The Russian writer Alexander Ivanovich Herzen was born in Moscow on March 25, 1812 (April 6, New Style). Thanks to a famous phrase from Lenin’s “In Memory of Herzen” – “The Decembrists awakened Herzen. Herzen began the task of revolutionary agitation.” – everyone who grew up in the Soviet Union knew Herzen’s name, whether or not they had ever read a line of his work.
Lenins’ phrase inspired the contemporary poet Naum Korzhavin to write the humorous, “In Memory of Herzen or Ballad of a Historic Lack of Sleep,” which explains all of Russia’s historical woes in terms of the crankiness a series of the country’s revolutionary heroes felt after being awakened before they had gotten a good night’s sleep.
But actually, the common conception of Herzen as a revolutionary is rather one-sided. Dostoevsky wrote about this after Herzen’s death, expressing the opinion that his revolutionary activities represented a departure from his true calling as a writer:
“Whenever and wherever, Herzen was a writer first and foremost. The poet prevails in every action he took. The agitator was a poet, the political figure was a poet, the socialist was a poet, and the philosopher was a poet to the utmost! This quality explains much of what he did, even his flippancy and inclination to make puns when weighty matters were being discussed.”
Herzen was born to Muscovite Ivan Yakovlev and a German named Luisa Haag. The couple was not legally wed, so their illegitimate child was brought up as his father’s ward. Although Herzen did not grow up deprived of attention, his status as someone born out of wedlock left him with a sense of estrangement. In his memoirs, the writer referred to the house where he was born and grew up as a “strange abbey,” and the only pleasure of childhood he recalled was playing with the serf boys. Memoirs by witnesses to the war with Napoleon, the poetry of Pushkin and Ryleyev, the writings of Voltaire and Schiller – these provided the main milestones in the development of Herzen’s young mind. But of all the influences that shaped Herzen, certainly the Decembrist uprising was the most important. After many of the Decembrists were executed, Herzen and his friend Nikolai Ogaryov pledged to avenge them, taking a famous oath on Moscow’s Sparrow Hills.
In 1829, Herzen was admitted into Moscow University's School of Physics and Mathematics, where he joined a discussion circle of progressive students dedicated to the burning issues of the day. He graduated in 1833 with a silver medal and was arrested the following year, along with other members of the circle. After interrogating him, the Investigative Commission reached the conclusion that Herzen’s convictions made him a danger to the Russian state. He was exiled, first to Perm, and then to Vyatka, where he was assigned to work in the governor’s office. A few years later, in 1837, Vyatka was visited by the future emperor, Alexander II, who was accompanied by Vasily Zhukovsky. The renowned poet interceded on Herzen’s behalf and arranged to have him transferred to Vladimir that same year. Once there, Herzen managed to make secret trips to Moscow to visit his fiancée. They were soon married. Four children were born to the couple between 1839 and 1850.
Herzen’s years of being under political surveillance finally came to an end in July 1839, and he was able to freely visit Moscow and St. Petersburg. His freedom was short-lived, however: the following year, a letter he sent complaining about the “murder” committed by a St. Petersburg policeman was intercepted by the censors. Nicholas I ordered that he be exiled to Novgorod and deprived of the right to visit the capitals. He was not able to return to Moscow until his friends’ intercessions on his behalf finally bore fruit in July 1842. In the years that followed he wrote two stories, “Doctor Krupov” and “The Thieving Magpie,” and the novel Who Is to Blame?, the title of which is thought to have posed “one of the two main questions confronting Russia.” The other was posed by Nikolai Chernyshevsky in the title of his novel, What is to Be Done?
In 1847, Herzen and his family left Russia, never to return, as it turned out, and began a voyage across Europe that lasted many years. In 1850-1852, the writer suffered a series of personal tragedies: his wife’s unfaithfulness, the death of his mother and his youngest son, and the death of his wife in childbirth.
In 1852, Herzen settled in London. By now, he was perceived as a key figure in the Russian emigration. Together with Ogaryov, he founded the Free Russian Press, which published the almanac The Polar Star,the newspaper The Bell (sometimes known in English by its Russian name, Kolokol), and the anthology, Voices from Russia. The press also published the memoirs of Decembrists and Russian historical documents, including some containing information about the circumstances surrounding the death of Peter the Great’s son, Tsarevich Alexei, the murder of Pavel I, and the death of Alexander Pushkin, as well as uncensored verse by Pushkin and other poets. In 1858, it republished Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, giving it new life.
The most important work of Herzen’s years in emigration was My Past and Thoughts, a synthesis of the genres of memoir, political essay, literary portraits, autobiographical fiction, and historical chronicle. At first Herzen set out to write about the events of his personal life, but with time he became more ambitious and the book became not only a confession of sorts, but also an outstanding literary testament to the times.
In 1865, Herzen set out again to travel across Europe, in an effort to escape the misfortunes of his personal life (his three-year-old twins had died of diphtheria and his new wife did not get along with his older children). By now, he had drifted apart from revolutionaries, especially Russian radicals. In 1869 the opportunist and murderer Sergei Nechayev turned up in Western Europe and managed to convince Ogaryov that a major revolt was brewing in Russia. Herzen, however, immediately saw Nechayev for the impostor he later proved to be. Before ever meeting him, Herzen developed a strong dislike for Nechayev based on the first in a series of incendiary proclamations he issued. He rejected Ogaryov’s proposal to lend financial support to Nechayev’s activities, which caused one of the worst rifts to roil their years of friendship.
Herzen refused to recognize the young émigrés that surrounded him as his successors and called them the “Sobakeviches and Nozdryovs of nihilism.”* [Referring to two landowners from Gogol’s Dead Souls, the former financially shrewd and crafty and the latter unscrupulous and crude.] He perceived this new generation as indifferent toward education and lacking any knowledge of the people. As Herzen wrote, “They walked off the collapsing stage on which they had already performed their roles… They had almost no experience in scholarship or business at all and no knowledge of Russia.”
A year before meeting Nechayev, Herzen already seemed to have taken an accurate measure of the new generation. Many of them grew up to be Nechayevesque monsters. As Herzen admitted, disillusionment with both the progress Europe was making and “former revolutionary paths” led him “to the brink of moral destruction,” from which the only thing that saved him was his “faith in Russia.”
Now and into the future – including after his death in Paris in 1870 – Herzen’s personality and works were a source of fascination for Dostoevsky (they first met in 1862 and encountered one another on two more occasions). Over many years, the great writer engaged in a sort of dialogue with Herzen in Diary of a Writer and the novels The Devils and The Adolescent. Although Dostoevsky had little sympathy for Herzen’s Westernism, with time he was increasingly drawn to Herzen the thinker: “Without a doubt, this was an extraordinary man, a great wit, and a remarkable conversation partner.”
[Translation: Nora Favorov]
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