Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

In Russian and French Prisons

In Russian and French Prisons
Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin
Siberia, Russia + Petropavlovskaya Fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia + Lyons, France + Clairvaux, France

PLOT SUMMARY: In In Russian and French Prisons, Kropotkin describes his experience of prison conditions. The prisoners face hot and damp prison cells, inedible food, and isolation from both their families and from their fellow prisoners. The system of solitary confinement is particularly hard on the illiterate, who have nothing to do to pass the time. The penal system is opaque and nearly impossible for prisoners to negotiate with. Wardens will not tell Kropotkin what the weather is like outside, trials and investigations are conducted in secret, and prisoners face beatings at the will of the jailers. The political prisoners held in the Trubetskoi bastion face particularly hard solitary confinement, as they are under constant supervision within their cells. Both criminal and political prisoners areleft hardened, ill, insane, or dead by the ends of their sentences. Though the French espouse values of liberty and fairness, Kropotkin learns that French prisons are similar in character to Russian prisons.

     After describing the conditions within the penal system, Kropotkin argues that prisons only increase antisocial behavior. Through transforming social relationships to an interdependent, anarchic model, crime will be reduced. He argues that it is important to recognize the humanity of criminals and to treat them as brothers, so that they can become members of the community again, rather than growing more antisocial under cruel prison conditions. He argues that individualism is a feature of contemporary society that facilitates antisocial behavior and the existence of penal institutions. The alternative is a community system, where the group shares responsibility for antisocial acts committed by one of its members. The class hierarchy has to be dismantled to achieve this change, as separations between rich and poor prevent pro-social behaviors. For Kropotkin, all should receive education and learn habits of honest work and cooperation, in order to build a better society without the need for prisons.


“Liberty and fraternal care have proved the best cure on our side of the above-mentioned wide borderland between insanity and crime.” (370)

“You are never alone, as an eye is continually kept upon you, and still you are always alone.” (94)

“Prisons do not cure these pathological deformities, they only reinforce them; and when a psychopath leaves a prison, after having been subjected for several years to its deteriorating influence, he is without comparison less fit for life in society than he was before.” (357)

BIOGRAPHY: Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin (December 9, 1842-February 8, 1921) was a Russian philosopher, writer, scientist, geographer, and revolutionary activist. He was born in Moscow, Russia, to an aristocratic family. He was disinherited when he chose to pursue science and philosophy for the benefit of Russian peasants, rather than becoming a military officer. As a scientist, he specialized in geography and zoology.

     Kropotkin was the foremost theorist of the anarcho-communist movement. He argued that feudalism and capitalism created artificial scarcity and promoted privilege for a small group in society. Instead, he advocated for a decentralized economic system, so that human evolution could progress through mutual support, mutual aid and voluntary cooperation. In his book In Russian and French Prisons, Kropotkin was one of the first to analyze incarceration and prison conditions, and theorize steps to prison abolition. He was exiled after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by revolutionaries in 1881, and was able to return during the Russian Revolution in 1917. He died of pneumonia in 1921. His funeral was attended by thousands and marked the last public anarchist demonstration in the Soviet Union.


Miller, Martin A. and Paul Avrich. “Peter Alekseyevich Kropotkin.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,


Berkman, Alexander. “Prisons and Crime: Punishment—Its Nature and Effects.” Prison Blossoms, Alexander Berkman. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2011, pp. 155–178.
Berkman analyzes contemporary prisons through the lens of Kropotkin's anarchism and prison abolitionism.

Earle, Rod. “European Origins, Perspectives and Experiences of Convict Criminology.” Convict Criminology: Inside and Out. Bristol University Press, Bristol, 2016, pp. 57–76.
Earle examines In Russian and French Prisons as it relates to criminology and the social origins of crime.

Popkin, Cathy. “Chekhov as Ethnographer: Epistemological Crisis on Sakhalin Island.” Slavic Review, vol. 51, no. 1, 1992, pp. 36–51.
Popkin compares Chekhov and Kropotkin’s descriptions of prisons in Siberia.

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