The writer, philosopher and political thinker Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) is perhaps best known for almost single handedly creating a political climate in which the emancipation of serfdom could be possible. He was also a key figure in the development of 19th century socialist thought and holds a special place in Russian literature for his autobiography, My Past and Thoughts. One of his major projects was the establishment of the Free Russian Press in London, 1853. Circumventing the censure apparatus, he published articles, essays and literature for circulation in Russia. Through these publications, Herzen attempted to influence Russian society and liberate Russian thought, all during his thirteen-year stay in the British capital.
In 1852, Herzen set foot on the British islands. Initially settling at the Morley’s Hotel, just off Trafalgar Square, he had at least 15 known addresses all over London. The previous year, his mother and son perished in a shipwreck and soon thereafter his wife passed away, victim to tuberculosis. The failure of the revolutions of 1848, that he had actively supported, caused yet more disillusionment. Thus shaken by a personal and intellectual crisis, Herzen was keen to find solace in the isolation of London life: ‘I grew unaccustomed to others. … Nowhere could I have the same hermit-like seclusion as in London.’
As Herzen slowly recovered from his tragedies and regained his composure, life in the capital lost its solitary nature. By September 1852 he had moved out of the hotel and into a house not far away on 4 Spring Gardens. Later that same year he moved once again, this time to 2 Barrow Hill Place, Primrose Hill. March 1853 found the writer in 25 Euston Square, where his two daughters would later join him. By this time, he had become heavily involved with London’s intellectual circles — most notably the Carlyles, Matilda Biggs, Stanslaus Worcell (the Polish aristocrat), Gottfried Kinkel and Matilde von Meyzenbug, the German writer who became a member of Herzen’s household and took care of his daughters.
That very summer of 1953, Herzen established the Free Russian Press adjacently to an already active Polish Press on 82 Judd Street, by St Pancras Station. The Polish Press was a great aid, giving him initial access to smuggling routes into Russia. However, the first two years of the Russian Press, ‘dedicated to print anything in the name of freedom’, saw little response from his homeland. Herzen’s friends begged him to reconsider such an endeavour, referring to the danger anyone reading such a publication found themselves in due to the harsh censorship — but Herzen persisted. For lack of contributors, he published his novel Interrupted Tales, two essay collections From the Other Shore and Letters from France and Italy, as well as pamphlets penned by himself and other émigré Russians. The focus was on a fair abolition of serfdom and other social reforms, but the publications also included literary works and criticism.
Within a year, Herzen’s publications were to be found in bookshops all over Europe and English cultural journals would closely followed his writings. Invitations to contribute articles and provide or improve translations of those already published in Russian streamed in from English, French, Polish, German and Italian journals. But Herzen was dedicated to the circulation of his ideas first and foremost among the Russian audience – far too preoccupied with this venture to write for anyone else. Being the sole editor, the main contributor and the only one at the press fluent in Russian, his workload was tremendous in the increasingly influential venture. His social life, too, seemed to have been rather hectic. Sundays were said to be the day when London’s cultural elite found their way into Herzen’s house — now in Richmond — for a day-and-night of food, drinks and conversation in abundance.
On the 2nd of March 1855, tsar Nicholas I died and Alexander II ascended to the thrown. For many intellectuals, this was seen as a sign of new possibilities for liberal reforms. As the Russian foreign travel ban was lifted, slowly but surely writers and thinkers made their way to London to bring their own and others’ manuscripts and poems for Herzen to print (including unpublished works of Pushkin and Lermontov). The Free Russian Press had finally taken off in the empire. At the same time, the British government lifted the heavy stamp duty on publications, and Herzen seized this opportunity to launch The Polar Star, an annual periodical in almanac form. In August 1855 its first issue came out with immediate success. Within a month it was openly available in bookshops in Moscow, St Petersburg and even in remote Siberian towns, where many political free-thinkers lived in exile.
As the Free Russian Press reached its peak, Herzen moved back to North London, to a house on 1 Peterborough Villas, Finchley Road, just North of Swiss Cottage Station. The following years he would change houses rather often, residing in Putney and Fulham, then Regents Park, and finally settling in the house that has come to be known as Herzen’s London home, the Orsett House (1 Orsett Terrace). Today, a blue plaque indicates his stay here from November 1860 to June 1863. By this time Nicholas Ogarev — Herzen’s best friend since childhood and life-long collaborator — had arrived in London and become the co-editor of the Free Russian Press (by then situated further down Judd Street, in number 2). Together, Ogarev and Herzen started a fortnightly newspaper, Kolokol [The Bell]. During 1857-61 sales sky-rocketed, with as many as three thousand printed copies for every issue. The Press also continued to publish other manuscripts, including The Memoirs of Catherine II and serial publications such as Voices From Russia and Historical Miscellany.
During the most successful years of the Press, Herzen’s house saw a never-ending stream of Russian visitors. Among these, several stand out in particular: the political radicals Nikolay Chernyshevsky and Mikhail Bakunin, trying to convince Herzen to head a revolutionary movement, and the novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenev. Whilst publishing their works, Herzen remained relentlessly non-conformist to any one train of thought, maintaining his role as a critic, commentator and propagator of anything written in the spirit of freedom.
In 1861 serfdom was abolished. However, the abolition that liberal reforms had so long desired proved to be a bittersweet victory as the serfs were liberated without land, positioning them in a new form of unfreedom. This ambiguous political development was followed by a sharp decline in sales of The Polar Star and The Bell. By 1864 the Press was all but done for, sharply criticised by the next generation of Russian radicals. Herzen and Ogarev moved the Press out of London; first to Middlesex and then finally to Geneva, where they relocated in 1865.
The Press and its publications became the symbols of protest against the censorship and control of the Tsarist government, as well as presenting an unprecedented openness to opposing point of views, often published side by side. It also bridged two periods of revolt: the aristocratic protest of the Decembrists in the early 19th century, and the communist-anarchist radicals of the century’s final decades. Its location in London is not coincidental, because only here were there no limitations on what could be published. Tracing Alexander Herzen’s life and work London opens up yet another level of the British capital, with the political and personal intricacies, passions and networks of an émigré community of impressive cultural heights.
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To find out more about Herzen check out:
Monica Patridge, ‘Alexander Herzen and the English Press’, The Slavonic and East European Review 36:87 (June 1958), 453-70