Catherine Breshkovsky

Catherine Breshovsky (1844-1944) was the only Russian revolutionist whose adulthood spanned the entire revolutionary period—from the early 1860s to 1917—and whose lifework was devoted entirely to the welfare of the peasants.

Born to Olga Ivanovna and Constantine Mikhailovich Verigo, Catherine Breshkovsky would often remark later in life, "I had wonderful parents; if there is anything good in me, I owe it all to them." From her father, she inherited frankness, good-heartedness, and a short temper; from her mother—a woman of gentility—she received an education from Bible stories. Her parents never whipped the children, never allowed a word of profanity. But in her childhood, Breshkovsky preferred solitude. In her memoirs, she would later explain that her tendency toward withdrawal sprang from feelings of being unwanted as a child; she recalled her mother saying once: "When you were born, I detested you so much…. My other children behave like typical children, Katia is like a whirlwind." Known as a violent and furious child, Breshkovsky's habitual withdrawal led to sudden and frequent disappearances that drove her governess insane: "Breshkovsky is a spider, " she would scream.

As a child, Breshkovsky scrutinized events, people, even her own behavior, and could not accept personal failure. Often confused between the accepted evils of the culture around her and what she thought to be right and humane, she snuck peasant friends into her wealthy home—a tendency for which she was scolded. She could not understand why it was unacceptable to bring a peasant friend into her home, while it was acceptable to see a child hungry, dirty, and in rags. Whipped and exiled for trivial infractions, serfs were treated like chattel; their wives and daughters were used as concubines, their children often taken away and sold.

The lot of the serfs horrified Breshkovsky. She would run off to the serfs' huts, eat with them, confide in them, and listen to stories of their plight. Although her father treated his serfs exceptionally well, she was still dismayed by the contrast between the living conditions of the hut and of her own home. Thus, the young aristocrat developed a strong desire to rectify social wrongs. Bearing witness to the life of the serfs transformed her into a merciless fighter for peasants' rights. Throughout her entire life, when she herself was in dire need, Breshkovsky was giving away food, money, and clothing to the poor and destitute.

Interested in the realities of life, she was a fervent reader, with little interest in fiction. At the age of nine, she read the entire History of Russia by N. A. Karamzin. Many years later, she admitted with trepidation to her son Nicholas—a successful novelist—that she would most likely skip many pages of his books for lack of interest in fictional works. They were two opposites: she was a revolutionist; he was a liberal without much sympathy for the outlaws.

Seventeen when Tsar Alexander II issued the Emancipation Act in 1861, Breshkovsky was soon aware that it did little to improve the peasants' anguish and misery. Since her father was a government-appointed arbiter for the district, she was exposed to heartrending scenes, the sobbing of wives, the whipping and crippling of men. In spite of the suffering, peasants clung to the belief that the Tsar would soon issue the real Manifesto. Although rumors were spread that the corrupt officials substituted the false document for the real one, the peasants did not believe that the Tsar, their Little Father, would betray them.

Two years later, at 19, Breshkovsky, her mother, and sister left for St. Petersburg. On the train, a young prince—a favorite of the Tsar—returning from an official visit to Siberia accidentally entered their compartment. He spoke with fiery zeal about Russia's future now that Tsar Alexander had issued a series of reforms. The prince was Peter Kropotkin, who later became a revolutionary anarchist. Breshkovsky interpreted the incident as providential.

While in St. Petersburg, she joined the circles of liberal-minded young nobility, attending classes of higher education (though it was illegal for females to pursue higher education). But when her mother took ill, she returned home and opened a boarding school for girls, the earnings from which helped her teach peasant children free of charge. Always independent in spirit, at the age of 25, she arranged a marriage with a broad-minded young nobleman, Nikolai Breshko-Breshkovsky. Marriages of "convenience" were not then uncommon among the radical Russian youth. The law required direct supervision of females by the nearest male kin; in order to break away from their often abusive fathers, many female revolutionists married close friends. Ordinarily, the couples would part the day after the wedding, sometimes never to see each other again.

Breshkovsky and her husband stayed in their district, however, where they opened a school and a cooperative bank for the peasants. But a desire to engage in more meaningful activities took Breshkovsky to Kiev. There, she was invited to join a group of radicals on their way to the United States to establish a socialist colony. "Never, " she replied, "how can we leave Russia now, when there is much of importance to be done here?" Instead, she began searching for companions, "students not only of books but of life."

Four years after her marriage, Breshkovsky faced one of her greatest challenges: she decided to devote herself, and everything she owned, to the cause of the revolution. Her husband and family begged the pregnant Breshkovsky to stay and pursue reforms in their own district, urging her to consider the needs of the child. Convinced that "the call of the greatest and gravest duty" bade her leave everything and everyone behind, with great pain she left her parents and husband. Before the winter of 1873-74 was over, she gave birth to a boy, whom she promptly entrusted to her sister-in-law. The separation from her son would last 23 years. "The conflict between my love for the child and my love for the revolution and for the freedom of Russia robbed me of many a night's sleep, " she wrote. "I knew that I could not be a mother and still be a revolutionist."

In the spring of 1874, thousands of young educated idealists left their homes and classrooms to go to the countryside and live with the peasants. In July, Breshkovsky and her two companions, Masha (Mariia) Kalenkina and Iakov Stefanovich, left for the Ukrainian villages. This "going to the people" movement was born of the belief that once the peasants heard the socialist "gospel, " they would rise and overthrow the yoke of oppression.

Breshkovsky's clear, strong voice, her choice of concepts and words that peasants could relate to, and her sincerity impressed the peasants everywhere. Dumbfounded in the presence of someone who could read, they held a printed page with reverence, and gathered in great crowds to listen to her. However, when the revolutionists singled out the Tsar as the primary cause for their oppression, the peasants refused to believe them, and many immediately dispersed. Breshkovsky often compared the tsarist regime with evil forces. Since, to the peasants, the mention of the Tsar and the devil in the same breath was scandalous, some visited local authorities to report such "subversion."

Disguised as peasants, and with false internal passports, Breshkovsky and her comrades were continually on the run from the police. In one of the villages, she and Masha Kalenkina took up lodging with a peasant family. There, one of the family's girls—having snooped through their belongings—confided to neighbor friends that the strangers had literature and maps. The news eventually reached the local chief of police who immediately confronted Breshkovsky and asked for her papers. She told him that she was a peasant woman from a northern Russian province. But in the course of interrogation, he tried to take her by the chin as nobility and officials then did to the serfs; instinctively, she backed off, inadvertently revealing that she was of aristocratic descent. The chief was elated, for the arrest of an important revolutionist meant a respectable reward from his superiors.

In October 1877, Breshkovsky was taken to St. Petersburg and brought before the court. The famous Trial of the 193 lasted several months. Female prisoners typically received light sentences, but Breshkovsky's arrogant refusal to submit to the authority of the tsarist court was her undoing. The first woman in Russia to be condemned to hard labor, she was sent to work in the mines at Kara, far east of Lake Baikal, in Siberia. After a stay of ten months, she was marched to Barguzin, a small prison town on the east shore of Lake Baikal.

Breshkovsky's later writings indicate that at Barguzin, she was condemned to the "torture" of enforced idleness. Forbidden to teach or meet with other prisoners, she nevertheless befriended three students in exile. With the help of a native guide, the four of them escaped the town, walking some 600 miles eastward across the mountains before the police caught up with them. Because of the strict order from St. Petersburg to capture Catherine Breshkovsky, the police were tenacious, and the attempted escape cost her four more years of hard labor at Kara. After Kara, she was marched again, this time 1, 000 miles south to Selenginsk.

In Selenginsk, she met George Kennan who was collecting material for his book Siberia and the Exile System. After eight years in Selenginsk, Breshkovsky was permitted to travel within Siberia, allowing her to befriend some important individuals. Then, in 1896, her term of Siberian exile at last expired, leaving her free to return to Western Russia, though not to St. Petersburg.

Upon her return, Breshkovsky faced a new world. Her parents and husband had passed away. Brought up as an aristocrat, her 23-year-old son Nicholas snubbed his revolutionist mother. The peasants had changed, too, having matured politically. Believing them nearly ready for revolution, Breshkovsky began another missionary journey into the Russian countryside. For eight years the railway compartments were her home. As the name Catherine Breshkovsky disappeared from Western Russia, people talked instead of Babushka ("grandma").

During these years, she coached the peasants and organized underground circles and terrorist attacks on government officials, though this work placed her on the list of the most wanted political criminals. She also helped establish the Socialist Revolutionary Party. In May of 1903, she left Russia via Odessa and Vienna to Geneva. The following year, she arrived in the United States to seek help for her cause.

Speaking in New York, Boston, Chicago, and other major cities, she was received everywhere with enthusiasm. She stressed the strength of the revolutionary movement in Russia and appealed for both moral and material help. She reassured audiences that the Russian peasant had demonstrated that he was able to manage his own future and argued that, in only four decades since 1861, he had cast off the blind faith in the tsar and learned of his own worth. The most significant change, she stressed, was the peasants' ability to read and understand political issues. After her speech in Philadelphia, approximately 2, 000 exhilarated Russian immigrants sang and shouted while carrying her around on their shoulders.

Shortly after her return to Russia, the government— with help from agent Evno F. Azeff—caught up with Breshkovsky and arrested her. Azeff, a well-known and much-trusted revolutionist, had infiltrated the Socialist Revolutionary Party to the very top. The list of charges against Breshkovsky was so long that it took the court clerk an hour to read it. Were it not for friends from abroad who pressured the Russian government, and the government's reluctance to create a martyr, Breshkovsky most likely would have received the death sentence. An American friend came from the United States and begged government officials to release her. They would not.

The government considered the 66-year-old woman a dangerous prisoner. A journalist reported that on her way out of court, she was escorted by a police officer in front of her carrying a naked sword and ten armed officers behind. By April 1910, she was making her second journey to Siberia. Sent to a small island in the Lena River, some 200 miles north of Lake Baikal, she was allowed limited correspondence with a few close friends, many of them outside Russia. For some time, the public in Western Russia heard little of her, until—in the winter of 1913-14—the newspapers reported that the 70-year-old prisoner had escaped from her place of exile. This time, the government sent 50 armed men to bring her back to face 16 months of incarceration. Following the first Russian Revolution in February 1917, she was freed.

The newly formed Provisional Government sent Catherine Breshkovsky a special invitation to return to Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) from her place of exile. Upon arrival in Moscow, she was placed in the deposed Tsar's state coach, receiving a military escort and royal treatment. At the railroad station in Petrograd, the crowd nearly stormed the station, trying to see and touch her. She later wrote, "I do not think that anywhere in the world there ever was a bride who received so many flowers." Alexander Kerensky, then Secretary of Justice, addressed the crowd: "Comrades, the Grandmother of the Russian Revolution has returned at last to a free country." Breshkovsky truly deserved the title; no other Russian revolutionist, male or female, had lived through the entire revolutionary period from the early 1860s to 1917. Her lifelong service to the cause of Russian peasantry extended from the cruel reign of Nicholas I to the ruthless rule of Joseph Stalin. Little did Kerensky know, however, that the Bolshevik coup d'état in October of 1917 would eventually exile both him and Breshkovsky from their "free" country.

Following the October 1917 Revolution, Breshkovsky remained in Russia, actively involved in the political struggle against the Bolsheviks, but in December of 1918—as the Civil War was consuming Russia—she was forced to leave. For the third time, she traveled east, across Siberia, this time not into Siberian exile but exile abroad. After she reached Japan in 1919, she left for the United States. From there, she moved to Czechoslovakia in 1924. In Prague, under extreme conditions, she continued to fight the oppressive Bolshevik regime. Her struggle for the Russian peasant did not stop with her exile; she continued working among the Carpatian Russians who lived in the territories then part of post-war Czechoslovakia. Breshkovsky's real strength of persuasion was not so much in her ability to charm and speak, as in her living example. After living in France for a short time, she returned to Czechoslovakia where she died at the age of 90.


Further Reading on Catherine Breshkovsky

Blackwell, Alice Stone, ed. Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution. Little, Brown, 1919.

Breshkovskaia, Ekaterina. "1917-yi god, " in Novyi Zhurnal (The New Review). Vol. 38, 1954: pp. 191-206.

Kerensky, Alexander. "Catherine Breshkovsky (1844-1934), " in The Slavonic and East European Review. Vol. 13. No. 38. January 1935: pp. 428-431.

Arkhangelsky, V. G. Katerina Breshkovskaya. Prague, 1938.

Hutchinson, Lincoln, ed. Hidden Springs of the Russian Revolution: Personal Memoirs of Katerina Breshkovskaia. Stanford University Press, 1931.

Maxwell, Margaret. Narodniki Women: Russian Women Who Sacrificed Themselves for the Dream of Freedom. Pergamon, 1990.