Alexander Herzen

By: Tor Aarestad
April 6, 2014


Were social critic and journalist ALEXANDER HERZEN (1812–70) alive today, he could resume self-publishing his expatriate Russian newspapers, drafting screeds against Russian autocracy, the troubles in Crimea, and censorship as if it were still the 1850s. Herzen was born in Moscow (carried out of the city as a baby after Napoleon had taken it) and spent the first half of his life living in Russia, his adult years punctuated by internal exile and other punishments for anti-tsarist activities. Upon the death of his father, Herzen, now the most affluent socialist radical extant, left Russia for good. He wandered Europe, cultivating his notions of agrarian communal socialism, political decentralization, wholesale manumission, freethinking, free speech, and the high value of irony and humor. He was galvanized, then crushed by the Revolutions of 1848. Settling in London, Herzen founded the expat newspapers The Polestar and The Bell. His own concise, charged writings demonstrate his huge range, from persuasive epistles to the Tsarina to Colbert-like satire: “To flog or not to flog the peasant? That is the question! — Of course one must flog him, and very painfully.” Were he alive today, Herzen would be writing against Tsar Vladimir instead of Nicholas, and he would be publishing Pussy Riot rather than Turgenev, but today’s battles are Herzen’s battles. The emancipation of the serfs was the only victory that remains.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Gerry Mulligan, Black Francis, Georges Darien, Guy Peellaert.

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