Alexander Herzen, leading light of the Russian intelligentsia in the 1840s, lived in exile in London during the 1850s and early 1860s. There, he opened the first uncensored press in the Russian language, including two journals, The Polar Star and The Bell. Gathering news from informants in Russia, he published what could not be printed under conditions of tight censorship. In reward for this vital service, he was attacked from all sides. Secret police agents were commanded to seize all copies and ferret out the networks that smuggled them into Russia. Senior officials in St Petersburg devoured The Bell for its factual content, while denouncing Herzen as an incendiary. Moscow liberals, principally members of Herzen’s own generation, including former friends, reluctantly concurred, accusing him of endangering security in Russia and of preaching revolution. Revolutionaries, principally members of a younger generation, including many who were also in exile, sneered at Herzen for being too much of a liberal. They were all correct.
A Herzen Reader, edited and admirably translated by Kathleen Parthé, explains how and why. For the first time, anglophone readers have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with Herzen’s voice in The Polar Star and The Bell, gaining a sense of the personality behind the words, the priorities and events that motivated him, but also of the dilemmas posed by publishing a free journal under politically tense and rapidly changing circumstances. The early regime of the autocrat Alexander II, liberator in 1861 of Russia’s serfs, elicited hopes and induced despair. Herzen, eternally conflicted, felt both emotions keenly.
The question of which label to assign to Alexander Herzen has long preoccupied scholars, as Robert Harris’s critical essay at the end of the Reader attests. Isaiah Berlin admired Herzen as a staunch defender of individual liberty in semi-scholarly, semi-belletristic essays that first brought Herzen and the Russian intelligentsia to public attention in anglophone countries, and which later appeared in Berlin’s Russian Thinkers (1978). There were, of course, other representations of Herzen, notably Martin Malia’s meticulously researched biography Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism (1961), covering Herzen’s pre-London years, and explaining how a mixture of idealism, nationalism, an abiding hatred of Alexander’s father, Nicholas I, and disillusionment with Western politics prompted Herzen to promote agrarian communalism as the solution to all Russia’s ills. But it is Berlin’s liberal Herzen that has gained the more favourable hearing in the West.
Western readers have had little enough material to form an opinion. Herzen’s most widely known work, his autobiography My Past and Thoughts, has long appealed partly for the brilliance of the author’s style and his gift for capturing individual personalities, with all their heroism and foibles. It was written between 1852 and 1868; sections were soon translated into multiple languages. Herzen portrayed himself, from early years, as an opponent and sometime hapless victim of autocracy. As students, Herzen and his close friend Nikolai Ogaryov attracted the attention of the security police in 1834 and were arrested and sent into internal exile on spurious charges. Herzen emigrated from Russia with his family in 1847 and witnessed the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 and 1849 in France and Italy at first hand. Joined by Ogaryov in London and Geneva in the 1850s and 60s, he used his vast inheritance to found the Russian Free Press. Such varied experiences brought Herzen into contact with political figures and intellectuals of every European country and every political stripe. Herzen knew everyone and spared no one (occasionally excepting himself).
Russian contemporaries, however, were drawn to Herzen’s works much earlier, and for other reasons. Herzen began to publish in the early 1830s, and it was the sense of moral urgency conveyed in his literary works and critical essays that captured their attention. Though these early articles were heavily censored, they invariably expressed forceful judgements about the truthfulness – moral and factual – of the texts, opinions and persons he wrote about. These judgements may have been more intuitive than philosophically and scientifically rigorous, but the rhetoric of immediacy was exactly what his readers required of him. Herzen’s willingness to deliver verdicts and to err allied him with the Russian literary critic of the 1830s and 40s, Vissarion Belinsky, who was revered for the same traits.