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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.