For Their Freedom and Ours:
Alexander Herzen and the Liberation of Poland

By Kathleen Parthé

Hertzen’s graveside monument in Nice.
One hundred and fifty years ago the Russian Empire was in the throes of change. Russian émigré journalist Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), whose jubilee was marked this April, was deeply involved in pressing for the liberation of both Russian serfs and the people of Poland, primarily through a Russian-language newspaper called The Bell (Kolokol), which was printed in England and smuggled into Russia. In 1861, Herzen’s publications were taken seriously across the political spectrum, from revolutionaries to Romanovs. Two years later, the readership for had dropped by 80%, never to recover. Throughout his life, Herzen’s agenda and principles remained the same: freedom of speech and the press, the emancipation of serfs with land, an end to corporal punishment, and the rights of Poles to self-determination, and it was his support of the Polish uprising of 1863 that ruined his reputation back home. This was a costly gesture for a man who never visited Poland, was not Catholic, and dreamed of Panslavic unity rather than strong national identities, but it had been part of his political creed for decades. From his memoir My Past and Thoughts we know that Herzen heard about the 1830 rebellion in Warsaw at his father’s estate and soon added the portrait of Thaddeus Kosciuszko to his “icon” collection. Exiled to the Russian interior, Herzen met Polish prisoners, and was impressed by their dignity and steadfastness.

In January 1847, Herzen left for Europe, and in Paris met leaders of the Polish community, including poet Adam Mickiewicz. Aware of European anger towards Russia, he asked Europeans acknowledge that both Poles and Russians suffered under Nicholas I. In a published letter to historian Jules Michelet in “On the Russian People and Socialism” (1851), he described Russian sympathy for the martyrs of 1830, and Polish banners that read “FOR THEIR FREEDOM AND OURS.”

In 1852, Herzen moved to England, where he spent 12 years, writing, editing, and meeting with other freedom fighters. He was warmly welcomed by the London Polish community, including Count Stanislaw Worcell (1799-1857), Ludwig Czernecki, and Stanislaw Tchorzewski. While many political refugees associated with Herzen, it was the Poles who played the crucial role in setting up the Free Russian Press and channels for smuggling materials to Russian readers. With the new press, Herzen changed his audience from Europeans to Russians, and simplified his agenda to the emancipation of the serfs and the liberation of Poland.

During its ten-year existence (1857-1867), The Bell carried over 250 articles on Polish-Russian developments, many by Herzen himself. In spring 1861, Herzen prepared to celebrate the serf Emancipation at his London home, but as the party began, news came of yet another bloody suppression of peaceful Poles. Herzen’s uncompromising reaction to the tragedy in Warsaw was risky, but he swore that he would carry this banner all the way. Passionate articles appeared in 1861 and 1862: “Vivat Polonia!” (1861) asked Russian soldiers to save the nation’s honor by not shooting Poles, and “Mater Dolorosa” (1861) called on repentance from the tsar, who had gone from emancipator to murderer in just a few weeks. Herzen answered messages from officers, who had seen comrades executed for failure to follow orders. Telling them publicly to be strong, he privately believed that an uprising was premature and would fail, with great suffering.

The rebellion began January 23, 1863. Herzen was joined in his outspoken support by his son Alexander and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Pro-Polish essays in The Bell – including “Expiatio!”, “Resurrexit!”, “Lament,” and “A Polish Martyrology” - met with an angry reaction in Russia, from pro-government journalists, soon joined by liberals afraid of losing new freedoms. Along with the precipitous drop in readership for The Bell, Alexander Herzen’s name and work were banned from publication until the Russian uprising of 1905.

In 1912, on the centenary of Herzen’s birth, Vladmir Lenin, wrote an essay “In Memory of Herzen,” saying that despite Herzen’s aristocratic landowner background and his repulsive habit of writing polite letters to Alexander II, he had stood his ground when his defense of Poland saved the reputation of Russian democracy. Lenin’s approval meant that the Communist state established in 1917 would treat Herzen with respect.

In a twist of fate that would have pleased Herzen, he was also revered by Russian dissidents, who had easy access to Soviet-era editions of his writings. During the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, Soviet dissidents borrowed the slogan “For Your Freedom and Ours” that they knew from Herzen’s pro-Polish articles for their demonstrations on Red Square. Alexander Solzhenitsyn believed that a new Herzen was needed to arouse the nation’s conscience once more. He made this point in his novel In the First Circle, which circulated in the Soviet underground. In the 1970s, the philosopher Alexander Yanov slipped some of Herzen’s subversive ideas - about supporting captive peoples - between the lines of an article in the journal Young Communis, but after the article was published he was expelled from the USSR.

Minds and hearts were stirring in Communist Europe in 1974, and it would soon be too powerful a tide for Moscow to restrain, as Poland and its neighbors moved resolutely towards freedom. That would have pleased Herzen immensely, who believed he was on the right historical path. Herzen’s original spur to action was the failed December 1825 rebellion by aristocratic Russian officers. He had no qualms about championing lost causes, but his causes had to be people, like the Poles, not theories. Despite the complex history between Poland and Russia, when the 150th anniversary of the 1863 Polish uprising is commemorated next year, I hope that Alexander Herzen’s steadfast support will be honored as well.


Kathleen Parthé is Professor of Russian and Director of Russian Studies at the University of Rochester. A Herzen Reader, her annotated translations of articles from The Bell, will be published in October 2012 by Northwestern University Press.