed for the better in the past year or two.Read now ❯What shall we tell the children?
‘Can we survive in freedom?’ The relationship between democracy and sustainability was framed in these terms by a prominent political scientist more than fifteen years ago.Read now ❯Democracy and sustainability: Can we survive in freedom?
Dr Peter Wood, a Visiting Fellow with the Geography Discipline, argues that although methodological choices are often seen as technical decisions, they can actually be key to intellectual creativity.Read now ❯Methods in Motion: Getting on your bike, and looking for answers
Humour has a part to play in getting the message about climate change across.Read now ❯How many lightbulb jokes does it take to save the world?
Copyright free: Pete DeSouza
Copenhagen is the last chance to save the world
As we approach the Copenhagen climate conference, Joe Smith suggests that we put too much emphasis on single eventsRead now ❯Copenhagen is the last chance to save the world
At the beginning of the 21st century, more than half the world’s population live in cities. Issues about governance, intensification of social relationships, the impact of globalisation, and the way green spaces are utilised become ever more pressing concerns. The tracks on this album explore some of the challenges faced across the world as citizens and administrators adapt to ever increasing pressures on city spaces and resources. The material forms part of the course DD304, Understanding Cities.Listen now ❯Understanding Cities
Greenpeace’s 40th birthday is a good time to stop and ask where environmentalism is going. The OU's Joe Smith does just that in this thought-provoking article.Read now ❯Environmentalism at 40: middle age spread or new lease of life?
It might be useful to remind ourselves of the qualities that never come to be calculated when we take stock of our own and others’ worth to society.Read now ❯What exactly does 'worthy' look like?
Is education in Northern Ireland a vehicle for social cohesion or for perpetuating community divisions?Read now ❯Education in Northern Ireland: segregation, division and sectarianism?
Read this article outlining arguements in debate held under the auspices of the Social Sciences Student Connections, Big Conversation.Read now ❯Is public spending a drain on the economy or the mark of a civilised society?
The sight of UKIP's Nigel Farage in deep water prompted Joe Smith to write a personal note with a generous offer of help.Read now ❯Taken at the flood: An open letter to Nigel Farage