Alexander Herzen: A man of the era of awakening

Alexander Herzen: A man of the era of awakening
Alexander Herzen, Russia's one of the most prominent dissident of the 19th century. Source: RIA Novosti

Alexander Herzen is hardly famous outside Russia, but a fictionalized version of him portrayed in playwright Tom Stoppard’s trilogy of plays "The Coast of Utopia" is well known. Even in the minds of Russians, Herzen tends to be thought of in the way Vladimir Lenin interpreted him: “The Decembrists awoke Herzen. Herzen launched revolutionary agitation.” But in reality, the 19th century writer wanted no revolution at all, and wrote that the execution of the Decembrists “awoke his soul from a childish dream.”

While still a student at Moscow University, Herzen and his associate Nikolai Ogarev became the center of a circle of thinkers that discussed ideas of freedom and equality. As a result of his association with such people and ideas, Herzen was arrested and spent several years in exile to remote corners of Russia, including Perm, Vyatka, and Novgorod. He did not start any genuinely dissident activities, however, until he was in exile, where he could openly voice his liberal views.

Nevertheless, when Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the author of “What is to be Done?” called for Russians to “take axes in hand,” Herzen responded “It would be nice to first call to take brooms in hand, and let axes lie for now.”

As a matter of fact, Herzen was haunted by disappointments. He started out as an ardent Westernizer. With an appreciation of German philosophy and admiration for French socialism, Herzen traveled extensively in Europe, but was disappointed by the revolutions that rocked the continent in 1848 and their results. His faith in the potential of ordinary people was his last refuge, and he became a kind of evangelist for it, converting Russia's liberals and revolutionary-minded intellectuals to his beliefs with missionary zeal. But the young people who heeded his call and flocked to the villages were soon bored teaching peasants.

Eventually, he turned his attention to the United States. “This people, young and enterprising, business-minded rather than educated, is so busy settling in that it does not know excruciating pain,” he wrote of Americans. “The figures that reflect the layers of this society are changing all the time. The stalwart English colonist type is spreading rapidly; should it prevail people will hardly become any happier, but more satisfied. The satisfaction will be duller, poorer and more sapless than that contemplated by romantic European ideals, but there will be no kings, no centralization, and possibly even no hunger.”

In 1852, Herzen moved to London where he established his Free Russian Press and published the famous Kolokol (Bell) newspaper. About the publication, Russia's revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin wrote: “Herzen was the founder of the free Russian press abroad, which is his great achievement. Kolokol stood up relentlessly for the emancipation of peasants.” ...


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