Catherine Breshkovskaya in 1914

Catherine Breshkovskaya, the daughter of a prosperous landowner who owned serfs, was born in Russia in 1844.

Her strong religious beliefs led her to question the morality of serfdom. After marriage she carried out legal, educational and social work for the peasantry in the 1860s.

In 1871 Breshkovskaya she left her husband and with a couple of friends established a socialist commune in Kiev. Influenced by the writings of Peter Lavrov and Pavel Axelrod, she joined the To the People movement in 1874.

Breshkovskaya was arrested by the authorities and in January, 1878, she was sentenced to hard labour in Siberia. She became a well-known international figure when she was interviewed by the American journalist, George Kennan for his book Siberia and the Exile System.

In 1896 Breshkovskaya was allowed to return home and she soon became involved in politics. In 1901 she joined with Victor Chernov, Gregory Gershuni, Nikolai Avksentiev, Alexander Kerensky and Evno Azef, to form the Socialist Revolutionary Party and spent much of her time touring the world making speeches and raising money for the party.

Breshkovskaya was arrested in 1907 and was sentenced to be exiled to Siberia for life.

Catherine Breshkovskaya

1. Was highly critical of Nicholas II and the autocracy.

2. Wanted Russia to have universal suffrage.

3. Wanted the Russian government to allow freedom of expression and an end to political censorship of newspapers and books.

4. Believed that democracy could only be achieved in Russia by the violent overthrow of Nicholas II and the autocracy.

5. Was strongly opposed to Russia going to war with Austria-Hungary and Germany.

6. Believed that if Russia did go to war with Austria-Hungary and Germany the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries should join the war effort as he did not want to lose the war and be ruled by foreigners.

Primary Sources

(1) Catherine Breshkovska, Memoirs (1917)

Soon we moved to Smela. This enormous country town, which already contained one sugar refinery and six factories, was spread over a wide area. The house of the landlord, with its garden, park, and lake, surrounded by a sea of trees, seemed to draw away from the noisy, dirty streets, which teemed with factory people. The large market place swarmed with traders. The police and fire stations were at the market place. At the end of the place was a pond, its muddy water surrounded by very steep banks. Earthen huts were dug out of these banks, and the shores of the lake were thus lined with habitations resembling dens for animals. In them the workers who came from other places lived-former dvorovye, who had no land, who had come from northern governments. They lived in these huts with their large families; here they were born and here they died.

In Smela we soon found a corner to live in. No one in the town occupied a whole house. Small rooms were rented, usually without tables or seats. The father of the owner of our hut, an old fighter for the welfare of this community, offered us his own room, a dark den, and himself moved into the passage, where he slept on planks. This old man helped me a good deal in understanding the life of the factory population. They had been brought to Smela, when serfdom still existed, from one of the central governments, to work in the factories, having abandoned their land and their houses. With their liberation they had got new small patches of land, but only large enough to build their houses on, and were still obliged to work in the factories, receiving a ration of bread as wages. I do not remember further details, but I know that the factory population lived in constant fear of losing their work at the whim of managers and directors. Those with large families had an especially hard time. Our old man was always weak from hunger. His son had his own family to care for; his daughter-in law was unkind; and the old man, who had been twice flogged and sent to Siberia for defending the common interests, was at the end of his days almost a beggar. An old pink shirt, a jacket, and an old peasant coat were his only clothes. He also had a wooden basin and several wooden spoons, which he kindly put at our disposal.

(2) Catherine Breshkovska, Memoirs (1917)

We directed our steps toward Podolia, but I remember only a little of the details of the journey. In one of the villages I gave away my last illegal leaflet and then decided to write an appeal to the peasants myself. Stephanovich made three copies of it. I did this because when I spoke to the peasants they always said, "If you would write down these words and spread them everywhere, they would be of real use, because the people would know then that they were not invented."

In those terribly ignorant times when the only written papers in the villages were the orders issued by the authorities, their faith in a written word was great, all the more so since there was no one in the villages who could write even moderately well.

(3) Catherine Breshkovska, Memoirs (1917)

Evening was drawing near but the sun had not yet set. I, thinking only of Jacob, was astonished when the chief commissar of the district was announced. It developed that he had been informed of the event by a messenger and had come from the district town of Bratzlav. This stout gentleman entered the hut demanding, "Where is she?" I was still sitting on the trunk eating apples.

"Take her to prison under strong guard. Search her first."

Several women were summoned, and in the closet which I had planned to occupy they, who were full of sympathy and curiosity, timidly searched my shabby, almost beggarly clothes, examined my two rubles pityingly and put them carefully back into my pocket.

An escort was waiting for me in the yard-twelve peasants armed with clubs. They put me in a cart and took me to Tulchin. While wandering about the market I had often wondered about a curiously shaped building. A high wall of planks, pointed at the top, hid this building from sight, only its red tiled roof showing. In my innocence I used to wonder what strange sort of man would build himself such a horrid habitation.

On arriving in Tulchin my cart drove up to this strange building. The wide gates were opened. As we rolled into a bare, dreary yard, a large, thin pig walked slowly about us, grunting plain lively. It had been arrested for trespassing, and since its owner had not appeared it had been starving for a whole week in the prison yard.

The enormous, barn-like building was divided into four big wards. Scores of prisoners could be placed in each of them. At that time they were empty. I was taken into one of them. I had my sack with me, but they had taken out my papers, maps, and tools. The wooden bedsteads were wide and clean. I lay down and went to sleep.