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How the study of glacial boulders led Kropotkin to imprisonment in the Peter and Paul Fortress

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© Форпост Северо-Запад

Back in the second half of the 19th century, most geographers believed that about 10,000 years ago the territory of modern Russia was a "sea across which ice blocks were carried, leaving erratic boulders when they melted" (from a historical sketch by Vladimir Obruchev).

A typical example of a wandering (from the Latin erraticus) stone is exhibited in the Mining Museum in St. Petersburg. The iron-shaped monolith is densely covered with drag grooves. They were scratched by the small particles of solid rock from the movement of the boulder caught in the ice. Scientists can tell from these traces which direction the glacier moved. The streamlined shape is due to puddling, but not in "big water," but in the melting mass.

Careful study of such boulders in the area of the Eastern Sayan helped the Russian geomorphologist Peter Kropotkin, better known as theorist of anarcho-syndicalism (self-government of society through trade unions and cooperatives), to replace the "maritime" theory of glacier melt with the "land" one. A graduate of the Corps of Pages, he gave up a brilliant court career and went as an official on special assignments to Chita. There he managed to organize several geographical expeditions. The generalization of the field material prompted the prince to discover the basic laws of the formation of the relief of highland Asia and an interesting hypothesis of the "migration" of the continents.

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© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Today, it is enough to watch a three-minute animation or a corresponding presentation on the interactive globe of the same Mining Museum to see how the outlines of the landmass and relief change at a rate of a million years per second. To contribute to the scientific justification of the tectonic theory, the researcher in the third quarter of the 19th century had to calculate "hundreds of heights" for several years, systematize geological and physical observations of his predecessors, look for inconsistencies and confirmations of hypotheses.

Kropotkin's passion for science cost him more than two years of imprisonment in the Peter and Paul Fortress. The fact is that in March 1874 the political police began to suspect him of involvement in anti-government agitation and distribution of banned literature. He knew about the danger. He could have had time to emigrate if not for his planned report on the glacial theory before the Russian Geographical Society.

"The meeting was held. <...> Our geologists have admitted that all old theories about dealluvial period and distribution of boulders on Russia by floating ice-floats are not based on anything, and that the whole question must be studied anew. I had the pleasure of hearing our eminent geologist Barbot de Marney say: "Whether there has been ice or not, we must confess, gentlemen, that all that we have hitherto said about the action of floating ice floes is not really supported by any research." I was offered the chairmanship of the Department of Physical Geography, while I myself wondered, 'Will I not spend this very night already in the Third Department?'" - Kropotkin writes in his "Notes of a Revolutionary."

© Петр Кропоткин, фото 1864 года

The first night after the sensational report, despite the already obvious surveillance, passed quietly. The next day the triumphant prepared to leave, left his apartment by the back stairs, took a cab and was intercepted by the gendarmes on the Malaya Morskaya Street at the intersection with Nevsky Prospekt.

Aristocrat freethinker was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. By order of Emperor Alexander II (it was his personal cellmate at one time offered to become Kropotkin's) prisoner was provided with a pen and paper. During the more than two years of his life under lock and key in the Trubetskoy Bastion he managed to write his generalizing work "Studies on the Ice Age."

This was followed by escape from the prison hospital, forced emigration and the final shift of scientific interest from the natural sciences to the social and humanitarian sphere. The scientist metaphorically repeated the fate of the objects of his research - glacial blocks. He broke away from the "mother rock. True, unlike the rock, he had the will to return - in 1918, by the last 4 years of his quiet old age in Dmitrov near Moscow.