Russians in London: Mikhail Bakunin

Mikhail Bakunin, 1863

Mikhail Bakunin, anarchist and revolutionary, already had a reputation in England before his arrival in London in 1861. The story of his alleged links with the Russian state reached the press in the form of an article in the Morning Advertiser, ‘Was Bakunin a Russian Agent or Not?’ (23 August, 1853), written by the conservative journalist Francis Marx, with the notorious Russophobe David Urquhart standing somewhere close behind him. This was followed by interventions by Herzen and Karl Marx. Herzen’s description of these events in My Past and Thoughts (pp. 473-7) directly accuses Marx of calumny. This may seem unfair, and it was probably in part at least the product of the enduringly bad relations that existed between the two men, but it has to be said that Marx’s letter to the Morning Advertiser is somewhat equivocal, and the whole episode still seems a little murky.

In any case, this spat, following Bakunin’s involvement in the revolutionary movement in 1848, ensured that he remained a well known figure in Europe, even as he languished first in the Peter and Paul Fortress in Petersburg, then in Shlusselburg prison, and finally in Siberia, after he was handed over to the Russian authorities in 1851. This probably explains why his arrival in London was announced in the regional press: ‘Michael Bakunin, the celebrated Russian refugee, has arrived in London. A deputation of working men last week waited on the indomitable exile, introduced by M. Herzen, and presented him with an address of welcome’ (Newcastle Courant, 31 January 1862, p. 6).

Such notices notwithstanding, the ‘celebrated refugee’ participated very little in English life. ‘No further contact between Bakunin and the English labor movement […] is recorded’, as Carr states, (Bakunin, p. 258), and there is little evidence of other English contacts. It seems likely that Bakunin kept in touch with F. P. Koe, the clergyman he met on his way to San Francisco, as he later uses two different postal addresses associated with Koe:  Koe’s own Blackheath address  (‘2 Wettcombe Park Road [he means Westcombe – SJY], for remitting to Fanny Althorp’; Pis’ma, p. 96), and the address of Koe’s future brother-in-law (‘Reverend H. Swabey Esqu., 6 Suffolk Street, Pall Mall, for remitting to Mr G. Sanders’; Mervaud, p. 535). Even here, however, there is no record of an actual meeting.

This lack of engagement with local culture and people may be one of the reasons for the paucity of information on Bakunin’s English period (the same problem we saw when dealing with Herzen). One could also suggest that there have also been too many ideological axes to grind where Bakunin is concerned, and perhaps that his personality has lent itself to psychobiography rather than the traditional kind. Whatever the reason, the result is that there have been fewer attempts to dig out the practical details of his life than one might expect.

We do, however, get a very vivid picture of the larger-than-life Bakunin, newly escaped from Siberia and fresh from an epic journey across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, bursting Herzen’s house on Westbourne Terrace on the evening of 27th December 1861 and berating the host, his close friend Nikolai Ogarev and the wife they shared, Natalie Ogareva, for sitting around eating oysters rather than working (not as decadent as it now sounds – oysters were, after all, cheap working class food at the time).

The site of 10 Paddington Green

Bakunin’s correspondence tells us that by 20 May 1862, he was living at 10 Paddington Green (Pis’ma, p. 82), where he remained for the rest of his visit. Where the house stood there is now a (relatively recent looking) building site, and although the charm of Paddington Green is still apparent, its present-day situation next to the Westway and the Marylebone Fly-over has left it with a rather forlorn air.

There is some confusion about where he lived before Paddington Green. In the biography, Carr states that prior to moving to Paddington Green, Bakunin had lodgings at ‘Grove Terrace, St John’s Wood’ (p. 253). The Victorian London Streets Index reveals no such address. There was a Grove Terrace in Holy Trinity Paddington, but as Westbourne Terrace is in Holy Trinity parish, it seems unlikely to be the location Carr has in mind. He asserts that Bakunin moved to Paddington Green to be ‘in closer proximity to Orsett House’. In his earlier book The Romantic Exiles, he calls it Grove Road (p. 222) – this is now the top end of Lisson Grove, and in terms of relative distance from Orsett House, it seems more probable. However, in a letter to Adolf and Maria Reichel dated 15 February 1862, Bakunin gives his address as 14 Alfred Street, Bedford Square (Mervaud, p. 533). This is now the bottom end of Huntley Street, south of Torrington Place, on the edge of the UCL campus, and as there is actually some evidence in favour of this location, I would suggest this is more likely to be accurate than either of Carr’s unreferenced options.

Bakunin’s letters do not give much detail of his activities, but it is evident that life revolved around his revolutionary acquaintances. One Wednesday in 1862 he writes to Herzen to apologize for not coming to dinner, as he is entertaining a Pole who has just come from Garibaldi (p. 81). On 17th June, he says he will be be at Herzen’s between 4.30 and 5.30pm, after visiting Mazzini. There are repeated references to his meetings with Mart’ianov, the peasant narodnik who had arrived in London in 1861 (see Carr, Bakunin, pp. 276-9). We also know that he was involved – in a rather slapdash manner, it seems – in various conspiritorial activities, sending semi-coded letters back to Russia via visitors to Orsett House. A police spy who attended one of Herzen’s open Sundays established that a young merchant called Vetoshnikov would be carrying letters on his return to Russia. He was duly apprehended, and in the fall-out that followed, Nikolai Serno-Solovevich, one of the leaders of Land and Liberty, the populist revolutionary society, was one of those to be arrested (Carr, p. 272). Other attempts at contacting sympathizers at home seem to have had equally unfortunate consequences.

In an undated letter to Herzen, Bakunin refers to a copy of the Daily Telegraph he is sending that includes ‘an article about Russia and another about the Riot in Hyde Park’ (Pis’ma, p. 84). This refers to the Garibaldi riot of 28th September (and repeat performance the following Sunday). The Workingmen’s Garibaldi Committee, organized by the secularist George Jacob Holyoake, gathered on 28th September to demonstrate in support of Garibaldi and against Papal authority and Napoleon III’s occupation of Rome. Speakers including Charles Murray (later of the Manhood Suffrage League) and Charles Bradlaugh (founder of the National Secular Society four years later). The event quickly descended into serious clashes with Irish republicans (see Gilley, pp. 703-15). I assume Bakunin’s interest was sparked by the show of support for his friend Garibaldi, rather than by hopes of revolutionary potential among the English; the first disturbance, although extensive, was brought to a swift end by rain which ‘came down in torrents, and scattered the mob’ (Daily News, 29th September 1862, p. 3).

The next sentence of the same letter also tells us something about Bakunin’s character: he notes that Herzen owes him 10s., which does seem slightly cheeky, given his earlier rather blithe request for $500 to be sent to him in New York (Pis’ma, p. 79) and the fact that Herzen was basically supporting him. Carr makes a great deal of Bakunin’s financial irresponsibility as a source of Herzen’s ‘growing irritation’ (p. 254). He depicts the relationship between Bakunin and Herzen as breaking down completely under the strain of practical considerations and ideological differences, the coarse, hot-headed, unrealistic Bakunin antagonizing and repelling the cool, pragmatic and decorous Herzen. Clearly, the two men had taken divergent paths both ideologically and in terms of personal grooming, and they did have serious disagreements, which resulted in Bakunin contributing far less to Herzen’s journal Kolokol (The Bell) than might have been expected. But overall a more nuanced impression of their relationships emerges from their own writing than Carr allows.

I really warmed to Bakunin from reading his letters to Herzen. They do not suggest to me that he lacked awareness of the reality of the situation, and while there may have been a good deal of sadness on the part of both men  at how things had worked out, I would question Carr’s characterization of their relationship as descending into ‘bitterness’  (pp. 256-7). Bakunin’s affection for Herzen is always apparent, along with a real sense that he is struggling to reconcile his love for his old friend with their political differences. On 17th June 1862, he writes: ‘I am to blame, Herzen. Through my innate clumsiness a harsh word escaped my lips when there was no harsh feeling in my heart […] You should know, Herzen, that my respect for you has no limits, and I sincerely love you’ (p. 82).

Herzen too shows his abiding affection for the other man. In My Past and Thoughts he paints a very warm-hearted picture of Bakunin’s energy, and records admiringly that humorous anecdotes were told long after he left London about his ability to ‘upset all the consolidated notions and religiously observed forms of English middle-class life’ (p. 574), noting also that the landlady and maid at Paddington Green were both ‘madly devoted’ to Bakunin. He no longer shares Bakunin’s revolutionary aspirations, and has made a firm decision in favour of propaganda rather than action, but he evidently deeply regrets the rift this has caused, and takes responsibility for the weakness of his reason and the fact that sometimes ‘the better influences of love, friendship and indulgence’ won out (p. 578).

The final quarrel, again over Bakunin’s insistence on action and Herzen’s reluctance to follow suit, coincided with Bakunin’s departure from London to participate in the (unsuccessful) Polish insurrection in Spring 1863. Bakunin never made it to Warsaw, but was at least reunited with his wife in Stockholm on 8th April. A brief return to London in October 1863 perhaps fortunately coincided with Herzen’s absence, and Bakunin at least restored good relations with Ogarev – the latter’s conciliatory letter of 12 October shows his good will and inclination towards Bakunin’s view of things (Pis’ma, pp. 147-50), which Herzen never quite managed to match. Bakunin and his wife then moved to Italy. His last visit to London was a year later. He met Herzen, and, on 3rd November 1864, Marx; they discussed the failed Polish uprising, and Bakunin probably offered assistance to the First International, which had been inaugurated a month previously. His idea and Marx’s of what that assistance should involve were undoubtedly very different, however, which may explain why it didn’t ultimately amount to very much (Carr, pp. 321-3).


E. H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (New York: Vintage, 1961; first publ. 1937)
E. H. Carr, The Romantic Exiles: A Nineteenth-Century Portrait Gallery (London: Victor Gollancz, 1933)
Robert M. Cutler, A rediscovered source on Bakunin in 1861: The Diary of F. P. Koe (originally published in Canadian Slavonic Papers, 35.1-2 (1993), 121-30)
Robert M. Cutler, Bakunin and the Psychobiographers: The Anarchist as Mythical and Historical Object, Klio (St Petersburg; in press)
M. P. Dragomanov, ed., Pis’ma Bakunina k A. I. Gertsenu i N. P. Ogarevu (Geneva: Ukrainskaia tipografiia, 1896)
Sheridan Gilley, ‘The Garibaldi Riots of 1862’, The Historical Journal, 16.4 (December 1973), 697-732
Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, trans. Constance Garnett (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1982)
Michel Mervaud, ‘Lettres de Bakunin a Adolf Reichel et a Adolf Vogt’, Revue des etudes slaves, 56.4 (1984), 495-571

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