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Encyclopedia > Aleksandr Herzen
Alexander Herzen in 1867

Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen (Алекса́ндр Ива́нович Ге́рцен) (April 6, 1812 - January 21, 1870) was a major Russian pro_Western writer and thinker known as the "father of Russian socialism". He is held responsible for creating a political climate leading to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. His autobiography My Past and Thoughts, written with grace, energy, and ease, is often considered the best specimen of that genre in the Russian literature.


Herzen was illegitimate child of a rich Russian landowner, Ivan Yakovlev, by a young German Protestant of Jewish extraction from Stuttgart, who gave her son the German surname stemming from the word herz, i.e., heart. He was born at Moscow, a very short time before the occupation of that city by the French. His father, after a personal interview with Napoleon, was allowed to leave, when the invaders arrived, as the bearer of a letter from the French to the Russian emperor. His family attended him to the Russian lines.

A year later the family returned to Moscow, where Herzen passed his youth remaining there, after completing his studies at the Moscow University, till 1834, when he was arrested and tried on charge of having assisted, with some other youths, at a festival during which verses by Sokolovsky, of a nature uncomplimentary to the emperor, were sung. The special commission appointed to try the youthful culprits found him guilty, and in 1835 he was banished to Vyatka. There he remained till the visit to that city of the Tsesarevich (afterwards Alexander II), accompanied by the poet Zhukovsky, led to his being allowed to quit Vyatka for Vladimir, where he was appointed editor of the official gazette of that city.

In 1840 he returned to Moscow, where he met Belinsky, who was strongly influenced by him. Then he obtained a post in the ministry of the interior at St Petersburg; but in consequence of having spoken too frankly about a death due to a police officer's violence, he was sent to Novgorod, where he led an official life, with the title of state councilor, till 1842. In 1846 his father died, leaving him by his will a very large property. His personal life was rather complicated, as he drifted from one uncomfortable menage a trois to another. Especially turbulent was his relationship with Natalia Tuchkova, the wife of his childhood friend and lifelong companion, Nikolay Ogarev.

Early in 1847 he left Russia, never to return. From Italy, on hearing of the revolution of 1848, he hastened to Paris, whence he afterwards went to Switzerland. He supported the revolution of 1848, but was bitterly disillusioned about European socialist movements after its failure. In 1852 he quitted Geneva for London, where he settled for some years. He promoted socialism, as well as individualism, and argued that the full flowering of the individual could best be realized in a socialist order. In 1864 he returned to Geneva, and after some time went to Paris, where he died on the 21st of January 1870.


His literary career began in 1842 with the publication of an essay, in Russian, on Diletantism in Science, under the pseudonym of Iskander, the Turkish form of his Christian name. His second work, also in Russian, was his Letters on the Study of Nature (1845-46). In 1847 appeared his novel Kto Vinovat? (Whose Fault?), and about the same time were published in Russian periodicals the stories which were afterwards collected and printed in London in 1854, under the title of Prervannye Razskazy (Interrupted Tales). In 1850 two works appeared, translated from the Russian manuscript, From Another Shore and Lettres de France et d'Ilalie. In French appeared also his essay Du Developpement des idees revolulionnaires en Russie, and his Memoirs, which, after being printed in Russian, were translated under the title of Le Monde russe et la Revolution (3 vols., 1860-1862), and were in part translated into English as My Exile to Siberia (2 vols., 1855).

From a literary point of view his first important work is Whose Fault?, a story describing how the domestic happiness of a young tutor, who marries the unacknowledged daughter of a Russian sensualist of the old type, dull, ignorant and genial, is troubled by a Russian sensualist of the new school, intelligent, accomplished and callous, without there being any possibility of saying who is most to be blamed for the tragic termination.

Free Russian Press

But it was as a political writer that Herzen gained the vast reputation which he at one time enjoyed. Having founded in London his Free Russian Press, of the fortunes of which, during ten years, he gave an interesting account in a book published (in Russian) in 1863, he issued from it a great number of Russian works, all levelled against the system of government prevailing in Russia. Some of these were essays, such as his Baptized Property, an attack on serfdom; others were periodical publications, the Polyarnaya Zvyezda (or Polar Star), the Kolokol (or Bell), and the Golosa iz Rossii (or Voices from Russia). The Kolokol soon obtained an immense circulation, and exercised an extraordinary influence.

For three years, it is true, the founders of the Free Press went on printing, not only without selling a single copy, but scarcely being able to get a single copy introduced into Russia; so that when at last a bookseller bought ten shillings worth of Baptized Property, the half-sovereign was set aside by the surprised editors in a special place of honor. But the death of the emperor Nicholas in 1855 produced an entire change. Herzen's writings, and the journals he edited, were smuggled wholesale into Russia, and their words resounded throughout that country, as well as all over Europe. Their influence became overwhelming. Evil deeds long hidden, evil_doers who had long prospered, were suddenly dragged into light and disgrace. His bold and vigorous language aptly expressed the thoughts which had long been secretly stirring Russian minds, and were now beginning to find a timid utterance at home.

For some years his influence in Russia was a living force, the circulation of his writings was a vocation zealously pursued. Stories tell how on one occasion a merchant, who had bought several cases of sardines at Nizhny Novgorod, found that they contained forbidden print instead of fish, and at another time a supposititious copy of the Kolokol was printed for the emperor's special use, in which a telling attack upon a leading statesman, which had appeared in the genuine number, was omitted. At length the sweeping changes introduced by Alexander II greatly diminished the need for and appreciation of Herzen's assistance in the work of reform. The freedom he had demanded for the serfs was granted, the law_courts he had so long denounced were remodelled, trial by jury was established, liberty was to a great extent conceded to the press. It became clear that Herzen's occupation was gone. When the Polish insurrection of 1863 broke out, and he pleaded the insurgents' cause, his reputation in Russia received its death-blow. From that time it was only with the revolutionary party that he was in full accord.

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica.

  Results from FactBites:
Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05 (318 words)
1956), is Herzen’s critique of the European revolutions of the period.
His My Past and Thoughts (1855; tr., 4 vol., 1968; 1977) is a survey of Russia under serfdom together with a history of the revolutionary movements he had witnessed.
He also published the influential radical weekly journal Kolokol (The Bell, 1857–62), which had a large European audience and although officially banned in Russia was widely read there.
Alexander Herzen - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2811 words)
Herzen was an illegitimate child of a rich Russian landowner, Ivan Yakovlev, by a young German Protestant woman, Henriette Wilhelmina Luisa Haag from Stuttgart, who gave her son the German surname stemming from the word herz, i.e., heart.
Herzen acknowledged the closure of The Bell symbolised the failure of the Russian revolutionary movement and by his death in 1870 Herzen was almost forgotten.
Herzen came to believe the complex questions of society could not be answered and Russians must live for the moment and not a cause, essentially life is a means in itself.
  More results at FactBites »



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