Decembrist blood! We are taxed
for their visions. The earth
turns, returns, through cycles
of declamation
– Geoffrey Hill, ‘Scenes with Harlequins’

‘There is no town in the world which is more adapted for training one away from people and training one into solitude than London. The manner of life, the distances, the climate, the very multitude of the population in which personality vanishes, all this together with the absence of Continental diversions conduces to the same effect.’
– Alexander Herzen


‘Copperfield is Dickens’s Past and Thoughts.’ So wrote Alexander Ivanovich Herzen (1812-1870) of his brilliant, tidied memoirs and the comparison holds to a degree. A revolutionary socialist and feared publicist, Herzen also turned out to be an exact contemporary of our great novelist. Like Dickens, Herzen was indefatigable in his pursuit of social progress, a writer of great skill and a man personally disappointed in life. For twelve years the two shared London, but while Dickens memorably explored its nooks, crimes and idiosyncrasies Herzen remained aloof. His great cause was the Russia from which events had exiled him. Nevertheless it was from London, between 1857 and 1867, that Herzen made his most important contributions to the political climate of Russia, firstly through his newspaper The Bell (Kolokol) and then with My Past and Thoughts (1862). In the words of his contemporary champion, Isaiah Berlin, Herzen was ‘the rarest of characters, a revolutionary without fanaticism’. Herzen’s hard-won political philosophy still has relevance in the populist mayhem of Europe today: we must not sacrifice the present in the name of the future. That suspicion of past solutions, millennial goals and providential ends continues to offer a secular liberal vision whose watchword is reason.

It had been a long and for the most part grim journey for Herzen. The illegitimate son of a Russian nobleman and a German mother, he was raised as a valued child – hence the surname given him – though soon sensitive to his circumstances and out of sympathy with his unapproachable father’s treatment of the serfs. With his lifelong friend, the poet and activist Nikolay Ogarev, Herzen grew to venerate the memory of the aristocratic, reformist victims of the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 (‘those brilliant young men who emerged from the ranks of the Guards, those spoilt darlings of wealth and eminence who left their drawing-rooms and their piles of gold to demand the rights of man, to protest, to make a statement for which – and they knew it – the hangman’s rope and penal servitude awaited them’). Herzen ascribed his feeling for human dignity and his political awakening to those victims of the autocratic Tsar Nicholas I.

At the age of seventeen he entered Moscow University, intent on studying the natural sciences as well as philosophy and literature. Herzen’s scientific training was to be crucial in teaching him a disciplined methodology, one without a narrative of universal design. It was curiously life affirming for the young man. ‘We must be proud of not being needles and threads in the hands of fate as it sews the multi-coloured cloth of history’, he later wrote. With others he hotly embraced radical ideas that were founded on German romantic idealism, on Hegel, Goethe, Schiller and on the Utopian socialism of Saint-Simon and Fourier, though these ideas had no practical outlet, given the strict censorship of the time. Nor were the influences completely assimilated: ‘We preached everywhere and all the time. What precisely we preached, it’s hard to say. Our ideas were vague, we preached the Decembrists and the French Revolution, then we preached Saint-Simonism and the same revolution, we preached a constitution, a republic’. Unlike the Slavophils who preached a conservative, anti-Western philosophy for Russia and an Orthodox faith, Herzen was among those radicals who admired Western ways and wanted to follow a democratic, secular path. He also idealised the Russian peasant, seeing in his self-organizing village communities the hope of socialism. Eventually he steered a course between the liberal gradualism that attracted sometime friends like the novelist Turgenev and the violent anarchism of his lifelong friend Bakunin (‘Artillery, on the whole, was apt to excite him’).

In preparation for the day he would inherit his father’s large fortune, Herzen intended to take the necessary course of joining the civil service. However, association with other compromised radical students brought his name to the attention of the authorities and he was exiled from Moscow to Viatka (Kirov), to Vladimir, and finally, after injudicious remarks in a letter to his father, to Novgorod on the orders of the Tsar.

In 1838 he had secretly married his devout cousin, Natalie Zakharina. Their marital troubles, terminated pregnancies and two affairs (his casual, hers intense) were ultimately to accelerate her early death. In 1842 Herzen was allowed to return to Moscow where he again threw himself into the intellectual circles there. ‘Bakunin and Belinsky stood at their head’, he remembered, ‘each with a volume of Hegel’s philosophy in his hand, and each filled with the youthful intolerance inseparable from vital, passionate convictions’.

At the death of his father in 1846, the brilliant but now unfocused Herzen petitioned for foreign travel which was granted the following year and he, his wife and family left for Western Europe, where he was to remain despite being ordered home. At first Europe greatly appealed to Herzen, now a writer and journalist freed from the asphyxiating censorship of his homeland, and he travelled in both Italy and France. He also managed, with the help of Baron Rothschild, to have most of his money brought out of Russia, for Herzen was also a realist. As he wrote in My Past and Thoughts: ‘It would be stupid and hypocritical to affect to despise property in our time of financial disorder. Money is independence, power, a weapon’.

The abortive 1848 revolutions in Europe caused him to re-evaluate his faith in socialist movements, which had failed liberty and justice. For Herzen Russia had nothing to lose, while Europe was reluctant to risk what it had gained: ‘The liberals are afraid of losing their liberty – we have none; they are nervous of interference by governments in the industrial sphere – with us the government interferes with everything anyhow; they are afraid of losing their personal rights –we have yet to acquire them’.

The revolutions also influenced his view of human nature. He came to expect a little less of his fellow man. Now he began to believe that ‘if people would sooner or later get the idea of saving themselves rather than saving the world, of liberating themselves rather than liberating humanity, how much they would do towards saving the world and liberating mankind’. As Lesley Chamberlain wrote, in her excellent philosophical history Motherland (2004), ‘He matured as a reformer rather than a revolutionary’. Personal unhappiness further depressed his spirits when his mother and his second son drowned and Natalie died of tuberculosis. Unpopular with the French authorities, Herzen arrived in England at daybreak on the 25 August, 1852 with his son Sasha and the Austrian General Haug, having left his two younger children in Paris with friends. London did not appeal to Herzen at the outset, except as a respite from intimidation. On his arrival and for some time after he was, by his own account, grieving for his late wife, frustrated, weary and humiliated. London, he soon felt, catered perfectly for the lover of solitude since the weather drove people indoors, which suited his mood. The frequently dense yellow fog, an invasive paste of fish and sulphur, led the wife of one German associate to urge her husband to carry a revolver. When Herzen did venture outdoors it was simply to walk, to linger on Thames bridges, to read newspapers or ‘stare in taverns at the alien race’. He might have been one of Dickens’s loiterers in Bleak House: ‘on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds’.

Tedium and anonymity were on offer in London, and Herzen was grateful for them. Having taken a sculptor’s house near Primrose Hill, then ‘one of the remotest parts of the town’, he began his ‘hermit-like seclusion’. He remained, as he always would, an outsider, observing but never in anyway intimate with the English, never speaking the language well. Yet even distant familiarity bred some insight. He would write of the country in contrary moods: ‘Life here is about as boring as that of worms in a cheese. There is not a spark of anything healthy, vigorous or hopeful’ (1855). And then, ‘England, with all the follies of feudalism and Toryism which are peculiar to it, is the only country to live in’ (1857).

Part of the attraction to a man much hounded by the authorities in his own country was the English tradition of liberty, which surprised him even as London beggary appalled. He was shrewd enough to see that ‘The Englishman’s liberty is more in his institutions than in himself or in his conscience,’ and was fascinated with the extremes of free speech allowed by the British. Yet according to Isaiah Berlin ‘he could not altogether like them: they remained for him too insular, too indifferent, too unimaginative, too remote from the moral, social and aesthetic issues which lay closest to his own heart, too materialistic and self-satisfied’.

Sometimes respite is all that is needed and gradually Herzen ‘came to love this fearful ant-heap’, this brutally uncaring city. Even the policeman who would once have roused his anger, now ‘only adds a feeling of security’. No doubt his adjustment to London was hastened by his decision to bring over his family in 1853. To provide for them Herzen rented a large house in Euston Square. In May Olga (aged two) and Tata (aged eight) accompanied by their nurse joined the thirteen-year-old Sasha and a German tutor was hired, Malwida von Meysenbug (herself having fled from Prussian revolutionary associations).

Whatever intimacy Herzen might achieve outside the family would be with émigrés. Initially the resting revolutionary had little positive to say about his fellow exiles, actors in the 1848 revolutions who suffered their privations with pettiness, commemorating their glory days, defending their actions, and fundamentally lacking direction. ‘Dead men burying their dead’ he described them in a letter of 1855. Nevertheless, these were to be his associates and in the next few years he gradually gravitated toward circles led by other internationally famous dissidents like the Italian revolutionary activist Giuseppe Mazzini and the French socialist, Louis Blanc.

The Poles proved to be the first to draw Herzen to a public platform, in November 1853, to commemorate their 1830 insurrection. (‘In all their actions and in all their poetry there is as much of despair as there is of living faith’, he wrote.) Due to the English tolerance of the period he was welcomed again at an 1855 event, despite the fact that England and Russia were at war in the Crimea. This was in commemoration of the failed revolutions of 1848. Ultimately Herzen’s alliance with the Poles would not serve his reputation abroad with Left or Right, given the anti-Polish feelings in Russia after the January rising of 1863, which resulted from the Russian imposition of land reforms and conscription. Herzen turned to publishing in Russian to live ‘in the atmosphere of Russia’. In his memoirs he acknowledged that: Three years of life in London had fatigued me. It is a laborious business to work without seeing the fruit from close at hand; and as well as this I was too much cut off from any circle of my kin. Printing sheet after sheet with Chernetsky and piling up heaps of printed pamphlets in Trübner’s cellars, I had hardly any opportunity to send anything across the frontier of Russia. I could not give up: the Russian printing-press was my life’s work.

In April 1856 the poet Nicolay Ogarev, Herzen’s lifelong friend, arrived in London with his second wife, Natalie, and they soon settled into a ménage à trois at Herzen’s. The two men had shared a youthful promise to see the Decembrists’ goal of freedom for the serfs realised. A year later they began publishing The Bell (Kolokol). According to his account, Herzen’s thinking had been as follows: ‘A book remains, a magazine disappears; but the book remains in the library and the magazine disappears in the reader’s brain and is so appropriated by him through repetition that its seems his very own thought’.

The Bell appeared at a critical time in Russian history (1857-67) which saw the death of the autocratic Nicholas I, the emancipation of the serfs and the accession of the more liberal Alexander II. The paper, which was mostly smuggled into Russia, provided a platform for much needed liberal thought. It offered essays, investigative reporting, news items, letters and poetry, utilising the talents of such writers as Herzen himself, Proudhon, Garibaldi, Michelet, Mazzini, Lermontov and Bakunin. The Bell became highly influential for a time. Herzen even cited an anecdote in which Russia’s Secretary of State had grumbled to the Empress, ‘Complain to the Tsar, do what you like, write to The Bell, if you must’. He was proud of the fact that ‘we were the fashion, and in a tourist’s guide-book I was mentioned as one of the curiosities of Putney’. Yet Herzen had no illusions about fashion and, after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, his newspaper lost some of its impact. He judged that ‘Seven years of liberalism had exhausted the whole reserve of radical aspirations’.

His other main claim to our attention was My Past and Thoughts. This epic and personal history was the product of sixteen years of labour and parts were published here and there in Russia (1854) and subsequently in France, Germany and England. According to Herzen’s Soviet editors his commitment to the project was inspired by his desire to justify his conduct to posterity, especially in light of his behaviour over his wife’s affair. Its claim to fame lies partly in the telling and partly in its relevance. As a work of literary art the memoirs benefit from an engaging style. With uncharacteristic modesty, Herzen explained that unlike the elevated expression of mandarins, ‘We simply talk; for us writing is the same sort of secular pursuit, the same sort of work or amusement as any other’. Fortunately for the reader, the charismatic Herzen was always a renowned talker. As to the pragmatic value of My Past and Thoughts, Herzen explained in an article in his earlier paper, The Polar Star, that ‘the publication of contemporary memoirs is particularly useful for us Russians. Thanks to censorship we are not accustomed to anything being made public, and the slightest publicity frightens, checks, and surprises us’.

The ‘London Herzen’ was highly influential for a time, therefore, and his work admired by great Russian writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev; but beset by critics and mellowing with age his influence slowly declined. Towards the end, he became more critical of his initial utopianism and of his belief in the potential of the Russian people, nor did he rely on the rationality of any group or nation. ‘It is not enough to despise the Crown’, he wrote on one occasion, ‘one must not be filled with awe before the Phrygian Cap’; and on another, ‘Whatever rubbish peoples demand, in our century, they will not demand the rights of a grown-up’.

After London, he moved to Switzerland and to France. On the 22 January 1870 Turgenev wrote from Baden-Baden to a mutual friend that he could not hold back his tears at the news of Herzen’s death: ‘I suppose everyone in Russia will say that Herzen should have died earlier, that he had outlived his usefulness. But what do these words mean?’ Turgenev was aware that certain ideas cannot go out of date, like the ones referred to in Herzen’s preface to his son in From Another Shore: ‘I give my blessing to your journey in the name of human reason, of individual liberty and of brotherly love!’ Charles Dickens might have coined the epitaph for Herzen and his generation when he wrote, ‘The men who learn endurance are they who call the whole world brother’.

Tony Roberts’s fourth book of poems, Drawnndark appeared in 2014. He is also the author of an essay collection, The Taste in My Mind (2015), and the editor of Poetry in the Blood (2014), all from Shoestring Press. Concerning Roberts’ poetry, Al Alvarez wrote of ‘an authentic adult voice, tender, ironic, relaxed and highly educated’. Reviewing his prose, John Forth found ‘a detailed map of the age … condensed to appear as table talk’.

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