Catherine Breshkovsky

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Catherine Breshkovsky

Yekaterina Konstantinovna Breshko-Breshkovskaya (née Verigo; born 25 January [O.S. 13 January] 1844 – 12 September 1934), better known as Catherine Breshkovsky, was a major figure in the Russian socialist movement, a Narodnik, and later one of the founders of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. She has been described as Russia's first female political prisoner. She spent over four decades in prison and Siberian exile for peaceful opposition to Tsarism, acquiring, in her latter years, international stature as a political prisoner. Also popularly known as 'babushka', Breshkovsky was the grandmother of the Russian Revolution.


The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution (1918)[edit]

Anthology of articles about her written by Abraham Cahan and letters she wrote, edited by Alice Stone Blackwell

  • "My father helped me to think," she says. "He was a man of broad, liberal ideas. We read together many books of science and travel. Social science absorbed me. By sixteen I had read much of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, and I knew the French Revolution by heart. I spoke French from babyhood, and my German governess had taught me German; and at that time the world's best thought was not garbled by the Russian censorship. Fired by such ideas, I saw the poor, degraded slaves around me, and longed to set them free. At first I believed that freedom could be reached without a radical change of government. No revolutionary spirit had yet been kindled. It was the first great era of the Liberals. The emancipation of the serfs was soon to take place; so too the introduction of trial by jury; and these promised reforms sent a social impulse sweeping through Russia. I was thrilled by the glad news. Filled with young enthusiasm, I opened a little school near our estate. I found the peasant an abject, ignorant creature, who did not understand even the meagre rights he already had. He could think only of his mud hut and his plot of ground. As for the government, he knew only that in peace he must pay money; in war, lives. The new rumors had kindled his old heart-deep hope of freedom. The twenty peasants in my school, like the millions in Russia, suspected that the proclamation had been hidden, and often went to the landowners demanding their freedom. At last the manifesto emancipating the serfs arrived." This was in 1861, when Catherine was seventeen. (from article by Abraham Cahan, p16-7)
  • It is necessary to illuminate, to enlighten the minds of a nation that is ready to grasp knowledge; a nation that has been forcibly deprived of all teaching. For there are only a few thousand fortunate persons who were able to get an education in the small number of schools that did not in any way meet the needs of a population of 170,000,000.
    • June 1917 letter
  • The new history must make all the nations members of one family. The better these members are prepared for a reasonable and brotherly life, the better they understand the reciprocity of their mutual interests, the better they know each others' customs, history and civilization, the surer and deeper will be their friendship, the stronger will be the ties that unite them. The international interdependence of reciprocal interests (present and future) is a subject that must be thoroughly gone into in all its complexity...
    • June 1917 letter
  • Words freeze on the lips, the imagination refuses to picture the excesses with which the history of our days is filled. Without being resigned, one can only stand open-mouthed, as if struck by thunder. Nevertheless, in spite of all the countless misfortunes that accompany universal war, my heart, all bruised though it is, does not foresee a bad end for humanity. I have great hope that the minds as well as the hearts of our world will be purified and enlightened, after passing through such sinister trials. Already for many years the wisest and noblest voices have declared against all wars between the nations, and have foretold that militarism, when it has attained its highest point, must end by annihilating itself. And the sentiment of indignation which is invading all minds against the insolence of Germany proves that the people are for culture and not for destruction. The evil is horrible, for its depth as well as its intensity; but better days will come. (1914 letter, p281)
  • How much to be pitied are people who have never known the solidarity of human hearts and souls! (1914 letter, p282)
  • a sound idea, explained by so fine a talent, remains in the people's minds forever, even if at first it is not accepted in its entirety. (1913 letter)
  • From my childhood I have never sympathized with the dualism of sentiments and devotion. One may have a very complex character, one may admire the whole world and understand all the beauties contained in it; one may be happy to sympathize with every perfection of nature and art; and yet one must have along with all these riches an aim, a God, a virtue, or a principle, that will stand above all the rest. And while enjoying the luxury of life, one must be ready at every moment to perform one's duty towards the aim that stands over all. That is my ideal of a human being; and I must add that the more superior the aim chosen to stand highest is to other aims or ends of life, the more valuable is the person who has chosen it. (February 1913 letter, p255)
  • I have had the same experiences with other peoples, whose psychology is strange to the whole body of our nation. How well it is that science is making a successful advance toward giving different countries a knowledge of each other! It is so dull to have only strangers around us in every place on earth, when we are brothers, all coming from one source The soul is the same, the habits are different. (October 1912 letter)

1904 speech in the USA[edit]

starting p112 in book

  • every struggle is carried on by means of two kinds of forces moral and material
  • all Russia is an immense prison to every Russian of progressive ideas. It is worth everything to the men and women who are working for freedom in Russia to know that free and civilized nations sympathize with them and wish them success.
  • The party of progress in Russia is the more interested in having friends in all other countries, because it sees that the time of deliverance for the Russian people is coming nearer and nearer. All classes of the population are alike discontented with autocracy, all are longing to be freed from the yoke of despotism, and perhaps the happy day of our country's deliverance is not far away.
  • Russia the government every year deprives the nation of the services of 10,000 men and women, the best, most capable, and most energetic in Russia, by imprisoning some, exiling others, and putting still others under police surveillance, which makes it impossible for them to work for their country. Nevertheless, what do we see? We see the progressive movement in Russia growing day by day, and all classes taking a widespread and intelligent part in it. The system of despotic monarchy has so disgusted all the people, and the miseries resulting from it have brought them so near the verge of ruin, that no one, except a few unprincipled men immediately around the throne, is willing to have the present régime continue. And that is why all the government's efforts to crush out everything that tends to emancipation come to nothing, and cannot check the victorious march of progressive ideas, which are permeating even the deep mass of the Russian peasantry.
  • This very war with Japan-this murder, this carnage, this suicide of the Russian people — was it not the act of a madman, who, seeing an abyss opening under his feet, tries to drag everything above down into it? Think of all the sorrows, atrocities, and losses resulting from this wara war that nobody needed, and that is hated and despised by the people, and then say if a government worthy of respect, and convinced of its own righteousness and strength, could have rushed into it, and thus revealed to the world all its corruption, ignorance, and contempt for its people's happiness?

Quotes about Catherine Breshkovsky[edit]

  • Madame Breshkovsky's whole life has fulfilled the words that she once wrote to an American friend: "We ought to elevate the people's psychology by our own example, and give them the idea of a purer life by making them acquainted with better morals and higher ideals; to call out their best feelings and strongest principles. We ought to tell the truth, not fearing to displease our hearers; and be always ready to confirm our words by our deeds." (330)
  • The impression that she made in private was even deeper than that left by her public speeches. Kellogg Durland wrote in the Boston Transcript: "To look upon the face of this silver-haired apostle is like receiving a benediction. Her outward and inward calm are superb. Her hands are beautiful in their delicacy and refinement, despite the years in Siberia. Her voice is low and sweet, her smile winning and childlike. Only her eyes betray the sufferings of the years. In repose her face is strong like iron. The shadows of her eyes speak of deepest pathos.
    • Abraham Cahan Yiddish language article translated into English in The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution (1918)
  • She gave the impression of a Russian peasant woman, except for her large grey eyes, expressive of wisdom and understanding, eyes remarkably youthful for a woman of sixty-two. Ten minutes in her presence made me feel as if I had known her all my life; her simplicity, the tenderness of her voice, and her gestures, all affected me like the balm of a spring day…Her first appearance in New York was at Cooper Union and proved the most inspiring manifestation I had seen for years. Babushka, who had never before had a chance to face such a vast gathering, was somewhat nervous at first. But when she got her bearings, she delivered a speech that swept her audience off its feet. The next day the papers were practically unanimous in their tributes to the grand old lady. They could afford to be generous to one whose attack was levelled against far-off Russia instead of their own country. But we welcomed the attitude of the press because we knew that publicity would arouse interest in the cause Babushka had come to plead. Subsequently she spoke in French at the Sunrise Club before the largest assembly in the history of that body. I acted as interpreter, as I did also at most of the private gatherings arranged for her. [...] Often after the late gatherings Babushka would come with me to my flat to spend the night. It was amazing to see her run up the five flights with an energy and vivacity that put me to shame. "Dear Babushka," I once said to her, "how have you been able to keep your youth after so many years of prison and exile?" "And how did you manage to retain yours, living in this soul-destroying, materialistic country?" she returned. Her long exile had never been stagnant; it was always rejuvenated by the stream of politicals passing through. "I had much to inspire and sustain me," she said; "but what have you in a country where idealism is considered a crime, a rebel an outcast, and money the only god?" I had no answer except that it was the example of those who had gone before, herself included, and the ideal we had chosen that gave us courage to persevere. The hours with Babushka were among the richest and most precious experiences of my propaganda life.
  • Babushka had grown feebler and whiter, Stella told me, but she had remained the old rebel and fighter, her heart aflame for the people as of yore. Still, it was true that she was permitting reactionary elements to make use of her. It was impossible to doubt Babushka's integrity or to think her capable of conscious betrayal, but I could not approve her attitude towards the Soviets.

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