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Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts [Excerpts]


Autobiographical writing as a rich source for the exploration of European childhood and youth is self evident; in many cases, it is one of the most nuanced ways to understand historical actors' earliest experiences. Such is the case in Russia, where there emerged a new genre of writing on childhood and youth in the middle of the 19th century. Russian authors tended to paint bucolic portraits of their own childhood years on the gentry estate, often spent away from the tyrannical clutches of parental discipline and ensconced instead in the pleasures and freedoms of roaming through domestic corridors and wild gardens. These narratives of Russian childhood and youth often provide poignant examples of how individuals came of age amidst a backdrop of radical insurgence, peasant emancipation, and decades of repression. Many of these narratives, written by members of Russia's first generations of intelligentsia, include descriptions of rebellion against their elders and an attachment to their peers. My Past and Thoughts, written by Alexander Herzen—the first self-proclaimed Russian socialist—fits precisely into this genre of 19th-century Russian writing.

This is a selection from an abridged version of Alexander Herzen's four-volume memoir on his childhood, youth, and adult years that spans the course of much of the 19th century. Alexander Herzen is known primarily for his writings in exile in the second half of the century (he is known as "the father of Russian socialism"), but his autobiography provides an unusually textured glimpse into the social world and formative moments of Russia's influential generation of radical youth.


Alexander Herzen, The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen: My Past and Thoughts (UCAL Press, 1991 edition), 58-65. Annotated by Rebecca Friedman.

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Nick and the Sparrow Hills

'Write then how in this place [the Sparrow Hills] the story of our lives, yours and mine, began to unfold….'
A Letter, 1833

Three years before the time I am speaking of we were walking on the banks of the Moskva at Luzhniki, that is, on the other side of the Sparrow Hills. At the river's edge we met a French tutor of our acquaintance in nothing but his shirt; he was panic-stricken and was shouting, 'He is drowning, he is drowning!' But before our friend had time to take off his shirt or put on his trousers a Ural Cossack ran down from the Sparrow Hills, dashed into the water, vanished, and a minute later reappeared with a frail man, whose head and arms were flopping about like clothes hung out in the wind. He laid him on the bank, saying, 'He'll still recover if we roll him about.'

The people standing round collected fifty roubles and offered it to the Cossak. The latter, without making faces over it, said very simply: 'It's a sin to take money for such a thing, and it was no trouble; come to think of it he weighs no more than a cat. We are poor people, though.' He added. 'Ask, we don't; but there, if people give, why not take? We are humbly thankful.' Then tying up the money in a handkerchief he went to graze his horses on the hill. My father asked his name and wrote about the incident the next day to Essen. Essen promoted him to be a non-commissioned officer. A few months later the Cossak came to see us and with him a pock-marked, bald German, smelling of scent and wearing a curled, fair wig; he came to thank us on behalf of the Cossak—it was the drowned man. From that time he took to coming to see us.

Karl Ivanovich Sonnenberg, that was his name, was at that time completing the German part of the education of two young rascals; from them he went to a landowner of Simbirsk, and from him to a distant relative of my father's. The boy, the care of whose health and German accent had been entrusted to him, and whom Sonnenberg called Nick, attracted me. There was something kind gentle and pensive: I was high-spirited but afraid to rag him.

About the time when my cousin went back to Korcheva, Nick's grandmother died; his mother he had lost in early childhood. There was a great upset in the house and Sonnenberg, who really had nothing to do, fussed about too, and imagined that he was run off his legs; he brought Nick in the morning and asked that he might remain with us for the rest of the day. Nick was sad and frightened; I suppose he had been fond of his grandmother.

…After we had been sitting still a little I suggested reading Schiller. I was surprised at the similarity of our tastes; he knew far more by heart than I did and knew precisely the passages I liked best; we closed the book and, so to speak, began sounding each other's sympathies.

From Möros who went with a dagger in his sleeve 'to free the city from the tyrant,' from Wilhelm tell who waited for Vogt on the narrow path at Küsznacht, the transition to Nicholas and the Fourteenth of December was easy. These thoughts and these comparisons were not new to Nick; he, too, knew Pushkin's and Ryleyev's unpublished poems. The contrast between him and the empty-headed boys I had occasionally met was striking.

Not long before, walking near the Prenensjy Ponds, full of my Bouchot, terrorism, I had explained to a companion of my age the justice of the execution of Louis XVI.

'Quite so,' observed the youthful Prince O., 'but you know he was God's anointed!'

I looked at him with compassion, ceased to care for him and never asked to go and see him again.

There were no such barriers with Nick: his heart beat as mine did. He, too, had cast off from the grim conservative shore, and we had but to shove off together, and almost from the first day we resolved to work in the interests of the Tsarevich Constantine!

Before that day we had few long conversations. Karl Ivanovich pestered us like an autumn fly and spoilt every conversation with his presence; he interfered in everything without understanding, made remarks, straightened Nick's shirt collar, was in a hurry to get home: in fact, was detestable. After a month we could not pass two days without seeing each other or writing a letter; with all the impulsiveness of my nature I attached myself more and more to Nick, while he had a quiet deep love for me.

From the very beginning our friendship was to take a serious tone. I do not remember that mischievous pranks were our foremost interest, particularly when we were alone. Of course we did not sit still: our age came into its own, and we laughed and played the fool, teased Sonnenberg and played bows and arrows in our courtyard; but at the bottom of it all there was something very different from idle companionship. Besides our being of the same age, besides our 'chemical affinity,' we were united by the faith that bound us. Nothing in the world so purifies and ennobles early youth, nothing keeps it so safe as a passionate interest in the whole of humanity. We respected our future in ourselves, we looked at each other as 'chosen vessels,' predestined.

Nick and I often walked out into the country. We had our favourite places, the Sparrow Hills, the fields beyond the Dragomilovsky Gate. He would come with Sonnenberg to fetch me at six or seven in the morning, and if I were asleep would throw sand and little pebbles at my window. I would wake up smiling and hasten out to him.

These walks had been instituted by the indefatigable Karl Ivanovich.

In the old-fashioned patriarchal education of Ogarëv, Sonnenber plays the part of Biron. When he made his appearance the influence of the old male nurse who had looked after the boy was put aside; the disconnected oligarchy of the hall were forced against the grain to silence, knowing that there was no overcoming the damned German who fed at the master's table. Sonnenberg made violent changes in the old order of things. The old man who had been nurse positively grew tearful when he learnt that the wretched German had taken the young master himself to buy ready-made boots at a shop! Sonnenberg's revolution, like Peter I's, was distinguished by a military character even in the most peaceful matters. It does not follow from that that Karl Ivanovich' thin little shoulders had ever been adorned with epaulettes; but nature has so made the German that if he does not reach the slovenliness and sans-géne of a philologist or a theologian, he is inevitably of a military mind even though he be a civilian. By virtue of his peculiarity Karl Ivanovich liked tight fitting clothes, buttoned up and cut with a waist; by virtue of it he was a strict observer of his own rules, and, if he proposed to get up at six o' clock in the morning, he would get Nick up at one minute to six, and in no case later than one minute past, and would go out into the open air with him.

The Sparrow Hills, at the foot of which Karl Ivanovich had been so nearly drowned, soon became our 'sacred hills.'

One day after dinner my father proposed to drive out into the country. Ogarëv was with us and my father invited him and Sonnenberg to go too. These expeditions were not a joking matter. Before reaching the town gate we had to drive for an hour or more in a four-seated carriage 'built by Joachim,' which had not prevented it from becoming disgracefully shabby in its fifteen years of service, peaceful as they had been, and from being, as it always had been, heavier than a siege gun. The four horses of different sizes and colours with sweat and foam within a quarter of an hour; the coachman Avdey was forbidden to let this happen, and so had no choice but to drive at a walk. The windows were usually up, however hot it might be; and with all this we had indifferently oppressive supervision of my father and the restlessly fussy and irritation supervision of Karl Ivanovich. But we gladly put up with everything for the sake of being together.

At Luzhniki we crossed the river Moskva in a boat at the very pot where the Cossak had pulled Karl Ivanovich out of the water. My father walked, bent and morose as always; beside him Karl Ivanovich tripped along, entertaining him with gossip and scandal. We went on in front of them, and getting far ahead ran up to the Sparrow Hills at the spot where the first stone of Vitberg's temple was laid.

Flushed and breathless, we stood there mopping our faces. The sun was setting, the cupolas glittered, beneath the hill the city extended farther than the eye could reach; a fresh breeze blew on our faces, we stood leaning against each other and, suddenly embracing, vowed in sight of all Moscow to sacrifice our lives to the struggle we had chosen.

This scene may strike others as very affected and theatrical, and yet twenty-six years afterwards I am moved to tears as I recall it; there was a sacred sincerity in it, and our whole life has proved this. But apparently a like destiny defeats all vows made on that spot; Alexander was sincere, too, when he laid the first stone of that temple, which as Joseph II said (although then mistakenly) at the laying of the first stone in some town in Novorossiya, was destined to be the last.

We did not know all the strength of the foe with whom we were entering into battle, but we took up the fight. That strength broke much in us, but it was not that strength that shattered us, and we did not surrender to it in spite of all its blows. The wounds received from it were honourable. Jacob's strained thigh was the sign that he had wrestled in the night with God.

From that day the Sparrow Hills became a place of worship for us and once or twice a year we went there, and always by ourselves. There, five years later, Ogarëv asked me timidly and shyly whether I believed in his poetic talent, and wrote to me afterwards (1883) from his country house: 'I have come away and feel sad, as sad as I have never been before. And it's all the Sparrow Hills. For a long time I hid my enthusiasm in myself; shyness or something else, I don't myself know what, prevented me from uttering it; but on the Sparrow Hills that enthusiasm was not burdened with solitude: you shared it with me and those moments have been unforgettable; like memories of past happiness they have followed me on my way, while round me I saw nothing but forest; it was all so blue, dark blue and in my soul was darkness.

'Write then,' he concluded, 'how in this place' (that is, on the Sparrow Hills) 'the story of our lives, yours and mine began to unfold.'

Five more years passed. I was far from the Sparrow Hills, but near me their Prometheus, A. L. Vitberg, stood, austere and gloomy. In 1842, returning to Moscow, I again visited the Sparrow Hills, and once more we stood on the site of foundation stone and gazed at the same view, two together, but the other was not Nick.

Since 1827 we had not been parted. In every memory of that time, general and particular, he with his boyish features and his love for me was everywhere in the foreground. Early could be seen in him that sign of grace which is vouchsafed to few, whether for woe or for bliss I know not, but certainly in order not to be one of the crowd. A large portrait of Orgarëv as he was at that time (1827-8), painted in oils, remained for long afterwards in his father's house. In later days I often stood before it and gazed at him. He is shown with an open shirt collar; the painter has wonderfully caught the luxuriant chestnut hair, the undefined, youthful beauty of his irregular features and his rather swarthy colouring; there was a pensiveness in the portrait that gave promise of powerful thought; an unaccountable melancholy and extreme gentleness shone out from his big grey eyes that suggested the future stature of a mighty spirit; such indeed he grew to be. This portrait, presented to me, was taken by a woman who was a stranger; perhaps these lines will meet her eyes and she will send it to me.

I do not know why the memories of first love are given such precedence over the memories of youthful friendship. The fragrance of first love lies in the fact that it forgets the difference of the sexes, that it passionate friendship. On the other hand, friendship between the young has all the ardour of love and all its character, the same delicate fear of touching on its feelings with a word, the same mistrust of self and absolute devotion, the same agony at separation, and the same jealous desire for exclusive affection.

I had long loved Nick and loved him passionately, but had not been able to resolve to call him my friend, and when he was spending the summer at Kuntsevo I wrote to him at the end of a letter: 'Whether your friend or not, I do not yet know.' He first used the second person singular in writing to me and used to call me his Agathon after Karamzin, while I called him my Ralphael after Schiller.

You will smile, perhaps, but let it be a mild, good-natured smile, such as one smiles when one thinking of the time when on was fifteen. Or would it not be better to muse over the question, 'Was I like that when I was blossoming out?' and to bless your fate if you have had youth (merely being young is not enough for this), an to bless it doubly if you had a friend then.

The language of that period seems affected and bookish to us now; we have become unaccustomed to its vague enthusiasm, its confused fervour that passes suddenly into languid tenderness or childish laughter. It would be as absurd in a man of thirty as the celebrated Bettina will schlafen, but in its proper time this language of youth, this jargon de la puberté, this change of the psychological voice is very sincere; even the shade of bookishness is natural to the age of theoretical knowledge and practical ignorance.

Schiller remained our favourite. The characters of his dramas were living persons for us; we analysed them, loved and hated them, not as poetic creations but as living men. Moreover we saw ourselves in them. I wrote to Nick, somewhat troubled by his being too fond of Fiesco, that behind every Fiesco stands his Verrina. My ideal was Karl Moor, but soon I was false to him and went over to the Marquis of Posa. I imagined in a hundred variations how I would speak to Nicholas, and how afterwards he would send me to the mines or the scaffold. It is a strange thins that almost all our day-dreams ended in Siberia or the scaffold and hardly ever in triumph; can this be the way the Russian imagination turns, or is it the effect of Petersburg with its five gallows and its penal servitude reflected on the young generation?

And so, Ogarëv, hand in hand we moved forward into life! Fearlessly and proudly we advanced, generously we responded to every challenge and single heartedly we surrendered to every inclination. The path we chose was no easy one; we have never left it for one moment: wounded and broken we have gone forward and no one has outdistanced us. I have reached…not the goal but the spot where the road goes downhill, and involuntarily seek thy hand that we may go down together, that I may press it and say, smiling mournfully, 'So this is all!'

Meanwhile in the dull leisure to which events have condemned me, finding in myself neither strength nor freshness for new labours, I am writing down our memories. Much of that which united us so closely has settled in these pages. I present them to thee. For thee they have a double meaning, the meaning of tombstones on which we meet familiar names.

…And is it not strange to think that had Sonnenberg known how to swim, or had he been drowned then in the Moskva, had he been pulled out not by a Cossak of the Urals but by the soldier of the Apsheronsky infantry, I should not have met Nick or should have met him later, differently, not in that room in our old house, where, smoking cigars on the sly, we entered so deeply into each other's lives and drew strength from each other.

How to Cite This Source

"Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts [Excerpts] ," in Children and Youth in History, Item #274, (accessed August 10, 2021). Annotated by Rebecca Friedman