Guy A. Aldred Archive

Chapter 1
Birth, Parentage, and Descent

Written: 1940.
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source:; 2021

Michel Alexandrovitch Bakunin was born on May 8th, 1814, at the family seat of his father, at Pryamuchina, situated between Moscow and St. Petersburg, renamed Petrograd a century later, and now called Leningrad. What a cycle of history these changes indicate!

Bakunin was born two years after his friend, Alexander Herzen, first saw the light by the fires of Moscow. Those fires were lit by the order of Prince Rostopchin, as intelligent as reactionary a man, in order to drive Napoleon and his Grand Army out of the Russian Capital. Rostopschin considered that Russia faced a graver enemy in her idealistic nobility than in any foreign invaders. He observed that, in other countries, aristocrats planned insurrection in order to secure power for themselves: and democracy rose against the aristocracy in order to broaden the basis of privilege, to widen the opportunity and illusion of power: but in Russia the privileged and the aristocrats plotted revolution, and risked terrible oppression and persecution, with no other object than the abolition of their own privileges. Not only Bakunin’s career, but the story of his father, timid skeptic though he was, and of his relatives, bear out the truth of Rostopschin’s observation.

The future apostle of Nihilism was the son of a wealthy landed proprietor, who boasted a line of aristocratic ancestors. He was very rich and was what was then called the owner of a thousand slaves. Only the men were counted. Women did not count. Even as slaves, they were without consequence. They were out of the bill entirely. Thus he was the unrestricted ruler of 2,000 slaves, men and women. He had the right to sell them, to banish them to Siberia, or to give them to the State as soldiers. To speak plainly, he could rob them and enjoy himself at their expense.

As a child of nine years of age, he been sent to Italy, to the Russian Embassy in Florence. There, in the house of the Russian Minister, who was related to the family, he was brought up and educated. At the age of thirty-five he returned to Russia. One can say, therefore, that he spent his youth and received his education abroad. He returned to Russia a man of intellect and culture, a true philanthropist, possessed of a broad mind and generous sympathies. He was a Freethinker but not an Atheist. He had owed his sojourn abroad to the fact that his uncle, also a Bakunin, had been Minister of the Interior, under Catherine II.

Peter the Great had introduced European Civilization into Russia. In his ruthless way, he forced the aristocratic proprietors to shave off their beards, smoke tobacco, and accompany their wives and daughters into society. He tore young men, literally, from their families, and sent them abroad to study. This changed the life of the Russian aristocracy superficially. Beneath the acquired artificialities, they remained barbarians, slaves of Czarism, debased rulers, and outragers of their own serfs. But in its train, this pretense of civilization brought philosophy and literature. One cannot play at culture without being affected by culture in consequence. It is dangerous even for Czarism to play with fire. The fingers of authority are bound to be burnt, a little.

Catherine II., whom Bakunin’s grand-uncle served, played more daringly with the fire than Peter the Great and so burnt the fingers of the autocracy more seriously than did the mighty crushing workman Czar, the huge animal autocrat. Catherine, who died in 1786, when European Revolution and thought was at its height, had personal need of literature and philosophy, and of companionship in thought. She forced the study of the great works of the period upon her nobles. She was the friend of Voltaire and Diderot, and corresponded with Encyclopedists. She commanded their works to be read. She worshiped civilization and deified abstract humanity- very abstract-yet very dangerous to despotism. Naturally, involuntarily, her nobles became philosophers as they might have become hangmen, had she commanded them to do so. The effect on their manners was to the good, however, and their intellect suffered no harm. Out of this compulsory reading of literature, love of philosophy grew, and small pioneer groups of aristocrats were formed, for whom the shining idea of the epoch, the idea of humanity, which should supersede entirely that of the deity, was the great revelation. It unfolded itself in their lives, became at once the foundation and the ideal of their existence, a new religion. They became its Apostles, its propagandists, and the real founders of Russian thought and literature. Catherine had builded better than she intended; and although, from fear, she suppressed the movement, and cruelly persecuted its leaders, the stone of the temple had been laid and the building of the temple could not be stopped. The building proceeded steadily, though secretly, during the reigns of Paul I. (1796–1801) and Alexander I. (1801–1825), until it startled the world of “Nicholas with the Big Stick” by its proportions and extent. There can be no doubt that Bakunin’s father owed his liberal education to the philosophic ambition of Catherine II. To her fears, and those of her successors, was due the condition of Russia to which he returned.

He returned to Russia, at the age of thirty-five, a member of the Russian diplomatic service, with no immediate intention of quitting it. But the aristocratic world of St. Petersburg made such a repulsive impression on him, that he tendered his resignation voluntarily and immediately, and retired to his family seat, which he never left even for a day. Here his doors were never closed, so to speak, so large was the number of visitors and friends who called upon him. His sympathies were with the advanced circles of aristocratic thought-legacy of Catherine’s foolish trifling with philosophy, which then spread their ideas in Russia: and he ventured, not without caution, yet quite definitely, to associate himself with them. From 1815 to 1825, he took part in the Secret Society of North Russia. More than once he was asked to become President. But he was too great a skeptic and too cautious to accept.

Deism was the limit of his thought, the Deism that his son in later years castigated so effectively. Though Deism was the extent of his philosophy, he was inspired by the spirit of scientific and philosophic inquiry, which was then finding a home in Europe. It was the Age of Reason and of the Right of Man, if not yet of woman. And Bakunin’s father rejoiced in the spirit of the age. He was a keen student of nature and possessed a burning desire to understand the working of natural phenomena. Nature he loved, and next to nature, thought. The Liberalism of his mind revolted against the terrible and degrading position of slave-dealer.

Several times he gave his slaves the opportunity to demand their emancipation and to become free. But he took always the wrong measures and did not succeed in his wish and circumstance and longstanding habit conquered, and he remained quietly an owner, just like many of his neighbors, who all looked, with complacent unconcern, upon the hundred of human beings who lived in bondage, and on whose labor they fattened.

Slavery cannot be abolished piece-meal. A prevailing social disorder, entrenched in the ruling interests of the day, and so having a hundred or more economic manifestations, a complete nervous system of corruption and degradation has to be abolished entirely throughout the area that it covers: it has to be rooted up. One cannot destroy the evil by lopping off its branches. The ax must be laid to the roots.