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.