I never paid much attention to Alexander Herzen (1812-1870). Until recently that is. It’s not Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy about Herzen and his revolutionary friends in London that did it; I actually don’t think much of that piece. But as a radical thinker, a rabble-rouser, a skeptic and an activist, Herzen increasingly comes to mind when I think about the pathetic state of affairs the world has gotten into. The statue of him in Moscow is quite small; a very neat, compact likeness. It is located on Tverskoi Boulevard in the courtyard of the Herzen Literary Institute, right next to the yellow, two-story building in which the future political writer was born, illegitimately, to a young German woman roughly two months before Napoleon invaded Russia. In the last 25 years I have passed by the statue hundreds of times, surely. But I only began to notice it a year or two ago. Thus do world crises affect our ability, or inability, to see. I first photographed it eight to ten months ago (the two shots at the bottom) on a cold, barren, wintry evening while I was on my way to see a show at the neighboring Pushkin Theater. Everything was washed in a thick layer of yellow light. That, and the scraggly trees around him, made Herzen look lonely and distant. Then I photographed him again in June. It was my birthday and I was walking around Moscow shooting all the cultural icons my lens could find. When I came upon the great man this time there was something incredibly joyful and rich and powerful about his presence. The “something” was no strange secret, of course, it was the lush greenery surrounding him that did it. The billowing, cascading leaves made Herzen stand up straight and strong and give me an admirable, hard look. I lingered around him for some time, feeling quite at home in his company.
Rather than try to say something I know nothing about, it seems to make sense to turn the rest of this space over to Herzen himself. I brazenly, as my wife likes to say, tracked down some of Herzen’s pithiest comments on the Brainy Quote site. Read on:
1) “It is possible to lead astray an entire generation, to strike it blind, to drive it insane, to direct it towards a false goal. Napoleon proved this.”
Yes, I can’t help but add, we do know our Napoleons!
2) “No one is to blame. It is neither their fault nor ours. It is the misfortune of being born when a whole world is dying.”
Ah! Stab me in the heart, why don’t you?
3) “I am truly horrified by modern man. Such absence of feeling, such narrowness of outlook, such lack of passion and information, such feebleness of thought.”
He keeps racking them up…
4) “All religions have based morality on obedience, that is to say, on voluntary slavery. That is why they have always been more pernicious than any political organization. For the latter makes use of violence, the former – of the corruption of the will.”
5) “There is nothing in the world more stubborn than a corpse: you can hit it, you can knock it to pieces, but you cannot convince it.”
6) “Slavery is the first step towards civilization. In order to develop it is necessary that things should be much better for some and much worse for others, then those who are better off can develop at the expense of others.”
7) “What breadth, what beauty and power of human nature and development there must be in a woman to get over all the palisades, all the fences, within which she is held captive!”
A man after my own heart. Alexander Herzen.