Category Archives: Herzen, Alexander

My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen: Read from September 27 to October 22, 2014

For me this was two books, the first half about someone born into Russian higher society during the 19th century and who grew up to agitate authorities already leery or revolutionary activity, and the second half about the man in Europe watching the revolutions of other nations as an outsider. But through it all is one man, Alexander Herzen, who oddly, I never felt as if I got to know even though we read quite a few of his thoughts.

To be fair this book is an abridgment of the larger, 4 volume set that comprises the complete work, and though there were times I felt as if I was missing out on personal information, such as his wife, I am pretty sure what was cut was longer, more in depth thoughts about the state of civilization and his own personal philosophy.

The biggest problem I had with the book is that once he leaves Russia I really had no idea what was going on. Even events that take place in Russia can be obscure since most of the people are dead and are hardly known through history, but once we leave Russia for France, Italy, and England I just couldn’t keep up. And While I was at first interested as just a passive observer to go along the ride and do my best to infer the events of his day, I did find it rather tedious.

More tedious, however, were his thoughts. On some issues I agreed totally, especially his views on Russia concerning corruption, graft, and the Russian character. Less interesting were his internal philosophies on how he believed man and society should function. Add that to a cast of characters who are probably little known to most scholars but whom he assumes you’ve heard of and it’s no wonder this book never caught on in the west despite it being very, very well written.

And the sections that are well written, the sections that have a definite narrative are wonderful, in fact they are so good they could easily be appended to an additional epilogue to Tolytoy’s ‘War and Peace’ to give readers an idea of what happened to the Decembrists (the events that the novel had been leading up to and to what Tolstoy had initially set out to write). Most incisive are his observations on how the government functioned at every level, and especially in the provincial regions of Siberia that were governed by inept and corrupt exiles. These sections read like a combination of Kafka, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky; they are funny, absurd, terrifying, and offer an insight into why Russia became the nation she is now (and was, and always will be for that matter). These are a people who will put up with a great deal of insanity just to be left alone to get on with their lives.

Perhaps a better historian than I would find this book far more useful and if I were to revisit this book it would be with a few encyclopedias of Russian history at my fingertips to assist my understanding. But for as much as I love learning everything about Russian history, this book proved to be a bit beyond my ability to take in without treating it as scholarly research. Yet even with all the pieces put together, I still don’t feel Herzen would emerge from the pages as a fully formed person. The book is so far inside his mind at times that it’s impossible to really see the man (to see the forest through the trees, as it were). He is continually justifying his decisions with no thought for giving us any weakness of character. He paints a very positive image of himself for us and from that I can only gather that he was probably quite full of himself and a bit insufferable to be around.

But even with all that I didn’t enjoy about the book, it’s still a valuable insight into the Russian mind, heart, and soul of the 19th (and really beyond, too) century. And for the scholar this book would lay out an excellent road map of Russian thinking that led all the way to the revolutions of Lenin. And knowing where Russia was headed makes what Herzen went through all the sadder because by throwing of the insanity and brutality of the Tsar, they took up something even worse and quite similar.

page 342 of 752 of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen

I like his quip about the station manager refusing them the 5 seats even though they has 7 tickets: being that they were Russian they just took what was left, whereas the Italian, Benvenuto Cellini, would have shot the official.

This dies juxtapose with the ideological struggles of 1848 – the hotheads and the reactionaries. Funny how even in Paris he runs into the same trouble with police and bizarre bureaucracy.

page 319 of 752 of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen

Isaiah Berlin in the introduction talks about how this book never caught on in the West even though it had been well translated. I think a large reason why so few outside Russia have read Herzen is because he talks at great length about idea and philosophies that only entrenched scholars would know anything of. I admit to slipping these parts.

page 269 of 752 of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen

The background information he gives about the political and academic climate is interesting, however, page after page of philosophy gets tedious. Though all that talking does explain why he’s always the attention of the secret police. This book is at its best when there is some narrative or when he describes normal life in Russia.

page 229 of 752 of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen

“After monopolizing everything else, the [Russian] government has now taken the monopoly of talk and, imposing silence on everyone else, has begun chattering unceasingly.”

The story of Alexander Laurentevich Vitberg is heartbreaking but an all too common story of an artist pushed down by those jealous of him. Again it’s a story of pride and insolence and the powers that be offended by this ‘insolence’. Petty.

page 200 of 752 of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen

‘”How irregular!” many people will say; but they must remember that it is only through such irregularity that life in Russia is possible.’

The word ‘convict’ disappears near the Siberian frontier and is replaced by the word ‘unfortunate’.

People who jealously guard their power are quicker to forgive thieves and murderers than a man who speaks his mind or is insolent. Pride.

Inner-workings of Russia. Bribes

page 167 of 752 of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen

My favorite part of Crime and Punishment was Porfiry’s interrogation of Raskolnikov. I loved the tricks he used to get the guilty man to finally break.

However, here we see an even darker side of Russian law enforcement: the torture (banned three times), the debt you go in each day (2 paper roubles) to stay locked up, the theatrics of any real court. All this set against the daily, angry arson of Moscow.

page 133 of 752 of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen

While there are parts I don’t fully understand because the thrn current evenrs ans people are taken for granted, there are many similarities: liberal youth, a government keeping tabs and arresting said youth, disdain for the middle class ideal (petit bourgeois). He sees much wrong in Russia and he’ll pay for his liberalism.

page 107 of 752 of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen

“They talk in Western Europe of our duplicity and wily cunning; they mistake the desire to show off and swagger a bit for the desire to deceive”, about how the Russians feel insecure and inferior about their own peculiar culture vs Western Europe’s supposed refinement.

His college years of activism is colored by the ever present threat in Russia of secret police and Siberian exile. Nobody can afford conconspiracy.

page 80 of 752 of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen

Here he contrasts two intimate relationships of his: his father, icy, sad, disaffected, and cautious from a life surrounded by depraved men, and his friend, Nick, his life-long friend whom he shared a like mind and faithfulness. The image of his father, the dying hand touching the cradle, the only peace the man knew is touching.

page 21 of 752 of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen

Right from the beginning we get a near first-hand account of being in Moscow when either Napoleon or Rostopchin burnt it down.

“He [the eldest brother] was one of those grotesquely odd creatures who are only possible in Russia, where life is so odd as to be grotesque.” And what a character, too. Lawsuits over a wall and a violin, tossing an ikon, terrifying the peasants. Mix of old rough among new culture.