alexander herzen: making an idol of disillusionment


The Russian radical writer and philosopher Alexander Herzen loved Rome for its warmth and spontaneity, but he was a little chagrined to find himself there when the revolution of 1848 erupted in Paris, seven hundred miles away. Luckily, the Romans were equal to the event. As Herzen watched, they gathered at the embassy of the oppressive Austrians, pulled down the enormous imperial coat of arms, stomped on it, then hitched it to a donkey and dragged it through the streets. “An amazing time,” Herzen wrote to his Russian friends. “My hand shakes when I pick up a paper, every day there is something unexpected, some peal of thunder.” He raced to Paris, where the provisional government was handing out grants, like some gonzo arts foundation, to anyone willing to spread the revolution abroad. Herzen’s old friend the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin had already started east to foment revolution against the Tsar; another friend, the German Romantic poet Georg Herwegh, was raising a battalion of émigré workers and intellectuals to march on Baden-Baden. Herzen stayed in Paris to see what would happen next.

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