Mikhail Bakunin prison site, Olomouc, CZ

Click on photos to enlarge.

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Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) was a revolutionary and anarchist. You read those words (or you write them, as I just have) and you realize how incredibly loaded they are. Not by anything you want to put in there, but by the connotations society has given those words over the years. I am neither an anarchist nor a revolutionary, and I am not going to get into a big discussion of either of these philosophical and/or political notions. But I am a lover of language and I believe deeply in the right of a word to define a tiny fragment of the reality we encounter daily. Free of the connotations routinely foisted upon them, the words “revolutionary” and “anarchist” are fascinating, to say the least. One could even call them encouraging. If a revolutionary is someone who desires to turn a bad political or social or economic status into a better one, he has my support. I am similarly intrigued if an anarchist is someone who believes in the goodness and rightness of the individual, believes that man-made governments are aberrations that enslave the individual, and, ultimately, believes that the individual, if left to his or her own devices, will create a society more just and fair. An anarchist might be said to be the ultimate optimist.
If you suspect I am being excessively naive, you are always free to run to the opinion of Joseph Frank, the famous Dostoevsky scholar. In his book Through the Russian Prism: Essays on Literature and Culture, he wrote, “Mikhail Bakunin, best known as the father of revolutionary anarchism, raged like a stormy petrel across the skies of 19-century European history, becoming a legend in his own lifetime. Since then he has served as a constant inspiration to various dissident groups intoxicated by his inflammatory tirades and raging pronunciamentos, and his apocalyptic vision of a new world of total freedom and perfect social justice and harmony emerging after the old one – the existing one – has been thoroughly destroyed in an all-consuming revolutionary holocaust.”
By all accounts, Bakunin was an extremely intelligent, well-spoken individual. His photos, with a bit of wild hair taking off here and there, tend to fit the notion of the “mad anarchist.” He was extremely well-connected throughout Europe. He fought alongside Richard Wagner during the uprising of Dresden in 1849, finding time to encourage Wagner to write an opera on the themes of Prometheus. When Bakunin was held in the St. Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, his old friend Ivan Turgenev arranged to have a piano brought to the revolutionary’s cell to help him spend his time more creatively.
I’ll come back to Bakunin’s cultural connections in a moment, but first let me connect him to the photos I post today.
After the Dresden uprising, Bakunin was arrested and held in prisons in Prague and Olmütz, today’s Olomouc in the Czech Republic, before being extradited to Russia where he landed in the St. Peter and Paul Fortress. In Olmütz, Bakunin was famously bound in chains attached to the wall of his cell. According to a plaque in Olomouc that commemorates the prison which held many political prisoners in the uneasy years beginning in 1848 and immediately following, Bakunin was held in Olmütz for part of the year in 1851.
The prison itself is long gone. The plaque reminding of its existence hangs on the wall of the Olomuc University Philosophy Department, which is located on Třídě Svobody, or Freedom Avenue, and bears the following message:
Across from this building the cells of a former military prison stood on the left bank of a ditch until 1904. These inmates suffered for their love of country, for freedom. These opponents of Austria and the Habsburgs participated in the May conspiracy in Prague in 1849.”
As I understand it, the ditch spoken of here more or less corresponds to Freedom Avenue, which now runs around the outskirts of the old center of the city of Olomouc. An old city gate now left standing incongruously in the middle of an empty lot is one of the few structures left standing that would have been there at the same time as Bakunin. You see that in the photo immediately below. When taking this picture, my back was to the wall of the Philosophy Department, perhaps 20 or 30 yards from where the plaque hangs. Other photos below show nearby brick city walls that would have been in place concurrently with Bakunin’s incarceration. Of all things, a Facebook page on anarchists provides us with a few details I find nowhere else: “14th of March 1851. The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, after first being jailed in Prague, is sent today to the Olmütz fortress in Austria, where he is sentenced in May to hang. Although the death sentence is commuted, Bakunin is chained hand and foot to the prison wall and suffers acutely.”

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Bakunin was one of the most influential radical political thinkers of his age. In fact, his importance is still acknowledged today. His best known works were God and the State (1871) and Statism and Anarchy (1873). But, in all honesty, Bakunin – or, at least, his shadow – now usually reaches us by way of literature or literary tales. Here is a graph from a piece called “A History of Russian Nihilism” on a site dedicated to the study of nihilism and anarchy:
More influential for the New People than philosophy, or political texts, was literature. The expression of the tension between generations by Bazarov in [Turgenev’s] Fathers and Sons as the rejection of the romantic and idealistic postures, guaranteed his position as an icon of the nihilist movement. This was even though Turgenev’s intention was to portray the New People in a less than flattering light. The publication of [Nikolai] Chernyshevsky’s What is to Be Done? (1863), which was written in prison, became the guiding light to the movement. Within its pages was a vision of the socialist values of the nihilist, an exposition of how to live with radical values intact, and how to practice nihilist non-monogamy. The power of literature on the movement is ironic because, of course, most of our modern understanding of the nihilist movement comes from the novels of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. While Turgenev was non-judgmental in his depiction of the New People (and respected by the nihilists, Chernyshevsky having held correspondence with him), Dostoyevsky was in violent reaction to them. While Dostoyevsky was involved in radical activity against the Tsar in the 1840′s, during his exile in Siberia he became a Orthodox Christian, upon his return he became quite upset at nihilism in general and Chernyshevsky specifically. The last five novels of Dostoyevsky dealt with nihilism to some degree either centrally or as a major theme.”
It is generally accepted that Dostoevsky modeled his revolutionary Stavrogin in The Devils, in part, on Bakunin. According to Janko Lavrin in Tolstoy: An Approach Bound with Dostoevsky, “Dostoevsky saw and heard [Bakunin] on September 9, 1867, in Geneva, during the congress of the International League of Peace and Freedom. The discussions he had witnessed at the congress must have stirred up in him quite a number of ideas later embodied in his novel” [The Devils, aka The Possessed, aka, The Demons].
Another famous radical in Russian literature is Turgenev’s aforementioned Bazarov in Fathers and Sons. It is generally accepted that Bazarov was fashioned, in part, on the figure of Alexander Herzen rather than Bakunin. But Bakunin and Turgenev knew each other well. They studied together in Germany in 1840-41, and, for awhile around this time, Turgenev was enamored of Bakunin’s sister Tatyana. In any case, Turgenev himself declared that his sharp-minded, loquacious character of Dmitry Rudin in the novel Rudin, was based on his friend Bakunin.
For the record, Bakunin’s influence on Russian literature did not stop in the 19th century. He was put forth as the lead character in the 1931 novel The Scythian by the emigre writer and publisher Roman Gul.

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