Pyotr Kropotkin was born in Moscow, into an ancient Russian princely family. His father, major general Prince Alexei Petrovich Kropotkin, was a descendant of the Smolensk branch, of the Rurik dynasty which had ruled Russia before the rise of the Romanovs. Kropotkin's father owned large tracts of land and nearly 1,200 male serfs in three provinces. His mother was the daughter of a Cossack general.
"Under the influence of republican teachings", Kropotkin dropped his princely title at age 12, and "even rebuked his friends, when they so referred to him."
In 1857, at age 14, Kropotkin enrolled in the Corps of Pages at St. Petersburg. Only 150 boys – mostly children of nobility belonging to the court – were educated in this privileged corps, which combined the character of a military school endowed with exclusive rights and of a court institution attached to the Imperial Household. Kropotkin's memoirs detail the hazing and other abuse of pages for which the Corps had become notorious.
In Moscow, Kropotkin developed what would become a lifelong interest in the condition of the peasantry. Although his work as a page for Tsar Alexander II made Kropotkin skeptical about the tsar's "liberal" reputation, Kropotkin was greatly pleased by the tsar's decision to emancipate the serfs in 1861. In St. Petersburg, he read widely on his own account and gave special attention to the works of the French encyclopædists and French history. The years 1857–1861 witnessed a growth in the intellectual forces of Russia, and Kropotkin came under the influence of the new liberal-revolutionary literature, which largely expressed his own aspirations.
In 1862, Kropotkin graduated first in his class from the Corps of Pages and entered the Tsarist army. The members of the corps had the prescriptive right to choose the regiment to which they would be attached. Following a desire to "be someone useful", Kropotkin chose the difficult route of serving in a Cossack regiment in eastern Siberia. For some time, he was aide de camp to the governor of Transbaikalia at Chita. Later he was appointed attaché for Cossack affairs to the governor-general of East Siberia at Irkutsk.
Geographical expeditions in Siberia
The administrator under whom Kropotkin served, General Boleslar Kazimirovich Kukel, was a liberal and a democrat who maintained personal connections to various Russian radical political figures exiled to Siberia. These included the writer Mikhail Larionovitch Mikhailov, and Kukel sent Kropotkin to warn Mikhailov that Moscow police was on the scene to examine his political activities in confinement. Mikhailov later who gave the young Tsarist functionary a copy of a book by the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon — Kropotkin's first introduction to anarchist ideas. Kukel was later dismissed from his administrative position, and Kropotkin was moved from administration to state-sponsored scientific endeavors.
In 1864, Kropotkin accepted a position in a geographical survey expedition, crossing North Manchuria from Transbaikalia to the Amur, and soon was attached to another expedition up the Sungari River into the heart of Manchuria. The expeditions yielded valuable geographic results. The impossibility of obtaining any real administrative reforms in Siberia now induced Kropotkin to devote himself almost entirely to scientific exploration, in which he continued to be highly successful.
Kropotkin continued his political reading, including works by such prominent liberal thinkers as John Stuart Mill and Alexander Herzen. These readings, along with his experiences among peasants in Siberia, led him to declare himself an anarchist by 1872.
In 1867, Kropotkin resigned his commission in the army and returned to St. Petersburg, where he entered the Saint Petersburg Imperial University to study mathematics, becoming at the same time secretary to the geography section of the Russian Geographical Society. His departure from a family tradition of military service prompted his father to disinherit him, "leaving him a 'prince' with no visible means of support".
In 1871, Kropotkin explored the glacial deposits of Finland and Sweden for the Society. In 1873, he published an important contribution to science, a map and paper in which he showed that the existing maps entirely misrepresented the physical features of Asia; the main structural lines were in fact from southwest to northeast, not from north to south or from east to west as had been previously supposed. During this work, he was offered the secretaryship of the Society, but he had decided that it was his duty not to work at fresh discoveries but to aid in diffusing existing knowledge among the people at large. Accordingly, he refused the offer and returned to St. Petersburg, where he joined the revolutionary party.
Activism in Switzerland and France
Kropotkin visited Switzerland in 1872 and became a member of the International Workingmen's Association (IWA) at Geneva. However, he found that he did not like IWA's style of socialism. Instead, he studied the programme of the more radical Jura federation at Neuchâtel and spent time in the company of the leading members, and adopted the creed of anarchism.
Activism in Russia and arrest
On returning to Russia, Kropotkin's friend Dmitri Klements introduced him to the Circle of Tchaikovsky, a socialist/populist group created in 1872. Kropotkin worked to spread revolutionary propaganda among peasants and workers, and acted as a bridge between the Circle and the aristocracy. Throughout this period, Kropotkin maintained his position within the Geographical Society in order to provide cover for his activities.
In 1872, Kropotkin was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress for subversive political activity, as a result of his work with the Circle of Tchaikovsky. Because of his aristocratic background, he received special privileges in prison, such as permission to continue his geographical work in his cell. He delivered his report on the subject of the Ice Age in 1876, where he argued that it had taken place in not as distant a past as initially thought.
Escape and exile
In 1876, just before his trial, Kropotkin was moved to a low-security prison in St. Petersburg, from which he escaped with help from his friends. On the night of the escape, Kropotkin and his friends celebrated by dining in one of the finest restaurants in St. Petersburg, assuming correctly that the police would not think to look for them there. After this, he boarded a boat and headed to England. After a short stay there, he moved to Switzerland where he joined the Jura Federation. In 1877, he moved to Paris, where he helped start the socialist movement. In 1878, he returned to Switzerland where he edited the Jura Federation's revolutionary newspaper Le Révolté and published various revolutionary pamphlets.
In 1881, shortly after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, he was expelled from Switzerland. After a short stay at Thonon (Savoy), he stayed in London for nearly a year. He attended the Anarchist Congress in London from July 14, 1881. Other delegates included Marie Le Compte, Errico Malatesta, Saverio Merlino, Louise Michel, Nicholas Tchaikovsky, and Émile Gautier. While respecting "complete autonomy of local groups", the congress defined propaganda actions that all could follow and agreed that propaganda by the deed was the path to social revolution. The Radical of July 23, 1881 reported that the congress met on July 18 at the Cleveland Hall, Fitzroy Square, with speeches by Marie Le Compte, "the transatlantic agitator", Louise Michel, and Kropotkin. Later Le Compte and Kropotkin gave talks to the Homerton Social Democratic Club and the Stratford Radical and Dialectical Club.
Kropotkin returned to Thonon in late 1882. Soon he was arrested by the French government, tried at Lyon, and sentenced by a police-court magistrate (under a special law passed on the fall of the Paris Commune) to five years' imprisonment, on the ground that he had belonged to the IWA (1883). The French Chamber repeatedly agitated on his behalf, and he was released in 1886. He was invited to Britain by Henry Seymour and Charlotte Wilson and all three worked on Seymour's newspaper The Anarchist. Soon after, Wilson and Kropotkin split from the individualist anarchist Seymour and found the anarchist newspaper Freedom Press, which continues to this day. Kropotkin was a regular contributor, while Wilson was integral to the administrative and financial running of the paper until she resigned its editorship in 1895. He settled near London, living at various times in Harrow, then Bromley, where his daughter and only child, Alexandra, was born on April 15, 1887. He also lived for many years in Brighton. While living in London, Kropotkin became friends with a number of prominent English-speaking socialists, including William Morris and George Bernard Shaw.
In 1916 Kropotkin and Jean Grave drafted a document called Manifesto of the Sixteen, which advocated an Allied victory over Germany and the Central Powers during the First World War. Because of the Manifesto, Kropotkin found him self isolated by the mainstream of the anarchist movement.
Return to Russia
In 1917, after the February Revolution, Kropotkin returned to Russia after 40 years of exile. His arrival was greeted by cheering crowds of tens of thousands of people. He was offered the ministry of education in the Provisional Government, which he promptly refused, feeling that working with them would be a violation of his anarchist principles.
His enthusiasm for the changes occurring in the Russian Empire expanded when Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution. He had this to say about the October Revolution: "During all the activities of the present revolutionary political parties we must never forget that the October movement of the proletariat, which ended in a revolution, has proved to everybody that a social revolution is within the bounds of possibility. And this struggle, which takes place worldwide, has to be supported by all means - all the rest is secondary. The party of the Bolsheviks was right to adopt the old, purely proletarian name of "Communist Party". Even if it does not achieve everything that it would like to, it will nevertheless enlighten the path of the civilised countries for at least a century. Its ideas will slowly be adopted by the peoples in the same way as in the nineteenth century the world adopted the ideas of the Great French Revolution. That is the colossal achievement of the October Revolution." ....
"I see the October Revolution as an attempt to bring the preceding February Revolution to its logical conclusion with a transition to communism and federalism."
Even though he led a life on the margins of the revolutionary upheaval, Kropotkin became increasingly critical of the methods of the Bolshevik dictatorship and went on to express these feelings in writing. “Unhappily, this effort has been made in Russia under a strongly centralized party dictatorship. This effort was made in the same way as the extremely centralized and Jacobin endeavor of Babeuf. I owe it to you to say frankly that, according to my view, this effort to build a communist republic on the basis of a strongly centralized state communism under the iron law of party dictatorship is bound to end in failure. We are learning to know in Russia how not to introduce communism, even with a people tired of the old regime and opposing no active resistance to the experiments of the new rulers.”
Kropotkin died of pneumonia on February 8, 1921, in the city of Dmitrov, and was buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. Thousands of people marched in his funeral procession, including, with Vladimir Lenin's approval, anarchists carrying banners with anti-Bolshevik slogans. The occasion, the last public demonstration of anarchists in Soviet Russia, saw engaged speeches by Emma Goldman and Aron Baron. In some versions of Peter Kropotkin's Conquest of Bread, the mini-biography states that this would be the last time that Kropotkin's supporters would be allowed to freely rally in public.
In 1957 the Dvorets Sovetov station of the Moscow Metro was renamed Kropotkinskaya in his honor.