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Revolutionary Road

Chen Guangcheng and the romance of the Great Escape.

 There is something beautiful and breathtaking about watching a hero of human rights make a clean getaway. The hero may go on to other troubles, and the shadows may triumph in the end. But not yet! Meanwhile, you catch a glimpse of that fleeting thing, freedom, as it goes loping around the corner. And the soul exults.

The classic text on this most up-to-date of themes was written by Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist, which he composed for The Atlantic Monthly in 1898 and 1899. Kropotkin was, formally speaking, a prince, with a rank sufficiently high to allow him to serve the czar as a page. But he was drawn to the grandeurs of the Russian populist cause of the 1870s, and the grandeurs led to arrest and imprisonment in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

Prison damaged his health. The wardens transferred him to a prison hospital. A sympathetic soldier, whispering, advised him to request a walk. The doctors assented. He went for a daily supervised stroll in the prison yard—and he noticed that, from time to time, the gate opened to allow carts to make deliveries. His health recovered, but, in order to keep on strolling about the yard, he feigned otherwise—all the while smuggling notes to his comrades. The comrades rented a bungalow across from the gate. A violinist remained inside, ready to strike up a tune whenever the look-outs in the streets gave the all-clear signal. Inside the yard, Kropotkin removed his hat, in token of his own readiness. He heard the rumble of a carriage outside the gate. The violin played. Only, by then he was at the wrong end of the yard, and, when his medically approved sick man’s stroll brought him to the gate, the violin stopped playing:

More than a quarter of an hour passed, full of anxiety, before I understood the cause of the interruption. Then a dozen heavily loaded carts entered the gate and moved to the other end of the yard.
Immediately, the violinist—a good one, I must say—began a wildly exciting mazurka from Kontsky, as if to say, “Straight on now,—this is your time!” I moved slowly to the nearer end of the footpath, trembling at the thought that the mazurka might stop before I reached it.
When I was there I turned around. The sentry had stopped five or six paces behind me; he was looking the other way. “Now or never!” I remember that thought flashing through my head. I flung off my green flannel dressing-gown and began to run.

Kropotkin jumped into the waiting carriage. A comrade diverted a guard. The carriage brazened it out past a couple of policemen and disappeared down Nevsky Prospekt. His friends took him to a fashionable restaurant, where he was least likely to be sought, and then shuttled him from house to house until he was out of the country and able to board a ship that flew the Union Jack—the flag of welcome to political refugees of every sort. “I greeted that flag from the depth of my heart.” And away he sailed. His brother and the brother’s wife had already been sent to Siberia, and now his sister was arrested, too, together with the sister of his brother’s wife. The family paid the price. But those pages in Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist are thrilling.

Or are they too thrilling? In the field of human emotion, the populist movement in Russia was a gigantic earthquake, which, having begun to tremble in the late nineteenth century, kept on trembling until the czar had fallen and the Communists had established their new dictatorship, and still the seismic tremors went on spreading, until imitation communists had arisen in every corner of the world and sometimes established their own dictatorships. The anti-communists of the ultra-right went on to launch their horrible wars. And so it went—quite as if the emotional earthquake that had gotten started in places like the Peter and Paul Fortress ultimately proved to be all too violent for poor, distraught mankind to endure, and half the world ended up going insane.

Kropotkin himself spent most of the next few decades in London. He founded the English anarchist newspaper Freedom. He wrote his books and pamphlets and his contributions to The Atlantic Monthly, some of which were magnificent and insightful. But his political program—variously called “scientific anarchism,” or “anarchist communist,” or “libertarian socialism”—was long on upper-case Ideals and short on lower-case practicalities. And the combination of the cult of ethics together with the cult of ultra-radicalism sent the militants of the anarchist cause, his own followers, veering in every possible direction, admirable and appalling.

His own response to the czar’s overthrow a few decades later was to rebuke Lenin and the Bolsheviks for establishing the new dictatorship. His followers, the ethical libertarians, ended up in the Soviet prison labor camps. But some of the anarchists came out in favor of the dictatorship, on the grounds that, whatever Lenin was doing, it was terribly radical.

The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, a grand dissident in communist times, composed a poem on these themes—featuring a character named “Mr. Cogito,” who tries to be thoughtful. Mr. Cogito recalls being a little boy and playing a game called “Kropotkin,” in which he reenacts the mad dash to freedom—the prison yard, the violin, the horse carriage, and the comrade who distracts the guard. But Mr. Cogito is not keen on Kropotkin himself, the revolutionary theoretician:

Mr. Cogito
would like to be the intermediary of

and not, the poet adds, more than an intermediary:

but he doesn’t want to be responsible
for what
will be written in the monthly Freedom
by bearded men
of faint imagination
he accepts an inferior role
he won’t inhabit history

The criticism is a little hard on old Kropotkin. But it is easy to see why a Polish dissident would wish to be liberated from even the most libertarian of revolutionary utopias. So the poet draws a clarifying distinction between Kropotkin’s escape, which he dreams of reenacting, and Kropotkin’s isms, which he finds stultifying. And the clarification improves the story.

CHEN GUANGCHENG, the blind, Chinese “barefoot” lawyer, entertains a modest, instead of a utopian, idea of human rights. He attracted attention originally by defending the right of women in China to make their own decisions about childbearing, instead of taking orders from the state; and then he was obliged to defend his own rights as a Chinese citizen. If he has drawn up a more sweeping program for transforming the whole of life, as in Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread, the program has not come to light. The Polish poet would approve. In other respects, though, the Kropotkin-like details of Chen’s escape—as reported by Andrew Jacobs of The New York Times and others—are uncanny.

Chen underwent his house arrest in a village in Shandong Province, instead of undergoing imprisonment in a city jail, as Kropotkin did. Chen was well-guarded, though. He feigned illness. One of the guards may have sympathized with him. Then Chen jumped over several walls, helped by his wife. He broke his foot. His wife stayed behind to distract the guards, and Chen, blind and injured, made his way through the night. He brazened it out by crossing a guarded bridge, where the sentinels may have been asleep. He arrived at a prearranged meeting point, and someone from his circle of dissident conspirators—a teacher of English—showed up in a car. Instead of driving him to Nevsky Prospekt, the teacher drove him to Beijing, where he appears to have spent a few days, shuttling from apartment to apartment.

He made his way not to the Union Jack but to the Stars and Stripes—to the U.S. Embassy, where the diplomats arranged to put him on a plane to New York City, together with his wife and two children. The repression fell upon other people, though. His entire village is said to have been placed under surveillance. The police arrested and beat his older brother. The brother’s son, who is said to have resisted, has been charged with attempted murder. The English teacher has been put under surveillance.

Then the brother made his own escape to Beijing, in quest of a lawyer for his son—a sensational escape on top of the original sensational escape—only to return to the village, in plain indication that here is a story with many chapters to go. And, to anyone who recalls the classics of Russian literature, the echoes are undeniable.

It should be remembered that, in the mid-twentieth century, seismic tremors from the heroic Russian revolutionary past shook the Chinese more passionately than any other people on Earth. The most influential of the Chinese novelists in those years was Ba Jin, the author of Family and other lachrymose and sentimental novels—who, until his death in 2005, at the age of 100, was occasionally mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. And Ba Jin was precisely the man who transmitted the old Russian myths and emotions to the Chinese intellectual class.

He did this by enlisting in the international anarchist movement, back in the days when anarchists around the world formed a large and more-or-less organized revolutionary current. Ba Jin corresponded with Bartolomeo Vanzetti in his Massachusetts prison. He looked upon Emma Goldman as his “spiritual mother.” Family, with its portraits of earnest young women struggling for personal freedom against their repressive parents, has got to be the most Emma-Goldmanesque novel ever written. And it was Ba Jin who translated Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist into Chinese, together with Kropotkin’s Ethics.

The very name Ba Jin is a nom de plume that pays homage to the Russian revolutionary tradition, with the first syllable drawn from Mikhail Bakunin (Kropotkin’s predecessor in the Russian anarchist movement) and the second from Kropotkin. After 1949, when the Chinese Communists established their own dictatorship, Ba Jin joined the Communist tide, and he allowed his writings to be published in expurgated versions, with the anarchist references erased. He gamely denied that Ba referred to Bakunin. He was a good Communist; he denounced himself. And yet, even then, with the multivolume editions of his writings pouring from the Communist presses, he sheepishly continued to acknowledge that “Jin” did refer to Kropotkin.

Surely in China today, there have got to be a few elderly stalwarts who are fondling their tattered copies of Ba Jin’s translations and ruminating over Chen, the blind lawyer—surely there have got to be a few such people thinking thoughts, as the Polish poet did, about the right ways and wrong ways to rebel. The Russian imprint on the Chinese imagination was too deep and powerful in the past to have entirely disappeared in our own time. A hint of nineteenth-century myth touches every part of the story of Chen and his wife and his brother and nephew and the walls and the bridge and the waiting car. Here is a bell from old Russia that is right now tolling in modern China, as if it has been tolling all along. Freedom, that fleeting thing, goes loping around the corner, and the heart pounds and the soul exults.  

Paul Berman is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.