20 years under Putin: a timeline

Historian Alexander Yanov commemorates the 200th anniversary of the birth of 19th century Russian thinker Alexander Herzen with the dramatic tale of his rise and fall as an essential political commentator, a story that has far-reaching implications for today's opposition movement.



One couldn’t say that the 200th anniversary of Alexander Herzen’s birth was met with great fanfare. The television network Kultura, Novaya Gazeta, Gazeta.Ru, OpenSpace, and Echo Moskvy radio all honored Herzen on this occasion, giving the classic Russian author and the founder of the famous Kolokol (The Bell) journal his due. However, when mainstream state-controlled television attempted to turn the anniversary into an occasion to put Herzen on trial, so to speak, which was, of course, to be expected, Alexander Ivanovich's defenders were nowhere to be seen—neither on TV nor, as far as I can tell, in the blogosphere. I would like to take on this role.

It’s not hard to understand where the prosecutors of mainstream television are coming from: to them, Herzen had two grave, if not fatal, flaws. Not only was he a liberal, but he also couldn’t stand the imperial nationalists or gosudarstvenniki (defenders of the state), as they preferred to be called. If for today’s gosudarstvenniki, liberalism is tantamount to treason (Maxim Shevchenko even called it “a cancerous tumor on the body of the nation”), then an attack on the unity of the empire is downright iconoclasm. If the empire, like power itself, is sacred to the gosudarstvenniki, then breaking up the empire is sacrilege and equivalent to the “dissolution of the nation.” The Poland of Herzen’s day is the same as Ukraine today. In fact, it is the contemporary gosudarstvennki’s conviction that the latter situation is temporary and can be fixed.

And what of Herzen? He put human dignity before the interests of the state (which is what, according to Shevchenko, makes Herzen like a “cancerous tumor”), had no respect for the government, spoke ill of the unity of the empire… From this perspective, our classic author could have easily been the inspiration for Bolotnaya Square's so-called New Decembrists. But he wasn't—the liberal memory is short.

The people behind the wheel understand that the anti-authoritarian attitudes of these New Decembrists do not bode well. In the Kremlin and on state-controlled television they are afraid: what if someone reminded Moscow protesters of their remarkable descent from Herzen and his Kolokol? No, it would be better to discredit Herzen preemptively. If, as Novaya Gazeta's Slava Taroschina so accurately pointed out, "for every Bolotnaya we have a Poklonnaya," [Poklonnaya Hill, site of a recent pro-Putin rally—Ed.] why wouldn't today's gosudarstvenniki beat the New Decembrists to the punch? Why wouldn't they try to hold a Poklonnaya before a Bolotnaya could ever happen?

This must be how the gosudarstvenniki and the people on television have been thinking. Dmitry Kiselev, a host on the Russia-1 channel, aired a show on Herzen's birthday entiteld "Our barbarism in our foreign intelligensia." The title comes from Mikhail Nikiforovich Katkov, the editor and publisher of Moskovskiye Vedomosti, and perhaps the most strident of Herzen's persecutors. We have our exemplary gosudarstvennik in Katkov, and in his representative Kiselev, acting as the chief witness in Herzen's contemporary trial. And finally, we have our war between the "patriots of Poklonnaya" and the "foreign intelligentsia" of Bolotnaya.

One show on the subject did not seem like enough for Kiselev, and he continued Herzen's trial on the program "Historical Process," where that same Shevchenko (diehard proponent of "patriotism") addressed Katkov's language directly to his contemporaries, saying, "You don't give a damn about what the Russian people think. You don't like your country's history, hatred for your country runs in your blood." This is very close to how Katkov characterized Herzen's relationship to "ordinary, ignorant Russians."

Let us get to the bottom of who Herzen was, and who was right in the argument between him and Katkov. If we rely on facts, it will be much easier to understand and judge the arguments. Here are the facts.


The All-Russian Inspector General

By the third year of the Great Reform period, Alexander Herzen  had almost attained the status of a political figure, if not actual power, in Russia. This may seem like an exagerration, but judging by what was written to and about him at that time, it's not a great exagerration. "You are the moving force, you hold the power in the Russian state," wrote his opponent B.N. Chicherin in an open letter. His friends who sympathized with his beliefs did not hide their admiration, either, "Kolokol is the conscience the government can't have and the public opinion that it scorns. Your articles start court cases surrounding long-buried crimes. Kolokol poses a threat to the regime. What will they write in the Kolokol? What will the Kolokol think of this? These are the questions everybody asks themselves, and this is the response that frightens officials of every rank."


In 1852, Alexander Herzen moved to London, where he started the Free Russian Press, and began publishing the Kolokol magazine


Letters printed in Kolokol had the power of ruining administrative careers, shattering gubernatorial seats. The government couldn't recover from its amazement when reports on secret meetings appeared in Kolokol before they even had a chance to reach the Tsar. Although, what was so amazing about that? All of honest Russia, all of the Bolotnaya, if you will, Russia of the time helped Herzen. Everyone understood that he had taken on an enormous burden—to cleanse Russia of inveterate filthy corruption. And since the fish rots from the head down, he had to begin with the Gogolian sheriffs and high-ranked bureaucratic gangsters.

For example, an article called "The Imperial Office and Muravyev-Amursky" exposed a large-scale fraud at the Nerchinsk gold mines that involved the highest rank officials, and documents that were so secret, the Governor-General himself was suspected of being the one who sent them to Herzen. The article concluded on a thundering admonition aimed at the Tsar: “Your Imperial Magesty’s ministers are worthless, thieving bastards.” Finally, a real Inspector General was found among the Russians!

Naturally, not everyone in Russia was happy about this situation. First among them were the municipal officials and gosudarstvenniki working alongside M.N. Katkov. Show me an official and gosudarstvennik who can stand a man who doesn’t mind taking out the trash—and airing it out in public, at that! That son-of-a-bitch is embarrassing the Empire! By calling the Emperial ministers thieving bastards he “undermines the very foundations of our system of government!” In other words, he blasphemes.

At the same time, they couldn’t deny Herzen’s authority. And how could they, considering that, in their own words, “military and civil officials alike, including ones at the very top, quake in fear of him”? His enemies could disparage him, call him the “dark force” and the “liberal goon,” but no matter what they said, the people’s sympathies were unanimously with the liberal Herzen and not the exemplary gosudarstvennik Katkov. Something very unusual would have had to happen in Russia in order for Katkov to win the debate. And it did, in 1863: to the great misfortune of Herzen and Russia, and to the great joy of the officials, who made it out unharmed.


The Warsaw Massacre

On February 27, 1861 Russian Imperial troops opened fire on a rather peaceful and even celebratory demonstration attended by thousands—a kind of Warsaw Bolotnaya. The demonstrators' demands were more than innocent (from the point of view of the Poles, of course): they called for amensty for their political prisoners and the re-opening of the university in Warsaw.

The shots were fired into the crowd without warning. Hundreds were injured, and five were left lying dead on the square, among them, children, gymnasium students. No official apologies were issued following the incident. "The bullets aimed at children, at crucifixes, and ladies," Herzen recounted, "The bullets aimed at hymns and prayers silenced all questions, erased all differences. With tears in my eyes, crying, I wrote a series of articles that the Polish found very touching." When he wrote this, Herzen did not know that these were the articles that would decide his fate in Russia.

Herzen was not the only one outraged at the events in Warsaw: Russian officer Baron Korf shot himself in the forehead out of shame for his colleagues, and on June 7, 1862, another Russian officer, A. A. Potebnya, write to Kolokol in the name of a large number of soldiers from the Warsaw division, saying that "the events of every day bring us closer to either becoming the butchers of Poland, or rising up with her. We don't want to be butchers." Meanwhile, the uprising was growing imminent, and the unvindicated victims of the February 27th shooting became its martyrs.

Unfortunately, when on January 22, 1863 the Polish rose up against the empire with weapons in their hands, Russia neither agreed with the officers of the Warsaw division, nor with Herzen. On the fateful morning of January 23, Russia woke up a new country. It was no longer concerned with fighting the "worthless and theiving bastard," who'd robbed the empire—it had more pressing problems. Russia now directed its ire at the insurgents threatening the unity of the Empire, the property of that very same "bastard." In the face of the "country's collapse," which is how the Polish uprising was presented in the official press, Russia suddenly found itself siding with the municipal administrators and Katkov.