My encounter with Alexander Herzen: reflections on a life in a turbulent age (part I)

It is just barely possible that we are not the first to live in a turbulent age. Alexander Herzen was born in Moscow a few months before Napoleon and the French army rolled into the city in September 1812 and locked the gates behind them. Herzen's family was trapped inside because his father, Ivan Alexeyevich Yakovlev, had dithered while the French army retreated and most of Moscow's citizens fled. The house where the family was staying was destroyed by fires a few days later. When they made their way to the house of his father's brother-in-law, they found it too ablaze. A French general remembered Yakovlev from Paris and brought the family's circumstances to the attention of Napoleon, who gave him permission to leave Moscow on that condition that he personally convey a letter from the French emperor to Tsar Alexander I. Yakovlev agreed and became the first witness to the French occupation and the Moscow fires to reach Petersburg.


Herzen grew up to be a tireless polemicist and champion of individual liberty committed to the end of autocracy and serfdom in Russia. Much of his adult life was lived in exile, eight years within Russia after completing his studies at the University of Moscow in 1833, and the final twenty-three in Western Europe, where he was prominent among the exiled revolutionaries and agitators who led a vagabond existence in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, and England in the middle part of the nineteenth century. It was an age of revolution and counterrevolution. The air in cafés frequented by radical exiles and fugitives was thick with intrigue, plot, and conspiracy. There were cholera pandemics and terrorism.


He knew the Italians Garibaldi and Mazzini, the French historian Michelet, the Russian anarchist Bakunin, and Victor Hugo. In London in 1852 he established the Free Russian Press whose publications included the periodical The Pole Star (sometimes translated Polar Star) and The Bell, which were smuggled into Russia where they enjoyed wide readership.


He was also a major literary figure. Dwight Macdonald, editor of the abridged edition of Herzen's memoirs* I have at my disposal, opens his preface with this note:


Although the indefatigable Constance Garnett translated Herzen's memoirs fifty years ago [now almost one hundred; Macdonald was writing in 1973], they have never caught on with American readers…In Russia, My Past and Thoughts has always been standard reading, like War and Peace; nor is Herzen unfamiliar to Western European readers. But like certain wines, he doesn't 'travel' well. So far, he hasn't cross the Atlantic.


Why this should be is puzzling. Herzen was thoughtful, well-educated, cultured. He wrote about people and events with insight, humor, and style, offering observations and commentary that remain relevant today. Isaiah Berlin rates My Past and Thoughts


a literary masterpiece worthy to be placed by the side of the novels of his contemporaries and countrymen, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky. Turgenev, an intimate and life-long friend…admired him as a writer as well as a revolutionary journalist…Even the angry and suspicious Dostoevsky excepted him from the virulent hatred with which he regarded the pro-Western revolutionaries, recognised the poetry of his writing, and remained well-disposed toward him until the end of his life. As for Tolstoy, he delighted both in his society and his writings; half a century after their first meeting in London [in 1861] he still remembered the scene vividly.


Tolstoy recalled Herzen as "a not very large, plump little man, who generated electric energy" and went on to describe him as "lively, responsive, intelligent, interesting…talking to me as if we had known each other a long time. I found his personality enchanting…He stands head and shoulders above the politicians of his own and of our time."


Alexander Herzen was the illegitimate son of Ivan Alexeyevich Yakovev, a wealthy aristocrat who was forty-two, living in Germany, when he met sixteen-year-old Luiza Haag in 1811. Yakovlev was one of four brothers who as young men abandoned careers in government service to lead lives of idleness. None of the brothers was married to the servant girls who were mothers of their children. One brother, the father of Herzen's cousin Natalie, went in for depravity. He was said to have been the model for Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the "worthless, depraved, muddleheaded" father of the Karamazov brothers in Dostoevsky's novel.


Herzen and his mother lived in his father's household where he was educated by Russian, French, and German tutors until he entered the university at the age of seventeen. The environment at home was not a happy one. Herzen writes of the "insufferable dreariness" in the house that grew greater every year. His father was bitter, hardly ever in a good humor, always on his guard. The source of this was a mystery.


Periods of passion, of great unhappiness, of mistakes and losses were completely absent from his life. I could never understand what was the origin of the spiteful mockery and irritability that filled his soul, the mistrustful unsociability and the vexation that consumed him…


Mockery, irony and cold caustic, utter contempt—these were the tools he wielded like an artist, employing them equally against us and against the servants.


As a boy Herzen was struck by the arbitrary and capricious treatment of servants and serfs he witnessed on his father's estate. Years later he wrote with passion and eloquence about distinctions between members of his class and those who served them:


The difference between the nobleman and the serving man is very small. I hate the demagogues' flattery of the mob, particularly since the troubles of 1848, but the aristocrats' slander of the people I hate even more. By picturing servants and slaves as degraded animals, the slave-owners throw dust in people's eyes and stifle the voice of conscience in themselves. We are not often better than the lower classes, but we express ourselves more gently and conceal our egoism and our passions more adroitly; our desires are not so coarse, and the ease with which they are satisfied and our habit of not controlling them make them seem less conspicuous; we are simply wealthier and better fed and consequently more fastidious…


How can a servant not drink when he is condemned to the everlasting waiting in the hall, to perpetual poverty, to being a slave, to being sold? He drinks in excess—when he can—because he cannot drink every day…The savage drunkenness of the English working man is to be explained in exactly the same way. These men are broken in the helpless and unequal conflict with hunger and poverty; however hard they have struggled they have met everywhere a leaden legal code and harsh resistance that has flung them back into the dark depths of common life, and condemned them to the never-ending, aimless toil that eats away mind and body alike. It is not surprising that a man who spends six days a week as a lever, a cog, a spring, a screw, on Saturday breaks savagely out of the penal servitude of factory work, and drinks himself silly in half an hour.


In December 1825 a group of liberal nobles and army officers who hoped to establish constitutional government led an attempt to prevent Nicholas I from assuming the throne after the death of Alexander I. They were known as the Decembrists. Their revolt was crushed. Five leaders were executed, among them the poet Kondraty Ryleyev, to whose work Herzen had been introduced by a tutor. Others were banished to Siberia. A few years after this Herzen and Ogarëv stood on the Sparrow Hills above Moscow and pledged to devote their lives to the Decembrists' revolt for freedom in Russia. Herzen paid tribute to them as "our great fathers":


The heritage we received from the Decembrists was the awakened feeling of human dignity, striving for independence, the hatred of slavery, the respect for Western Europe and for the Revolution, the faith in the possibility of an upheaval in Russia, the passionate desire to take part in it, our youth and the integrity of our energies.


Herzen entered the University of Moscow in 1829. There he studied mathematics and science and mixed in radical circles. The "childish liberalism of 1826" was replaced by "French political views preached by the Lafayettes and Benjamin Constant and sung by Béranger," a popular poet and songwriter, after the failure of the Polish insurrection of November 1830. Herzen and Ogarëv founded their own circle devoted to French and German romantic philosophy and literature and the utopian writings of Saint-Simon. The year after graduation "made a triumphant end to our early youth. It was one prolonged feast of friendship, exchange of ideas, inspiration, carousing." They were impractical, "as youth everywhere is impractical," and idealistic, "turned towards the future."


As Herzen himself noted, it ought to have come as no surprise when their circle fell under the ever-vigilant gaze of the police, always on the lookout for anything that smacked of subversion. First came word that Ogarëv was arrested. Herzen was advised by an older friend not to do anything to try to help him, to "keep out of it: do your utmost and you won't help Ogarëv, but you will ruin yourself. That's what autocracy means—no rights, no defence…"


Soon enough came Herzen's opportunity to witness firsthand the harsh and arbitrary nature of Russia's legal system and the difference in treatment according to class:


To know what the Russian prisons, the Russian lawcourts and the Russian police are like, one must be a peasant, a house-serf, an artisan or a town workman. Political prisoners, who for the most part belong to the upper class, are kept in close custody and punished savagely, but their fate bears no comparison with the fate of the poor…


So terrible is the confusion, the brutality, the arbitrariness and corruption of Russian justice and of the Russian police that a man of the humbler class who falls into the hands of the law is more afraid of the process of law itself than of any legal punishment. He looks forward with impatience to the time when he will be sent to Siberia; his martyrdom ends with the beginning of his punishment.


After months of imprisonment Herzen and the others were questioned before a commission and found guilty of singing seditious songs mocking the tsar at a party where they had drunk too much and of "a manner of thinking 'not akin to the spirit of the government, revolutionary opinions, imbued with the pernicious doctrines of Saint-Simon.'" Herzen was offered leniency if he would name others who had led him astray. He declined.


His father used his influence to have Herzen's prison sentence changed to banishment for six years. Much of his exile was spent in Vyatka, some 980 kilometers northeast of Moscow, just west of the Ural Mountains, on whose other side lay Siberia. Herzen's experience was nothing like what Dostoevsky endured in Siberia and described in The House of the Dead. Herzen was an aristocrat. He was sentenced to remote provincial towns where he would not have chosen to live, but he was not a convict. He was ordered to serve in the civil administration of the provincial government where the work often amounted to clerks signing their names to official documents they never read.


During this period of exile Herzen's childhood friendship with his cousin blossomed into an epistolary romance. Through his father's efforts he was transferred from Vyatka to Vladimir, closer to Moscow, and Natalie was able to join him there in 1838. They were married and in 1840 returned to Moscow.


A new circle of young people had formed around Nick Ogarëv. "[Mikhail] Bakunin and [literary critic Vissarion] Belinsky stood at their head, each with a volume of Hegel's philosophy in his hand, and each filled with youthful intolerance inseparable from vital, passionate convictions." Herzen began studying Hegel in earnest. After coming to grips with the philosopher's language and methods, cracking the code, as an old friend put it years ago during our conversation about the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse) and French deconstructionists over coffee at Café Diem in Atlanta, Herzen came to conclude that "a man who has not lived through Hegel's Phenomenology and Proudhon's Contradictions of Political Economy, who has not passed through that furnace and been tempered by it, is not complete, is not modern." Yes, there were young people in Russia who thought and expressed themselves in this fashion.


At the end of 1840 the Herzens moved to Petersburg at the insistence of his father. There he again ran afoul of the authorities. This time the offense involved discussing an incident where a sentry killed and robbed a man one night. Repeating the story was considered a subversive act even though it was public knowledge and everyone was talking about it. A report reached the tsar, who remembered his name from the earlier banishment.


Herzen was sent to Novgorod for two years and again ordered to work in the provincial government. The absurdity of his circumstances was not lost on him. His duties included counter-signing the report on himself as a man under police supervision that was issued every three months by the police chief. "Such," he writes, "are the Hercules' pillars of insanity that can be reached when there are two or three police forces antagonistic to one another, official forms, instead of laws, and a sergeant-major's conception of discipline in place of governing intelligence."


to be continued


*Dwight Macdonald's abridged version of Herzen's memoirs is substantial, running to better than 600 pages, pared down from a four-volume edition of Constance Garnett's translation with revisions by Humphrey Higgins published in 1968. All quotations here are from My Past and Thoughts unless otherwise noted.


Memo from the editorial desk: As sometimes happens, minor nonsubstantive revisions were after this essay was published as I enjoyed a glass of wine and read after dinner.

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David Matthews

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