Born the illegitimate son of a wealthy Russian landowner and a young German Protestant in 1812, Alexander Herzen was part of a generation of intellectuals who grew up under the spell of Hegel. There are many strands in Hegel’s thought, which at times seems wilfully obscure, but what most attracted the philosopher’s Russian admirers was his dictum ‘What is real is rational, and what is rational is real.’ For Hegel, history was not a jumble of events but a rational process culminating in the emergence of the modern state. True freedom was not the arbitrary assertion of human will but submission to this process.
That view had a powerful attraction for Russian intellectuals in the 1830s and 1840s, when Hegel’s philosophy was first introduced to Russia, and bewitched many of them from then on. Finding themselves trapped in an autocratic system over which they had no influence, they turned to Hegel because he offered