MY FIRST REVOLUTIONARY
In the autumn of 1896, I visited the country, after all; but the visit resulted only in a brief truce. Father wanted me to become an engineer, whereas I hesitated between pure mathematics, to which I was very strongly attracted, and Revolution, which little by little was taking possession of me. Every time this question arose there was an acute family crisis. Everybody looked depressed, and seemed to suffer intensely; my elder sister would weep furtively, and nobody knew what to do about it. One of my uncles, an engineer and owner of a plant in Odessa, who was staying in the country with us, persuaded me to come and visit him in the city. This was at least a temporary relief from the impasse. I stayed with my uncle for a few weeks. We were constantly discussing profit and surplus value. My uncle was better at acquiring profits than explaining them.
And meanwhile I did nothing about registering for the course in mathematics in the University. I stayed on in Odessa, still looking for something. What was I trying to find? Actually, it was myself. I made casual acquaintances among workers, obtained illegal literature, tutored some private pupils, gave surreptitious lectures to the older boys of the Trade School, and engaged in arguments with the Marxists, still trying to hold fast to my old views. With the last autumn steamer, I left for Nikolayev, and resumed my quarters with Shvigovsky in the garden.
And the same old business started in again. We discussed the latest numbers of the radical magazines and argued about Darwinism; we were vaguely preparing, and also waiting.
What was it in particular that impelled us to start the revolutionary propaganda? It is difficult to say. The impulse originated within us. In the intellectual circles in which I moved, nobody did any actual revolutionary work. We realized that between our endless tea-table discussions and revolutionary organization there was a vast gulf.
We knew that any contacts with workers demanded secret, highly “conspiratory” methods. And we pronounced the word solemnly, with a reverence that was almost mystic. We had no doubt that in the end we would go from the discussions at the tea-table to “conspiratia”; but nobody was definite as to how and when the change would take place. In excusing our delay, we usually told each other that we must prepare; and we weren’t so far wrong, after all.
But apparently there had been some change in the air which brought us abruptly onto the road of revolutionary propaganda. The change did not actually take place in Nikolayev alone, but throughout the country, especially in the capitals. In 1896, the famous weavers’
strikes broke out in St. Petersburg. This put new life into the intelligentsia. The students gained courage, sensing the awakening of the heavy reserves. In the summer, at Christmas, and at Easter, dozens of students came down to Nikolayev, bringing with them tales of the upheaval in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev. Some of them had been expelled from universities boys just out of the gymnasium returning with the haloes of heroes.
In February, 1897, a woman student, Vetrova, burned herself to death in the Peter-Paul fortress. Thistragedy, which has never been fully explained, stirred every one deeply. Disturbances took place in the university cities; arrests and banishments became more frequent.
I started my revolutionary work to the accompaniment of the Vetrova demonstrations. It happened in this way: I was walking along the street with a younger member of our commune, Grigory Sokolovsky, a boy about my age. “It’s about time we started,” I said. “Yes, it is about time,” he answered.
“But how ?”
“That’s it, how?”
“We must find workers, not wait for anybody or ask anybody, but just find workers, and set to it.”
“I think we can find them,” said Sokolovsky. “I used to know a watchman who worked on the boulevard. He belonged to the Bible Sect. I think I’ll look him up.” The same day Sokolovsky went to the boulevard to see the Biblist. He was no longer there. But he found there a woman who had a friend who also belonged to some religious sect.
Through this friend of the woman he didn’t know, Sokolovsky, on that very day, made the acquaintance of several workers, among them an electrician, Ivan Andreyevitch Mukhin, who soon became the most prominent figure in our organization. Sokolovsky returned from
his search all on fire. “Such men! They are the real thing !”