Tag Archives: Alexander Herzen

Alexander Herzen house and plaque, London

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Of all the places I could be today (save Chania, Crete), I think I would choose London. Maybe it’s the old blood burbling up in whatever is in me of my mother’s line. Maybe it’s because I seem to have the extraordinarily good luck of invariably hitting London when spectacular weather reigns supreme. Maybe it’s because the city is just so damn beautiful, I can never devour it enough with my eyes. So, it’s to London we go today.
London has been the choice of many a good (and shady) Russian over the centuries. I don’t give a hoot about the sold souls who own football teams and sell colleagues into prison or worse. My gaze is a bit more fastidious. Surely one of the most famous Russian residents of London was Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), who lived in the British capital from 1852 until 1864. I have written several times already about him and specific places connected with his name and work in both Moscow and London. He is a man who left his mark, and left it in a way that has made people want to remember him. One of the great liberal or even radical Russian thinkers, Herzen’s name stands for revolution, for freedom and for equality. Most of all, perhaps, it stands for bucking the status quo. He had a quick, insightful mind and a talent for words that made him a focal point of most any society he found himself in. That is certainly true of his time in London, where he produced important revolutionary writings of his own, published an important newspaper (Kolokol, or, The Bell) and ran an important publisher (the Russian Free Press, which I will get to someday in this space). He spent some of his time in London in close contact with his great friend and romantic rival, the poet Nikolai Ogaryov (see elsewhere on this blog site), the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and many others. In her wonderful, all-too-brief series of blogs about Russians in London, Sarah J. Young provides this list of Herzen’s visitors: Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Nekrasov, Pavel Annenkov, the critic and translator Vasily Botkin and the leftist writer Vasily Sleptsov. She adds: “It’s certainly true to say that neither his closest friend Nikolai Ogarev nor Bakunin would have ended up in London if Herzen hadn’t been here.”
The building we peruse today is a lovely piece of architecture, still in excellent condition. You walk up to the door of One Orsett Terrace in Westminster and you can fully imagine what that very experience would have been like for Turgenev, for Dostoevsky, for Tolstoy as they came by for an evening’s visit. It really makes you want to lift that heavy brass, lion-headed knocker and let it whack a couple of times. I actually fought back my desires to do that because – well, do you know how easy it is to become the stupid American tourist? Imagine someone answering my knock and I, covering my disappointment, saying, “I was hoping Herzen might open up. Who are you?” Or something like that. So I left that experience to my imagination – which could well be why it still affects me so viscerally when I see that brass lion’s head in my photos. Anyway, Tolstoy would have come by here in March of 1861. The indispensable Sarah J. Young writes: “Tolstoy arrived in London on 2nd March 1861, and left on 17th. He had not met Herzen before, but it is known that they saw each other regularly during the sixteen days of Tolstoy’s stay.  Lucas (p. 33) describes Herzen’s daughter Natalya’s recollections of seeing Tolstoy, whom she knew as the author of Childhood, at Orsett House, Westbourne Terrace. He states that Natalya was disappointed that Tolstoy wasn’t the heroic figure she was expecting, but he doesn’t give a source for the scene. Lucas also quotes Herzen as saying ‘I am seeing a great deal of Tolstoy. We have quarrelled. He is stubborn and talks nonsense, but is naive and a good man’, from Aylmer Maude, Family Views of Tolstoy (p. 71).”
(It is thanks to this specific post of Young’s that I hunted down and found this place to photograph.)

Dostoevsky would have been here a little over a year later. Again, I turn things over to Young, for there is no point in pretending I know more than she does: Dostoevsky “visited London for 8 days – his only trip to Britain – arriving on 9th July [1862]  (Dryzhakov, p. 328). Like many other writers, one of his chief aims was to see Herzen, and he certainly did so on 16th July, as well as probably also on Sunday 11th. According to [Joseph] Frank, the two men, who found they had a great deal more in common than they had on their previous meeting, in 1846, discussed recent events: Chernyshevsky’s arrest, the spate of fires that had engulfed Petersburg that spring, and the revolutionary Young Russia proclamation that had been published to much furore in May (Frank, pp. 145-59, 188-92). Given the closeness of Herzen’s circle, and his habit of entertaining on Sundays at Orsett House, it seems likely that on 11th July, Dostoevsky also met Bakunin and Ogarev.”
Turgenev, who was a frequent traveler to London and the U.K. in general, met often with Herzen. How frequently he came to this specific house, however, is less certain. Young, God bless her, tells us this (she begins with a reference to a passage in Patrick Waddington’s Turgenev and England and then clarifies): “…in May 1862, when Turgenev finally arrived with the writer Vasily Botkin after many delays, there was no room for him at the Herzen residence on Westbourne Terrace and ‘he had to stay with neighbours, possibly in the very house where Michael Bakunin was now living’. But we know that Bakunin was by this time living at 10 Paddington Green, which by no stretch of the imagination could be described as neighbouring Orsett House. A rift with Bakunin marked the end of Turgenev’s visits to this most famous group of Russian exiles….”
It is also worth quoting a section from Leonard Schapiro’s book Turgenev: His Life and Times (pp. 195-196): “On his short visit to London, Turgenev had engaged in lengthy argument with Herzen on the nature and future of Russian society. The result of this debate was a series of eight articles by Herzen, entitled ‘Ends and Beginnings,’ cast in the form of open letters to a friend, published in the Bell in the second half of 1862. Turgenev originally intended to print his reply in the same journal, but in consequence of a general warning from the Russian authorities not to write for that paper, thought better of it. Turgenev’s views in the debate therefore appear in his private letters to Herzen of the period, and in summaries of his arguments incorporated in Herzen’s articles. Herzen’s open letters, written with the brilliance and exuberance which characterized his style at its best, expound a theme which is familiar enough in his writings – that Western civilization has reached the end of its creative potential, and is destined to sink into the slough of vulgar, bourgeois self-satisfaction.
Well, I guess it’s good to see that Western civilization is still dying – for, surely, it is doing that these days. I am less happy to see that Turgenev did what so many of my contemporaries now do – agree to self-censorship when confronted by the authorities. But what is eternal is eternal, I guess.
Finally, Schapiro’s comments allow us to say that Herzen’s “Ends and Beginnings” were surely written right here in the home you see pictured today.

 

 

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Nikolai Ogaryov statue, Moscow

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Nikolai Ogaryov (1813-1877) pretty much emerges from the shadows of the past by way of the light that Alexander Herzen casts on him. The two men were friends from childhood. They shared common interests, they shared bold political views, they shared a life in emigration (primarily in London), they shared their women, they share a place in history together. But by all accounts, Ogaryov was very much a personality unto himself, strong, quixotic, eccentric and interesting.
Ogaryov figures pretty much everywhere as follows: poet, journalist and revolutionary. You can find vastly different attitudes to his poetry. Natalya Laskovskaya, writing on the Book Club website, says it pretty plainly: “It must be admitted, Ogaryov was a weak poet. He wasn’t a poet, but you can’t deny him the ability to pull ‘passion’ out of a privileged life.” On the other hand, Lidia Libedinskaya, in her novelistic biography From the Other Shore: The Tale of Nikolai Ogaryov, describes him as an “outstanding Russian poet.” I’ve been known to have a tin ear where it concerns poetry and so I’m not going to jump into the fray. I will, however, quote a couplet from his poem “Freedom,” written in 1858:

When I was a boy,  quiet and tender,
When I was a youth, passionate and rebellious,
And in my ripe age, too, nearing my dotage –
A word that I heard again, again and again
Was the very same word, never changing:
Freedom! Freedom!

Great poetry? I don’t know. It’s unfair to ask the question in regards to such a tiny chunk, all the more so in hasty translation. But what I like about this is the way it reveals the man; in fact, reveals his biography.
The very first line refers back to his boyhood friend Herzen. Herzen, in his famous book My Past and Thoughts, wrote how, in 1927, when he was 15 and Ogaryov was 14, they went up into the Sparrow Hills area overlooking Moscow and made a pact to devote their entire lives to the “struggle for freedom.” In fact, they did precisely that. Ogaryov wrote that he was also influenced by his young nannies who, during and after the Decembrist revolt, would bring and read him some of the hottest, most politically engaged poetry of the time. It all fell on fertile ground. Ogaryov’s father was a strict man who didn’t fuss with children or things childish (like rebellion). Surely that only made the young man chafe all the more. I can’t prove that as a fact, but something tells me I’m probably close to being right on that…
Ogaryov came under the suspicion of Russia’s secret police in the early 1930s and was arrested and sent into exile for the period from 1835 to 1839. When he was released he wasted no time skipping town and country, making his way to Germany in 1840. He remained abroad until 1846 then returned to his estate in Penza in 1846 where he briefly ran afoul of the law again in 1850. In 1856 he left Russia for good, heading directly for London, catching up with his old friend Herzen who had relocated there four years earlier in 1852. In London the two made history as Ogaryov stood alongside Herzen as the latter founded the Free Russian Press which published books and the, ultimately, influential periodicals Kolokol (The Bell) and the Polar Star, for both of which Ogaryov often wrote articles. In time, these writings made their way back to Russia and had a strong effect on liberal and radical thinking there (although radicals soon turned against both for being “too soft”).

img_9680img_9684 img_9682One might think that things got a bit difficult when the two men began sharing Ogaryov’s second wife Natalya Tuchkova. But apparently it all seemed to be a family affair. Still, it was a bit much when Tuchkova left Ogaryov to live with Herzen in 1857. It didn’t kill the two men’s friendship, although Ogaryov ended up spending increased time hugging a bottle and he began having increased epileptic seizures. Before long he made the chance acquaintance of Mary Sutherland, a “fallen woman from the streets” (all the Russian sources are so delicate – I couldn’t find a single one that would go so far as to explain the reason for Mary’s “fall,” although the always reliable Sarah J. Young, in her blog, does us the favor of saying it straight: Mary was a prostitute). She ended up being Ogaryov’s devoted companion for the last 18 years of his life. It was surely no easy job. Ogaryov by this time was but a shadow of his younger self, sick, lame, and feeble. There is even a scholarly article about this relationship by Hilary Chapman in the New Zealand Slavonic Journal, but, unfortunately, it is protected behind a subscription fee, so I can’t share any insights. In any case, Ogaryov’s friend Pavel Annenkov remembered this about Ogaryov when he had just two years left to live:
He was already a feeble old man, with slow speech and glittering memories in his head, and yet remained unaffected by, and indifferent to, his losses. He would laugh jovially only at his own uselessness for anything and everything, and at the shape his own life had taken toward the end.”
The statue of Ogaryov pictured here stands near the entrance to the main building of Moscow State University in the center of Moscow. Looking quite blissful, I would say, Ogaryov stands to the left of the entrance (if we face the doors ourselves), while his old friend Herzen looms like a bookend on the other side. The two statues, created by Nikolai Andreev, were unveiled the same day, December 3, 1922. The address corresponding to the square where the statues stand is Mokhovaya Ulitsa 11.
Why do the two stand here? Both studied at Moscow State University and both became involved in underground revolutionary activities while here. They went on to become two of the most illustrious revolutionary alums to graduate from Moscow State U.

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Mikhail Shchepkin house, Moscow

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No, it’s not Tomsk. It’s smack dab in the middle of Moscow, a long block from the busy thoroughfare known as Prospekt Mira (Peace Prospect), the metro stop named after that prospect, and a stone’s throw from the Olympic Sports Complex, the rounded roof of which you can see looming in the low sky in a couple of photographs below. Today we’re looking at the old, wooden home in which Mikhail Shchepkin, the great Russian actor of the 19th century, lived for the last four years of his life, from 1859-1863. There are still a few wooden structures left in Moscow, but this is surely one of the biggest and most interesting, in part because of the good shape it’s in and in part because of the history attached to it. The street here was named Third Meshchanskaya Street when Shchepkin was resident; it has been called Shchepkin Street since 1962. As several of the photos show here, the structure is rather under siege from less attractive, less ornate, more imposing modern buildings. It does look a bit out of place among its neighbors, I must say, but that only makes you appreciate it more. Especially when you step through the gate and see the house from the inside courtyard (the first two photos in the final block below). The address here is house No. 47. These days the official address also has a “building 2” attached to it.
Still, having said all these nice things about this building as one of the few such remaining in Moscow, the truth must also be told. Shortly after Shchepkin’s death the house passed into the hands of a family that significantly reconfigured the facade, and not only the facade. It was given a facelift with stone columns and detailed, fanned bas reliefs that lasted until the late 1990s when the additions and changes were removed and the building, more or less as Shchepkin knew it when he lived here, was restored. You can see photos of what the building looked like from 1865 to the late 1990s at the wonderful Know Moscow website. Today the structure houses a museum honoring Shchepkin, as well as a working theater company called the House Theater at the Shchepkin House, run by a very cool cat, Anatoly Ledukhovsky.

IMG_9100.jpg2 IMG_9104.jpg2IMG_9103.jpg2Shchepkin (1788-1963) had something wonderfully warm about him.  You can see that a little, perhaps, in the statue of him that I wrote about here back in May. He was plump enough that you know he enjoyed his food, and surely his drink, too. And there was something in his sad sack face that oozed generosity and understanding. Indeed, he was so willing to help out anyone in need of it that any house he lived in – this one included – was usually full of guests. Often enough they were people Shchekpin didn’t even know. He just wasn’t the kind to turn away a fellow human in need. Maybe this came to him naturally, as the son of a serf who, against all odds, became famous and at least financially independent, if not wealthy. He would never have been given the opportunity to study acting or to become a professional actor if the master who owned him and his family had not recognized the young man’s talent. Shchepkin began by acting in the home theater of his master Volkenstein and then began working in various provincial cities. He played his first theatrical role ever in 1800 in Alexander Sumarokov’s comedy The Lady Cut-Up. Afterwards he is reported to have said that on stage he “felt so good, so happy” that he “couldn’t describe it.” He was not officially given his freedom until 1822, when he was 34 years old. Shortly thereafter he was invited to work in Moscow and, in 1924, he joined the Maly Theater, one of Russia’s two top dramatic playhouses, the other being the Alexandrinsky in Petersburg. By that time Shchepkin had established an enviable reputation as a comic actor. During the next few decades, when he was Moscow’s leading actor, he also exhibited his genius for dramatic and tragic roles. Alexander Herzen defined Shchepkin’s greatness by declaring he was the first person in Russian theater to be “nontheatrical.”
I have drawn some of this latter information from the Chronos biography site.

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Andrei Platonov plaque, Moscow

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Andrei Platonov (1899-1951, real last name Klimentov) is a writer about whom you will often see the words, “the best writer you’ve never read.” At least that’s true in the English-speaking world. Most of Platonov’s works – he wrote novels, stories, poetry and plays – were buried in the noise of their time. The vast majority of them have come back to us in recent decades. He was already in the process of being rediscovered in the late Soviet period, but it was after the fall of the wall that he came to us more or less in full light and full flight. The plaque commemorating the fact that he lived at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard (not to be confused with Tverskaya Streeet) from 1931 until his death in 1951 is the work of sculptor Fedot Suchkov. According to Suchkov’s memoirs the bas relief that he created for the plaque originated in a bust he had made for the Platonov family and which was kept in the family home. Heinrich Boll, the great German writer and an admirer of Platonov, purchased a copy of the bas relief for his own personal collection. The plaque hangs not far from another honoring the fact that the poet Osip Mandelshtam also lived at this address for a brief period in the early 1930s. This is the same home in which the 19th-century publicist Alexander Herzen was born, and where the Gorky Literary Institute is located, all of which I have written about previously in this space.
Platonov’s sister-in-law Valentina Troshkina would later recall: “Andrei worked here a lot, he would take his writings to publishers, but only rarely could he publish under a pseudonym. Friends would sometimes gather on Tverskoi. Guests included [Mikhail] Sholokhov, [Alexander] Fadeev, Georges Chernyavshchuk, a marvelous person, although people said various things about him.” Troshkina’s comments, like those of Suchkov, are published in memoirs published on Platnov.narod, a fan-maintained website for the writer.

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Troshkina tells another story I had never heard: When the Germans approached Moscow during World War II many Muscovites were evacuated, Platonov among them. According to Troshkina, he left almost his entire archive of unpublished writings with Troshkina’s husband Pyotr for safekeeping. Platonov took only one thing with him – a piece he called Journey from Leningrad to Moscow, based in spirit, at least, on the great Journey from Petersburg to Moscow by Alexander Radishchev (about whom I have written in this blog). The work apparently meant so much to Platonov that he actually tied the manuscript to his arm when he slept in the train, but somewhere, at some point, the string holding the valuable work of literary art  either slipped from the author’s arm or was clipped by a thief who surely had no idea what he or she was stealing. Thus disappeared a potentially major work by Platonov, one he worked on for eight years, mostly at the home on Tverskoi Boulevard.
It is impossible to imagine Soviet literature now without Platonov somewhere in the center of it. His strong, unique, innovative language conjures up a whole era of Russian/Soviet history. His unblinking pictures of the difficult human condition, along with his unbending humanist convictions, make for literature of genuine power and impact.

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Alexander Herzen statue, Moscow

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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.

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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.

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