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The Great Amateur

Herzen could not and would not return to Russia. He became a Swiss citizen, and to the disasters of the Revolution was added a personal tragedy—the seduction of his adored wife Natalie by the most intimate of his new friends, the radical German poet Georg Herwegh, a friend of Marx and Wagner, the “iron lark” of the German Revolution as he was called half ironically by Heine. 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: his love, his vanity, his deeper assumptions about the basis of all human relationships, suffered a traumatic shock from which he was never fully to recover. He did what few others have ever done: described every detail of his own agony, every step of his altering relationship with Natalie, with Herwegh and Herwegh’s wife (as they seemed to him in retrospect). He noted every communication that occurred between them, every moment of anger, despair, affection, love, hope, hatred, contempt; every tone and nuance in his own moral and psychological condition are raised to high relief against the background of his public life in the world of exiles and conspirators, French, Italian, German, Russian, Austrian, Hungarian, Polish, who move on and off the stage on which he himself is always the central, self-absorbed, tragic hero. The account is not unbalanced—there is no obvious distortion—but it is wholly egocentric.

All his life Herzen perceived the external world clearly, and in proportion, but through the medium of his own self-romanticizing personality, with his own impressionable, ill-organized self at the center of his universe. No matter how violent his torment, he retains full artistic control of the tragedy which he is living through, but also writing. It is, perhaps, this artistic egotism, which all his work exhibits, that was in part responsible both for Natalie’s suffocation and for the lack of reticence in his description of what took place: Herzen takes wholly for granted the reader’s understanding, and still more, his undivided interest in every detail of his own, the writer’s, mental and emotional life. Natalie’s letters and desperate flight to Herwegh show the measure of the increasingly destructive effect of Herzen’s self-absorbed blindness upon her frail and exalté temperament. We know comparatively little of Natalie’s relationship with Herwegh: she may well have been physically in love with him, and he with her: the inflated literary language of the letters conceals more than it reveals; what is clear is that she felt unhappy, trapped, and irresistibly attracted to her lover. If Herzen sensed this, he perceived it very dimly.

He appropriated the feelings of those nearest him as he did the ideas of Hegel or George Sand: that is, he took what he needed, and poured it into the vehement torrent of his own experience. He gave generously, if fitfully, to others; he put his own life into them, but for all his deep and lifelong belief in individual liberty and the absolute value of personal life and personal relationships, scarcely understood or tolerated wholly independent lives by the side of his own; his description of his agony is scrupulously and bitterly detailed and accurate, never self-sparing, eloquent but not sentimental, and remorselessly egocentric. It is a harrowing document. He did not publish the story in full during his lifetime, but now it forms part of his memoirs.

SELF-EXPRESSION—the need to say his own word—and perhaps the craving for recognition by others, by Russia, by Europe, were primary needs of Herzen’s nature. Consequently, even during this, the darkest period of his life, he continued to pour out a stream of letters and articles in various languages on political and social topics; he helped to keep Production going, kept up a correspondence with Swiss radicals and Russian émigrés, read widely, made notes, conceived ideas, argued, worked unremittingly both as a publicist and as an active supporter of left-wing and revolutionary causes. After a short while Natalie returned to him in Nice, only to die in his arms. Shortly before her death, a ship on which his mother and one of his children, a deaf-mute, were traveling from Marseilles, sank in a storm. Their bodies were not found. Herzen’s life had reached its lowest ebb. He left Nice and the circle of Italian, French, and Polish revolutionaries to many of whom he was bound by ties of warm friendship, and with his three surviving children went to England. America was too far away and, besides, seemed to him too dull. England was no less remote from the scene of his defeats, political and personal, and yet still a part of Europe. It was then the country most hospitable to political refugees, civilized, tolerant of eccentricities or indifferent to them, proud of her civil liberties and her sympathy with the victims of foreign oppression. In 1851 he went to London.

He and his children wandered from home to home in London and its suburbs, and there, after the death of Nicholas I had made it possible for him to leave Russia, his most intimate friend, Nicholas Ogaryov, joined them. Together they set up a printing press, and began to publish a periodical in Russian called The Polar Star—the first organ wholly dedicated to uncompromising agitation against the Imperial Russian regime. The earliest chapters of My Past and Thoughts appeared in its pages. The memory of the terrible years 1848-51 obsessed Herzen’s thoughts and poisoned his bloodstream: it became an inescapable psychological necessity for him to seek relief by setting down this bitter history. This was the first section of his Memoirs to be written. It was an opiate against the appalling loneliness of a life lived among uninterested strangers5 while political reaction seemed to envelop the entire world, leaving no room for hope. Insensibly he was drawn into the past. He moved further and further into it and found it a source of liberty and strength.

This is how the book which he conceived on the analogy of David Copperfield came to be composed.6 He began to write it in the last months of 1852. He wrote by fits and starts. The first two parts were probably finished by the end of 1853. In 1854 a selection which he called Prison and Exile—a title perhaps inspired by Silvio Pellico’s celebrated I Miei Prigioni, was published in English. It was an immediate success; encouraged by this, he continued. By the spring of 1855, the first five parts of the work were completed; they were all published by 1857. He revised Part IV, added new chapters to it, and composed Part V; he completed the bulk of Part VI by 1858. The sections dealing with his intimate life—his love and the early years of his marriage, were composed in 1857: he could not bring himself to touch upon them until then. This was followed by an interval of seven years. Independent essays such as those on Robert Owen, the actor Shchepkin, the painter Ivanov, Garibaldi (Camicia Rossa), were published in London7 between 1860 and 1864; but these, although usually included in the memoirs, were not intended for them. The first complete edition of Parts I-IV appeared in 1861. The final section—Part VIII and almost the whole of Part VII—were written, in that order, in 1865-7.

Herzen deliberately left some sections unpublished: the most intimate details of his personal tragedy appeared posthumously—only a part of the chapter en-titled Oceano Nox was printed in his lifetime. He omitted also the story of his affairs with Medvedeva in Vyatka and with the serf girl Katerina in Moscow—his confession of them to Natalie cast the first shadow over their relationship, a shadow that never lifted; he could not bear to see it in print while he lived. He suppressed, too, a chapter on “The Germans in Emigration” which contains his unflattering comments on Marx and his followers, and some characteristically entertaining and ironical sketches of some of his old friends among the Russian radicals. He genuinely detested the practice of washing the revolutionaries’ dirty linen in public, and made it clear that he did not intend to make fun of allies for the entertainment of the common enemy. The first authoritative edition of the Memoirs was compiled by Mikhail Lemke in the first complete edition of Herzen’s works, which was begun before, and completed some years after, the Russian Revolution of 1917. It has since been revised in successive Soviet editions. The fullest version is that published in the new exhaustive edition of Herzen’s works, a handsome monument of Soviet scholarship—which at the time of writing is still incomplete.

The memoirs formed a vivid and broken background accompaniment to Herzen’s central activity: revolutionary journalism, to which he dedicated his life. The bulk of it is contained in the most celebrated of all Russian periodicals published abroad, KolokolThe Bell—edited by Herzen and Ogaryov in London and then in Geneva from 1857 until 1867, with the motto vivos voco. The Bell had an immense success. It was the first systematic instrument of revolutionary propaganda directed against the Russian autocracy, written with knowledge, sincerity, and mordant eloquence. The journal gathered round itself all that was uncowed not only in Russia and the Russian colonies abroad, but also among Poles and other oppressed nationalities. It began to penetrate into Russia by secret routes and was regularly read by high officials of State, including, it was rumored, the Emperor himself. The copious information that reached Herzen and his friends in clandestine letters and personal messages, describing various misdeeds of the Russian bureaucracy, was used to expose specific scandals—cases of bribery, miscarriage of justice, tyranny, and dishonesty by officials and influential persons. The Bell named names, offered documentary evidence, asked awkward questions, and exposed repulsive aspects of Russian life.

Russian travelers visited London in order to meet the mysterious leader of the mounting opposition to the Tsar. Generals, high officials, and other loyal subjects of the Empire were among the many visitors who thronged to see him, some out of curiosity, others to shake his hand, to express sympathy or admiration. He reached the peak of his fame, both political and literary, after the defeat of Russia in the Crimean War and the death of Nicholas I. The open appeal by Herzen to the new Emperor to free the serfs and initiate bold and radical reforms “from above,” and (after the first concrete steps toward this had been taken in 1859) his paean of praise to Alexander II under the title of “Thou hast conquered, O Galilean,” helped to create the illusion on both sides of the Russian frontier that a new liberal era had at last dawned, in which a degree of understanding—perhaps of actual co-operation—could be achieved between Tsardom and its opponents. This state of mind did not last long. But Herzen’s credit stood very high—higher than that of any other Russian in the West. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, he was the acknowledged leader of all that was generous, enlightened, civilized, humane in Russia.

  1. 5

    Herzen had made no genuine friends in England, although he had associates, allies, and admirers. One of these, the radical journalist W. J. Linton, to whose English Republic Herzen had contributed articles, described him as “short of stature, stoutly built, in his last days inclined to corpulence, with a grand head, long chestnut hair and beard, small, luminous eyes, and rather ruddy complexion. Suave in his manner, courteous, but with an intense power of irony, witty,…clear, concise and impressive, he was a subtle and profound thinker, with all the passionate nature of the ‘barbarian,’ yet generous and humane” (Memories, London, 1895, pp. 146-7). And in his European Republicans, published two years earlier, he spoke of him as “hospitable and taking pleasure in society,…a good conversationalist, with a frank and pleasing manner,” and said that the Spanish radical Castelar said that Herzen, with his fair hair and beard, looked like a Goth, but possessed the warmth, vivacity, “verve and inimitable grace” and “marvellous variety” of a Southerner. Turgenev and Herzen were the first Russians to move freely in European society. The impression that they made did a good deal, though perhaps not enough, to dispel the myth of the “Slav soul,” which took a long time to die. Perhaps it is not altogether dead yet.

  2. 6

    Copperfield is Dickens’s Past and Thoughts,” he said in one of his letters in the early Sixties; humility was not among his virtues.

  3. 7

    In The Bell: see below.

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