Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism

By Avrahm Yarmolinsky | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER X
THE CHILDREN'S CRUSADE

A ND now at last people had had enough of doubting and questioning. The time had come to act.

It was the spring of 1874. The ice on the rivers was breaking up and wild geese were flying north. The season itself was a spur. For several weeks there was an exodus from the two capitals and other centres of young people wearing the coarse clothes of the peasantry. On being asked by friends where they were going, they answered simply: 'V narod' ('To the people'). Here, for the first time in the history of Russian radicalism, was something that approached a mass movement. Hundreds of men and women, perhaps two or three thousand, which is Kropotkin's estimate, were on the march.

They travelled singly or in small groups, often on foot. Strong legs are mentioned as essential to an agitator's equipment. A man would have a few roubles in his pocket or between the double soles of his footgear and a false passport stuck in the cuff of his boot, together with a tobacco pouch. His bundle might hold a map, some pamphlets, a few tools, which he did not always know how to use. He would perhaps have the address of a place where he could spend the night, receive messages, collect mail. In many cases his adopted rôle was that of an itinerant craftsman, but occasionally he would attach himself to a work gang, say of carpenters or stevedores, establish himself as a village shopkeeper or hire himself out as a farmhand, often at the risk of betraying his incompetence. Some joined the migratory workers who streamed south at harvest time.

There were not a few women among the propagandists, and they were models of courage and endurance. Such a one was Catherine Breshkovsky, who had deserted husband and child to head a circle known as 'the Kiev commune' and who eventually became 'the little grandmother of the Russian revolution'. Men and women travelled together on a comradely footing, and sometimes a couple settled in a village as man and wife, though the relation might be nominal.

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