W riting in 1948 in his one-man-band magazine Politics, in which he introduced some excerpts of Alexander Herzen's My Past and Thoughts, Dwight Macdonald observed sadly that this author and his writings "have never caught on with American readers." He continued, "Most people to whom I mention Herzen have either never heard of him or confuse him with another nineteenth-century founding father, Herzl, or with the physicist Hertz, he of the waves."

Theodor Herzl produced a utopian novel, Altneuland, about the once and future destiny of European Jews, and is the only such imaginative writer whose efforts have resulted in the founding of an actual state (whether utopian or, for some of its subjects, the reverse). So he stays in our everyday discourse whether readers chance to recognize his name or not. Herzen composed a literary monument, of memoir and philosophy and polemic, that is the nineteenth-century nonfiction equivalent of Leo Tolstoy's. But he is neglected because the work of early Russian cultural revolutionaries is still refracted by the notorious dystopia that ensued. The shroud that has fallen over Herzen was not so much lifted as shaken out by Sir Tom Stoppard earlier this year. In three plays - Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage, collectively titled The Coast of Utopia - he in effect demanded that audiences at the Royal National Theatre, in London, commit about nine hours of their leisure to a reconsideration of the roots of the Russian Revolution. Onstage were Marx and Bakunin, Pushkin and Turgenev, Kossuth and Mazzini. But the commanding figure, emotionally and morally and intellectually, was Alexander Herzen. This - I believe - is because it is impossible to reflect on his life and prose without a piercing sense of a missed opportunity, of the engagement or encounter that might have made all the difference - in history and in legacy. Such fated conjunctures or non-conjunctures have been a Stoppardian motif from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to the more modern Travesties. There is every hope that Lincoln Center, in New York, will soon invite Trevor Nunn, the director of the London production, to bring the trilogy to this country - and perhaps prove Dwight Macdonald to have been too pessimistic.

Unless I have mistaken what seems an obvious allusion, The Coast of Utopia must refer to the famous stage setting for The Winter's Tale, which mentions the no less problematic sea-coast of Bohemia. (Patrick Leigh Fermor, in his delightful and deceptively innocuous ambulations through Mitteleuropa between the wars, spent some good literary time trying to establish whether or not Bohemia had ever had a shore.) Bohemia is to most of us a territory only of the mind, even if it is more accessible and more desirable than Utopia. To Stoppard, it may be more than that. Raised by a Czech Jewish refugee mother and a roast-beef Anglo-Indian British officer (who gruffly told the boy, "Don't you realize that I made you British?"), he is well able to think of Bohemia as the province adjacent to Moravia and Slovakia and in an unending battle over nationhood and identity, and also as the remnant of a drowned world in which Jewish Europe was lost almost as utterly as Atlantis. He has both an actual and an aesthetic kinship with Václav Havel, a fellow Czech whose first vocation was that of playwright and whose satirical but highly practical political revolution was partly "staged" during the convulsions at the Magic Lantern theater, in Prague, in 1989.

This might give Stoppard an imaginative sympathy with Herzen, who was born in Moscow in the year of cataclysm 1812, and whose life's crucial date was 1848, a year of no less seismic European moment. Herzen had a snobbish and costive Francophile Russian father, and a German mother who may never have been granted the official status of full-dress Russian Orthodox "wife."

Boyhood memories of growing up in slave-owning and serf-holding families have a tendency, not at all discreditable, to resemble one another. (Perhaps all such households were happy and unhappy in the same ways.) Herzen's account of his guilt and shame, which I believe to be the finest of them all, is distinguished by two things. First, he had a startling ability to convey the less shocking but more telling details. And second, he realized while still at a tender age that his mother was a victim of his father's gross cruelty in the ownership of human property - not, of course, in being herself a slave but in being held captive and complicit in a frigid exile. In any event, Herzen's awareness of the varying degrees of servitude was acute.

Slave-owners usually take into account the insurance premium of slavery, that is, the maintenance of wife and children by the owner, and a meagre crust of bread somewhere in the village for the slave in old age. Of course this must be taken into account; but the cost is greatly lessened by the fear of corporal punishment, the impossibility of changing their condition, and a much lower scale of maintenance.

I have seen enough of the way in which the terrible consciousness of serfdom destroys and poisons the existence of house-serfs, the way in which it oppresses and stupefies their souls. Peasants, especially those who pay a fixed sum in lieu of labour, have less feeling of their personal bondage; they somehow succeed in not believing in their complete slavery. But for the house-serf, sitting on a dirty locker in the hall from morning till night, or standing with a plate at table, there is no room for doubt.

This makes an almost perfect complement to our American knowledge of the distinction between house slave, field slave, and sharecropper. It also insists on the critical yet unquantifiable element of humiliation. (In reviewing Peter Kolchin's comparison of the Russian and American systems, C. Vann Woodward wrote that many Russian plantation holders believed that serfs had a different and subordinate "racial" character; the corpses of serfs were believed to prove the theory by having black bones.)

Brought up on the strains of glory emitted by the heroic memory of Russian defiance of Bonaparte in the year of his birth (strains that we associate with Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky but that to him were "my cradle-songs, my nursery stories, my Iliad and my Odyssey" - many of these legends transmitted by the faithful in the slave quarters), Herzen, at only thirteen or so, was struck by the Decembrist revolution of 1825. This broke the silence imposed by czarism and chauvinism. He was to live the rest of his life in an attempt to be true to what he then registered.

The accounts of the rising and of the trial of the leaders, and the horror in Moscow, made a deep impression on me; a new world was revealed to me which became more and more the center of my moral existence. I do not know how it came to pass, but, though I had no understanding, or only a very dim one, of what it all meant, I felt that I was not on the same side as the grapeshot and victory, prisons and chains.

Even in the bleaker years of eighteenth-century Russian autocracy (as we might do well to remember) there had been a general revulsion against the death penalty and an approximate social consensus on its abolition. That the gallant rebel officers of December 1825 should be put to death seemed excessive even to Herzen's frigid father. But he, and many other sophisticated and literate Russians, had underestimated the mirthless, cowardly, and petulant Czar Nicholas, who chose to celebrate his coronation with a feast of executions. The impression created in the mind of the boy was ineradicable, and for the rest of his life he reserved a special hatred and contempt for all - not just slobbering and insecure monarchs - who commanded the firing squad, manned the gibbet, or wielded the lash. Herzen and his friend Nicholas Ogarev went out to the Sparrow Hills, overlooking Moscow, and swore an undying oath to resist. In retelling the episode Herzen was quite aware that there was pathos and posturing on the part of the two ephebes. But he managed to salvage the elements of dignity and daring, and to write a few imperishable paragraphs on the tricky subject of passionate boyhood friendship.

The next phase was predictable enough: student rebellion, estrangement from family and respectability, sexual adventure, and - this being the reign of Nicholas - spells of jail time and finally banishment to Vyatka, near Siberia. There was something curiously modern yet especially Russian about the police state of that period. It spread a net of spying and informing, and it employed the means of terror. But it discouraged, for example, journals from praising the Czar and thus risking the impertinence of even passing a favorable comment on his right to rule. In this stultifying context the impact of Schiller and Voltaire on young minds, and the influence of revolutionary events in France and Ireland and Italy, can be imagined. Or rather, need not be imagined, because Herzen re-created them so well for us. Evidently, the best recourse was emigration, and the magnet city - or Mecca - was Paris. Herzen, perhaps fatefully endowed by now with much of his father's fortune, quit Moscow in 1847, was consumed by the victories and defeats of revolution in 1848, removed himself from the mainland to London in 1852, and died in 1870, on the eve of the Paris Commune and the related events that brought the once romantic European left under the sway of his rival Karl Marx. Had he not quarreled with Marx and yet been flatteringly mentioned by Lenin, he might have been obliterated by later Soviet scholarship. As it was, official scholastic pedantry doggedly tried to claim the man who once proposed socialism not as something "scientific" but as something that could cut with the grain of human nature and Russian society.

In his highly controversial book Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism, 1812-1855 (1961), Martin Malia wrote that the theory "was born amidst a class more archaic than the bourgeoisie - the gentry or aristocracy (dvorianstvo), a class in which, according to all recognized canons in such matters, Marxist or otherwise, socialism ought not to take up abiding historical residence." Later Herzenists, including Stoppard, have challenged this materialist view, because it led Malia to misconstrue Herzen's later writing as having been too limited by the circumstances of his upbringing. Without having to take a side on this, one ought to see from the excerpts above that the life of the gentry, involving direct daily contact with serfdom and brutality, was fairly certain at least to instill the stirrings of abolition even in its averagely sensitive sons and daughters. No, the real contradiction in the Herzen position was better stated by Isaiah Berlin, not usually considered a friend to the dialectical method but here writing about what he knew best.

A leading representative of the dissident Russian gentry, [Herzen's] socialist beliefs were caused less by a reaction against the cruelty and chaos of the laissez faire economy of the bourgeois West - for Russia, then in its early industrial beginnings, was still a semi-feudal, socially and economically primitive society - than as a direct response to the agonising social problems in his native land: the poverty of the masses, serfdom and lack of individual freedom at all levels, and a lawless and brutal autocracy. In addition, there was the wounded national pride of a powerful and semi-barbarous society, whose leaders were aware of its backwardness, and suffered from mingled admiration, envy and resentment of the civilised West. The radicals believed in reform along democratic, secular, Western lines; the Slavophils retreated into mystical nationalism, and preached the need for return to native "organic" forms of life and faith that, according to them, had been all but ruined by Peter I's reforms, which had merely encouraged a sedulous and humiliating aping of the soulless, and, in any case, hopelessly decadent West.

Berlin wrote this in 1968, preoccupied with the contemporary problems of Russian and Eastern European dissidents (later in the essay he referred to the old czarist order in Russia as an "evil régime," anticipating a celebrated later description of its successor). But scan this again through our current optic, and what are we reading but an incisive depiction of today's Middle East?

Herzen had no more chance of "Westernizing" Russia - this being correctly described as the "radical" rather than the "organic" and theocratic conservative option - than a secular Saudi dissident would have of Westernizing Saudi Arabia today. But after escaping the reactionary miasma that enveloped Europe following the disastrous defeat of the 1848 revolutions, he managed to organize an impressive moral and political opposition. In London he founded a radical journal - The Bell - that printed essays and analyses of a high literary order and that achieved a certain prestige and circulation even within Russia itself. Herzen received a stream of guests, was forever emptying his wallet to support penniless exiles and vagrant impostors, and kept in touch with equivalent groups from other oppressed nations. He stands comparison in this respect with Mazzini and Kossuth, both of whom also ended up in London, which in those days was, paradoxically, the most conservative capital in Western Europe and the one most hospitable to freedom fighters.

Attempting, perhaps, to resolve the contradiction between radicals and Slavophiles, he produced a thesis that the world of the Russian rural commune, with its egalitarian spirit and commitment to honest work, was a socialist society in utero. This places him in company with Owen, Fourier, Saint-Simon, and the others who urged a "harmonious" and "natural" (if somewhat conformist and insipid) ideal of "community." Marx and Engels described these and similar projects as "utopian," and they by no means employed the word as a compliment. They preferred the more forbidding word "scientific" when outlining the radiant future. They also, Marx in particular, distrusted Herzen for being a Russian. (One day soon I intend to write a study of the way that Marx and Engels abominated all things Russian and rather admired all things American. It will require a stronger title than the obvious Ironies of History.)

By a smaller irony, Herzen's nemesis was someone whose character and temperament he held in some esteem. Mikhail Bakunin, the charismatic anarchist and internationalist, was a colossal figure in those days, appearing not to know the meaning of fear, let alone prudence. In 1862 Herzen, rather against his better judgment, allowed himself to be persuaded that a revolution in oppressed Poland might help to ignite a sympathetic uprising in Russia. But Bakunin's hectic and irresponsible adventurism - marvelously captured by E. H. Carr in The Romantic Exiles - ensured that everything went off at half cock, with the Polish revolutionaries being assured of help that never came, and with their brave Russian co-thinkers vulnerable to charges of treason. A terrible Slavophile backlash ensued, with every liberal in Moscow accused, in effect, of aiding and abetting a Polish terrorist scheme. Nothing is more lethal to liberal and socialist aspirations than competing xenophobias, and among the chief victims of this calamity was The Bell, which lost almost all its circulation. Herzen's remaining years of life were poisoned by financial exigency (he finally stopped being an easy touch for any posturing revolutionary mendicant), by malicious accusations from hard-faced radicals that he had sold out, and by a series of personal tragedies and sexual humiliations that, to be appreciated, simply have to be read in full. (Vladimir Nabokov is said to have admired My Past and Thoughts so much that he tried retrospectively to alter its title to something less pompous-sounding.) More annihilating than anything, one suspects, must have been Herzen's realization that from now on the initiative would come not from those who spread emancipating ideas but from the sanguinary clash of nations and classes. This has been the fate of conscientious radicals throughout history, but nobody ever recorded the emotions of disaster and disillusionment with more care and scruple and poetry than Herzen did.

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