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My encounter with Alexander Herzen: reflectionAlexander Herzs on a life in a turbulent age (part II)

Updated: Dec 25, 2020

Alexander Herzen became financially independent in 1846 when he and his mother inherited the bulk of his father's substantial fortune. A few months before his father's death Herzen had begun seeking a passport to go abroad. This was not a simple matter because he was still under strict police supervision. Even a passport to travel from Moscow to Petersburg to seek a passport for abroad was difficult to come by. The slog through the tsarist bureaucracy took months. Finally he obtained a passport to go abroad for six months for the sake of his wife's health. In 1847 he and Natalie, accompanied by their children and his mother, split for Europe. They never returned.

Wealthy aristocrat. Radical exile. Two things that are not typically associated. Herzen's attitude toward his wealth was pragmatic and sensible: "It would be stupid and hypocritical to affect to despise property in our time of financial disorder. Money is independence, power, a weapon, and no one flings away a weapon in time of war, though it may have come from the enemy and even be rusty. The slavery of poverty is frightful."

He was generous with financial support of friends in need, Nick Ogarëv and Mikhail Bakunin foremost among them, and with causes he deemed worthy. At the same time he was prudent with his assets, reasoning that his generosity was made possible by the care he took to preserve his resources. He declined requests that in his judgment did not merit support. In his later years this became another source of friction with younger radicals who thought him insufficiently radical to begin with and did not take kindly to rejection of their demands.

In December 1849 Herzen learned that the Russian government had laid a distraint on his mother's fortune in Russia. He was not far from losing everything. Shortly after coming to Paris he made the acquaintance of the banker Baron James Rothschild, who took a liking to the younger man. Rothschild intervened on Herzen's behalf to recover "the illegally detained money, together with interest and interest on the interest."

Herzen made his way to Paris at the end of 1847 and greeted that special city with an enthusiasm, almost an ecstasy, to which we romantic spirits can relate.

And so I was really in Paris, not in a dream, but in reality: this was the Vendôme column and the Rue de la Paix.

In Paris—the word meant scarcely less to me than the word 'Moscow'! Of that minute I had been dreaming since my childhood…

I could not stay indoors; I dressed and went out to stroll about at random…to look up Bakunin, Sazonov: here was Rue St-Honoré, the Champs-Élysées—all those names to which I had felt akin for long years…and here was Bakunin himself…

I met him at a street corner; he was walking with three friends and just as in Moscow, discoursing to them, continually stopping and waving his cigarette…

I was beside myself with happiness!

Revolutions erupted throughout Europe in 1848, beginning in Italy in January, then France in February, Germany and Switzerland after that. It was a heady time. Herzen's friend Ivan Turgenev was in Brussels when news of the revolution in France reached him. Turgenev conveys a sense of the atmosphere of hope and anticipation as the uprising unfolded:

I can remember that no one received any letters or journals from Paris for a whole day; crowds of people gathered in the streets and squares of Brussels; everything seemed to hold its breath in anxious suspense. On February 26, at six o'clock in the morning, I was still in bed—I was not asleep—when the door of my hotel room was suddenly flung open and someone shouted in a stentorian voice: "France has become a republic!" Not believing my ears, I leapt out of bed and rushed out of the room. One of the waiters of the hotel was running along the corridor and, opening the doors in turn on the right and left, shouted his amazing news into every room. Half an hour later I was dressed and packed, and on the same day was traveling by train to Paris. ("The Man in the Grey Spectacles")

Herzen witnessed events in Italy at the beginning of the year before returning to Paris, where he "stumbled on the 15th of May and lived through the agony of the June days and the state of siege." On June 24 he was in a café on the Quai d'Orsay when he heard

discordant shouting, which came nearer and nearer…a grotesque comic banlieue was coming in from the surrounding districts to the support of order; clumsy, rascally fellows, half peasants, half shopkeepers, somewhat drunk…they moved rapidly but in disorder, with shouts of "Vive Louis-Napoléon!"

Herzen shouted back, "Vive la République!" Those near the window of the café shook their fists at him.

On the morning of the 25th or 26th he went out to the Champs-Elysées. From time to time could be heard rifle fire and the beating of drums. The National Guards, who in this revolution favored the republicans, stood on the sides of the empty street. When Herzen and his companions moved on they were stopped by a cordon of National Guards and ended up meeting a person of some note:

a représentant du peuple with a silly badge in his button-hole; it was Tocqueville, who had written about America. I addressed myself to him and told him what had happened: it was not a joking matter; they kept people in prison without any sort of trial, threw them into the cellars of the Tuileries, and shot them. Tocqueville did not even ask who we were; he very politely bowed off, delivering himself of the following banality: "The legislative authority has no right to interfere with the executive." How could he have helped being a minister under Napoleon III!

Shades of unitary executive theory endorsed by William Barr! Former Bush deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo traces this expansive view of executive power back to Alexander Hamilton and George Washington and through to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and modern presidents in a 2019 interview conducted by Ailsa Chang at NPR. The theory appears to have crossed the Atlantic.

On another occasion Herzen was present at a demonstration when a squadron of dragoons galloped without warning into the crowd. He found himself "nose to nose with a horse" and was cursed by a dragoon who threatened "to give me one with the flat if I did not move aside." Herzen retreated and was carried away by the crowd.

His analysis of the 1848 revolution is unsparing. The revolution was not vanquished by the reaction, which everywhere was "densely stupid, cowardly, in its dotage."

The revolution fell, like Agrippina, under the blows of its own children, and what was worse than anything, without their being conscious of it; there was more heroism, more youthful self-sacrifice, than good judgment…The fate of the survivors was almost more grievous. Absorbed in wrangling among themselves, in personal disputes, in melancholy self-deception, and consumed by unbridled vanity, they kept dwelling on their unexpected days of triumph, and were unwilling to take off their faded laurels or wedding garments, though it was not the bride who had deceived them.

Personal tragedy accompanied the political disappointments of those first years in Europe. In 1851 Herzen's mother and a son perished in a shipwreck. No less devastating was Natalie's affair with Alexander's friend George Herwegh, a German poet, radical, friend of Marx and Wagner. The episode left them both shattered. According to Isaiah Berlin, Herzen's "progressive, somewhat Shelleyan, views on love, friendship, equality of the sexes, and the irrationality of bourgeois morality were tested by this crisis and broken by it. He went almost mad with grief and jealousy." Natalie's temperament was, in Berlin's words, "frail and exalté." In letters she wrote during the affair she comes off like the tragic heroine of a romantic novel of the period. Herzen was not innocent of infidelity. In the early years of the marriage he had passing affairs with servants of the sort common among Russian aristocrats and thought little of them, uncomprehending of the wound to Natalie's romantic sense of their marriage.

Herwegh comes off as a scoundrel of the first order in E.H. Carr's account in The Romantic Exiles. Turgenev suggests another side of Herwegh, whom he knew well and visited frequently, in a reminiscence titled "My Mates Sent Me!" The anecdote is also of interest for Turgenev's description of those who rose in revolution in 1848 with odds stacked terribly against them.

They were in Herwegh's room in Paris on the morning of June 26, 1848, when an old man in soiled, tattered clothes came to the door asking for citizen Herwegh. He was there to report that Herwegh's son and his nurse, whom Herwegh had been expecting, had arrived from Berlin the day before. The son was safe, the nurse with him, in a nice place where he would be well fed.

When asked if he had come only for the purpose of reassuring Herwegh about his son, the man replied, "Yes. My mates sent me." The man refused to take money when Herwegh offered payment in thanks. At that Herwegh proposed lunch and a glass of wine. This the man accepted, saying he had not had a bite for almost two days. They ate, drank, and began to talk about events of the past months. The man told Herwegh and Turgenev that many promises were made by the provisional government, none kept. The workers were as bad off as ever. So they made up their minds to fight. Herwegh asked what benefit he could expect from such a crazy insurrection. The man replied, "We were done for, anyway."

When the man made ready to leave, Herwegh asked his name, saying he would at least like to know that about the person who did so much for him. The man replied, "There's no need whatever for you to know my name. To tell you the truth, what I did, I didn't do for you. My mates told me to do it. Good-bye."

Turgenev thought it impossible not to admire the man and the people who sent him:

those who at the height of the desperate fighting could remember the worry and anxiety of a 'bourgeois' they did not know and care to set his mind at rest. It is true that twenty-two years later men like these set Paris on fire and shot their hostages; but he who has even a little knowledge of the human heart will not be shocked by these contradictions.

Alexander and Natalie remained together. She died from tuberculosis in 1852. Three years later Herzen described the loss:

Three years ago I sat by Natalie's sick-bed and saw death drawing her pitilessly, step by step, to the grave; that life was my whole fortune. Darkness spread around me; I was a savage in my dull despair, but did not try to comfort myself with hopes, did not betray my grief for one moment by the stultifying thought of a meeting beyond the grave.

Herzen moved to London after Natalie's death and set to work establishing the Free Russia Press. In 1856 Nick Ogarëv and his wife Natalie Tuchkov Ogarëv joined him. The two old friends worked together on The Bell. Nick was by this time on a downward descent into drunkenness. His marriage had foundered. Natalie and Herzen fell into an unhappy affair. In 1858 Nick fell in love with an English prostitute he met in a pub.

Their experiences were shaped by Romantic attitudes toward friendship and love that could be traced back to Goethe and Rousseau and ran through Byron, Shelley, and Schiller. The two Natalies had formed a close friendship when Tuchkov, the younger by twelve years, was eighteen. There was between them an intimacy not unlike what Herzen described in his friendship with Nick:

friendship between the young has all the ardour of love and all its character, the same delicate fear of touching on its feelings with a word, the same mistrust of self and absolute devotion, the same agony at separation, and the same jealous desire for exclusive affection…

The affairs are covered in The Romantic Exiles in sometimes tedious detail. Natalie's letters are quoted extensively without always providing additional insight. The book's contribution is to flesh out the portraits of Herzen and those around him.

In 1861 Bakunin escaped from Siberia after four years there and made his way to Japan, San Francisco, and England, where he was reunited with Herzen and launched into his customary frenzy of activity. He had been shaped by the events of 1848. "The first days after the February revolution were the best days in Bakunin's life." Once in London he "set about revolutionising The Bell…Propaganda was not enough; there ought to be immediate action." Bakunin was gung ho for a revolution in Poland.

He was a bigger than life figure filled with boundless energy who "argued, preached, exhorted, the whole day, the whole night, the whole twenty-four hours on end":

At fifty still the same wandering student, the same homeless Bohemian of the Rue de Bourgogne, caring nothing for the morrow, despising money, scattering it on all sides when he had it, borrowing indiscriminately right and left when he had none…and never think of repayment, with the same simplicity with which he himself was prepared to give to anyone his last penny, reserving for himself only what was necessary for cigarettes and tea. This manner of life did not worry him; he was born to be a great vagrant, a great nomad…There was something child-like, simple and free from malice about him, and this gave him an unusual charm and attracted to him both the weak and the strong, repelling none but the affected petit bourgeois.

He had a penchant for blowing into town, introducing himself to the local exile community as a representative of fanciful political organizations with names like Russian Revolutionary Committee and European Revolutionary Alliance, and scrounging for contributions to the cause. His enthusiasm for revolution often got the better of him. He was "not too much given to weighing every circumstance…[he] took the second month of pregnancy for the ninth." Herzen notes that the French radical Caussidière said of Bakunin: "On the first day of the revolution he is simply a treasure, but on the day after he ought to be shot!"

To Russian left wing critics in his lifetime and afterward Herzen's views "seemed symptomatic of conservatism and betrayal" (Berlin). Allow me to quote extensively here from Berlin's summation of Herzen's views. There may be more Berlin than Herzen in some of this. Even so it is a fair account.

His moods alternate sharply. Sometimes he believes in the need for a great, cleansing, revolutionary storm, even were it to take the form of a barbarian invasion likely to destroy all the values that he himself hold dear. At other times he reproaches his old friend Bakunin…for wanting to make the revolution too soon; for not understanding that dwellings for free men cannot be constructed out of the stones of a prison…History has her own tempo. Patience and gradualism…can alone bring permanent transformation…Then again he returns to his early moods of disillusionment and wonders whether men in general really desire freedom: perhaps only a few do so in each generation, while most human beings only want good government, no matter in whose hands. He anticipates Émile Fatuet's bitter epigram about Rousseau's dictum that men who are born free are nevertheless everywhere in chains; "it would be equally reasonable to say that sheep are born carnivorous, and everywhere nibble grass"…

He oscillates between pessimism and optimism, scepticism and suspicion of his own scepticism, and is kept morally alive only by his hatred of all injustice, all arbitrariness, all mediocrity—in particular by his inability to compromise in any degree with either the brutality of reactionaries or the hypocrisy of bourgeois liberals.

No account of 19th-century radicals and revolutionaries should pass without mention of Karl Marx. Herzen and Marx had no personal acquaintance. They were ideological adversaries. Herzen's pessimistic view of the revolutionary movement in Europe, his rejection of any historical determinism, and his populist ideas about the socialist character of the Russian peasant commune were decidedly un-Marxian. After 1848 Marx went in for the system building that was anathema to Herzen. Herzen believed that Marx's attitude toward him was colored by his friendship with Bakunin, whom Marx detested and was detested in turn by Bakunin.

Sprinkled throughout Herzen's memoirs are trenchant critiques of "the hundred-thousand-headed hydra" of the middle class that is everywhere, the levelling and dumbing down of culture,

the autocratic crowd of 'congomerate mediocrity' (to use Stuart Mill's expression) which purchases everything and therefore owns everything…without ignorance, but also without education. To please it art shouts, gesticulates, lies and exaggerates, or in despair turns away from human beings and paints dramatic scenes of animals and portraits of cattle…

"Under the influence of the petit bourgeois the whole of morality has been reduced to the duty of him who has not, to acquire by every possible means; and of him who has, to preserve and increase his property…"

Herzen's critique is not restricted to the petit bourgeois, though he certainly has at them. A few representatives from my generation of the sixties might be glimpsed in this description of French bohemians:

[T]he greater number of young Frenchmen work off their youth in a Bohemian period; that is, if they have not money, they live in little cafés with little grisettes [young working-class women] in the Quartier Latin, and in grand cafés with grand lorettes [prostitutes], if they have money. Instead of a Schiller period, they have a Paul de Kock period; in this strength, energy, everything young is rapidly and wretchedly wasted and the man is ready—for a commis in a commercial house. The Bohemian period leaves at the bottom of the soul one passion only—the thirst for money, and the whole future is sacrificed for it—there are no other interests; these practical people laugh at theoretical questions and despise women (the result of numerous conquests over those whose trade is to be conquered).

The "dilettante revolutionaries" and "café agitators" for whom "agitation itself is goal and reward" are types we recognize today no less than that "brand of vulgar, babbling pseudo-revolutionism, of the taré [crazy] character which is so dismally common in France."

On a lighter note as my encounter with Herzen draws to a close, he relates a dinner in London hosted by the American consul who treated his guests to a punch made with Kentucky whiskey. Having tried it and been pleased with the taste, the consul poured out the punch in big teacups. Herzen, being Russian, gave no thought to the danger.

I took a big mouthful, and for a minute I could not draw breath. When I had recovered, and saw that Ledru-Rollin was preparing to gulp it just as eagerly, I stopped him with the words:

"If life is dear to you, approach the Kentucky refreshment with more circumspection: I am a Russian, and even so I've scorched my palate, my throat and my whole alimentary canal: what will happen to you? Punch in Kentucky must be made from red pepper with an infusion of vitriol."

The American smiled ironically, rejoicing at the feebleness of Europeans. I…was the only one who held out my empty cup and asked for more. The chemical affinity with alcohol raised me terribly high in the consul's eyes.

Alexander Herzen relocated to Geneva in the mid 1860s before returning to Paris near the end of his life. He died there in January 1870 on the eve of the Franco-German War, the collapse of Napoleon III's Second Empire, and the Paris Commune of 1871.

I first became acquainted with Herzen when I wrote a term paper on him for Mr. Mandell's course in European intellectual history 1789–1914. That was in the spring of 1973. I had given no thought to Herzen in years until recently when I picked up My Past and Thoughts for something to read. I foolishly ditched my college papers ages ago. It might have been interesting to see what I thought of him at twenty.

At sixty-eight I find Herzen's writing a pleasure and his thinking with its mix of skepticism and hope much in line with mine. His reflections, observations, examinations, and discourses are in their way an education. On that subject Herzen writes, "It is not the function of a university…to give a complete training in any branch of knowledge; its business is to put a man in a position to continue to study on his own account; its work is to provoke inquiry, to teach men to ask questions." There is in all of this a kinship with the affinity I feel for Albert Camus and Tony Judt.

My Past and Thoughts began as a series of reminiscences on childhood and youth that Herzen published in The Pole Star and The Bell. It became a remarkable account of the life and times of a remarkable man too little known today.

"Art," said Alexander Herzen, "and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only goods we have."

Memo from the Editorial Desk: My Past and Thoughts and Berlin's essay on Herzen have the British spellings for words such as "colour" and "scepticism." In quoted material those words are spelled as they appear in the source. Otherwise the American variants, e.g., "color" and "skepticism," are used.


  • Isaiah Berlin, "Herzen and His Memoirs" in The Proper Study of Mankind, 1998 (also as intro. to My Past and Thoughts)

  • E.H. Carr, The Romantic Exiles, 1933

  • James M. Edie, James P. Scanlan, Mary-Barbara Zeldin, "Alexander Ivanovich Herzen," in Russian Philosophy, Vol. 1, 1965

  • Friedrich Heer, Europe, Mother of Revolutions, tr. by Charles Kessler and Jennetta Adcock, 1972

  • Alexander Herzen, From the Other Shore (excerpt) and "Letter to My Son Alexander Herzen," in Edie, et al., Russian Philosophy

  • Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, tr. by Constance Garnett with revisions by Humphrey Higgens, edited and abridged by Dwight Macdonald, 1973

  • Ivan Turgenev, "The Man in the Grey Spectacles" and "My Mates Sent Me!" in Turgenev's Literary Reminiscences and Autobiographical Fragments, tr. by David Magarshack, 1958

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