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Kropotkin, anarchism and geography: A discussion

Updated Monday, 7 January 2019
What links geography to anarchism? Dr Philip O’Sullivan finds the surprising connection lies with a Russian prince who died nearly 100 years ago.

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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.

Marx as fashion


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.


Further reading

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 (PDF document102.2 KB) , which also includes a list of books and websites on Kropotkin and anarchism.

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