First complete edition of Herzen’s main work and “great historical classic” (Sviatopolk-Mirskii). Scarce: we could not trace any example at auction in or outside Russia in recent decades.
A revolutionary democrat, essayist and ardent critic of the Russian Empire’s official ideology, Alexander Herzen (1812-70) resolved to write his autobiographic novel Byloe i dumy after the death of his wife in 1852, completing its last parts as late as in 1868. The novel is considered the pinnacle of his literary work and one of the key works of the Russian 19th century literature. In his History of Russian Literature, Dmitri Sviatopolk-Mirskii notes that this work “contains the broadest, most truthful and most penetrating overview of the Russian social and cultural history of the first half of the nineteenth century” (our translation, as in all cases below).
In this synthesis of autobiography, historical chronicle and political journalism, unique for Russian literature of that time, Herzen shows how major contemporary political and economic events defined the spirit of the era and influenced the formation of his own personality. In some parts of such introspections, he recounts events of his life with exceptional frankness, “sometimes surprising even to modern readers” (Zubkov).
When Byloe i dumy first came out in the mid-1850s, Herzen was at the height of his popularity: his uncensored editions, printed at his Free Russian Press in London and smuggled to Russia, were known “among all Russian intellectuals, from Alexander II and his ministers to the radical-minded opposition” (Zubkov). In literary circles, the novel proved to be an immediate success for its democratic ideas and artistic qualities. Tolstoy, for example, remarked that Herzen is even “not inferior to Pushkin” and wrote in a letter in 1888: “I read Herzen and greatly admire him but regret that his works have been banned” (Zubkov). The Western readers hailed Byloe i dumy as a fascinating expression of a typically Russian view of history and at the same time as a source of extremely interesting and valuable information about Russia. Excerpts from the book were immediately translated into English, French and German. Some parts of Byloe i Dumy were published at Herzen’s Free Russian Press in London, mostly in his almanac Poliarnaia zvezda.
Herzen also undertook separate editions of different parts throughout the 1860s, and after his death, the last fragments were published by his heirs. The entire work however appeared only after the October Revolution as a part of Herzen’s complete works [Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem] published in Petrograd in the late 1910s-early 1920s. This separate book edition was printed at the German publishing house Slovo, which was founded a year earlier by Iosif Gessen and became greatly popular among the many new Russian emigres in Europe. In the preface, F. Rodichev indicates that this edition is intended for “the future free Russia as there will be no other edition than the Soviet ones in Russia”. The critic M. Aldanov noticed the completeness of Slovo’s edition in Sovremennye zapiski [Contemporary Papers], especially compared to the post-Revolution complete works: “the main and sensational feature of the new Berlin edition” is the part containing Herzen’s story of the personal intimate drama with his wife – something he intended to publish only after his death.
Dmitrii Sviatopolk-Mirskii, Istoria russkoi literatury s drevneishikh vremen do 1925 goda / Per. s angl. R. Zernovoi. London, Overseas Publications Interchange Ltd, 1992, pp. 331339. Kiril Zubkov, Gertsen. Byloe i dumy.//Polka academy (online). M. A[ldanov], [Landau M.A.] [Retsenzia.:] Gertsen A. I. Byloe i dumy. Novoe izd.: V 5 t. Berlin: Slovo, 1921. // Sovremennye zapiski. 1921. Kn. IV. pp. 373-376.