Alexander Ivanovich Herzen was born in his father’s house in Moscow on April 6, 1812, some six months before Napoleon occupied the city; he died in Paris on January 21, 1870, during the last days of the Second Empire. His father, Ivan Alekseyevich Yakovlev, came of an ancient, wealthy, and aristocratic Moscow family. During his travels abroad he met Luisa Haag, the daughter of a minor official in Württemberg, and returned to Moscow with her. He established her as mistress of his household, but, perhaps for reasons of social disparity, did not marry her. Her son Alexander did not inherit his father’s name, and was called Herzen almost as if to mark the circumstances of his birth.
He seems to have been treated in every other respect as his father’s true son and heir: he received the normal education of a well-born young Russian of those days, and after a succession of private tutors, among whom he remembered best a French émigré with crypto-Jacobin views and a Russian student of mildly radical leanings, he entered Moscow University in 1829, and attended lectures on philosophy, literature, and the natural sciences, or what went under that name in Moscow at that time.
Like other young men in Europe in the new dawn of radical thought, he admired the writings of French socialists and German Idealist philosophers, and defended their views with fervor and wit in the Moscow literary salons. His contemporaries liked (or disliked) him for his gaiety and charm, his passionate and uncompromising character, his overflowing imagination and wide culture, his sensitiveness, his rapid, darting, bold, and, as one of his friends called it, “predatory” intellect, his dialectical skill, above all his singular combination of generous moral idealism and a biting, intolerant, often highly destructive, ironical humor.
Herzen found himself politically suspect comparatively early in his university career, probably for discussing and supporting left-wing social views, and his subsequent career in government service was broken by two periods of exile, in each case for entertaining “dangerous” ideas. Both in exile and in Moscow and St. Petersburg he wrote, and occasionally published, essays, short stories, and novels, imbued with that spirit of violent protest against the political and social environment of his time which in varying degrees characterized all the revolté young intellectuals in Russia during the reign of Nicholas I, and in particular his friends Turgenev, Bakunin, Stankevich, Granovsky, Belinsky, Ogaryov, and other members of the remarkable group of young radicals who created the traditions of the Russian intelligentsia.
Herzen’s early essays are typical of the preoccupations of the time: they deal with historical and philosophical topics—the “new” French sociological school of historians (he actually translated Augustin-Thierry’s Merovingian Stories), the nationalism of the Slavophils, distinctions in subject and method between the various arts and sciences. There are semi-Hegelian disquisitions on the true vocation of man in the nineteenth century and on the relations of nature to history; fragments of autobiography; an elegant and amusing account of the difference between the spirit of Petersburg and that of Moscow; and finally a lengthy dissertation on the competing dangers of dilettantism and pedantry.
The last of these essays is perhaps the acutest and best written. Herzen draws an entertaining and very telling contrast between easily excited but superficial amateurs who view facts through a telescope and do not see the trees for the wood, as against the microscopic pedantry of professional scholars, happy victims of the worst German academic models. He enjoys himself equally at the expense of both these failures of perspective, but, on the whole, is severer toward the amateurs who are terrified by the prospect of losing their own precious, unique individuality in preoccupation with scholarly pursuits, than to the professionals who see nothing, and cling timorously to their own narrowly specialized field.
As for Herzen’s novels and stories, they are typical radical denunciations of conventional morality and social oppression, written under the influence of Schiller, the French romantics, George Sand, and the passionate “literature of protest” of the period. His best novel, Who Is to Blame?, deals with a situation common enough at that time—of a rich and unhappy young Russian land-owner (the “superfluous man”) vainly struggling against his environment, a figure to become celebrated later in the novels of Herzen’s contemporaries, Goncharov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, but especially Turgenev, the prototype of many a Russian Hamlet, too idealistic and too honest to accept the squalor and the lies of conventional society, too weak and too civilized to work effectively for their destruction, and consequently displaced from his proper function and doomed to poison his own life and the lives of others by neurotic behavior induced by the vices of a society that sins against the moral ideals which the author holds dear, a society either irremediably corrupt, or still capable of regeneration, according to the author’s social or religious beliefs.
On his father’s death in the spring of 1846, Herzen, now financially secure, asked himself what career he was to pursue. He was ambitious and knew this; he wished to make his mark in the world, to build himself a monument. His spectacular failure to be a model government official had shown him plainly that there was no room in Russia for a high-spirited, gifted, violently liberty-loving, romantically inclined aristocratic young man who wished to enter the field of public activity. In the winter of 1847, taking with him his wife, his mother, and his entire household, he left for Paris. He never saw Russia again.
After slowly crossing Germany and France the travelers reached the French capital. In Paris Herzen plunged head-long into the great ferment of ideas and emotions in which the political émigrés, gathered there from every European country, lived their agitated lives. The arresting quality of his mind and personality made an impression even in that extraordinary assembly of talent and genius; he was, with Bakunin, almost the first denizen of the barbarous and frightening Russian Empire to be recognized as an equal by the political thinkers of the fabled West—as an equal intellectually, and not, like other cultured Russian travelers, as a gifted and agreeable visitor from an exotic land, or an indolent and curious passer-by. A new revolution was clearly gathering in Europe and Herzen was caught in its mounting tide.
During 1848-1849 he traveled in Switzerland, Savoy, and Italy, and his descriptions of the stirring events which he witnessed in Rome and Paris during the annus mirabilis are masterpieces of acute observation and literary talent. He does not conceal his sympathies: he detests kings and priests, soldiers and policemen, bankers, bourgeois politicians, authors of appeals to good sense and order; he idealizes the blouses bleues—the workers of Paris—and pays a glowing tribute to the noble and simple-hearted plebeian masses in Rome; he is for republicans, for revolutionaries, for the triumvirs of Rome, for Garibaldi, for the leader of the Roman populace whom he calls Cicerovacchio, for Saffi and Mazzini. He speaks with affection and irony about his friend Bakunin, the greatest of Russian political agitators, invaluable on the first day of a revolution, disastrous on the second; he admires and likes Proudhon, Michelet, the Swiss radical James Fazy; his most intimate friends are the revolutionary German poet, Wagner’s friend, Georg Herwegh, and Herwegh’s wife.
By a bitter irony of circumstance the relationship between himself, his wife (and first cousin) Natalie, and Herwegh began more and more to resemble the plot of his own Who Is to Blame?, in which a fascinating stranger falls in love with the happily married wife of a man who trusts him, and duly destroys himself and his friends. Herzen perceived this analogy himself and rejected it with indignation. His “superfluous” hero Bel’tov was at least capable of moral agony and heroic martyrdom, whereas Herwegh now seemed to him a contemptible philistine and scoundrel, married to an equally repulsive wife. Herzen set down the details of the entire episode with a self-revealing candor and painful precision, oddly unexpected in so proud and sensitive a man. Natalie, betrayed by her lover, returned to her husband, to die in his arms a year later.
Blow followed blow. Herzen’s mother and one of his sons were drowned in a tempest off Genoa. The revolution in Europe collapsed ignominiously in one country after another. In a state of acute personal and political misery, Herzen left France and settled in the free but, to him, bleak and chilly atmosphere of England. He lived in and near London intermittently until the middle 1860s. In London he established his own “free” printing press, and in the 1850s began to publish two periodicals in Russian, The Polar Star (the first issue appeared in 1855) and The Bell (in 1857), which marked the birth of systematic revolutionary agitation—and conspiracy—by Russian exiles against the tsarist regime.
Herzen’s house—or houses, for he moved from one to another constantly—became a place of pilgrimage for the radical exiles of many lands, particularly Poles, with whom he was one of the few Russians to remain on warm terms all his life, and Italians, to whom he early lost his heart. His attitude to Frenchmen was more reserved: the self-importance, the rhetoric, the monomania of the ci-devant tribunes of the people and their entourage offered too much material for his highly developed sense of the ridiculous. He found the mystical Hungarian worship of Kossuth more bizarre than awe-inspiring; the Germans, in particular Karl Marx and his friends, he found unbearable.
As for the English, he met few among them. He paid a visit to the aged and senile Owen; he corresponded with Carlyle; he respected Mill. He was helped by Joseph Cowan and other radicals. But on the whole, little attention was paid to him in England, and he responded with mingled admiration and dislike for his hosts. His warmest friendships remained those of his early years, with his Russian friends and contemporaries—first and foremost with the poet Ogaryov, with whom he set up house in London in the 1850s, and with Bakunin, who had escaped from his Siberian exile, and whom, in the 1860s, he viewed, as before, with a mixture of irritation and indulgence. He delighted in the stream of Russian visitors who came to see him—writers and journalists, liberal aristocrats with a taste for taking political risks, old Slavophil opponents, vehement young radicals who thought him a useless relic of a previous epoch, dissident Orthodox priests, university professors, old acquaintances of all sorts, whom his growing prestige drew toward what had in fact become the official center of the opposition to the Russian government.
Herzen became a European celebrity, and The Bell, which specialized in exposing specific abuses and in naming names, in the heyday of its fame—the late 1850s and early 1860s—exercised a unique influence even in official circles in St. Petersburg. After the suppression of the Polish Rebellion in 1863, its influence—it had supported the Poles in the face of almost universal patriotic indignation in Russia—began to fall precipitately. After lingering in a desultory manner in London, where he lived intermittently and not too happily with Ogaryov’s gifted and neurasthenic wife, Herzen traveled in Italy and Switzerland, and died in Paris on January 21, 1870. He is buried in Nice and his statue stands above his tomb.