Friday, September 12, 2014

How can we fold our arms after this? - Herzen in London

The first volume of My Past and Thoughts covers Alexander Herzen’s childhood, education, entry into radical politics and almost immediate trouble with the police, Siberian exile, and marriage.  In volume 2, the exile becomes more comfortable – Paris, Geneva, Nice – and Herzen witnesses the shattering of his political dreams post-1848 and the tragic shattering of his family soon afterwards.

In volume 3, Herzen relocates to London, where he helps establish first a Russian printing press and then a series of publications, especially The Pole Star and The Bell, that for a time become the most important source of uncensored news for Russians.  For three years:

But with all that, it wore one out that one’s work was never heard of: one’s hands sank to one’s sides.  Faith dwindled by the minute and sought after a sign, and not only was there no sign: there was not one single word of sympathy from home.  (1296-7, italics in original)

Yet the political environment , and political fashions, changed, and for a time Herzen’s newspaper became something like the officially approved organ of the opposition:

The Bell was accepted in Russia as an answer to the demand for a magazine not mutilated by the censorship.  We were fervently greeted by the young generation; there were letters at which tears started to one’s eyes…  But it was not only the young generation that supported us…  (1298, ellipses in original)

The Bell was allowed to circulate in Russia, circumspectly, and read by the highest levels of the government, including the Czar.  But the slightly younger generation is more interested in violence, the government turns more repressive, and the influence of Herzen and The Bell receded.

Herzen is something of a tragic hero, an idealist who was too much of a humanist to be an ideologue.  Where Nikolai Chernyshevsky seemed to be completely unaware of the practical consequences of his ideas – the horrific violence of a revolution, for example – Herzen was if anything too aware of them.  “One can only work upon men by dreaming their dreams more clearly than they dream themselves, and not by proving one’s thoughts to them as geometrical theorems are proved” (1495).  But of course there is another way – later Russian history proves that.

So all of this is plenty interesting, as well-told history.  Also interesting, and perhaps more fun, are Herzen’s story about life as an exile in London, and about all of the émigré communities that washed up there after 1848, “the vast museum of pathological anatomy, the London Exhibition of specimens of all the progressive parties in Europe” (1699).  His stories were so good that I wished they were even better, by which I mean that I wish Charles Dickens had known these people and written a novel about London’s revolutionary Germans, Russians and Poles.  Herzen is describing the rooms of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin:

heaps of tobacco lay on his table like stores of forage, cigar-ash covered his papers, together with half-finished glasses of tea; from morning onwards clouds of smoke hung about the room from a regular suite of smokers, who smoked as though they were racing each other, hurriedly blowing it out and drawing it in – as only Russians and Slavs do smoke, in fact.  Many I time I enjoyed the amazement, accompanied by a certain horror and perplexity, of the landlady’s servant, Grace, when at dead of night she brought boiling water and a fifth basin of sugar into this hotbed of Slav emancipation.  (1359)

And: “Note at the same time that both the maid and the landlady were madly devoted to him.”  The memoir will have to substitute for the great novel hidden within it.

If I were to write another post about Herzen, it would be about Vol. 3, Ch. 10, “Robert Owen,” who was in his 80s when Herzen met him – I was surprised he was still alive – and dismissed at this point as a crank.  The essay is the clearest statement of Herzen’s convictions that I can remember.

Now do you understand on whom the future of man, of peoples, depends?

‘On whom?’

‘What do you mean, on whom?  Why, on YOU AND ME, for instance.  How can we fold our arms after this?’  (1251)


  1. "But the slightly younger generation is more interested in violence, the government turns more repressive, and the influence of Herzen and The Bell receded."

    Ah, this sounds just like Portugal at the end of the 19th century: Eça de Queiroz and company were moderate republicans who dreamed of reforming the kingdom through their ephemeral magazines. Then came a new generation in the '90s that did everything to create the conditions to justify armed revolt against the monarchy, which had to turn more repressive to deter them.

  2. I think some version of that story is true in many countries, with different timing. The Russians were just early. Anarchists assassinated not only Czar and a President of France, but a President of the United States.

  3. The Bell inspired and gave a name to another radical liberal magazine; this time in Ireland in 1940, founded by Seán Ó Faoláin.

  4. Roger, how interesting. I was just browsing a list of contributors - Frank O'Connor, ElizabethBowen, Flann O'Brien, on like that - incredible. And what a tribute to Herzen.