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My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen Paperback – 1 Jul 1992
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Herzen, a Russian by birth but an internationalist in spirit, knew most of the radicals of the era, Bakunin, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Louis Blanc. Yet he was in a way not one of them. He was too hardheaded and too reasonable--he knew what worked and what didn't. Raised in autocratic Russia, he had experienced prison, exile--and fame as a writer.
This edition has been abridged by Dwight MacDonald, unfortunately leaving out some crucial parts, for example his relations with his wife, Natalie, and other more domestic issues. However, the original appeared in five volumes, and something had to be excised to make this edition manageable. Those who wish to read the complete autobiography should look up the Knopf four-volume edition of 1968. Nonetheless, this edition will do for most of us. It's a gem.
This perhaps explains Herzen's stern dislike of Marx and Engels, for he saw too much of the Robespierre in them and their ideas.
Herzen believed in democracy almost in a modern American sense. Indeed, much of the work is laced with arguments in disfavor to the flowering of socialism in Europe, citing particularly the cruelty of the police in France during 1848: "The Latin world does not like freedom, it only likes to sue for it." Certainly the tendencies of the Germans were no more progressive either. Instead at one point in the text the author suggests that those who "can put off from himself the old Adam of Europe and be born again a new Jonathan had better take the first steamer to some place in Wisconsin or Kansas."
The selections and abridgement of the text emphasize Herzen's basic belief about reform: revolution is gradual. One has to breed engrained stupidity out of the ruling class and make laws that better everyone, like the English and Americans. Laws make a better society, not people: "The Englishman's liberty is more in his institutions than in himself or his conscience. His freedom is the 'common law.'"
The text covers the demise of Herzen, culminating in his rejection on his deathbed by the new revolutionary ("terrorist") camps in Russia, headed ideologically by Chernyshevsky and best seen in the widespread incendiary and murderous practices of Sergei Nechaev. These are all topics of the years after Herzen's death, the tragic history of the latter half of the nineteenth century and the prelude to the pall of 1917.
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.