Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen 1812-1870

(Also transliterated as Alexander; also HÈrzen, Hertzen, Gertsen; also wrote under pseudonym of Iskander) Russian novelist, essayist, autobiographer, and short story writer.

For further discussion of Herzen's life and works, see .

Herzen is recognized as one of nineteenth-century Russia's preeminent revolutionary thinkers. His writings provide a perceptive view of the Russian intellectual climate in the mid-nineteenth century, most notably in his extensive memoirs, Byloye i dumy (My Past and Thoughts; 1854). A progressive thinker throughout his life, Herzen ultimately espoused an agrarian socialist philosophy that combined Slavophile and Western ideals. While he admired the Western values of individual freedom and progress, he argued that a new social order, based on the peasant commune championed by the Slavophiles, should replace the bourgeois capitalist society that he believed had corrupted Europe. This socialist philosophy formed the ideological basis for most of Russia's revolutionary activity in the 1850s. Though Herzen had fallen into disfavor at the time of his death, critics today cite him as one of the most significant figures in Russia's literary and political history.

Biographical Information

Herzen's parents, the prosperous nobleman Ivan Yakovlev and a young German woman named Luise Haag, lived together in the Yakovlev family homes but never formally married under Russian law. When Aleksandr was born, his father—apparently reluctant to give him the family name—gave him the surname Herzen, from the German "herz," or heart. Guided by his father, Herzen studied world literature and developed an intense interest in Russian history. When he was thirteen he witnessed the Decembrist uprising—an attempt by the Russian nobility to compel from Czar Nicholas I a more democratic form of government—and its aftermath. The insurgents were hanged, becoming martyrs in the eyes of many Russian young people, including Herzen. With his friend Nikolai Ogarev, he vowed allegiance to the defeated rebels and their ideals. In 1829 Herzen entered the University of Moscow, where he became the leader of a small group of students interested in radical politics and philosophy. While at the university, he studied the works of the French philosophers Claude Henri de Rouvroy Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier, whose political theories instilled in Herzen a great desire for political change. In particular, Herzen admired Saint-Simon's desire to end the exploitation of the individual by government institutions. From his study of Fourier, Herzen derived an interest in cooperative societies that could accommodate the economic and personal needs of each group member.

In 1833, the year after Herzen's graduation, he and Ogarev were arrested and charged with subversion; their political views, actively voiced in many venues, appeared threatening to the Czarist regime. Consequently, the two young men were exiled to the far provinces of Russia. During his confinement, Herzen turned to the works of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose writings on dialectics influenced many revolution-minded Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, including Karl Marx. When Herzen returned from exile, he married and settled in Moscow, where he attended literary salons and took part in the debates between advocates of Western and Slavophile revolutionary thought. He began voicing his opinion in local journals, publishing essays that attempted to balance the Western primacy of the individual with the Slavophile ideal of the commune.

Herzen spent the early years of the 1840s between prison and Moscow's intellectual community. In 1847, he published his novel Kto vinovat? (Who Is to Blame? ). Despite his growing status in Russia, supported by the positive reception of his novel, Herzen decided that it was time to leave Russia soon after his father's death in 1847. Aided by the large fortune he had inherited, Herzen settled his...

(The entire section is 1,624 words.)