Detail of a portrait of Alexander Herzen, painted by Nikolai Ge

It wasn’t easy for me to be an anti-war activist in the 1960s when I was also, like most students of Russian culture, an anti-Marxist. I identified one kindred soul in George Orwell and another in Russia’s greatest autobiographer, Alexander Herzen (1812–70). Given to revolutionary rhetoric, Herzen was also a natural debunker. In Tom Stoppard’s drama about Russian intellectuals, The Coast of Utopia, Turgenev tells Herzen that in the bright new world to come “you could be Minister of Paradox, with special responsibility for Irony.” Ironic radicalism appeals to idealists unwilling, or not yet ready,...


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