Aleksandr Ivanovich Herzen Critical Essays


(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 family in Paris. Despite his years of admiration for French philosophy, Herzen soon grew disillusioned with the radical political climate in France. The bourgeoisie that dominated France's economic and political system struck him as a class little different from the Russian aristocracy he despised. His disappointment deepened with the failure of the European revolutions of 1848. Motivated by this discontent, Herzen wrote Vom andern Ufer (From the Other Shore; 1850), a series of dialogues and essays in which he shared the lesson he had drawn from European life: that the failure of revolutions indicated a general moral decline of Western ideals. As a result, he now believed Russia to be far more vigorous than any European nation. At the same time, however, his radical activities enraged the authorities in his native country, making it more difficult for him to return.

In 1852, Herzen moved to London, after his dissatisfaction with life on the European continent had been compounded by his wife's affair with the German revolutionary poet Georg Herwegh. He responded to this upheaval in his personal life with painstakingly detailed introspection, all recorded in his journals. Herzen's marital problems were still unresolved when, shortly after his move to England, his wife, mother, and son all died within weeks of one another. In response to his grief, Herzen undertook several projects, working on his memoirs and using his inheritance to develop the first Russian free press abroad. Initially Herzen utilized the press to appeal for the emancipation of the serfs and to foster the spread of socialism. His first journal, Polyarnaya Zvezda (The Polar Star), was devoted to Russian reform; in 1857, he founded Kolokol (The Bell), a weekly newspaper that became a primary political force in Russia even though it had to be smuggled into the country. Herzen's Russian success is thought to be due to his political tact: though he refused to surrender his socialist tenets, he was willing to accept a monarchy if its intentions for reform seemed well founded. His office became well known and attracted a number of famous visitors, including the Russian novelists Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy and English author Thomas Carlyle. Dedicated to "the liberation of Russia," The Bell is now considered to have been a major impetus in the liberation of the serfs in 1861. The papers also allowed Herzen a vehicle for the highly personal essays he had been writing since the time of his wife's infidelity. Beginning with The Polar Star and continuing in The Bell, Herzen published these self-analyses, which would later come together in separate volumes and ultimately as his collected memoirs, My Past and Thoughts.

Herzen moved to Geneva, where he sporadically published issues of The Bell. The journal's popularity had waned, however, after the failure of the Polish-Russian uprising of 1863. Herzen's pro-Polish position alienated more conservative followers and appeared outmoded to younger radicals who felt that more violent measures were needed to bring about social change in Russia. The journal's reputation declined irreparably, the size of his following continued to dwindle, and in 1868, The Bell ceased publication. Two years later, Herzen died of pneumonia.

Major Works

All of Herzen's writings—creative as well as polemical—endure as theoretical revolutionary documents. His ideas survive in many forms, including short fiction, articles, and extensive journals, but the two works that stand out from his corpus are the novel Who Is to Blame? and the completed volume of his memoirs. The protagonist of Who Is to Blame?, Vladimir Beltov, typifies the brooding, independent hero who would become a standard character in Russian literature known as the "superfluous man." Beltov and the other main characters are caught in a romantic entanglement, influenced by larger social forces, that ends catastrophically, leaving the reader with the question posed by the novel's title. Since its initial release, the novel has received praise for Herzen's ability to embody his social concerns in psychologically well-rounded characters. A similar quality distinguishes his memoirs, My Past and Thoughts, which combine political discourse with personal anecdotes in detailing Herzen's coming of age under the reign of Nicholas I and his observations of the 1850s. The author apparently sought to combine these elements—the personal and the political—in such a way that his own minutely recorded emotional experiences bodied forth the historical forces bearing on his generation.

Critical Reception

Although Herzen's earliest writings betrayed his interest in German Romanticism, his more mature efforts quickly shifted to the "naturalist" style that became predominant in the latter part of the nineteenth century. This quality has since prompted much of the praise for his work, initiated by the immediate popu larity of Who Is to Blame? At the time of its publication, several critics lauded the novel; Vissarion Belinski, who was in effect Herzen's first literary promoter, embraced the novel for its ability to promote ideas through its "natural" style. That style, which emphasizes psychological verisimilitude, has also won considerable acclaim for My Past and Thoughts. Commentators have consistently praised the memoirs as one of the great works of nineteenth-century Russian literature, ranking them alongside the novels of such luminaries as Tolstoy and Dostoyevski. The common view of My Past and Thoughts—as the most accurate and evocative portrait of Russian social and cultural history in the first half of the nineteenth century—exemplifies the valuation of Herzen's works as significant historical texts as well as finely crafted pieces of literature.

Given the general consensus about the quality of Herzen's writing and his unambiguous political agenda, there has been little room for critical debate. One approach focuses on his depiction of human agency. In general, critics have seen in his portrayal of social issues a tendency to determinism: human action is of little consequence against larger social forces. Soviet critics, who embraced Herzen as a Russian literary and political figure, saw in his combination of psychological detail and social awareness an indictment of bourgeois values. A few critics, however, including Lydia Ginzburg, have argued instead that Herzen challenges the reader to place responsibility on individual human action despite apparently overwhelming odds. Either way, critics always find in his work a finely-wrought portrayal of and love for humanity.