1902 Encyclopedia > Alexander Hertzen

Alexander Hertzen
Russian writer and political activist
(1812-70)




ALEXANDER HERTZEN, (1812-1870), was born at Moscow in 1812, a very short time before the occupation of that city by the French. His father, Ivan Yakovlef, 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. Then the mother of the infant Alexander (a young German Protestant of Jewish extraction from Stuttgart, according to A. von Wurzbach), only seventeen years old, and quite unable to speak Russian, was forced to seek shelter for some time in a peasant's hut. A year later the family returned to Moscow, where Hertzen passed his youth,—remaining there, after completing his studies at the university, till 1834, when he was arrested and tried on a 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 Yiatka. There he remained till the visit to that city of the hereditary grand-duke (afterwards Alexander II.), accompanied by the poet Joukofsky, led to his being allowed to quit Viatka for Vladimir, where he was appointed editor of the official gazette of that city. In 1840 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 councillor," till 1842. In 1846 his father died, leaving him by his will a very large property. 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. In 1852 he quitted Geneva for London, where he settled for some years. In 1864 he returned to Geneva, and after some time went to Paris, where he died, January 21, 1870.

His literary career began in 1842 with the publication of an essay, in Russian, on Dilettantism in Science, under the pseudonym of "Iskander," the Turkish form of his Christian name,—convicts, even when pardoned, not being allowed in those days to publish under their own names. His second work, also in Russian, was his Letters on the Study of Nature (1845-6). 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 Prervannuie Razskazui (Interrupted Tales). In 1850 two works appeared, translated from the Russian manuscript, Vom anderen Lifer (From another Shore) and Lettres de France et d'Italie. In French appeared also his essay Du Développement des idées révolutionnaires en Russie, and his memoirs, which, after being printed in Russian, were translated under the title of Le Monde russe et la Révolution (3 vols. 1860-62), and were in part trans-lated into English as My Exile to Siberia (2 vols., 1855). From a literary point of view his most important work is Kto Vinovat ? 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.





But it was as a political writer that Hertzen 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 Kolohol (or Bell), and the Golosa iz Rossii (or Voices from Russia). The Kolohol 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 honour. But the death of the emperor Nicholas in 1855 produced an entire change. Hertzen's writings, and the journals he edited,were smuggled wholesale into Russia, and their words resounded throughout that country, as well as all oyer 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 circula-tion of his writings was a vocation zealously pursued. Stories tell how on one occasion a merchant, who had bought several cases of sardines at Nijni-Novgorod, found that they contained forbidden print instead of fish, and at another time a supposititious copy of the Kolohol 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 Hertzen'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 Hertzen'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, and it is by that section of Russian Liberals alone that his opinions are now considered of authority. For the great reforms, however, which followed the Crimean War, Russia is much indebted to the outspoken utterances of Alexander Hertzen, and will be so in all probability for the constitutional changes which are likely to follow the repressive measures of 1879.

In 1873 a collection of his works in French was commenced in Paris. A volume of posthumous works, in Russian, was published at Geneva in 1870. His Memoirs supply the principal information about his life, a sketch of which appears also in A. von Wurzbach's Zeitgenossen, \pt. 7, Vienna, 1871. See also the Revue des Dcitx Mondes for July 15 and Sept. 1, 1854. Kto Vinovat has been trans- lated into German under the title of Wer ist Sckuld ? in Wolffsohn's Russlands NovellendicMer, vol. iii. The title of My Exile in Siberia is misleading ; he was never in that country. (W. R. S. R.)







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