Join our mailing list to receive offers and news.

The Romantic Exiles


The Departure

On Sunday, 19 January, 1847, a party of travellers left Moscow in two carriages padded, for protection against the winter cold, with fur. The party consisted of ten persons: Alexander Herzen; his wife Natalie; their three children, Alexander (or Sasha for short) aged seven, Kolya aged three, a deaf-mute, and Natalie the younger, commonly called Tata, aged two; Herzen's mother, Luisa Haag; two female friends and dependants of the family; a Baltic German named Karl Sonnenberg, who had been imported years ago from Reval to be Herzen's tutor, and who now acted as major-domo of his household; and a children's nurse. The terms of Herzen's passport, which was good for six months, showed that he was travelling with his family, for the sake of his wife's health, to Germany and Italy.

A small army of friends, some twenty strong, accompanied them to the first post-station outside Moscow. Its name, which means in translation 'Black Mud', might have held a threat for the travellers at a later season of the year; but now the ground was deep in snow, and the going, for carriages on runners, was excellent. The parting was hearty and convivial. It occurred to nobody that the Herzens were turning their back on Moscow for the last time.

Next day they reached Tver; and Herzen indited a jocular note to Granovsky, one of the friends who had taken leave of them at Black Mud:

"As you see, we are making an excellent journey and an excellent meal, namely on sturgeon, in the fair city of Tver. I am writing to you because Jan. 22nd is your name-day. Make my excuses to Liza Bogdanovna [Granovsky's wife] for not calling on that day. The reason is, of course, a paltry one: I shall be in Novgorod. I crave mercy.

We are all well. Sasha is cheerful, Natalie (the second) is cheerful and Kolya is splendid; he indulges in all the infirmities of nature in the carriage, which does not contribute to the bien-Ítre of living in a coach with four nags in front and Sonnenberg behind in spinach-green.

Of the farewells on the 18th and 19th I will speak when I have recovered.

The nurse stumbled with Natalie and knocked her head on the floor - which greatly added to the enjoyment of our partie de plaisir.

Well, give my greetings to everyone, including Korsh and Co., and my profound gratitude for the thoughts and feelings which I am carrying away with me on the journey. Good-bye. The road is fine...

Tell Melgunov that there may really be some element lacking in our friendship - something relating to the feelings rather than to our intelligence or to our sympathy... No, I am incapable of expressing myself; I have dined too well on sherry and sturgeon."

Natalie Herzen added a postscript in a similar vein:

"Dear, invaluable and incomparable friends! All, all our Moscow friends! I embrace you once more and kiss you all. The mood of yesterday evening lives on in my heart (notwithstanding twenty-four hours' continuous sickness), yes, and notwithstanding a terrible headache - as if that mattered... I embrace you all once more. Good-bye! Write to Riga. The children are all well and cheerful."

The Herzens, husband and wife, were not only first cousins; they shared the same unconventional origin. They were the illegitimate children of two wealthy brothers named Yakovlev. The Yakovlevs were an ancient family of the Moscow nobility; but they had not for several generations occupied any position of eminence. Self-indulgence had become the family tradition; and it was worthily maintained by the two brothers. Both retired from the public service at an early age to a life of idleness. Both preferred to avoid the restraints and obligations of legal wedlock, and availed themselves to the full of the feudal privileges conferred by the system of serfdom. Their children were all born of irregular unions.

But despite this striking similarity in the conditions of their birth, the upbringing of the two cousins had been widely different. Ivan Yakovlev, Alexander Herzen's father, had served as a captain in the Guards; but he resigned his commission for the more congenial role of a malade imaginaire. During a visit to Germany he carried off with him Henrietta-Wilhelmina-Luisa Haag, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a respectable but undistinguished civil servant of Stuttgart. She became his mistress and, in later years, his nurse; and though he never married her, she came to occupy a recognized position as the head of his household. Alexander, born in 1812, was the eldest child of this union. He received the imaginary surname of Herzen, which was also conferred on a son born to Yakovlev many years before by a serf-woman. The father, never prone to excessive emotion, lavished on his illegitimate offspring the limited degree of affection of which his nature was capable. Alexander, who inherited his father's exceptional intelligence, grew up as the son of the house, and was treated with particular indulgence as his father's favourite child.

At the age of twenty-five Herzen looked back on 'the humiliations and insults of his upbringing', and attributed to them that 'closed and constrained exterior which rarely allows the world to guess what is passing in my soul'. His sufferings, perhaps somewhat exaggerated in retrospect, were moral, not physical. They had their seat in his own consciousness rather than in the attitude of the world around him; but they reacted none the less on his character. The mask of irony, assumed for purposes of defence against the criticism, real or imagined, of his fellow-men, soon became second nature to him.

Really virtuous men [he wrote later] are devoid of irony... Irony springs from the coldness of the soul - Voltaire, or from hatred of mankind - Shakespeare, Byron. It is a retort to humiliations undergone, a reply to insult, it is the reply of pride, not of the Christian.

In other and more tangible respects, young Herzen had little to suffer. The only recorded complaint against Ivan Yakovlev as a father is that he inflicted on his sixteen-year-old son, who had been caught surreptitiously reading Rousseau's Confessions, 'a sermon lasting whole days' - a performance which, however distasteful to the young man, may be regarded as one of the normal prerogatives of orthodox paternity. Russian society was logically tolerant of these accidents of birth, which were encouraged by the existing social system; and there is no evidence that young Herzen ever suffered reproach, or found his career impeded, on the score of his origin. He received the normal education of a young Russian aristocrat, and in 1829, being then seventeen, he entered Moscow University.

Young Alexander Herzen had not awaited the age of seventeen to imbibe the radical ideas which, in the early years of last century, spread eastwards over Europe from the seed-bed of the French Revolution. The first revolutionary outbreak in modern Russian history took place in Petersburg, on the accession of Nicholas I to the imperial throne, in December 1825; and these high-minded but unpractical conspirators have been honoured by posterity under the name of the 'Decembrists'. The rising was suppressed with the greatest ease by the local troops. Five of the insurgents were hanged, and many more sent to Siberia for life. These events, which occurred in his fourteenth year, made an enormous impression on Alexander Herzen; and he and his friend Nicholas Ogarev, a boy two years younger than himself, stood side by side on the Sparrow Hills outside Moscow and solemnly swore to give their lives to the service of the sacred cause in which the Decembrists had suffered.

At the University of Moscow, whither Ogarev soon followed him, Herzen found an outlet for these juvenile ambitions. The Russian universities, in contrast with the Anglo-Saxon tradition, have always been the home of 'advanced' ideas. In the intervals of studying physics and mathematics, Herzen and Ogarev gathered round them the cleverest and most enterprising of their contemporaries; and in the year 1834, at the age of twenty-two, Herzen was arrested, together with several of his friends, for alleged complicity in the 'conspiracy' of a student named Sokolovsky. The 'conspiracy' does not seem to have gone further than hothead discussion of the theories of socialism and the circulation of lampoons which treated the person of Nicholas I with insufficient respect. But the authorities took no risks; and heavy sentences were passed on the principal 'conspirators'. Herzen's role in the affair, such as it was, was altogether insignificant. But after nearly nine months' imprisonment, he was banished to the distant provincial capital of Vyatka, half-way across to the Urals, where he was given a minor post in the local administration. It was more than three years before he was allowed to return to Moscow.

In the meanwhile Natalie's sufferings had been of another kind. The character of her father, Alexander Yakovlev, was cast in a stronger, coarser mould than that of his brother Ivan. He had for a short time served under Alexander I as Procurator of the Holy Synod. It was a singular office for one who lost no opportunity of displaying his contempt for orthodox religion and orthodox morality; and he did not hold it long. Like his brother he preferred retirement to the cares of the public service; and after his resignation he spent his time in quarrels with his relatives and in the enjoyment of a harem of serf-women, whom he kept in the servants' wing of his big Moscow house. The mother of Natalie was one of these concubines. Tatyana Passek, a cousin of Herzen's who has left us, in letters and memoirs, many details of his earlier years, remembered her as 'a simple peasant woman, sturdy and uneducated'. The church register of Herzen's marriage describes the bride's mother as a 'foreigner'. But this is clearly a harmless fiction, suggested by the similar origin of Herzen's own mother. It cannot have been pleasant for Natalie to reflect on her parentage.

Natalie was born in 1817, and spent the opening years of her life in the company of half a dozen other children whose origin was similar to her own. It was a curious whim of her father's to keep his illegitimate offspring in the part of the house which he himself occupied. The mothers remained in the wing reserved for the seraglio, and did not see the children except on holidays. Such were the conditions of Natalie's earliest childhood. But when she reached her seventh year, a series of incalculable freaks of fortune settled her future on altogether unexpected lines.

In that year, her father, who had just removed his establishment from Moscow to Petersburg, was stricken down by a fatal illness. Conscious that his end was near, Alexander Yakovlev regarded with growing aversion the prospect of leaving his worldly possessions to relatives whom he had for many years treated with contemptuous indifference. A malicious impulse decided him to cheat them of their expectations. He adopted the simple expedient of marrying the mother of his eldest son Alexis, and made the young man, who was now of age, his legitimate son and sole heir. Having savoured this last and subtlest of all his pleasures, the old epicurean expired; and Alexis succeeded to an ample fortune. He was a serious young man, and was known in the family, from the bent of his studies, as 'The Chemist'. Not the least embarrassing item of his inheritance was a bevy of half-brothers and half-sisters of various ages who, together with their mothers, were left at his absolute disposal.

It would have been too much to expect from Alexis a sentimental interest in this part of his property. He decided to dispatch the whole troop to one of his distant estates, where they would find their level naturally enough among the other serfs, and trouble him no more. Such was the destiny which Natalie narrowly escaped; and we are left to wonder whether it was a fortunate or unfortunate star which reserved her for another fate.

Copyright © E.H. Carr, 2007

» OR Books.
twitter facebook instagram pinterest
» Join our mailing list.