Ivan Turgenev (1818-83): His Life, Work and Influence


Derek Offord

6 December 2011

Of all the classical Russian novelists Ivan Turgenev was the first to receive major recognition in Britain and to become well known to an English-speaking public. He was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Laws at Oxford in 1879. By the early twentieth century his status within the Russian literary pantheon was perhaps higher in Britain than it was in his native land. His novels, set on the rural estates of the Russian nobility, were relatively accessible to a Victorian or Edwardian readership familiar with the tradition of Jane Austen. Their omniscient narrator always remained in control of characters who generally prized civility and observed social conventions and whose personal destinies were played out in the drawing rooms of a privileged social class. In Russia, meanwhile, Turgenev’s cosmopolitan outlook, his habit of dispassionate observation and his admiration of beauty in a work of art held less appeal for the socially and politically engaged intelligentsia, a large section of which was preoccupied with the cultivation of a distinctive national identity.

By the mid-twentieth century, however, Turgenev had been somewhat eclipsed in the West too, particularly by the gigantic figures of his near contemporaries Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and even now he may still not have emerged from the shadow that those novelists cast over him. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy not only answered, in different ways, to vital Russian preoccupations. They also appealed to an international readership interested both in the development of the novel beyond the conventions of nineteenth-century Realism and in the possible meanings of the titanic ideological struggles, the civil wars and world wars, the holocaust and the Stalinist purges, of the first half of the twentieth century. Turgenev did not seem to explain epic or apocalypse in such profound or explicit ways as they, or to account for the descent of civilisation into the abyss. For Russians, his failure to accord exclusive status to his backward nation on the fringe of the European world or offer it any special hope could continue to seem disappointing in the Soviet period. Nor was Turgenev’s reputation helped, either abroad or at home, by the perception that he was a cowardly and indecisive man or by his involvement in a ménage à trois with the married French opera singer of Spanish descent, Pauline Viardot, with whom he fell in love in 1843 and whom he followed for the rest of his life.

Perhaps though, a partial rehabilitation of Turgenev is now due, or at least a fresh statement of the sort of defence of him that has been made from time to time in the Anglophone world by such scholars as Isaiah Berlin, Richard Freeborn and Leonard Schapiro. The reappraisal is as timely as ever, I maintain, in a world where people are troubled by ideological polarisation, by the persistent demand for utility in all we do, by the problem of deciding where to set a limit to the authority of natural science, by globalisation, on the one hand, and the emergence of virulent nationalisms, on the other, or simply by the loss of meaning that grand theological or intellectual systems used to offer.

So I intend today to take issue with the dismissive view that – as it has been expressed – Turgenev is ‘a conduit only for studying his class and culture, indecisive and weak in character, a writer with poetic sensitivity and style but nothing to say’.[1] I shall aim instead both to restate his credentials as a crucially important contributor to the classical canon of Russian literature and to consider his continuing international importance from a twenty-first-century vantage point. Concentrating on three of his novels (Rudin, A Nest of Gentry and Fathers and Children), but also referring to his many other types of writing, I shall pursue these aims by examining both Turgenev’s significance as an observer of his place and time and his acuity as a chronicler of timeless human dilemmas. In particular, I shall want to argue that no easy or necessary correlations exist between impartiality, on the one hand, and indifference, frigidity, shallowness and disloyalty to one’s nation, on the other. Aversion to ideological engagement, for example, need not indicate lack of social concern. Artistic integrity and detachment, a refusal to issue social and political prescriptions in a work of art, are not automatically symptomatic of lack of feeling. Skill in describing the surfaces of things does not preclude profound intellectual or psychological insight. Nor is respect for foreign civilisations proof of coolness towards one’s own.

Before exploring what is topical and what is universal in Turgenev’s fiction, though, I shall establish some context by briefly describing Turgenev’s life and literary career and then by explaining the role that literature had come to play in nineteenth-century Russia as a result of the political and cultural conditions that obtained there.


Life and Work

Turgenev was born in 1818 in the province of Oriol, which is situated in the rich agricultural belt of Russia a little over two hundred miles south of Moscow. His father died when he was sixteen. His mother was a harsh landowner who notoriously had two of her serfs sent to Siberia for failing to bow to her as she passed them while they were working in a field. After attending the universities of Moscow and St Petersburg, Turgenev went in 1838 to study at the University of Berlin, where he spent three years. Here, as he later wrote in his Literary Reminiscences and Autobiographical Fragments (1874), he plunged into the ‘German sea’ (XIV, 9).[2] He studied the philosophy of Schelling, Fichte and Hegel, in which Russians of his generation found intoxicating revelations of cosmic meaning that alleviated the plight of educated men who had no outlet for their idealism or creative energy in the suffocating reality of their homeland. After a brief period of service in the early 1840s in the tsarist bureaucracy, he devoted himself to literature, travel and, when he was in Russia, the traditional pursuits of a country gentleman. From 1852 he was confined to his country estate for four years as punishment for an obituary on Gogol which incurred official displeasure. From 1856 he lived mainly abroad, with the Viardots, in Baden-Baden or in Paris, and it was at Bougival, near Paris, that he died in 1883 at the age of sixty-four. Polyglot, widely read and much travelled, Turgenev exemplified the breadth and depth of culture of the best representatives of the pre-revolutionary Russian noble class.

Turgenev’s earliest literary publications, which belong to the 1830s and 1840s, are lyric, narrative and dramatic poems (genres that were then in vogue in Russia). He also wrote ten plays, mainly in the early part of his career, including a comedy in five acts, A Month in the Country, which is still often performed and which in certain respects foreshadows Chekhov’s drama. (It is easy to find in Turgenev’s novels traces of both these literary modes, the poetic and the dramatic, with which he experimented in his youth.) However, as he searched for literary space and a manner of his own, he turned to prose fiction and it was with his Sportsman’s Sketches (more freely translated by Richard Freeborn as Sketches from a Hunter’s Album) that he truly established himself as a writer. This is a cycle of some twenty-five stories, most of them first published in the period 1847-51, which purport to describe the narrator’s experiences during his hunting trips in the countryside. He began also to excel in the genre of the novella, of which his most notable examples are ‘Asia’ (this is the name of the seventeen-year-old heroine), published in 1856, and ‘First Love’ (1860). In the former a middle-aged narrator looks back with regret at the weakness which prevented him from proposing to the girl with whom he had fallen in love as a young man. In the latter another middle-aged narrator casts a nostalgic eye at his teenage persona who had fallen passionately in love with a seventeen-year-old girl, Zinaida, with whom his own father, he eventually discovers, was in fact conducting an affair.

By the mid-1850s, however, Turgenev was turning to the novel and within the space of six years he produced the four examples of this genre on which his reputation mainly rests. In Rudin, the eponymous hero beguiles the drawing-room of the country estate on which he unexpectedly appears with his eloquence and idealism, but eventually reveals an indecisive and self-centred nature as his capacity for emotional commitment is tested by the determined young heroine, Natalia. In A Nest of Gentry, the good-natured but unsettled hero Lavretsky returns to rural Russia after discovering that his wife, Varvara, has been unfaithful to him while they have been living together in Paris. Believing that Varvara has died, he begins to visit, and falls in love with, a young noblewoman, Liza Kalitina, only to have the prospect of happiness that he has glimpsed snatched from him by Varvara’s unexpected reappearance. In On the Eve another resolute young noblewoman, Elena, is unmoved by the attentions of two Russian suitors, the aspiring historian Berseniov and the sculptor Shubin. She leaves her home to follow instead the Bulgarian patriot Insarov, who is driven by a desire to liberate his homeland from Turkish rule.

In Fathers and Children (more commonly translated as Fathers and Sons, but I prefer the more literally correct translation[3]) Turgenev explores tensions both between generations, as his title leads readers to expect, and between social classes. A gulf seems to have opened up between the kindly widowed nobleman Nikolai Kirsanov, who lives with his brother Pavel, and his son Arkadii, who brings home from university his ideologically radical companion Bazarov. (Bazarov is the son of a retired doctor, that is to say, a member of a group of quite low social status in nineteenth-century Russia.) Eventually stability of a sort is restored, as Arkadii settles down in his family nest to married life with a woman of his own social class. And yet the age in which the gentry had flourished is coming to an end, as indicated by the superfluity of the most stubborn representative of the class, Pavel Kirsanov, who at the end of the novel will live out his days in emigration in Dresden.

After the publication of Fathers and Children, it is generally agreed, Turgenev to some extent lost his artistic equilibrium. Stung by criticism of this novel from both ends of the political spectrum, he resorted in his fifth novel, Smoke (1867), to more explicit defence of his own moderate political position and to satirical attacks on both the radical and conservative nationalist wings of the educated class. Finally, in Virgin Soil (1877), he reacted to the development of the revolutionary movement which had manifested itself in the so-called ‘going to the people’ of 1874, an ill-fated attempt by radical students to conduct socialist propaganda and agitation among the peasantry.

Among his female characters, the creations for which Turgenev is most renowned are idealists (Natalia, Liza and Elena all represent this type) who, once inspired, demonstrate resolve and a capacity for self-sacrifice. The type of male fictional character with which Turgenev is most readily associated, on the other hand, is the ineffectual ‘superfluous man’, who was considered so typical of the age of Nicholas I (who ruled from 1825 to 1855). (Turgenev himself gave currency to this expression, which is now retrospectively applied to literary creations as far back as the 1820s.) Rudin is a classic example of this type. At the same time Turgenev interests himself in the ‘positive hero’ (the phrase began to be used in the late 1850s). This type, of whom Insarov is representative, promises to be more capable of decisive action than the superfluous man, but Insarov’s foreign nationality gives rise to a suspicion that in reality the positive hero cannot yet be found among the Russian educated class. Bazarov in Fathers and Children appears at first to represent the latter type but is undone, as we shall see, by romantic feeling.

The typology of Turgenev’s male characters is reflected in the contrast that Turgenev drew in an essay that he wrote in the same period as his major novels on the subject of ‘Hamlet and Don Quixote’. Impressive as he might be in certain respects, Shakespeare’s introspective egoist is ultimately ineffectual. For in Hamlet – as he expresses it in the famous soliloquy from which Turgenev quotes:

‘The native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought

And enterprises of great pitch and moment

With this regard, their currents turn awry/And lose the name of action’ (VIII, 183).[4]

On the other hand, Cervantes’ eccentric Spanish hidalgo, his mind turned by the tales of chivalry that he has voraciously read, is ‘all self-sacrifice’. Deluded he may be, but Don Quixote does live for something outside himself and is therefore capable of action.


The role of Literature in Turgenev’s Russia

It is a commonplace - but a necessary and useful one - to say that in the autocratic Russian state imaginative literature acquired types of importance that it did not possess in societies such as the British. In nineteenth-century Britain, energetic, creative men were able to express uncensored opinions without fear of persecution and to pursue rewarding careers and roles in political, civic, scientific and other autonomous institutions. In Nicholaevan Russia, on the other hand, free expression of opinion, even in private correspondence (which was liable to be opened by the secret police), could incur punishments such as internal exile as well as official disfavour. The professions were poorly developed, the clergy was of low social status, and careers outside the armed forces had to be made mainly within the imperial bureaucracy. In these circumstances imaginative literature, as the least censored medium, became the vehicle for an exceptional proportion of the ideas, ideals, hopes and fears of the small, educated class. A massive share of the nation’s intellectual and spiritual capital, social conscience and patriotic ambition was invested in it. The imaginative writer, and in particular the novelist, therefore came to bear a heavy responsibility.

The development of imaginative literature in Russia as a vehicle for debate about national destiny and social issues is bound up with writers’ changing preferences for certain types of genre and in particular with the turn from poetry to prose and with the emergence of the novel. The novel, after all, was conceived within the nineteenth-century Realist tradition as a capacious form in which the destinies of characters could be traced against a social or historical background. By placing individuals in a broad context, the novelist could prompt readers to reflect on the way in which forces outside our control can impinge on our lives. The novel therefore quite naturally provokes reflection on such matters as determinism and free will, the relative power of environment and individual choice, and the extent of moral responsibility. It is easy, then, to see why this genre assumed exceptional importance in Russia as a vehicle for the discussion of matters of national interest which could not be aired in other ways. As the great historian of Russian literature, D. S. Mirsky, put it:

‘every time a novelist gave his work to the world, it should contain things worth meditating on and worth analysing from the point of view of the social issues of the day’.[5]

The trend I have indicated is manifest in the evolution of Turgenev from narrative poet and dramatist to writer of short fiction and thence to novelist. Turgenev himself highlighted the distinctive properties of the novel for Russian writers of his age when, towards the end of his life, he retrospectively considered his corpus in a preface that he wrote for a new edition of his works. In his novels, he wrote here in 1879, he had consistently striven ‘to portray and embody in the requisite types what Shakespeare calls “the body and pressure of time”’ (XII, 303). Comparison of his novellas ‘Asia’ and ‘First Love’ with his six novels bears out this characterisation of the novel as the broader genre. The novellas are love stories that focus on the development and outcome of a consuming passion. They have a highly charged poetic atmosphere unaffected by external conditions. In the case of ‘Asia’, the story is set outside Russia, in the idyllic Rhineland. The novels, on the other hand, describe – to use Turgenev’s own words again; ‘the quickly changing physiognomy of Russians of the educated class’, that is to say the class that was the chief object of his observation. It is not just that the characters in the novels engage in discussion of issues of great topical relevance to this class. They are also troubled by some contemporary current from the world beyond the tranquil rural heartland of Russia in which all of Turgenev’s novels except Smoke are set. These unsettling currents, moreover, become increasingly contemporary, for the amount of time that elapses between the period in which the novels are set and the date of their publication diminishes. Rudin was written in 1855-56 but it is set, we may surmise from its content, around 1840. The events related in A Nest of Gentry, written in 1858-59, take place mainly in 1842. On the Eve, written in 1859-60, is set in 1853, immediately before the Crimean War (1853-6). However, Fathers and Children, published in 1862, opens just three years before, on 20 May 1859.


Rudin and A Nest of Gentry

What resonance, then, do Turgenev’s major novels have for educated Russians in his own time? How is he addressing in them matters of topical national importance? And how does he also transcend issues in which his Russian contemporaries were interested, offering food for thought to a later readership outside his homeland and beyond the community of literary historians?

In the case of Rudin, Turgenev is reflecting, at an historical moment which he perceives as critical, on the achievements and failures of the generation of the educated class to which he himself belonged. Nowhere in Rudin does he actually mention the Crimean War, because the novel, as I have said, relates to a period more than a decade before the war broke out. Nevertheless, it is relevant to point out, as did Turgenev himself in the preface to which I have referred, that Rudin was written while that war was ‘in full swing’ (XII, 304). For the novel represents an oblique response to Russia’s catastrophic showing in the war, in the middle of which an age came to an end with the sudden death of Nicholas I in February 1855. Defeat in the Crimea at the hands of France and Britain convinced Russians that the confidence they had gained in their nation’s power as a result of their victory over Napoleon in 1812 was in fact ill founded. In truth, they now realised, Russia was backward and stagnant and all her institutions, values and ideas needed to be urgently reappraised. This sudden realisation, and the change in the political and cultural climate that came about with the accession of the humane emperor Alexander II, lent topicality to Turgenev’s assessment of the merits and defects of the ‘people of the forties’, as the members of his generation came to be known.

The ‘superfluous men’ of the 1840s, such as Rudin, are too self-centred to commit themselves whole-heartedly to any project or human companion, too self-analytical to translate vision into reality and too restless to put down strong roots in any locality. Rudin turns out to be more Hamlet than Don Quixote, despite his rhetoric of self-sacrifice and his face-saving comparison of himself to Cervantes’ freedom-loving character at one point in the novel. His inspiring insistence on the need to fulfil a duty (dolg in Russian) is all too easily discredited by his unattractive tendency to run up debts (Russian dolgi), both in the sense that he is perpetually reliant on hospitality for his upkeep and in the sense that he borrows money which we know he will not repay.

And yet the inspiration that Rudins can provide is necessary in stagnant autocratic Russia, even if Rudin himself has failed to realise his potential. Turgenev points up the moral in a substantial final chapter set at a time after Rudin has departed from the estate on which he has been staying and also in a lengthy epilogue in which Turgenev’s mouthpiece in the novel, Lezhniov, passes judgement on Rudin. Admittedly the time of Rudin’s flowering has passed when we see him during his pointless peregrinations at the end of Chapter 12. Nonetheless, he has planted good seeds: he has inspired impressionable youth (Natalia and her siblings’ tutor Basistov) and, in the last analysis, his own contemporary, Lezhniov, too. With its persistent images of warmth as well as cold, flowering as well as decay, Rudin ultimately asserts a need for youthful idealism and for ‘poetry’ in a broad sense of the term. The trouble is that without more prosaic, middle-aged and bourgeois virtues such as determination, enterprise, assiduity and practicality the charismatic but irresolute Rudins of the Russian world – indeed, of any world – may themselves achieve nothing. Perhaps human life in general, Turgenev is telling us, has its seasons, whose cycle cannot be disrupted without mishap.

In A Nest of Gentry, Turgenev again explores the fate of the Russian nobleman of his generation but in this case he deepens his study by reflecting on the nation’s identity and destiny in the light of a debate that had been going on since the early 1840s between so-called Westernisers and Slavophiles. The Westernisers believed that the key to Russia’s well being lay in absorption of the cultural heritage, values, freedoms and intellectual and scientific achievements of western European civilisation. Russia, according to the Westernisers, needed to learn from and catch up with the West. Clearly an enlightened class would have a key role to play in that process. The Slavophiles, on the other hand, preached the merits of the Russian form of Christianity (Orthodoxy) over Catholicism and Protestantism. They also idealised the Russian peasant who, they claimed, embodied Christian virtues of brotherly love, communality and disdain for material wealth. The Slavophiles feared the influx into Russia of the economic and social phenomena that they observed in the West, notably the capitalist mode of production and the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie. The Russian educated class, according to the Slavophile view, had more to learn from the peasantry than the peasantry had to learn from the educated class.

In A Nest of Gentry, the careerist bureaucrat Panshin represents Westernism, though only a shallow version of it. Russia, Panshin believes, lags behind Europe, needs to catch it up, and has no alternative but to borrow from other nations if it is to progress. In any case, all peoples are essentially the same, he thinks, and all that is needed is the introduction of sound institutions. Turgenev’s central male character, Lavretsky, on the other hand, sees Russia as a youthful, independent force and resists the arrogant view that bureaucrats could solve the nation’s problems by imposing on it solutions that they had dreamed up without taking account of local realities. And indeed, as Panshin paces up and down the drawing room discoursing eloquently, a natural, poetic reality in the Russian countryside seems implicitly to undermine his superficial cosmopolitanism or at least to render it irrelevant. The first stars begin to twinkle in the pink sky over the motionless tips of the lime trees and in the dewy coolness of the night a nightingale starts to produce its ringing song.

On a personal level, Lavretsky’s unfaithful wife Varvara and Lavretsky himself act out opposing solutions to the problem of Russians’ relationship to the European world, which so occupied the westernised elite of Turgenev’s generation. Varvara, delighting in her francophonie, loathes life in the Russian countryside and returns at the end of the novel to Paris, where she is in her element. Lavretsky, on the other hand, feels a deep attachment to his native soil. His overriding aspiration, once he has returned from abroad to one of the properties he has inherited, is to learn to plough the land. This attachment is perhaps inbred, for although his father was a nobleman who imbibed the thought of the French Enlightenment and subjected his son to a curious mixture of foreign upbringings, his mother was a domestic serf.

In the last analysis, though, A Nest of Gentry goes beyond issues of Russian identity to more universal questions of duty, self-sacrifice and acceptance of one’s fate. Liza, having urged on Lavretsky the need to offer forgiveness in the Christian spirit and to seek reconciliation with his unfaithful wife, retires to a monastery for the rest of her life. Lavretsky, having searched for meaning, really does in the end abolish self-interest, ceasing to think about personal happiness, which Turgenev pessimistically regards as a luxury, an undeserved state of grace if it visits a person just for a day in a lifetime.


Fathers and Children

It is in Fathers and Children, though, that Turgenev most successfully interweaves national preoccupations and personal destinies and most fully and satisfyingly exposes the timeless significance of what was topical in mid-nineteenth-century Russia. And so I shall spend a little longer on this novel than I have on Rudin and A Nest of Gentry.

In Fathers and Children, Turgenev brings his examination of his nation’s educated class up to the point at which he is writing, that is to say the age of reform precipitated by Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War. Preparations for the greatest of these reforms, the emancipation of the serfs, had been initiated by Alexander II in 1856, when he called upon the nobility to consider the abolition of serfdom from above, lest the institution be abolished from below as a result of peasant revolt. At the same time a new fissure was becoming apparent in the educated elite. An impatient younger generation which included representatives of a social class below the level of the nobility, the so-called raznochintsy, or men of various ranks, was now challenging the nobility and questioning their values.

It is significant that before the arguments between the generations in Fathers and Children begin Turgenev shows his readers the condition of the Kirsanov estate on which the novel is partly set. Indeed it is no doubt because he wishes to describe this estate that Turgenev chooses to open his novel on the edge of it, where Nikolai Kirsanov awaits his returning son Arkadii. By this means Turgenev gives himself an opportunity, while Nikolai, Arkadii and Arkadii’s guest Bazarov travel to the manor house at the heart of the estate, to persuade the reader that serf-owning Russia is in severe economic decline.


There were streams with banks that had been worn away and little pools with scraggy dams, and hamlets with little low huts with dark roofs that in many cases had been half-swept away, and crooked threshing sheds with walls out of woven brushwood, and gaping gateways by deserted barns, and churches, some of brick with plaster that was peeling off in places and some of wood, with bent crosses and ruined graveyards. Arkadii’s heart sank. As if to make a point, all the peasants they encountered were in tattered clothes and riding wretched nags; the brittle willows along the way looked like beggars in rags, with their bark torn off and their branches broken; the cows, emaciated and rough and looking as if they had been gnawed to the bone, were voraciously munching the grass along the ditches. They looked as if they had just managed to tear themselves out of some creature’s dreadful lethal talons. . . (VIII, 205)

The rambling catalogue of defects that the reader sees through Arkadii’s gaze; the accumulation of words suggesting emptiness, penury, dilapidation or disrepair; the numerous Russian nouns used in the passage which have suffixes that are either intrinsically pejorative or pejorative in this context:[6] all these things speak of poor economic management and decay on the eve of the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The fact that the older generation have presided over such economic failure entitles the younger generation to make their broader criticisms. The question, then, is not so much whether change is needed as what sort of change it ought to be.

For the younger generation – that is to say for Bazarov and, in the early part of the novel, for his disciple Arkadii as well – there is a strong case, as Bazarov puts it, for clearing the path, metaphorically speaking. Present structures must be razed to the ground as a prelude to reconstruction. This destructive mission entails rebellion against all received wisdom, preconceptions or prejudices. Those who will undertake the mission are ‘nihilists’, or nigilisty, a term to which Turgenev’s novel gave currency. The nihilists’ rejection of the conventions of the older generation of the nobility is immediately evident in Bazarov’s physical appearance (he has long hair and sideboards), his manners (he is slow to offer his hand to Nikolai Kirsanov and makes a minimal verbal response to his host’s good-natured welcome), his informal linguistic register and his casual demeanour, which so infuriates Arkadii’s uncle, the lisping, delicately manicured Pavel Kirsanov. But the nihilists’ rebellion extends beyond rejection of the superficial forms of gentry culture, its etiquette and fashion, and into the realm of its values as they find expression in attitudes to art and science and in the conduct of human relationships.

As demanded by the young radical thinkers (especially Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov) whose views were becoming influential in the post-Crimean period, ‘nihilists’ demanded that art serve as a vehicle for the dissemination of socially useful ideas. Creation and enjoyment of art that had beauty as its end seemed to such thinker’s irresponsible self-indulgence on the part of the social and cultural elite. A good cobbler or chemist, they said, was worth twenty great artists. Indeed Bazarov echoes this sentiment when he opines that ‘Raphael isn’t worth a brass farthing’ (VIII, 247). Art for art’s sake, ‘aesthetics’ as the nihilists sneered, was exemplified by the poetry of Pushkin. Nikolai Kirsanov, in Turgenev’s novel, loves Pushkin (and quotes him affectionately in Chapter 3). But Bazarov and Arkadii conspire to make him read instead Ludwig Büchner’s Force and Matter, a materialist tract that interprets human actions as the outcome of biochemical processes taking place in the brain. The nihilists also rejected the personal and social relationships that the dominant art forms of the age often celebrated, such as romantic love, the noble ideal of friendship or domestic contentment in the patriarchal family.

What was much more important for the nihilists than the code of values and the sensibility of the gilded elite was the establishment of verities that they supposed were objective, absolute and eternal. In their search for this form of truth they regarded natural science as an invaluable tool. Of course, in order to understand the reverence for natural science among the radical younger generation in post-Crimean Russia we need to bear in mind that Turgenev lived in an age of rapid scientific discovery in such fields as geology, biology, chemistry, electrical science and civil engineering.[7] Some of the technological achievements of the age were celebrated in the Crystal Palace that was built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. The Crystal Palace, incidentally, is a recurring image in Russian literature in this period; it is deployed by Chernyshevsky and Dostoevsky and by Turgenev himself, in his novel Smoke.

Not only did natural science yield practical benefits when applied to such fields as material well-being, transport, town-planning and public hygiene; it also offered a method that promised apparently irrefutable results. In Fathers and Children the principles invoked by Pavel Kirsanov, as a member of the older generation, have to be taken on trust. (Pavel is fond of the word ‘principles’, which he pronounces in an affected French manner.) The ‘laws’ which natural scientists formulate, on the other hand, seem to brook no disagreement because they are derived from facts that have been observed and experiments that have been conducted. Bazarov, as a medical student, is committed to natural science not merely because of the potential utility of the practice of medicine from the point of view of public health but also because he believes that scientific method may be used more generally to advance our knowledge of the human organism and human behaviour as well as the natural world.

However, one way of viewing the world, pressed to its extreme, may preclude another. Thus Bazarov, when he is persuaded by the widowed noblewoman Odintsova to explain his outlook, offers a clinical view that deprives humans of worth as autonomous sentient individuals with their own cherished ambitions, anxieties, affections, joys and sorrows. ‘All people’, Bazarov reflects in Chapter 16:

‘… are alike in soul as well as body: the brain, the spleen, the heart, the lungs are similarly arranged in every one of us; and the so-called moral qualities are just the same in everybody as well: little variations have no significance. We need only one human copy to make judgements about all the rest. People are like trees in a wood; no botanist is going to study every individual birch.’ (VIII, 277)

Perception of Nature itself, as well as perception of human individuals, their feelings and relationships, is affected by this unemotional, depersonalising outlook. For Nikolai Kirsanov Nature is an environment charged with emotional meaning, a repository for nostalgic recollections and a thing of beauty to be celebrated in literature, painting and music. For Bazarov at this point in the novel, on the other hand, Nature is ‘not a temple but a workshop’ (VIII, 236) in which the scientist seeks material that he can study, such as the frogs that Bazarov collects for dissection during his stay at the Kirsanovs.

And yet human life, Turgenev seems to be saying, cannot actually be lived only in accordance with precepts that a natural scientist will accept. Try as he might to talk about Odintsova in purely physical terms, as an exemplary body, a representative of a particular class of mammal, Bazarov finds himself attracted to her in ways that are incompatible with his exclusively analytical views. Thus the late-night conversation between the couple during his visit to Odintsova’s estate in Chapter 17 reveals the awakening in Bazarov of precisely the romantic form of love celebrated by poets of the sort he has scorned. At one point in this conversation Bazarov goes to the window and gives it a push:

“All at once it swung open with a clatter… He hadn’t expected it to open so easily; and besides, his hands were trembling. The dark, soft night glanced into the room with its almost black sky, its faintly rustling trees and fresh scent of free, pure air.” (VIII, 291)

And then, a little later:

“Bazarov got up. The lamp was burning dimly in the middle of the darkened, fragrant, secluded room; the irritating freshness of the night came pouring in through the gently wafting blinds, whispering mysteriously. Odintsova did not stir but little by little a hidden emotion enveloped her… It affected Bazarov too. Suddenly he felt himself alone with a beautiful young woman… “ (VIII, 292)

Readers are bound to ask how the ‘freshness’ that comes in through the window – which has opened up so suddenly and unexpectedly – can be ‘irritating’. Is ‘freshness’ not a concept with entirely positive connotations (‘fresh food’, ‘fresh ideas’, ‘fresh forces’, ‘fresh air’)? The scene as a whole and this oxymoron in particular signal in a flash the collapse of Bazarov’s outlook and the impending destruction of his identity as a self-sufficient positive hero.

By embracing the new scientific outlook Bazarov had acquired a self-confidence which, together with his intelligence, is underlined as soon as Turgenev introduces him to the reader, in Chapter 2 of the novel. In fact the words that Turgenev uses here to draw attention to these two attributes, samouverennost’ (‘self-assurance’) and um (‘intelligence’, ‘intellect’), bear great weight in his Russian text, both because of their position at the end of the paragraph that first describes Bazarov in the novel and because of the marked contrast in their length (the six-syllable samouverennost’ and the monosyllable um). And yet his rational outlook is of no avail to Bazarov in the enchanting situation in which he finds himself in Chapter 17. It simply cannot explain this turn of events. And things soon go from bad to worse for the suddenly vulnerable hero. He is overwhelmed by a sense of his own mortality. He becomes embroiled in a duel, to which Pavel challenges him as a last means of trying to assert his nobleman’s authority over this provocative son of a doctor. Bazarov does win the duel, it is true; but his victory is a Pyrrhic one, for he has succumbed to participation in a ritual that belongs to the obsolescent code of honour of the noble class. Lastly, through carelessness or deliberately – we are not quite sure – Bazarov fatally contracts typhus from blood poisoning while treating a patient.

Perhaps, then, the scientific outlook is of no more use as an explanation of human life in the world than the egregiously superstitious, late-medieval outlook of Bazarov’s mother, which Turgenev describes at length in Chapter 20 and which is plainly untenable to any educated reader in the modern age. Nor is the scientific explanation of human life unsatisfactory simply because it fails in this instance. It has the further defect that it precludes the possibility of meanings of the sort that humans crave. For it would seem to Turgenev that there must be some warming, unifying purpose, however illusory, to make the short human span in an impassive world at all worthwhile. The problem of meaning is still to the fore in the closing lines of the novel, in which we see Bazarov’s senile parents mourning at his grave. ‘Surely their prayers and tears are not fruitless?’ the narrator asks.

‘Surely love, sacred, devoted love is not powerless? Oh no! However passionate, sinful, rebellious the heart hidden in the grave, the flowers that grow on it stare serenely at us with their innocent eyes; they speak to us not only of eternal peace, of the great peace of ‘indifferent’ nature; they speak too of eternal reconciliation and eternal life…’ (VIII, 402)

Now it seems doubtful whether the narrator really trusts in the ultimately comforting idea of acceptance and reconciliation. Perhaps he is reporting what he imagines to be the reflections of Bazarov’s bereaved parents as they cling to a consoling hope that there is indeed meaning. Or perhaps he is merely inviting readers to reflect on this profoundest of questions after they have put the novel down. (It should be noted in this connection that Fathers and Children ends with a form of punctuation more widely used in Russian than in English, a set of three dots indicating an unfinished thought. English translations of Fathers and Children lose something, I suggest, when they end with the finality of a full stop.) Nonetheless, it is important, Turgenev surely wishes us to conclude, that we should find residues of meaning in life beyond proof that homo sapiens is a classifiable species which possesses organs whose functions can be understood and which is prone to behave in certain predictable ways.


Art and politics

There is a quality, or a set of related qualities, in Turgenev’s writing that helps to explain the ability I have been attributing to him to produce novels which have enduring appeal beyond his native land as well as resonance in mid-nineteenth-century Russia. I have in mind Turgenev’s unobtrusiveness, unassertiveness, detachment, objectivity, impartiality and even-handedness, which save his work from seeming dated or partisan. On one level, these qualities determine the nature of Turgenev’s art, but on another level they have also been associated with his social and political stance. I shall briefly discuss these qualities before concluding.

As I hope to have shown through some of the examples I have used, Turgenev writes in such a way as to allow things naturally to reveal themselves to the attentive reader. Characters’ clothes, the condition of their hands, their gestures and the way they speak are rich in meaning. A single epithet, such as ‘irritating’ in the passage I quoted earlier, may speak volumes.[8] The forms of characters’ names that Turgenev uses when he refers to them may be telling too. It is generally by their surnames, for instance, that he refers to Bazarov and Odintsova, proud individuals who are difficult to get to know and who stand apart. For references to the more approachable Arkadii, on the other hand, it is the full form of his forename that is most commonly used. As for the shy, unthreatening Katia, whom Arkadii eventually marries and of whom even the birds are unafraid, the diminutive form of her forename is preferred to the full form Ekaterina.

Turgenev’s subtle authorial unobtrusiveness goes together with an objectivity which prevents his writing from becoming sentimental (but which at the same time may accentuate its emotional impact). As he describes Bazarov’s illness and approaching death, for example, Turgenev almost imperceptibly adds details that distance him from the personal tragedy that is taking place. Bazarov’s illness, we learn: ‘took a rapid course, which often happens with surgical poisonings’ (VIII, 391). The medical reference briefly removes the reader from the personal realm to a more dispassionate clinical realm.

Objectivity is in evidence not just in Turgenev’s habit of distancing himself from a touching scene but also in his striving – as he expressed it – to portray the contemporary types he observed ‘in good faith and impartially’ (XII, 303). It is his success in achieving this even-handedness that accounts for the virulent critical debate that followed the publication of Fathers and Children. Conservative critics accused Turgenev of vindicating the militant radical youth by providing a sympathetic portrait of them in the person of Bazarov. Most radical critics, on the other hand, were angered by what they perceived as a caricature of the younger generation. In fact, Turgenev had endowed a fictional representative of a different generation and class to his own, whose view of art he found repugnant, with a power and integrity that made the character’s death seem tragic, while equally showing understanding of the dilemmas of his own generation and class as they watched their power and privilege ebb away. Art exists, and ought to be practised, Turgenev believed, on a non-partisan level, beyond politics.[9]

However, it was Turgenev’s misfortune that the poetics of objectivity and impartiality that he cultivated aroused much hostility in the age in which he lived, or more particularly in which he wrote his major novels, for this was an age, as I have said, when influential critics demanded utility and partisanship in works of art. It was also Turgenev’s misfortune – and perhaps Russia’s too – that this radical critique of uncommitted art was inextricably connected to a critique of moderate politics. In the conditions of autocratic Russia after the Crimean War – a backward, semi-feudal state in which major reform was long overdue – impartiality in art was widely perceived as implying a loyalist political position. By declining to criticise some aspect of reality a writer could be thought by opponents of the regime to be tacitly accepting the status quo and thereby expressing indifference to oppression, poverty or injustice.[10]

Turgenev’s moderation, as well as his attempts to be dispassionate, tended to alienate prominent contemporaries. Refusing to share the enthusiasm that was widespread in the Russian intelligentsia of the 1860s for the Russian peasant, he believed that the educated class should supply leadership by transmitting the fruits of European civilisation to the common people.[11] The improvements that he expected such leadership to bring about, though, would be slow in coming and limited in scope. The goal to which Lavretsky aspires in A Nest of Gentry, for example, is of a very modest kind: he will seek meaning in the fulfilment of a limited duty by ploughing the land and caring as best he can for his peasants. We can imagine Arkadii, in Fathers and Children, also carrying out incremental improvements to his estate. Meanwhile, his father Nikolai has taken a personal step in the direction of social reconciliation by marrying the serf girl, Fenechka, who has borne his child. In pursuing such limited ambitions Turgenev and his well-meaning noble characters eschew the instantaneous dramatic or even epic solutions offered by revolutionaries, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by conservative nationalists such as Dostoevsky, who liked to imagine that he was revealing to his compatriots the prospect of some millenarian spiritual regeneration. Turgenev’s characters hope merely to transcend themselves for a moment through love of another human being or by apprehending beauty. Or they might find more lasting personal fulfilment in domestic contentment, enjoyment of human companionship, the giving and receiving of warmth and kindness, the satisfaction of doing what one can as well as one can. Or – no mean achievement, this – they might simply live appropriately through the cycles of the human seasons.

Scepticism, toleration, moderation, gradualism, pursuit of the golden mean, fulfilment of a modest civic duty: this cast of mind and this set of aspirations amount to the liberal position on the nineteenth-century Russian political spectrum. It was not a position that attracted much strong support, since the group with which liberalism was associated in the West – an urban entrepreneurial and professional middle class – was underdeveloped and fragmented in Russia. On the contrary, during the very years when Turgenev was at the peak of his literary career writers and thinkers at both the radical socialist and the conservative nationalist wings of the Russian intelligentsia were formulating a bitter critique of liberalism which was later taken up by Lenin. They had no time for ‘small deeds’, as the pursuit of such minor change as proved politically possible came to be disparagingly known. The freedom (svoboda) that liberals prized they regarded as meaningless in an environment where great financial inequality existed. Parliamentary democracy they considered a tool designed to defend the political interests of the dominant economic class. Liberals, in this discourse, were vacuous, vain, self-interested hypocrites who, for all their eloquent, idealistic rhetoric, obstructed significant social change.



Far from having nothing to say, Turgenev records the concerns of the Russian nobility to which powerful currents of the external modern world – capitalism, industrialisation, utilitarianism and socialism – had begun to pose a mortal threat. In fact, he charts the waning fortunes of that class, the final stage of whose decline is poignantly depicted by Chekhov in The Cherry Orchard some forty years after the publication of Fathers and Children. In the process, he resists ideological polarisation and the politicisation of culture. He subscribes neither to a narrow nationalism nor to a glib cosmopolitanism. He challenges the relentless advocacy of utility as a criterion for evaluating what we read or do or create. He rues the loss of poetry in our lives and wonders about its consequences. Perhaps after all what he has to say remains as topical in the twenty-first-century world as in his own and he may still belong to modernity.


Select bibliography

  • Andrew, Joe, Offord, Derek, and Reid, Robert Reid (eds.), Turgenev and Russian Culture: Essays to Honour Richard Peace (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2008)
  • Berlin, Isaiah, ‘Fathers and Children’, in his book Russian Thinkers (London: Hogarth Press, 1978)
  • Freeborn, Richard, Turgenev: The Novelist's Novelist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960; reprinted Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978).
  • Knowles, A. V., Ivan Turgenev (Boston: Twayne, 1988)
  • Peace, Richard, The Novels of Turgenev: Symbols and Emblems, at http://eis.bris.ac.uk/~rurap/novelsof.htm
  • Reid, Robert, and Andrew, Joe (eds.), Turgenev: Art, Ideology and Legacy (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2010)
  • Schapiro, Leonard, Turgenev: His Life and Times (New York: Random House, and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978)
  • Seeley, Frank F., Turgenev: A Reading of His Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  • Wasiolek, Edward, Fathers and Sons: Russia at the Cross-Roads (New York: Twayne, 1993)
  • Woodward, James, Turgenev's 'Fathers and Sons' (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1996)


[1] Greta Slobin, ‘Turgenev Finds a Home in Russia Abroad’, in Turgenev: Art, Ideology and Legacy, ed. Robert Reid and Joe Andrew (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2010), p. 191.

[2] All references to Turgenev’s works that are provided in the text are to the volume and page number in the 28-volume edition of his works, I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v dvadtsati vos’mi tomakh (Moscow and Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo Akademii nauk SSSR, 1961-8).

[3] On both the grounds that ‘children’ is a more literally accurate translation of the Russian deti and that the younger generation in the novel is not represented exclusively by males (we also have Fenechka, Katia, Kukshina, Odintsova).

[4] The quotation is from Hamlet, III, i. Turgenev actually quotes only the first two of these five lines from Shakespeare.

[5] D. S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949), p. 172.

[6] dereven’ki, izbenkami, saraichiki, vorotishchami, kliachonkakh.

[7]  Lyell was arguing that the Earth had developed over thousands of millions of years. Darwin’s Origin of Species was first published in 1859. Mendeleev was to present his periodic table of the elements in 1869. Ampère, Joule, Ohm, Faraday and Maxwell were all active in Turgenev’s lifetime. The first suspension bridges were being built, including the bridge in Clifton over the River Avon.

[8] For a further excellent example see the passage in Chapter 13 of Fathers and Children, where Arkadii and Bazarov visit their fellow nihilists Kukshina and Sitnikov, in which Turgenev tells us that the pages of the ‘thick journals’ piled up in Kukshina’s room (that is to say, the publications in which the most topical ideas were being discussed) are mostly uncut. In other words, Kukshina does not actually read the journals to which she subscribes; unlike Bazarov, she may be a devotee of the new ideas merely because in the circles in which she moves that is a fashionable thing to be.

[9] Or, at least, Turgenev believed this until he wrote his fifth novel, Smoke.

[10] Turgenev was perhaps placed in greater jeopardy of this sort than most because he held such a tragic view of life, which is so memorably captured in the closing paragraphs of On the Eve, where he reflects on the transience of human life and compares death to a fisherman ‘who has caught a fish in his net and leaves it in the water for a while: the fish still swims around, but the net is round it, and the fisherman will snatch it out when he wishes’ (VIII, 166). In Russia’s politically polarised environment this view of life as a brief passage through a vale of tears and Turgenev’s attendant air of resignation could be condemned as likely to paralyse the will to offer political opposition.

[11] Unlike many radical writers and thinkers and also Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Turgenev took a sceptical view of the peasant’s character, despite his humane representation of peasants as individualised beings in his Sportsman’s Sketches. Responding to a cycle of essays in which the socialist émigré Alexander Herzen had reiterated his long-held view that the ‘old world’ of the West was moribund and that the socialistic impulses of the Russian peasant gave hope of a radiant future for his nation, Turgenev bluntly characterised the peasant as instinctively bourgeois. The people whom Herzen worships, he complained in a private letter, ‘are conservative par excellence, and even bear the embryo of a bourgeoisie in a sheepskin coat and a warm, dirty peasant hut, with their bellies always stuffed to the point where they have heartburn and with revulsion for any civic responsibility and individual initiative’ (see V, 51-52 in the part of Turgenev’s collected works cited in n. 2 above that contain his letters).