Case Study

Russian Youth and Masculinity (19th c.)

Why I Taught the Source

Autobiographical writing as a rich source for the exploration of European childhood and youth is self evident; in many cases, it is one of the most nuanced ways to understand historical actors' earliest experiences. 1 Such is the case in Russia, where there emerged a new genre of writing on childhood and youth in the middle of the 19th century. Russian authors tended to paint bucolic portraits of their own childhood years on the gentry estate, often spent away from the tyrannical clutches of parental discipline and ensconced instead in the pleasures and freedoms of roaming through domestic corridors and wild gardens. These narratives of Russian childhood and youth often provide poignant examples of how individuals came of age amidst a backdrop of radical insurgence, peasant emancipation, and decades of repression. Many of these narratives, written by members of Russia's first generations of intelligentsia, include descriptions of rebellion against their elders and an attachment to their peers. My Past and Thoughts, written by Alexander Herzen—the first self-proclaimed Russian socialist—fits precisely into this genre of 19th-century Russian writing. It is in this historical context that I use this particular text in my course on Modern Russia.

How I Introduce the Source

My undergraduate class on modern Russia provides an introduction to the history of the tsarist era from the time of Peter the Great in 1682 to the end of the Romanov dynasty in 1917. Over the course of the semester we discuss and debate the nature of autocracy, Russia's relationship to Europe, the emergence of the intelligentsia and radicalism as well as the building of the vast Russian empire. We also concentrate on the everyday lives of rulers, peasants, workers, intellectuals and student radicals, by using primary documents, whether memoirs, poems or political tracts. The course proceeds both chronologically and thematically, with special attention paid to gender, including the subject of this discussion: masculinity and youth.

Reading the Source

An excerpt of Alexander Herzen's memoir My Past and Thoughts is placed in the syllabus about mid-way, during the session where we discuss the emergence of the first generation of Russia's intelligentsia and Russia's relationship to "the West," both imagined and real. We read the text with particular attention to Herzen's own self-conscious telling of his youth and coming of age: both as an intellectual and as a young man. I remind students that this is a story written decades after Herzen's own experiences as a highly influential anti-autocratic author took place.

At the outset, I draw students' attention to the ways in which Herzen's autobiography both conforms to and challenges a larger, emergent 19th-century genre in Russian literature, that is, narratives on childhood and youth. 2 Herzen's writing, on the one hand, tends to reject the notion of a bucolic domestic experience so important in the Lev Tolstoy-inspired "myth" of Russian childhood as a golden age of freedom on the estate. On the other hand, it is through his friendship —alternately Romantic and erotic—with Nikolai Ogarev that Herzen is able to capture some of the joys of childhood and magic of first love. In Herzen's own depictions, it was the oppressiveness of his father's house that ultimately pushed him into the arms of his friend and inspired his coming of age from boyhood to youth. It was this friendship with Nikolai Ogarev—the Russian poet, historian, political activist, and fellow-exile and collaborator of Herzen—which serves as a point of departure for understanding homosociability (i.e., same-sex relationships) and masculinity among Russia's first generation of intelligentsia. While George Mosse argues in Nationalism and Sexuality that romantic friendships between men declined by the early part of the 19th century, young Russian men expressed their affections for one another well into the 19th century and beyond. 3

Another aspect of my introduction involves contextualizing the text in a variety of ways, the literary and the historical. I explain the propensity of 19th-century authors to script their own childhood and youthful experiences in Romantically-tinged language (a practice evidenced in Herzen's descriptions not of his own domestic experiences, but certainly of his friendship with Ogarev). Moreover, by the time we encounter Herzen, everyone is well versed in the social, cultural and political history of Russia up until that point and with the various intellectual struggles within Russian educated society to keep up with the "West," most often embodied in France (but sometimes England).

A close reading of the text provides insight into the ways in which gender roles and norms of sociability are historical in nature and change over time. The logistics of teaching Herzen's text includes a formal, small-group, in-class discussion exercise. About 30 students in all divide themselves into small groups of 5-6 and study the relevant passages included in their course readers. They are instructed to focus on the language and tone of Herzen's depictions of his friend and what it might reveal about the nature of male friendship in 19th-century Russia. (As most of the readings in the course are primary sources, including other autobiographical writings, my students already know how to conduct a close reading of a historical document.) I draw their attention to the role that "Sparrow Hills"—the site of Herzen and Ogarev's boyhood vow of love—has in Herzen's memory. "Flushed and breathless. . . the sun was setting, the cupolas glittered. . . a fresh breeze blew on our faces, we stood leaning against each other and, suddenly embracing, vowed in sight of all Moscow to sacrifice our lives to the struggle we had chosen [toppling the autocracy]. (62)" Through a close reading of these passages, students learn how Herzen's memories of coming of age became intertwined with his love of Ogarev, his loss of childhood innocence, and their commitment to political activism. These passages illustrate what friendship meant for Herzen: it was more powerful than love and its intensity was reflected in the beauty of the natural surroundings. During his youth, male friendship and homosocial relations signaled for Herzen the highest of callings-—more powerful than romantic love. The power of this friendship was only heightened by their frequent outings, where they basked in their connection with the natural surroundings and in their writing.

What emerges from their analyses is a picture of two young boys meeting and declaring their devotion to one another, a devotion that—according to Herzen—included a politically self-conscious desire to overthrow the autocracy together. A particular theme that we examine is the homoerotic language with which students are often unaccustomed. We examine such as passages: "Nick attracted me. . . [there was] something kind, gentle and pensive about him. . . . His heart beat as mine did. . . . With all of the impulsiveness of my nature I attached myself more and more to Nick, while he had a quiet, deep love for me (pages 58-60)." Elsewhere Herzen declares that "I had long loved Nick and I loved him passionately (64)." These descriptions provide us with the opportunity to discuss 19th-century social and gender norms. I explain that closeness between young men was part and parcel of their coming of age experiences.


The one real difficulty that I encountered with this exercise was the challenge of getting students to think historically about interpersonal relationships, patterns of sociability, and gender expectations. For many students, the notion of male romantic, expressive friendship as a legitimate topic of historical investigation was a new idea. Interfering with their ability to think historically was a contemporary prejudice against homosexuality. Therefore, it is essential to define "homosociability" and to emphasize it political potential especially among youth who contest the social order.

1 There is a whole literature on childhood and youth, which relies on memoir as a key historical source. On the subject of masculinity and friendship, see my book Masculinity and Autocracy and the Russian University, 1804-1863 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), especially chapter 4.

2 On Childhood in Russian literature see Andrew Wachtel, The Battle for Russian Childhood (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990). The title of Lev Tolstoy's seminal text is Childhood, Boyhood, Youth.s

3 Some scholars, included German historians, have described how intimate male friendships gave way to a collective love for the nation in the early years of the 19th century. On this see most prominently, George Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: respectability, and abnormal sexuality in modern Europe (New York: H. Fertig, 1985).

How to Cite This Source

Rebecca Friedman, "Russian Youth and Masculinity (19th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #273, (accessed August 10, 2021).