In the historic part of old Moscow, in a quiet side street in the Arbat District, stands a two-story mansion with an attic. This house is well known for its resident from 1843 to 1846, Alexander Ivanovich Herzen, who become famous at this time as the author of the novel Who is to Blame? This is where he wrote the novellas The Thieving Magpie and Dr. Krupov, the great philosophical work Letters on the Study of Nature, and a cycle of poems On Dilettantism in Science.
The house on Sivtsev Vrazhek, “where the most mature and active portion of [his] life occurred,” was not only the birthplace of Herzen, the great writer and journalist, and a witness of his literary glory and success, but also the cultural oasis of intellectual life in Moscow in the 1840s, where “Russian thought hid itself,” in the opinion of one of his contemporaries.
In this house people argued about the fate of Russia and heard the speeches, like “undying fireworks,” of the host and his friends, the brilliant minds of Russian culture: the historian Timofey Granovsky, the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev, the critic Vissarion Belinsky, the writer Ivan Turgenev, the actor Mikhail Shchepkin, the poet Nikolay Ogaryov, the publisher Evgeny Korsch, the critic Pavel Annenkov, and many other members of the “remarkable decade.” The time they spent in the house is still the stuff of legends.
After leaving Russia in 1847, Herzen was an eternal wanderer. In 1851, he found refuge in Switzerland, where he became a citizen of the canton of Montreux. Then followed Paris, Rome, Geneva, London… The first museum dedicated to Herzen opened only in 1976, in Moscow, as a branch of the State Literary Museum. The museum was closed for restoration in 2008 and reopened its doors on the 200th anniversary of the writer’s birth, on 6 April 2012. The Herzen House currently features an exhibition called “I served for the benefit of Russia in both word and deed”
The Life and Fate of Alexander Herzen, containing unique treasures, personal belongings, letters and books of Herzen and his family, most of them donated by the descendants of the writer. These memorabilia, now precious relics, are included in the new exhibition, which tells the “marvelous story” of the life and works of Herzen to anyone who wishes to hear it.
Through the windows from the street you can see Herzen’s study and living room, filled with antique furniture, candlesticks, and other household items. On the walls are the rare family portraits that surrounded Herzen since his childhood; on the desk are books, a bell, and a stamp—the personal belongings of the writer.
These already classic interiors have been supplemented with another, dedicated to the writer’s years as a student. This includes portraits of the young Herzen and his best friend Nikolay Ogaryov, views of places in Moscow that were memorable for them—the Sparrow Hills and the university—and a gallery of portraits of graduates of the university. The curators have added furniture, candlesticks, Herzen’s favorite books, and various household items, which all recreate the atmosphere of the student gatherings filled with political and literary arguments, interspersed with reckless reveling.
These include a portrait of Alexander Herzen from the period of his exile in Vyatka, a work by the artist Alexander Witberg (1836), given by Herzen to his bride Natasha Zakharyina on her birthday on 22 November 1846; a unique portrait of Alexander Herzen by his wife, made shortly before her death; portraits of the writer by his daughter Natalya; an album with her drawings; previously unknown autographs of Herzen, including a note that he sent shortly before his death to his son Alexander; books from the Herzen family library; and much more. On the detailed family tree you can trace all the members of the family, from Herzen’s ancestors, the Yakovlevs, to the families currently living around the world.
You can feel the indissoluble link between the past and present through the exhibits, which include rare copies of the publications of the Free Russian Press: Polar Star, The Bell, Voices from Russia. Also included are portraits of Herzen’s contemporaries and friends from various countries, memorabilia, and pictures of cities in western Europe where he lived—Paris, Rome, London, Geneva, and others.
The room contains a recreation of part of the interior of the bookshop of Herzen’s London publisher, Nicholas Trübner, with many of Herzen’s publications from that time, as well as period furniture and household items. Inside the interior is a bust of Herzen, which was made in his lifetime (1858–59) by A. Grass and commissioned by Trübner.
After Herzen lived through a series of tragic shocks in Europe—from the collapse of his social ideals to the death of his beloved wife—he focused on establishing the Free Russian Press and writing a unique book of memoirs, My Past and Thoughts. As the founder of the Free Russian Press abroad, the publisher of Polar Star and The Bell, Herzen argued that “without a free press there can be no free human being.”
The opening of a new exhibition in the Herzen House marks a new phase in the history of the museum, making it possible, in the words of the writer himself, “to portray a man in his relationship to time.” It will allow visitors to take a look at the life and fate of Herzen with unclouded eyes, free from the ideological haze of past interpretations, dictated by schoolbooks, and to fill in spots in his biography that were blank for many decades.
Not least, we can read Herzen’s texts again with our modern eyes. This updated, modernized exhibition is devoted to the life of a marvelous, inimitable person who lived for all time, who placed the ideal of individual freedom at the center of his life. It will be as interesting to the younger generation as to people already familiar with Herzen’s work.