Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen (Алекса́ндр Ива́нович Ге́рцен) (April 6 1812 - January 21 1870) was a major Russian pro-Western writer and thinker known as the "father of Russian socialism". He is held responsible for creating a political climate leading to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. His autobiography My Past and Thoughts, written with grace, energy, and ease, is often considered the best specimen of that genre in the Russian literature.
Herzen was illegitimate child of a rich Russian landowner, Ivan Yakovlev, by a young German Protestant of Jewish extraction from Stuttgart, who gave her son the German surname stemming from the word herz, i.e., heart. He was born at Moscow, a very short time before the occupation of that city by the French. His father, after a personal interview with Napoleon, was allowed to leave, when the invaders arrived, as the bearer of a letter from the French to the Russian emperor. His family attended him to the Russian lines.
A year later the family returned to Moscow, where Herzen passed his youth remaining there, after completing his studies at the Moscow University, till 1834, when he was arrested and tried on charge of having assisted, with some other youths, at a festival during which verses by Sokolovsky, of a nature uncomplimentary to the emperor, were sung. The special commission appointed to try the youthful culprits found him guilty, and in 1835 he was banished to Vyatka. There he remained till the visit to that city of the Tsesarevich (afterwards Alexander II), accompanied by the poet Zhukovsky, led to his being allowed to quit Vyatka for Vladimir, where he was appointed editor of the official gazette of that city.
In 1840 he returned to Moscow, where he met Belinsky, who was strongly influenced by him. Then he obtained a post in the ministry of the interior at St Petersburg; but in consequence of having spoken too frankly about a death due to a police officer's violence, he was sent to Novgorod, where he led an official life, with the title of state councilor, till 1842. In 1846 his father died, leaving him by his will a very large property. His personal life was rather complicated, as he drifted from one uncomfortable menage a trois to another. Especially turbulent was his relationship with Natalia Tuchkova, the wife of his childhood friend and lifelong companion, Nikolay Ogarev.
Early in 1847 he left Russia, never to return. From Italy, on hearing of the revolution of 1848, he hastened to Paris, whence he afterwards went to Switzerland. He supported the revolution of 1848, but was bitterly disillusioned about European socialist movements after its failure. In 1852 he left Geneva for London, where he settled for some years. He promoted socialism, as well as individualism, and argued that the full flowering of the individual could best be realized in a socialist order. In 1864 he returned to Geneva, and after some time went to Paris, where he died on the 21st of January 1870.
His literary career began in 1842 with the publication of an essay, in Russian, on Diletantism in Science, under the pseudonym of Iskander, the Turkish form of his Christian name. His second work, also in Russian, was his Letters on the Study of Nature (1845-46). In 1847 appeared his novel Kto Vinovat? (Whose Fault?), and about the same time were published in Russian periodicals the stories which were afterwards collected and printed in London in 1854, under the title of Prervannye Razskazy (Interrupted Tales). In 1850 two works appeared, translated from the Russian manuscript, From Another Shore and Lettres de France et d'Ilalie. In French appeared also his essay Du Developpement des idees revolulionnaires en Russie, and his Memoirs, which, after being printed in Russian, were translated under the title of Le Monde russe et la Revolution (3 vols., 1860-1862), and were in part translated into English as My Exile to Siberia (2 vols., 1855).
From a literary point of view his first important work is Whose Fault?, a story describing how the domestic happiness of a young tutor, who marries the unacknowledged daughter of a Russian sensualist of the old type, dull, ignorant and genial, is troubled by a Russian sensualist of the new school, intelligent, accomplished and callous, without there being any possibility of saying who is most to be blamed for the tragic termination.
Free Russian Press
But it was as a political writer that Herzen gained the vast reputation which he at one time enjoyed. Having founded in London his Free Russian Press , of the fortunes of which, during ten years, he gave an interesting account in a book published (in Russian) in 1863, he issued from it a great number of Russian works, all levelled against the system of government prevailing in Russia. Some of these were essays, such as his Baptized Property, an attack on serfdom; others were periodical publications, the Polyarnaya Zvyezda (or Polar Star), the Kolokol (or Bell), and the Golosa iz Rossii (or Voices from Russia). The Kolokol soon obtained an immense circulation, and exercised an extraordinary influence.
For three years, it is true, the founders of the Free Press went on printing, not only without selling a single copy, but scarcely being able to get a single copy introduced into Russia; so that when at last a bookseller bought ten shillings worth of Baptized Property, the half-sovereign was set aside by the surprised editors in a special place of honor. But the death of the emperor Nicholas in 1855 produced an entire change. Herzen's writings, and the journals he edited, were smuggled wholesale into Russia, and their words resounded throughout that country, as well as all over Europe. Their influence became overwhelming. Evil deeds long hidden, evil-doers who had long prospered, were suddenly dragged into light and disgrace. His bold and vigorous language aptly expressed the thoughts which had long been secretly stirring Russian minds, and were now beginning to find a timid utterance at home.
For some years his influence in Russia was a living force, the circulation of his writings was a vocation zealously pursued. Stories tell how on one occasion a merchant, who had bought several cases of sardines at Nizhny Novgorod, found that they contained forbidden print instead of fish, and at another time a supposititious copy of the Kolokol was printed for the emperor's special use, in which a telling attack upon a leading statesman, which had appeared in the genuine number, was omitted. At length the sweeping changes introduced by Alexander II greatly diminished the need for and appreciation of Herzen's assistance in the work of reform. The freedom he had demanded for the serfs was granted, the law-courts he had so long denounced were remodelled, trial by jury was established, liberty was to a great extent conceded to the press. It became clear that Herzen's occupation was gone. When the Polish insurrection of 1863 broke out, and he pleaded the insurgents' cause, his reputation in Russia received its death-blow. From that time it was only with the revolutionary party that he was in full accord.
Herzen was a hero of the Russian-born 20th century philosopher Sir Isaish Berlin. The words of Herzen that Berlin repeated most insistently were those condemning the sacrifice of human beings on the altar of abstractions, the subordination of the realities of individual happiness or unhappiness in the present to glorious dreams of the future. Berlin, like Herzen, believed that ‘the end of life is life itself’, and that each life and each age should be regarded as its own end and not as a means to some future goal.
Berlin called Herzen's autobiography "one of the great monuments to Russian literary and psychological genius.….a literary masterpiece to be placed by the side of the novels of his contemporaries and countrymen, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky ..."
Tolstoy himself declared that he had never met another man "with so rare a combination of scintillating brilliance and depth".
Russian Thinkers (The Hogarth Press, 1978) a collection of Berlin's essays in which Herzen stars was the inspiration for Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, a trilogy of plays performed at London's National Theatre in 2002. Set against the background of the early development of Russian socialist thought, the Revolutions of 1848 and later exile the plays examine the lives and intellectual development of among other Russians the anarchist Michael Bakunin, the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, the novelist Ivan Turgenev and Alexander Herzen himself, whose character and humanism comes to dominate the plays.
A Tom Stoppard article on Herzen for the London Observer is here:
“Of what use to the flower is its bright magnificent bloom? Or this intoxicating scent, since it will only pass away? None at all. But nature is not so miserly. She does not disdain what is transient, which is only in the present. At every point she achieves all she can achieve. Who will find fault with nature because flowers bloom in the morning and die at night...? What is the purpose of the song the singer sings? If you look beyond your pleasure in it for something else, for some other goal, the moment will come when the singer stops and you will have only memories and vain regrets because, instead of listening, you were waiting for something else. You must not be misled by categories that are not fitted to catch the flow of life.”
- Alexander Herzen
See [March 25, 1812] in the Daily Bleed Calendar
Last updated: 10-15-2005 17:25:46