A Herzen Reader presents in English for the first time one hundred essays and editorials by the radical Russian thinker Alexander Herzen (1812–1870). Herzen wrote most of these pieces for The Bell, a revolutionary newspaper he launched with the poet Nikolai Ogaryov in London in 1857. Smugglers secretly carried copies of The Bell into Russia, where it influenced debates over the emancipation of the serfs and other reforms. With his characteristic irony, Herzen addressed such issues as freedom of speech, a nonviolent path to socialism, and corruption and paranoia at the highest levels of government. He discussed what he saw as the inability of even a liberator like Czar Alexander II to commit to change. A Herzen Reader stands on its own for its fascinating glimpse into Russian intellectual life of the 1850s and 1860s. It also provides invaluable context for understanding Herzen’s contemporaries, including Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenev.
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About the Author
Alexander Herzen (1812–1870), a memoirist, essayist, novelist, publisher, and editor, was one of the most influential figures in Russia’s political, social, and economic debates from the 1840s until his death. Among his most important works are a novel, Who Is to Blame? (1846); a book of essays, From the Other Shore (1850); and his autobiography, My Past and Thoughts (1861).
Kathleen Parthé is a professor of Russian and director of the Russian Studies Program at the University of Rochester. She is the author of Russian Village Prose: The Radiant Past (Northwestern, 1992) and Russia's Dangerous Texts: Politics Between the Lines (2004).
Robert Harris is a lecturer in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at New College, University of Oxford.
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A HERZEN READER
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Kathleen Parthé
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOn the Development of Revolutionary Ideas in Russia was written in 1850, at the dawn of a particularly turbulent period in Herzen's life, so it is fitting that one of the first places it is mentioned is in a letter to the German poet George Herwegh, soon to be revealed as a serious rival for Natalya Herzen's affections. Herzen tells Herwegh that he is writing a "brief note about the development of liberalism and opposition in Russian literature," but a few weeks later admits that it has turned out to be much more political than literary (Let 2:572–74). After three years abroad, Herzen felt completely cut off from everything Russian; at best, his letters were answered with expressions of passivity and despair, and at worst, they were returned to him (Zhelvakova, Gertsen, 337). Natan Eidelman saw this as the moment when Herzen summed up past Russian thought and sketched the "contours of a new 'program.'" Herzen had not yet seen some of the most important eighteenth-century Russian documents, but as they came to his attention, he published them in London (Eidel'man, Svobodnoe slovo, 450–51). The treatise on revolutionary ideas, comprising an introduction, six chapters, an epilogue, and a supplement, was published in German and French in 1851; the translation below is from the French. The appearance of the French edition led to Herzen being thrown out of Nice, which still belonged to the Kingdom of Sardinia, in June of that year. By October 1851, it was on the list of foreign publications that were "absolutely" forbidden in Russia (Let 2:25, 51).
Herzen's analysis of Russia's historical development elicited strong reactions across the political spectrum. The first Russian readers were members of the ruling circles who were permitted to receive foreign publications otherwise banned by the censorship committee. Based on rumors emanating from those quarters, and in the wake of the 1849 Petrashevsky trial, Herzen's Moscow acquaintances feared that the pamphlet could provoke additional attacks on progressive circles. Timofey Granovsky, whose friendship Herzen treasured, wrote disapprovingly to the author—before he had read the essay—about the dangers to which Herzen was exposing liberals. In an apologetic letter two years later he admitted that at the time he had been influenced by gossip. Pavel Annenkov believed that Herzen's essay put Granovsky in real peril; the government saw revolution everywhere and was just waiting for the beloved professor to make a mistake (Annenkov, Extraordinary Decade, 250–51; Annenkov, Literaturnye vospominaniia, 529–31).
The actor Mikhail Shchepkin was delegated by Moscow acquaintances to ask Herzen in person to stop writing and move to America, at least until things had calmed down in Russia. Petr Chaadaev, on the other hand, sent thanks to Herzen for having mentioned his role in the struggle for freedom. It turns out that Chaadaev had also written to the political police, expressing his indignation at receiving the praise of such a scoundrel; he later explained to his puzzled nephew that he had to save himself (Berlin, Russian Thinkers, 15). Encouraged by Herzen's bold approach, students at Moscow University later illegally printed their own translation.
Nikolay Gogol was frightened by the essay's claim that in his earlier works he depicted noblemen and officials negatively, and Shchepkin said that when he and Turgenev met Gogol at the end of October, the latter was torn between feeling offended and questioning his own wisdom in having published Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (Let 2:51). The critic Vladimir Botkin, a liberal frightened into conservatism by the 1848 revolutions, labeled Herzen's survey a "denunciation." When the minister of state properties, Kiselev, observed that it could not endanger anyone, since it only spoke of the dead, the Third Department's Count Orlov replied that "if we really wanted to, we could use the dead to reach the living"; another conservative journalist, Nikolay Grech, called Herzen a "swine" who led young people to drink the poison of "unbelief and disrespect for sacred things and state power" (Let 2:45).
Among the essay's better-known European readers, Friedrich Engels particularly objected to Herzen's elevation of the peasant commune and his association with such figures as Proudhon and Bakunin. In an 1853 letter to an associate about the possibility of revolution in Russia, Engels complained that Herzen had hedged his bets in a Hegelian manner by describing a republic that was simultaneously democratic, socialist, communist, and Proudhonian (Let 2:139–40). The historian Jules Michelet, with whom Herzen enjoyed long conversations, was very impressed with the article, which he called a "heroic" work by a Russian patriot, and he subsequently cited Herzen's ideas in his own analysis of Russia. Revised versions of Revolutionary Ideas were published in French and German in subsequent years, and arrangements were made with William Linton for a translation into English. The 1858 French version, published in London, was the basis of two different Russian translations later commissioned for twentieth-century editions of Herzen's works. An 1860 discussion of Herzen by Nikolay Sazonov for La gazette du Nord called Revolutionary Ideas a survey, however incomplete, of Russia's "moral and intellectual history ... distinguished by a remarkable intelligence and a correct assessment of the foundations of Russian life" (Ivanova, A. I. Gertsen, 155).
In chapter 5 below, Herzen makes a strong argument for the significance of Russian literature in spreading new and liberating ideas, and provides an impressive "martyrology of Russian literature" (Zhelvakova, Gertsen, 341). Free of tsarist censorship, he was able to expand upon views held by the critic Vissarion Belinsky (1811–1848) and other progressive figures, and to introduce them to Europeans, who, based on existing information, had a poor understanding of the country's problems, and who knew virtually nothing of Russia's potential for reform. The Marquis de Custine's travelogue Lettres de Russie en 1839 had come out to great acclaim in 1843, and La Russie et les Russes by the Decembrist émigré Nikolay Turgenev (1799–1871) made its appearance four years later. The former heard only the silence emanating from frightened Russians, while the latter, who was abroad in December 1825 and never returned to his homeland, took little notice of the common people. Herzen heard the voices of both remarkable individuals and the Russians as a whole, and was therefore more hopeful than others in 1850 about Russia's future prospects (Walicki, Legal Philosophies, 336–37).
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On the Development of Revolutionary Ideas in Russia
Chapter V. Literature and Public Opinion in Russia After December 14, 1825 [1851/1858]
The twenty-five years since the 14 (26) of December are harder to characterize than all the time that has elapsed since the age of Peter the Great. Two opposing tendencies—one on the surface, the other in depths where it can barely be seen—make observation difficult. Russia appears to remain immobile, even to have retreated a bit, but in essence, everything has taken on a new appearance; the questions are more complex and the answers less simple.
On the surface of official Russia, "the empire of façades," only the losses have been visible—the cruel reaction, the inhuman persecution, the strengthening of despotism. Surrounded by mediocrity, by soldiers on parade, Baltic Germans, and brutal conservatives, one sees Nicholas, suspicious, cold, stubborn, pitiless, absent any greatness of soul—as mediocre as his entourage. And, immediately below him, high society, which lost its barely acquired sense of honor and dignity when the first clap of thunder broke over its head after December 14. The Russian aristocracy did not recover during the reign of Nicholas, its bloom had faded, and all that was noble and good in it languished in the mines or in Siberia. The nobles who remained and kept the monarch's favor descended to a degree of vileness and servility known to us from de Custine's description.
Then there were the guards officers; formerly brilliant and well-educated, they turned increasingly into dull soldiers. Before 1825, everyone wearing civilian clothes acknowledged the superiority of epaulets. To be comme il faut, one had to serve for a couple of years in the guards, or at least in the cavalry. Officers were the heart and soul of any gathering, the heroes of holiday celebrations and balls, and, to be truthful, there was a good reason for this. Officers were more independent and conducted themselves with more dignity than groveling bureaucrats. Circumstances changed, and the guards shared the fate of the aristocracy; the best of the officers were exiled, many others left the military, unable to bear the coarse and insolent tone adopted by Nicholas. Their places were quickly taken by diligent soldiers or pillars of the barracks and the stable. Officers lost the favorable opinion of society and civilian dress gained an advantage—the uniform prevailed only in small provincial towns and at court, the chief guardroom of the empire. Members of the imperial family, along with its head, showed the military a preference that was exaggerated and inappropriate in their position. The public's coldness toward men in uniform did not extend to admitting civilian government employees into society. Even in the provinces, they were treated with an unconquerable disdain, which did not prevent the growth of the bureaucracy's influence. After 1825, the whole administration, formerly aristocratic and ignorant, became petty and mean. Ministries turned into offices, and their heads and senior officials into businessmen or clerks. In their attitude toward the civil service they were exactly like the dull new members of the guards. Consummate experts on every sort of formality, cold and unquestioning in carrying out orders from above, their devotion to the government came from a love of extortion. Nicholas was in need of such officers and administrators.
The barracks and the chancellery were the chief supports of Nicholas's political system. Blind discipline devoid of common sense combined with the dead formalism of Austrian tax officials—those were the foundations of the celebrated mechanism of power in Russia. What a poor concept of governance, what prosaic autocracy and pitiful banality! This is the simplest and most brutal form of despotism.
Add to this Count Benkendorf, chief of the gendarmes—that armed inquisition, that political Masonic order, with members in all corners of the empire, from Riga to Nerchinsk, listening and eavesdropping—heading the Third Department of His Majesty's chancellery (such is the name of the main office for espionage), sitting in judgment over everything, altering court decisions, and interfering in everything but especially in matters concerning political criminals. From time to time in front of this office-tribunal there appeared civilization in the form of a writer or student who was exiled or locked up, his place soon to be taken by another.
In a word, looking at official Russia one could only despair; on the one hand there was Poland, divided and martyred with amazing regularity; on the other hand, the insanity of a war which continued throughout the reign, swallowing up armies without advancing by a single step our domination of the Caucasus; and, in the center, general degradation and governmental incompetence.
But to make up for it, within Russia great work was going on, work that was muffled and mute but active and continuous; everywhere discontent grew, revolutionary ideas gained more territory during those twenty-five years than during the entire previous century, and yet they did not penetrate through to the people.
The Russian people still kept itself far away from political life, having little reason to take part in the work going on at other levels of society. Long-term suffering forced upon them their own sense of dignity; the Russian people had suffered too much to agitate for a minor improvement in their position—better to remain a beggar in rags than to change into something patched together from scraps. But if it took no part in the movement of ideas occupying other classes, this does not at all mean that nothing was transpiring in its soul. The Russian people breathed more heavily than before, and its countenance was sadder; the injustice of serfdom and pilfering by civil servants became more and more unbearable. The government had disturbed the calm of the village commune with its compulsory organization of labor, and, with the introduction of rural police [stanovye pristavy] even the repose of the peasant in his own hut was restricted and supervised. There was a major increase in cases brought against arsonists, those who killed landowners, and participants in peasant uprisings. There was grumbling among the large number of religious dissenters; oppressed and exploited by the clergy and the police, they were far from making any major move, and yet one heard from time to time in these dead seas vague sounds heralding fierce storms. The Russian people's discontent of which we have been speaking is scarcely visible to a superficial glance. Russia always seems so tranquil that one would have difficulty believing that anything was going on. Few people know what is happening under the shroud in which the government wraps the dead—the bloodstains, the military executions— when it is said, hypocritically and arrogantly, that there was no blood and no corpse under the shroud. What do we know of the Simbirsk arsonists, and the massacre of landowners simultaneously organized by a number of villages? What do we know of local uprisings, which broke out in connection with Kiselev's new administration? What do we know of the destruction in Kazan, Vyatka, and Tambov, where one had to resort to cannon?
The intellectual effort of which we spoke was not taking place at the highest levels of the state nor at its base, but in between the two, that is to say, between the lower and middle nobility. The facts we will introduce may not seem to have great importance, but it must not be forgotten that propaganda, like all education, is not flashy, especially when it does not dare to show itself in the light of day.
The influence of literature has noticeably increased, and penetrates much more deeply than before; it has not changed its mission and retains its liberal and educational character, to the extent possible under censorship.
A thirst for education is taking hold of the entire younger generation; civilian and military schools, gymnasia, lycées, and academies overflow with students; the children of the poorest parents strive to get into various institutes. The government, which as recently as 1804 enticed children into the schools with various privileges, now uses every effort to hold back the tide; difficulties are created at admission time and during exams; tuition payment is demanded; the education minister issues an order restricting the education of serfs. Nevertheless, Moscow University has become a cathedral of Russian civilization; the emperor detests it, sulks over it, and each year exiles a batch of its students. He never visits it when in Moscow, but the University flourishes and its influence grows; in bad repute, it expects nothing, continuing its work and becoming a genuine force. The elite among the youth in neighboring provinces come to the University, and each year an army of graduates spreads throughout the country as civil servants, doctors, and teachers.
In the depths of the provinces, and even more so in Moscow, there is a visibly growing class of independent people not pursuing public service, who occupy themselves with their properties, science, and literature; they demand nothing of the government except to be left alone. This is in contrast to Petersburg nobles, who cling to government service and the court, are consumed by servile ambition, expect everything from the government, and live only through it. To ask for nothing, to remain independent, not to seek a position—under a despotic regime this counts as being in opposition. The government looked suspiciously at these idlers and was not pleased. They constituted a core of educated people poorly disposed toward the Petersburg regime. Some spent entire years abroad, bringing back with them liberal ideas; others came to Moscow for a few months, spending the rest of the year on their estates, reading everything new and acquainting themselves with intellectual developments in Europe. Among provincial landowners, reading was in fashion. People bragged about their libraries, and at the very least ordered new French novels, the Journal des Débats and the Augsburg newspaper; to possess banned books was to be in style. I do not know of a single well-kept house where one could not find de Custine's book about Russia, which was specifically banned by Nicholas. Denied the possibility of action, constantly menaced by the secret police, young people plunged into their reading with great fervor. The mass of ideas in circulation grew and grew.
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Table of Contents
Introduction to A Herzen Reader 1
By Kathleen Parthé Acknowledgements 38
Transliteration, Background Notes 38 Documents No. 1-100 41
Translated and annotated by Kathleen Parthé
Alexander Herzen: Writings on the Man and His Thought 577
By Robert Harris