Breshkovsky, Catherine (1844–1934)

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Breshkovsky, Catherine (1844–1934)

Russian revolutionary, educator, political leader, and a vocal opponent of the Bolshevik government who spent decades in a tsarist prison and exile for her political views. Name variations: Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Katerina Breshkovskaia, Breshkovskaya, or Breshkovskoi; (nickname) "little grandmother of the revolution." Pronunciation: BRESH-kawf-skee. Born Ekaterina Konstantinova Verigo on January 13, 1844, in Ivanovo village, Vitebsk province, Russia; died in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on September 12, 1934; daughter of Konstantine Mikhailovich Verigo (a retired lieutenant in the Russian Imperial Guards who descended from the Polish nobility) and Olga Ivanovna Verigo (née Goremykina, a graduate of the Smolny Institute, a prestigious girl's school in St. Petersburg); though Breshkovsky received no formal education, she was schooled at home; married Nikolai Breshko-Breshkovsky, 1869; children: one child, Nikolai (b. 1874).

Catherine Breshkovsky devoted her life to bringing social and political change to turn-of-the-century Russia. She began her political career as a liberal, although she later discarded the path of reform for a brand of revolutionary activism known as populism. Following years in tsarist exile, she helped found the Socialist Revolutionary Party, a one-time opponent of the Marxist Bolsheviks who eventually came to power. She ended her political career as an avid anti-Bolshevik, then turned to her other great love, teaching, in effective exile in the new Republic of Czechoslovakia. Her years of service to the revolutionary cause earned her the sobriquet "little grandmother of the revolution."

Catherine's parents, Konstantine Mikhailovich Verigo and Olga Ivanovna Verigo , were members of Russia's privileged gentry class. She had two sisters and two brothers and most of her childhood years were spent on an estate in Chernigov province, where the family moved shortly after she was born in 1844. Like most girls of the era, she did not go to school; unlike most, however, she received an education at home both from her own voracious reading and from governesses, who taught her, among other subjects, German and French. In addition, she also received extensive religious instruction from her mother.

Catherine turned 17 in 1861, a year that was to be an important watershed for both her and Russia at large. Following years of rancorous debate, the Russian government dismantled the country's centuries-old practice of serfdom, whereby peasants were tied for life to gentry owners and their land, and the country's 20 million serfs were officially freed. Tsar Alexander II (1855–1881), whose reformist policies allowed the Emancipation to take place, is consequently known as the Tsar Liberator.

A love, an all-absorbing love, boundless love, but not a feeling of abstract duty, was the motive power of all her life…. She was able to love not only each from among the simple people, but also all the people collectively.

—P.B. Axelrod

Much anticipated, however, the settlement proved to be a great disappointment to the peasantry and reformers alike, as the nobility was unwilling to give up their serf labor, and the government was unwilling or unable to oppose them. Nonetheless, Catherine was initially greatly excited by the Emancipation, and she decided that she would help the peasants in their new lives by opening a school for them on her family's estate. Although she tried for two years, Catherine was unable to fully motivate the students to learn, and the venture was ultimately a failure. She later wrote that, although the school was unsuccessful, the experience converted her "from a naive young girl to an independent woman."

Following the closure of the school, Catherine traveled to the capital St. Petersburg, where she worked as a governess, one of the few occupations open to women. Since women were forbidden to attend university classes, she sat in on illegal women's courses and went to underground political meetings. While in the capital, she met many of the day's leading liberals and revolutionaries, including the influential anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin.

In 1866, she returned home at her parents' request. She was at this time fully dedicated to changing Russian society, but only through official channels, and she spent much of her time working with the local zemstvo. The zemstva were provincial elected bodies that had been recently established by the central government to address educational, medical, and other needs at a community level.

While working on zemstvo initiatives, she met Nikolai Breshko-Breshkovsky, a fellow member of the gentry, whom she married in 1869. Together, they established an agricultural school and cooperative bank on her family estate. She remained a reformer throughout this period, especially as the government of the district was relatively progressive. However, the government changed in 1871, and it became more difficult for Breshkovsky to remain true to her reformist ideals. Eventually, she decided that the only way to bring about true change in Russia was to join the revolutionary cause and bring it about by force.

In 1873, she went to Kiev to do just that, leaving behind both physically and politically her parents and her husband, who refused to join her. At age 30, she was one of the oldest members of Kiev's revolutionary community, as most of the radicals were in their late teens and early 20s. The apartment she shared with her sister Olga became the center of the Kiev Commune, which served as a meeting place, training center and occasional living quarters for the city's revolutionary youth. Her sister Nadezhda also visited the commune but did not take part in their activities. Olga's participation in the Commune was brief, as she died shortly after it was established.

Cut off from her family, Breshkovsky offered to tutor the students she met to raise money for her living expenses. She also taught French at a private girls' school, and later remembered trying to add some social commentary to the girls' lessons. She was soon forced to abandon the classes, however, as she was unable to maintain them while continuing her political activities.

In the fall of 1873, Breshkovsky returned to St. Petersburg, where she met members of the Chaikovsky circle, one of the most famous of the many revolutionary groups that had sprung up in Russian cities during Tsar Alexander's reign. Her twin interests in education and revolution were evident when she helped convince the group that revolutionary indoctrination of the Russian masses would never be successful without first providing them with a basic education, a stance she would continue to hold throughout her life.

In early 1874, Breshkovsky gave birth to a son Nikolai with whom she had been pregnant when she arrived in Kiev. She soon handed the child over to the care of her brother and sister-in-law, as she knew she would not be able to fully devote herself to both the revolution and to her son. She would not see Nikolai again until he was 22 years old.

Catherine then became involved in one of the most famous and unusual events of the Russian revolutionary era—the "to the people" movement. Because Russian cities, where the revolutionary movement was centered, were isolated from the rural dwellers, many of the young rebels had little or no contact with the peasants who formed the bulk of the Russian population. In the mid-1870s, the revolutionaries decided that they should see the Russian people, the narod, face-to-face in an effort to establish links between themselves, an urban, educated minority, and the vast rural, illiterate majority whom they saw as being the heart of Russia.

This movement reached its peak during the summer of 1874, which has become known as the "mad summer" or the "Children's Crusade," when thousands of young people abandoned their families, their studies, and their lives in the cities and fanned out among the peasant population. Sometimes, young people simply met with peasants to observe and attempt to understand them better. Others were more interested in recruiting them to the revolutionary cause.

Because she had far more experience with the peasantry than most of the other participants in the "mad summer," Breshkovsky served as a model for the younger revolutionaries and helped prepare them before they set out to the countryside. She traveled to various workshops to oversee the teaching of skills, such as shoemaking, metal-working, and weaving, that the students would need to be accepted into village life.

Disguised in peasant clothes and having aged her hands and face with acid, Breshkovsky set out that summer with two other activists. Together, they traveled to a number of villages, including Belozerie, Semyela, and Cherkass. Sometimes Catherine simply talked to the women and men she met and gently probed their impressions of their lives. Elsewhere, she was more overt and set up meetings, mostly for the village men, to discuss Russia's political and social situation and try to convince them that it needed to be changed.

The entire effort was short-lived, and in late September Breshkovsky was arrested in the town of Varvaska. As with the hundreds of others who were apprehended that summer, she likely raised the suspicions of the authorities because of her ability to read, which would have been a highly unusual skill for a peasant, particularly a peasant woman. Despite her arrest, she had proven to be one of the most successful of those who went to the people, perhaps because she was older and less impatient, or perhaps because she had worked with the peasantry in the past.

Overall, however, the movement was a disaster from a practical viewpoint. Most of the students did not blend in at all in the villages and were quickly turned over to the police by the peasants. Furthermore, the authorities' harsh reprisals later convinced the students that revolutionary violence was the only recourse left to them.

Following her arrest, Breshkovsky spent the years 1874 to 1877 in Moscow and St. Petersburg prisons. She was a defendant in the Trial of the 193 (October 1877–January 1878), where she was found guilty of spreading revolutionary propaganda and exiled to the Siberian Kara mines. She and several others sentenced with her were the first women in Russian history ever sentenced to hard labor.

In her term of exile, Breshkovsky lived at the Kara mines for ten months, then was sent to the town of Barguzin. She tried to escape in July 1881 but was caught the following month and received another sentence of hard labor as a result. Following that work term, she spent eight years in the town of Seliginsk on the Chinese border. There she was interviewed by George Kennan, an American author who was one of the first to describe the hardships of life in Russian exile in his 1891 work Siberia and the Exile System. After four years of free exile, during which she was allowed to travel throughout Siberia on her own, she was permitted to return to European Russia in 1896.

On arrival, Breshkovsky attempted to contact her son, but he did not wish to be associated with her revolutionary politics. Indeed, she immediately resumed her clandestine political work. For two years, she traveled among the peasantry as, unlike many others, she had maintained her faith that the Russian masses must remain at the heart of the revolutionary struggle.

After going underground to avoid the tsarist police in 1898, Breshkovsky spent the next few years helping to establish the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs), heir to the 1860s and '70s populist peasant groups in which she had played a part. The SRs placed their hope for Russia's future in a socialist revolution based in the countryside. Like their populist predecessors, they did not shy away from the possibility of using terror to achieve their goals. Breshkovsky helped distribute illegal revolutionary literature and traveled the country raising support for the party. In 1902, she also founded a Peasants' Union in Saratov as an auxiliary to the main SR Party.

In 1903, Breshkovsky fled to Rumania to escape the tsarist police, who were no more amenable to political activism then than they had been in 1874. From Rumania, she went to the United States to raise money for the party as well as general awareness of the revolutionary cause in Russia. Her efforts received a significant boost when Russian police killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in front of the Tsar's Winter Palace in January 1905 in what has become known as Bloody Sunday. Through her efforts, she raised approximately 40,000 francs for the SRs. Several months later, she returned to Russia, just in time for the thwarted Revolution of the fall of 1905.

Two years later, Breshkovsky was again arrested by the tsarist police for her illegal political activities. She was jailed in St. Petersburg's Peter and Paul Fortress for two years and tried in 1910 as a revolutionary. Once again found guilty, she was sentenced to a lifetime of Siberian exile in the town of Kerensk on the Lena River; she was 65 years old. While in Kerensk, she met a young lawyer named Alexander Kerensky, who was to play a vital role in Russian politics, as well as Catherine's political life. She again tried to escape in November 1913, although she was once more unsuccessful. Though a campaign was launched among her contacts in the U.S. to pressure the government to release her, she remained in exile for another four years in several towns, including Iakutsk and Minusinsk.

World War I presented the tsarist government with a challenge it could not face after decades of internal and external crises and inadequate leadership. In March 1917, the centuriesold Romanov dynasty was overthrown and a liberal Provisional Government took its place; Alexander Kerensky was appointed minister of justice. One of the new government's first acts was to order the release of all political prisoners held in tsarist jails. Upon her release, Catherine returned to the capital, which had been renamed Petrograd during the war.

That year, Breshkovsky was made an honorary member of the SR Central Committee. She was a fervent supporter of Kerensky and a strong proponent of the Provisional Government policy of remaining in World War I, even though the war was draining the country's resources and causing mounting popular discontent. Many of her fellow party members, known as the Left SRs, urged the Provisional Government to leave the Alliance with France and England. Those who wished to remain in the war, the Right SRs, were known derisively as "defensists." The issue, among others, eventually led to an irreparable rift in the party. Although Breshkovsky continued to call for a public show of unity, her strong views on the war and unswerving support for Kerensky placed her squarely in the camp of the Right SRs.

Breshkovsky was very active during the period of the Provisional Government. She toured southern Russia to meet with peasants and soldiers and disseminate among them party propaganda, specifically the views of the Right SRs. She also combined her support of the war with her interest in women's issues by supporting the formation of women's battalions. She helped set up a publishing house in Moscow, Zemlia i Volia, and maintained her involvement with the SRs' Society for the Distribution of Literature.

Breshkovsky also retained her contacts with the Americans she had met in 1904–05 and obtained money to establish a printing press. Her ties with American fund raisers were later used against her when claims were made that she accepted their money for the party on the condition that she continue to support the cause of the war and maintain a reformist, rather than a revolutionary, position. Such an arrangement would have made her appear to be working for the Americans' interests. Although not completely incorrect, the allegations were flimsy; her interests coincided with the Americans', they were not dictated by them. Nevertheless, the charges were used by her political enemies to discredit her.

In July 1917, a series of spontaneous riots in the capital, known as the July Days, led to a shift in the Provisional Government, and Alexander Kerensky became the prime minister. As one of his most vocal supporters, Breshkovsky briefly served as his advisor and moved into the Winter Palace, the seat of government. However, the Provisional Government proved as incapable as its tsarist predecessor of handling the war issue or the many other national problems it faced, and, in November 1917, the government was overthrown by the SRs' main socialist rivals, the urban-based Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Breshkovsky was a strong opponent of the Bolsheviks, and she often claimed that they were paid German agents, a claim with little or no basis. She left the capital shortly after the revolution and went into hiding in and around Moscow for approximately six months, agitating against the new government. In the spring of 1918, she joined an anti-Bolshevik uprising staged by a Czech Legion stationed on the Volga River. The rebellion was unsuccessful, however, and Breshkovsky fled the country, never to return.

Breshkovsky journeyed to the United States, this time to raise money both for the anti-Bolshevik cause and for the establishment of schools for war orphans. Her second tour was not as successful as her first, partially because of the virulence of her anti-Bolshevik crusade, unwelcome among her supporters, and she soon returned to Europe. In 1919, she settled down to an emigre life in the northern region of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, in an impoverished territory that had been under Russian rule until the Bolshevik government turned it over to the newly established country after the war. For over a decade, she worked as a school administrator and founded Russian-language schools to serve the area's emigre population.

Catherine Breshkovsky retired completely from public life in early 1934, after ten years of poor health. The last few months of her life were spent on a farm outside Prague where she was cared for by Russian emigres. The "little grandmother of the revolution" died there on September 12, 1934, at the age of 90.


Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Ekaterina. Hidden Springs of the Russian Revolution. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1931.

——, "Rannie gody," in Novyi Zhurnal. No. 60, 1960, pp. 179–195.

Good, Jane, and David Jones. Babushka: The Life of the Russian Revolutionary Ekaterina K. Breshko-Breshkovskaia. Newtonville: Oriental Research Papers, 1991.

Jones, David R. "Ekaterina Konstantinova Breshko-Breshkovskaya," in The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History. Vol. 5. Edited by Joseph L. Wieczynski. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1977, pp. 164–69.

Kerensky, Alexander. "Catherine Breshkovsky (1844–1934)," in The Slavonic and East European Review. Vol. 13, no. 38. January 1935, pp. 428–431.

Radkey, Oliver H. The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism: Promise and Default of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries February to October 1917. NY: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Stites, Richard. Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

suggested reading:

Kennan, George, Siberia and the Exile System. 2 vols. NY: Century, 1891.


Blackwell, Alice Stone, ed. The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution: Reminiscences and Letters of Catherine Breshkovskaya. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1918.

Susan Brazier , freelance writer, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

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Breshkovsky, Catherine (1844–1934)

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