Alexander Herzen: the unity of German spirit and Russian soul

Alexander Ivanovich Herzen is an eminent Russian thinker and revolutionary. He was born on April 6th, 1812, in the capital of the Russian Empire, the city of Moscow. His father was a rich landowner descending from an ancient boyar family (which had also given rise to the House of Romanov). His mother, however, was a German commoner. The parents’ marriage was not registered, so the little Sasha came into this world as a “love child”. This circumstance was reflected in his surname – his mother would often call him “mein Herzchen” (my little heart).

Soon after Sacha’s birth, Napoleon intruded into Moscow. Herzen’s family managed to survive largely thanks to the fact that one of the officers in Napoleon’s suite turned out to be a Paris acquaintance of Herzen’s father. He arranged for him an audience with the “spreader” of the ideals of the French Revolution, who asked him to hand a letter containing the peace proposal to the Russian emperor, Alexander I. In such a way, the family could get out of the city stricken by fires and robberies.

One year on, Sasha and his parents returned to Moscow. He did not attend a gymnasium and had been receiving home education before he entered the university. His tutors, Germans and Frenchmen alike, together with the knowledge of their languages, passed a love for literature on to him. Sasha would become engrossed in reading books by Goethe and Schiller, Rousseau and Beaumarchais. Russian tutors, too, did not stand aloof and supplied him with notebooks containing verses written by Pushkin and other Russian poets. Books on Russian and world history were also among his desk books. However, it was not only from books that he was learning about life. When visiting his father’s estates, he had more than one chance to become acquainted on-site with the “beauties” of serfdom, Russia’s curse, which it cannot entirely free itself from up to now.

All in all, Herzen’s childhood was quite serene. But as he was growing up and enriching his mind with knowledge, also growing in him was the feeling of loneliness. His soul was yearning for a friend. In most cases, this thirst remains unassuaged. But fate made an exception for Herzen. When he was 13, he met with a son of one of his distant uncles. It was Nikalay Ogarev, or just “Nick” as yet. It was not right away that they recognized each other as friends. A chance, again, helped them get closer together and create heartfelt relationships. Many years later, Herzen would confess: “The happiness of friendship came to us all of a sudden, and we both revelled in it”. Their friendship was nourished not only by the peculiarities of their age; it was consolidated by a common cause. Being under the impression of the Decembrist revolt of 1825 and its cruel suppression, the friends vowed to dedicate their lives to the struggle to implement the ideals of freedom and justice, against serfdom and tyranny. They carried their friendship with them for the rest of their lives, and both kept their youthful oath.

In 1829, Herzen and Ogarev matriculated at the Moscow University. There, the circle of their friends and like-minded youths widened considerably. Among the subjects of their prolonged and heated discussions were the questions of philosophy and religion, the French Revolution, the Decembrist Revolt, Saint-Simon’s utopian socialism, as well as very recent events, in particular, the revolutions of 1830 in Europe and the Polish Rebellion. In the meantime, the fundamental issue behind those discussions might have been formulated in quite a Marxist way: How to change the inhuman world around them? During Herzen’s university years, a broad diversity of his interests, his bent towards literary activity, and also his aptitude for philosophical generalization became apparent. His graduation thesis was titled “An analytical description of Kopernik’s solar system”.

After graduating from the university in 1833, Herzen got a job as a civil servant. Still, the university friends continued their get-togethers. Then happened what they had somehow managed to avoid during their student years: they all were accused of chanting satirical verses discrediting the royal family and arrested. Since Herzen was a noble, the conditions of his custody were quite bearable. But, while being held in a solitary cell with amenities he could hear gendarmes wresting an admission of guilt from commoners in the neighbouring cells. This could not but strengthen his determination to dedicate himself to revolutionary struggle. While in prison, Herzen did not waste his time: he studied Italian, read books, and also wrote a number of literary works.

Happily, that was not yet the year 1937, but still as early as 1834, so gendarmes were not zealous enough and failed to report the monarch of having discovered an anti-government plot, similar to the Decembrist one. Herzen was just exiled to the remote town of Perm, then a little nearer, to Vyatka. There, the paths of the two royal family descendants crossed again. One day, the Crown Prince, the Emperor Alexander II to be, “The Liberator”, happened to visit this town. He liked very much the explanations given to him by the exiled literary man at an introductory exhibition organized by the latter. As a result, Herzen was transferred still nearer to Moscow, to the city of Vladimir.

In Vladimir, Herzen married, again, his distant relative, his uncle’s extramarital daughter, Natalya Zakharyina. They had known each other for a long time, and their marriage had been well anticipated. Natalya had always been devoted to him. She had not forsaken him, even when others preferred to break up with him. And she had visited him in prison. Their church wedding ceremony was kept secret, and Natalya had to escape from Moscow in order to unite with her husband-to-be. In 1839, their first baby boy was born – he would become an eminent physiological scientist, and his son (i. e. Alexander I. Herzen’s grandson) would become an outstanding surgeon and the founding father of Soviet oncology.

In 1840, Herzen was allowed to return to Moscow. Here, he again plunged into the atmosphere of never-ending discussions “on God, truth, and poetry” so familiar to him from his student years. This time around, it took place within the framework of a circle for the study of Hegel’s philosophy, organized by an alumnus of Moscow University, N. V. Stankevich. Taking part in it were Russia’s eminent cultural figures, such as revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, writer Ivan Turgenev, literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, historian Timofey Granovsky, journalist Konstantin Aksakov, etc. After one of the circle’s sessions that had lasted throughout the night, Belinsky uttered his famous phrase: “We can’t disperse, we haven’t yet decided the question of the existence of God”.

And yet, all these discussions would hinge upon one and the same issue, the fate of Russia. Here, two major camps emerged, Westernizers and Slavophiles. Westernizers believed that Russia should go along the Western European path. Slavophiles, however, insisted on Russia’s unique identity. They saw the main vice of the Western European way of life in the loss of the “true faith” and the actual replacement of it by the cult of Mind (they considered Hegel’s philosophy to be the supreme theoretical expression of this cult).

At first, Herzen sided with Westernizers, but, in the course of time, he was leaning more and more toward Slavophilism(1). As for Hegel, Herzen, like the German Young Hegelians did, interpreted this objective idealist in the materialist manner, calling his philosophy as nothing other than the “algebra of revolution”. Nevertheless, he pinned a hope for the “upcoming” communist revolution not on the West European proletariat, but on the Russian peasant community. At about that time, Herzen’s writing talent blossomed. His philosophical essays as well as literary works were coming out one after the other.

In 1847, after his father’s death, Herzen, together with his family, went abroad, where he stayed till the end of his life. At first, he settled in Italy. Having learned about the 1848 revolution in France, he, full of hope, rushed to Paris. But, after a cruel suppression of the workers’ June uprising and the subsequent persecution of the “radicals”, Herzen’s political views also became radicalized. From then on, he did not cherish any illusions about bourgeois democracy and was decisively leaning toward socialism. For all that, Herzen had always remained a humanist, and he would stand up against any violence. He still lacked the mercilessness and cool-bloodedness that were so peculiar to Marx and Lenin.

The fact that the suppression of the workers’ uprising laid bare the “reactionary character of bourgeoisie” was only evident from the viewpoint of materialism. From the viewpoint of Truth, however, the already-established religion of Reason clashed here with the nascent religion of Body. Therefore, “socialism” was not at all a “step forward”, compared to “liberalism”; it only displayed the deification of another Arche of Nature, that is, of “Matter”.

In 1849, he went to Switzerland and then to Nice (which did not belong to France at the time). Meanwhile, the Russian emperor Nicholas I tried to seize the property of the obstinate free-thinker and his family. Happily, it had been timely pledged to the banker Jacob Rothschild, thanks to which Herzen did not experience financial difficulties till the end of his days.

In 1852, his wife died shortly after yet another childbirth. Herzen moved to London, where he founded the Free Russian Press. From 1857 on, his famous “Kolokol” (The Bell) newspaper was published there. The paper’s major objective was the “liberation of the peasants from landowners” and the exposure of the tsarist government’s inconsistent and cowardly policy. Despite bans and prosecutions, the paper enjoyed tremendous popularity. Among its secret correspondents there were high-ranking Russian officials, and among subscribers, Herzen’s “old acquaintance”, Tsar Alexander II.

After the 1861 reforms in Russia, “Kolokol” declined in popularity. The liberal community was quite satisfied with the reforms, while the radicals called on Russia to “take up the axe”. Herzen, however, supported the reforms to continue and hoped that violence could be avoided. In 1865, he moved to Switzerland.

The death from pneumonia caught him in Paris, on January 21st, 1870. He was buried in this city, but his remains were later transferred to Nice.

A socialist revolution has happened in Russia, not in Western Europe. So, Herzen proved right here, at least, in terms of location. But it materialized the way Marx had outlined, not through a peasant community. At this point, Herzen proved a utopian. Moreover, his hopes for a peaceful development of the revolution proved unjustified. The Russian revolution appeared to be as cruel and bloody as possible. As for the peasants, they were first deceived and then bluntly eliminated.

One may ask: who is to blame? The answer will be: no one. Such are the laws of the development of Matter, Which truly is not just a theoretical notion, but a “historically limited” Image of God, Which cannot but manifest Itself. And It finds Its supreme expression in introducing the materialist religion and establishing the cult of the Leader.


1) In “My past and thoughts”, Herzen “reconciled” Westernizers and Slavophiles by his catch-phrase: “… Like Janus or the two-headed eagle, we looked in opposite directions, but one heart throbbed within us”.


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