Alexander Herzen: My Past & Thoughts

Alexander Herzen
Alexander Herzen
If you haven’t read Alexander Herzen’s “My Past & Thoughts,” I recommend it to your attention. Nobleman, journalist, and anarchist, Herzen’s book is full of interesting historical anecdotes. He must have met nearly every significant 19th century radical of one stripe or another, and a lot of other very interesting characters besides. Some examples:


“I myself made Garibaldi‘s acquaintance in 1854, when he sailed from South America as the captain of a ship and lay in the West India Dock; I went to see him accompanied by one of his comrades in the Roman war and by Orsini. Garibaldi, in a thick, light-coloured overcoat, with a bright scarf round his neck and a cap on his head, seemed to me more a genuine sailor than the glorious leader of the Roman militia, statuettes of whom in fantastic costume were being sold all over the world. The good-natured simplicity of his manner, the absence of all affectation, the cordiality with which he received one, all disposed one in his favour.”


(Buchanan, then ambassador in London, hosted a party for a Who’s Who of European radicals at the behest of President Pierce, who, according to Herzen, was “playing all sorts of schoolboy pranks” on the old governments of Europe at the time.)

“The sly old man Buchanan, who was then already dreaming, in spite of his seventy years, of the presidency, and therefore was constantly talking of the happiness of retirement, of the idyllic life and of his own infirmity, made up to us as he had made up to (Alexey) Orlov and Benckendorf at the Winter Palace when he was ambassador at the time of Nicholas. Kossuth and Mazzini he knew already; to the others he paid compliments specially selected for each, much more reminiscent of an experienced diplomatist than of the austere citizen of a democratic republic.”

Robert Owen

Owen‘s manner was very simple; but with him, as with Garibaldi, there shone through his kindliness a strength and a consciousness of the possession of authority. In his affability there was a feeling of his own excellence; it was the result perhaps of continual dealings with wretched associates; on the whole, he bore more reesemblance toa runined aristocrat, to the younger son of a great family, than to a plebeian and a socialist.”


(Herzen had discouraged one of his revolutionary projects.)

Bakunin waved his hand in despair and went off to Ogarev’s (a friend of Herzen) room. I looked mornfully after him. I saw that he was in the middle of his revolutionary debauch, and that there would be no bringing him to reason now. With his seven-league boots he was striding over seas and mountains, over years and generations… He already saw the red flag of “Land and Freedom” waving on the Urals and the Volga, in the Ukraine and the Caucausus, possibly on the Winter Palace and the Peter-Paul fortress, and was in haste to smooth away all difficulties somehow, to conceal contradictions, not to fill up the gullies but to fling a skeleton bridge across them.”

It’s a good thing all these old nineteenth century idealists and revolutionaries never lived to see what would become of their dreams in the twentieth. To them it would have seemed a tragedy, in spite of spectacular technological advances. In many ways, it was.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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