‘Oh please, Nurse, tell me again how the French came to Moscow!’ This was a constant petition of mine, as I stretched myself out in my crib . . .
‘You were still with your foster mother; you were very small and weak then,’ and I smiled with pride at the thought I had taken a part in the Great War.
Alexander Herzen was a nineteenth-century Russian political reformer and philosopher who wrote five volumes of what he described as ‘memoirs in progress’. These are the opening lines of Childhood, Youth and Exile – the first two volumes of the sequence My Past and Thoughts – which covers his early years, 1812 to 1840. The other three volumes carry on from there and end around 1868.
The thread running through them is Herzen’s turbulent, often tragic life and the terrible times – so far, so standard gloomily Russian – but they are unlike any other books of the era. Neither straightforward biography nor philosophical treatises, they’re an entrancing mixture of personal recollections, political observations, social life in various countries, travel, economics, sharp comments on friends and enemies, and thoughts about Russia’s past and future, all interspersed with extraordinary digressions and individual stories. Every now and then Herzen breaks off the narrative to say ‘In this context I must tell you what happened to . . .’ and a story follows. It may be about the mad count who fed his guests on dog pie, or the vicious Governor of Siberia who, uniquely, was sacked for his brutality, or the honest doctor who let a thief go, or the disasters that befell his father’s bailiff, or the Muslim Tartar who forcibly converted the pagan Finns to Russian Orthodoxy. Herzen describes nineteenth-century Russian life in a way no one else does, with a modern lightness of touch, acute observation, energy and wit I find irresist
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