The Twickenham Museum
People : Writers, Poets and Historians

Alexander Herzen
Russian political author
1812 - 1870

Alexander Herzen

When the ruthless and autocratic Tsar Nicholas I died in 1855, bewildered urchins in Twickenham cried: “Hurrah! Zarnicoll is dead”. They had been given sixpences to do so by a renegade Russian aristocrat living in their midst, Alexander Herzen. He was a babe-in-arms during the French occupation of burning Moscow, when his father unexpectedly became a messenger between Napoleon and the Tsar. Inspired by the Decembrist Revolution, he became politically active as a young man, and after spells of internal exile left Russia in 1847 to wander in Western Europe. He never returned, dying in Paris in 1870.

From 1852 to 1865 he had at least fifteen addresses in London and the suburbs. Three of these included Elmfield House, Teddington (1863-4) where he was visited by Garibaldi; Richmond House, Twickenham (1854-5) and St Helena Terrace, Richmond (1854). He used to say that such was the uniformity of English houses he could find any room or object blindfolded. While in England he started the Russian Free Press and published a famous periodical, ‘The Bell’. Smuggled into Russia, it was read by everyone from the Tsar downwards. With sparkling wit, passion and erudition - and an excellent network of informants - Herzen made ‘The Bell’ into the principal political force in Russia for several years.

His immediate programme demanded the abolition of serfdom, capital punishment and censorship, but his central principle was that the goal of life is life itself; that we must not sacrifice the flesh and blood of live human beings upon the altar of idealized abstractions. “To look at the end and not the action itself is a cardinal error."

He expresses these thoughts in homely ways: “Of what use to the flower is its bright magnificent bloom? Or this intoxicating scent, since it will only pass away? None at all. But nature is not so miserly. She does not disdain what is transient, which is only in the present. At every point she achieves all she can achieve. Who will find fault with nature because flowers bloom in the morning and die at night...? What is the purpose of the song the singer sings? If you look beyond your pleasure in it for something else, for some other goal, the moment will come when the singer stops and you will have only memories and vain regrets because, instead of listening, you were waiting for something else. You must not be misled by categories that are not fitted to catch the flow of life.”

Isaiah Berlin described Herzen's autobiography as: "one of the great monuments to Russian literary and psychological genius.….a literary masterpiece to be placed by the side of the novels of his contemporaries and countrymen, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky ..." Tolstoy himself declared that he had never met another man "with so rare a combination of scintillating brilliance and depth". Twickenham can have sheltered few more remarkable men.


Further reading:

Alexander Herzen: Childhood, Youth & Exile
Translated by J.D.Duff
World's Classics paperback 1980
E.H.Carr: The Romantic Exiles Penguin Books 1949
Isaiah Berlin: Alexander Herzen
'Encounter' May 1956
Edward Crankshaw: The Shadow of the Winter Palace Macmillan PAPERMAC 1976
Entry: 'Alexander Hertzen' (sic)
Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911 ed.
Michael Ignatieff: Isaiah Berlin, a Life Chatto & Windus, London 1998

back to top