Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen 1812 in Moscow – January 21 1870 in Paris) was a major Russian pro-Western writer and thinker generally credited with helping to create the political climate which led to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. He is known as the “father of Russian socialism,” although his actual philosophy is not that easy to characterize. He was as much anarchist as socialist, although at bottom they were both influenced by the positivism of the era which held that social transformation would create the good society and good citizenry. His autobiography My Past and Thoughts, written with grace, energy, and ease, is often considered the best specimen of that genre in Russian literature.
Herzen was an illegitimate child of a rich Russian landowner, Ivan Yakovlev, by a young German Protestant woman, Henriette Wilhelmina Luisa Haag from Stuttgart, who gave her son the German surname stemming from the word herz, i.e., heart. He was born in Moscow, a very short time before Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its occupation 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 accompanied him to the Russian lines.
A year later the family returned to Moscow, where Herzen passed his youth, completing his studies at Moscow State University. In 1834, he was arrested and tried on charge of having participated 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, later named Kirov. There he remained till the visit to that city of the Tsarevich (heir apparent and future Tsar Alexander II), accompanied by the poet Zhukovsky, led to his being allowed to leave 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. He obtained a post in the ministry of the interior at Saint Petersburg; but as a consequence of speaking 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 until 1842. In 1846 his father died, leaving him a very large property in his will. 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. While in Italy, Herzen learned of the outbreak of the revolution of 1848. He hastened to Paris, and afterwards to Switzerland. He supported the revolutions 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.
British Exile 1852 – 1864
Alexander Herzen experienced 12 years in exile. His exile writings were a product of his oppressive experiences in Russia under the arch conservative regime of Nicholas I of Russia, and of the failed 1848 revolutions. Herzen had little revolutionary success prior to British. Herzen used exile as an opportunity to advance and refine his own understanding of Russia as he became a populist political commentator. The failed 1848 revolutions would shape and guide Herzen in exile and the effects constantly reappeared in his exile writings to form his own ideological doctrines.
In 1852 Herzen arrived in Great Britain where he would reside until 1864. Herzen would arrive disillusioned with the 1848 revolutions but not disillusioned with revolutionary thought. Herzen had always been a revolutionary thinker, admiring the French Revolution and broadly adopting its values. Early Herzen writings viewed the French Revolution as the end of history, the final stage in social development of a society based on humanism and harmony. Through his early life Herzen saw himself as a revolutionary radical called to fight the political oppression of Nicholas. Essentially, Herzen fought against modernism’s cruel inhumanity and Christian hypocrisy, fighting for individual self-expression without threat from the state. These foundations would underpin Herzen’s exile writings of individual freedom in a communal setting supported by a strong state.
Revolutionary failures, coupled with personal tragedies including the deaths of his wife, son and mother, drove Herzen to Britain for no particular reason as Herzen fell into emotional despair for several years. In London his despair eventually gave way to a revived energy for involvement in Russian politics to help the Russian peasantry that he idolized. Herzen became critical of those 1848 revolutionaries that gave in, “They had gone thither, so revolted by the Reaction after 1848, so exasperated by everything European, that they hastened on to Kansas or California”. Herzen found a new desire to influence and win the judgment of his countrymen as he established the Russian Printing Press. Unlike Herzen’s history of political activism in continental Europe, Herzen remained a writer alone during his British exile, Herzen valued English political freedom but found it unnecessary to admire little else as they did that themselves.
In 1864 he returned to Geneva, and after some time went to Paris, where he died on January 21, 1870 of complications due to tuberculosis.
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 (1845-1846). In 1847 his novel, Kto Vinovat? (Who is to Blame?), appeared. About the same time Herzen published some stories in Russian periodicals which were afterwards collected and printed in London in 1854, under the title of Prervannye Razskazy (Interrupted Tales). In 1850 two other works, From Another Shore and Lettres de France et d’Ilalie appeared. He then published his essay Du Developpement des idées revolutionnaires en Russie in French, and his Memoirs, which were printed in Russian, then translated into French under the title of Le Monde russe et la Revolution (3 vols., 1860-1862). They were later partially translated into English as My Exile to Siberia (2 vols., 1855).
From a literary point of view his first important work is “Who is to Blame?” The story describes 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 (the fortunes of which, during its ten years, he recollected in a book published (in Russian) in 1863) he issued a great number of Russian works, all leveling criticism 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.
As the first independent Russian political publicist Herzen began publishing The Polar Star, a review which appeared infrequently and was later supplemented by the The Bell in 1857, a more frequent journal issued between 1857 and 1867 at Herzen’s personal expense. Both publications acquired great influence immediately, illegally pouring into Russian territory; it was said the Emperor himself read them. Both publications afforded Herzen a genuine influence in Russia by reporting from a liberal perspective about the incompetence of the Tsar and the Russian bureaucracy.
Writing in 1857 Herzen became excited by the possibility of social change under Alexander II,
A new Life is unmistakably boiling up in Russia, even the government is being carried away by it.
Herzen used his skill for popular writing to expose the injustices of the ruling elite. These journals would cement Herzen’s position as an Russian revolutionary thinker. Alexander Herzen fought a propaganda war through the journals that had the constant goal of attaining individual liberty for Russians. Herzen understood the competing claims to power and was aware of the fundamental failings of the revolutionary doctrines that guided the 1848 revolutionary failures. Herzen wrote of the inhumanity of the ruling monarchies of Europe but was also aware of the excesses that were perpetrated by revolutionary governments. Herzen constantly fought for social change and felt his journals would contribute to the winds of change,
The storm is approaching, it is impossible to be mistaken about that. Revolutionaries and Reactionaries are at one about that. All men’s heads are going round; a weighty question, a question of life and death, lies heavy on men’s chests
Herzen’s belief in individual rights were somewhat motivated by an anarchic instinct that prevented him from trusting any ruling government.
For three years the Russian Free Press went on printing without selling a single copy, and scarcely being able to get a single copy introduced into Russia; so 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 arch-conservative Emperor Nicholas I in 1855 produced an important 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 disgraced. 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.
The events of the year 1855 gave Herzen reason to be optimistic; Alexander II had ascended the throne and reforms seemed possible. The Bell broke the story that the government was considering the emancipation of the serfs in July 1857, also adding that the government lacked the ability to resolve the issue. Herzen urged the Tsarist regime “Onward, onward” towards reform in The Polar Star in 1856, yet by 1858 full Serf emancipation had still not been achieved. Herzen grew inpatient with reform and by May 1858 The Bell restarted its campaign to comprehensively emancipate the Serfs. Once emancipation was achieved in 1861 The Bell’s campaign changed to ‘Liberty and Land’, a program that tried to rally the support gathered by the emancipation into solid political action to achieve further social change in support of serf rights.
For some years his influence in Russia was a living force, the circulation of his writings was a vocation zealously pursued. Stories, perhaps apocryphal, 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 special copy of the Kolokol was supposedly printed for the emperor’s use, in which a telling attack upon a leading statesman, which had appeared in the public edition, 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 remodeled, 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.
Russian Radicals and Liberals view of Herzen
Herzen drew criticism from both liberals who were against violence as a political tool and from radicals who thought Herzen was too weak. Liberals led by Chicherin and Konstantin Kavelin believed individual freedom would be achieved through the rationalization of social relations. Their etatist variety of liberalism was opposed by Herzen as it did not advocate the overthrow of the existing social order but rather believed that Russian society could evolve to an ideal state based on a Hegelian view of of the dialectic and reason. They believed the revolutionaries would merely postpone the establishment of the ideal state, which Herzen viewed as blind to the historical reality. Herzen rejected grand narratives which asserted that society would arrive automatically at a predestined position. Herzen’s writings in exile promoted small-scale communal living with the protection of individual liberty by a non-interventionist government.
Herzen aggravated Russian radicals by appearing too moderate. Radicals such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Nikolay Dobrolyubov wanted more commitment towards violent revolution from Herzen, and to withdraw any hope in the reform of the autocracy. Further, radicals asked Herzen to use his journal, The Bell, as a mouthpiece for violent radical revolution, however Herzen rejected these and other requests to place himself at the head of an underground movement seeking violent revolutionary change. Herzen was still scarred by the complete failures of the 1848 revolutions, arguing that the Russian Radicals were not united and strong enough to seek successful political change, as expressed in his attitude toward Bazarov, the hero of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons who was promoted by the radicals as a model. “You want happiness, I suppose? I daresay you do! Happiness has to be conquered. If you are strong, take it. If you are weak, hold your tongue”. Herzen feared the new revolutionary government would merely replace the dictatorship of the autocracy with another dictatorship. Herzen noted the radicals proclamations showed little ideological similarity to his own ideals.
The radicals describe Herzen as a liberal for not wanting immediate change, but Herzen rejected their pleas, arguing for gradual change that involved a total change in the type of government at a rate that would ensure success. Here again Herzen displayed his experience of the 1848 revolutions, becoming a hesitant liberal scared to make a wrong move, wanting social change assured not to backfire. Herzen briefly united with other Russian liberals such as Konstantin Kavelin to promote the peasant ‘awakening’ in Russia. Herzen continued to use The Bell as an outlet to promote unity with all sections of the Russian society behind a demand for a national parliament. However his hope to act as a uniting force were ended by the Polish revolt of 1863, when the liberals support for Tsarist revenge against the Poles ended Herzen’s link with them. This breach resulted in a decline in readership of The Bell. As support dried up, the journal ceased publication in 1867. Herzen acknowledged the closure of The Bell symbolized the failure of the Russian revolutionary movement and by his death in 1870 Herzen was almost forgotten.
Influence in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries
Herzen was a populist writer, supporting the common person’s interest and fighting against corruption. The rise in populism by 1880 led to a favorable reevaluation of the writings of Herzen, as he reappeared as the heroic creator of the movement. The emancipation of the serfs would again popularize Herzen’s exile writings, as they had addressed what would be the most important issues facing the Russian social structure. Herzen’s view, shaped by his experience of the 1848 revolutions in which he believed that wealth was concentrated in too few hands despite changing governments. He would side with the agrarian collectivist model of social structure instead.
In addition to his populism, Herzen is remembered for his rejection of government corruption of any political persuasion and his support for individual rights. A Hegelian in his youth, this translated into no specific theory or single doctrine dominating his thought. No single interpretation of life or schematic theory for social well-being was adopted by Herzen, who recognized these theoretical solutions had no positive real-world results. Herzen came to believe the complex questions of society could not be answered and Russians must live for the moment and not a cause, essentially life is an end in itself. Herzen found his solution in a dialectic compromise in which he would remain unattached to any formal doctrine but would embrace values that are common to all. Herzen found greater understanding from not committing himself to one extreme but rather lived impartially and objectively enabling him to equally criticize competing ideologies. Herzen believed grand doctrines ultimately result in enslavement, sacrifice and tyranny.
Herzen was a hero of the Russian-born twentieth century philosopher Isaiah 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.
Leo Tolstoy himself declared that he had never met another man “with so rare a combination of scintillating brilliance and depth.” 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, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky and others.”
Russian Thinkers, 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 Mikhail Bakunin, the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, the novelist Ivan Turgenev and Alexander Herzen himself, whose character and humanism comes to dominate the plays.