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Prominent Russians: Ivan Turgenev

October 28, 1818 – September 3, 1883
Painting by Ilya Repin (Image from www.belygorod.ru) Painting by Ilya Repin
(Image from www.belygorod.ru)

Ivan Turgenev was a novelist, poet and playwright, known for his detailed descriptions of everyday life in 19th century Russia. Although Turgenev has been overshadowed by his contemporaries, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, he remains one of the major figures of 19th century Russian literature.

Turgenev realistically portrayed the peasantry and the rising intelligentsia in its attempt to move the country into a new age. There is perhaps no novelist of foreign nationality who more naturally than Ivan Turgenev inherits a niche in a library for English readers.

Turgenev came from a family of wealthy landowners in Orel Province. When Ivan's father died, his abusive mother oversaw the running of the farms and their serfs, and her two sons, Nikolay and Ivan. Turgenev’s cruel, domineering mother was a great influence in his life; her strong personality left traces on his later works. Turgenev portrayed his mother in his fiction as a tyrannous and unreasonable domestic despot. Yet Turgenev understood her real tragedy – that she desperately wanted to be loved by her sons, but the actions to which her warped character drove her repelled them. An entry in her diary, made shortly before her death, suggests that she had realized this herself: “Mother of God, my children, forgive me. And you, oh Lord, forgive me as well – for pride, this mortal sin, was always my sin.” Ivan was even afraid of her as she beat him constantly. She was eager that Turgenev should make a brilliant official career. And later, when he resigned from the Interior Ministry, she showed her disapproval by cutting down his allowance, thus forcing him to support himself by the profession he had chosen.

When his mother died, the estates were settled, and with an income of about $5,000 a year, Turgenev became a wanderer. He had, or imagined he had, very bad health, and the eminent specialists he consulted sent him from one resort to another, to Rome, the Isle of Wight, Soden, and the like.

Turgenev first attended the University of St. Petersburg. Later, at the age of 19, he traveled to Germany and entered the University of Berlin. On his way to Germany, the steamer he was traveling on caught fire and rumors spread in Russia that he had acted cowardly. This revealing experience, which followed the author throughout his life, formed later the basis for his story “A Fire at Sea.” In Germany he concentrated on studying history and philosophy, mainly the works of Georg W. F. Hegel.

After a time working as a civil servant, he met French opera singer Pauline Garcia Viardot with whom he had a lifelong platonic relationship. He lived near her or at times with her and her husband and traveled extensively with them. Viardot remained Turgenev's greatest and unfulfilled love. In his youth he had one or two affairs with servant-girls and fathered an illegitimate daughter, Paulinette.

Turgenev set up residence in France and it was here that he began writing in earnest. With the short-story cycle “A Sportsman's Sketches,” he made his reputation. Turgenev was an enthusiastic hunter. It was his experiences in the woods of his native province that supplied the material for “A Sportsman’s Sketches.” It is said that the work contributed to Tsar Aleksandr II's decision to liberate the serfs. The short pieces were written from the point of view of a young nobleman who learns to appreciate the wisdom of the peasants living on his family's estates. Traveling often between Europe and Russia, Turgenev was arrested and imprisoned for suspicious revolutionary activities. Turgenev's opinions brought him a month of detention in St. Petersburg and 18 months of house arrest.

Photo by A.Nikitin (Image from xix-vek.ru) Photo by A.Nikitin (Image from xix-vek.ru)

The first of “A Sportsman’s Sketches” appeared in 1847, and in the same year he left Russia in the train of Pauline Viardot. For a year or two he lived chiefly in Paris or at a country house at Courtavenel in Brie, which belonged to Madame Viardot. In 1850 he returned to Russia. There he found Dostoevsky banished to Siberia and Belinsky dead. Turgenev himself was under suspicion by the government on account of the popularity of “A Sportsman’s Sketches.” For praising Gogol, who had just died, he was arrested and imprisoned for a short time, and for the next two years he was kept under police surveillance. In the meantime he continued to write. The end of the Crimean War made it possible for him to travel to Western Europe again and by that time he had become recognized the foremost living Russian author.

Though Turgenev never graduated from any university, while studying in Berlin he became convinced that Russia needed to be Westernized. Lacking an interest in religious issues like his two great compatriots, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, he represented the social side of the reform movement. In 1855 he met Leo Tolstoy, who had returned to St. Petersburg from the siege of Sevastopol. Tolstoy had not become a famous writer yet, but Turgenev recognized his literary genius. "I'm not exaggerating when I say that he'll become a great writer," he wrote to Tolstoy's sister. In 1857 he traveled with Nikolay Nekrasov and Tolstoy to Paris, and showed the younger novelist all the sights. "Turgenev is a bore," Tolstoy recorded in his diary in Dijon. The relationship between these two great writers remained tense, although they never broke contact and also had family ties. Turgenev's mother had given birth in 1833 to a daughter, whose father was rumored to be Dr. Andrey Bers, who became Tolstoy's father-in-law. Once Turgenev visited Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana Estate and demonstrated a can-can to Tolstoy’s children. "Turgevev’s can-can… sad," was Tolstoy's reaction.

During the period of 1853 - 1862 Turgenev wrote some of his finest stories and novellas and the first four of his six novels: “Rudin” (1856), “A Nest of Nobles” (1859), “On the Eve” (1860) and “Fathers and Sons” (1862). The central themes in these works were the beauty of early love, failure to reach one's dreams, and frustrated love, which partly reflected the author's lifelong passion for Pauline.

Turgenev’s masterpiece “Fathers and Sons” deals with nihilist philosophy and personal and social rebellion.

"Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces itself to this: Great God, grant that twice two be not four." (from “Fathers and Sons”)

Hostile reaction to “Fathers and Sons” (1862) prompted Turgenev's decision to leave Russia. As a

Portrait by P.Sokolov (Image from bioserge.narod.ru) Portrait by P.Sokolov
(Image from bioserge.narod.ru)

consequence he also lost the majority of his readers. The novel examined the conflict between the older generation, reluctant to accept reforms, and the idealistic youth. In the central character, Bazarov, Turgenev drew a classical portrait of the mid-nineteenth-century nihilist  the word was invented by the author.

"A nihilist is a man who does not bow to any authorities, who does not take any principle on trust, no matter with what respect that principle is surrounded." (from “Fathers and Sons”)

Later the temperament of a nihilist found a number of different manifestations: the terrorist, the anarchist, the atheist, the materialist, and the communist. “Fathers and Sons” was set during the six-year period of social ferment, from Russia's defeat in the Crimean War to the Emancipation of the Serfs. The central character is the young medical student and nihilist Evgeny Bazarov, who has been described as the 'first Bolshevik' in Russian literature. "I share no man's opinions; I have my own." These words became central in Turgenev’s life. The figure of Bazarov was conceived on the Isle of Wright, where Turgenev had spent three weeks in 1860.

In “Virgin Soil” Turgenev embodied the 'positive hero' Vasily Solomin. This was a new type of character, who would liberate Russia from her backwardness. At the heart of the book, full of discussions about literature, aesthetic life, emancipation, beauty and patriotic principles, is a love story in which a young woman must choose her way in life…

"You have only to look at Solomin - a head as clear as the day, and a body as strong as an ox. Isn't that a wonder in itself? Why, any man with us in Russia who has had any brains, or feelings, or a conscience, has always been a physical wreck. Solomin's heart aches just as ours does; he hates the same things that we hate, but his nerves are of iron and his body is under his full control. He's a splendid man, I tell you! Why, think of it! Here is a man with ideals, and no nonsense about him; educated and from the people, simple, yet all there... What more do you want?" (from “Virgin Soil”)

After “Fathers and Sons” failed, Turgenev lived first in Germany, and then he moved to London, where “Fathers and Sons” had had great success. He settled finally in Paris, where he lived until his death. He became a corresponding member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in 1860 and a Doctor of Civil Law at Oxford University in 1879.

"The whole life of Andrey Nikolaevich was passed in the prompt performance of all the ceremonies established from remote times, in strict conformity with all the customs of the ancient, orthodox, holy Russian existence. He rose and went to bed, ate and drank and bathed, was merry or angry (though the second, in truth, rarely happened), even smoked his pipe and played cards (two great innovations!), not as it occurred to him to do after his own fashion, but after the law and ordinance of his fathers -- exactly and formally." (from Turgenev's “Desperate,” written in Bougival in 1881)

Among Turgenev's close friends in France was the writer Gustave Flaubert, with whom he shared

Painting by K.Makovsky (Image from www.turgenev.net.ru) Painting by K.Makovsky
(Image from www.turgenev.net.ru)

similar social and aesthetic ideals. They both rejected extremist right and left and stuck to a nonjudgmental, if somewhat pessimistic, depiction of the world. Struggling with his last, unfinished work, Turgenev wrote to Flaubert: "On certain days I feel crushed by this burden. It seems to me that I have no more marrow in my bones, and I carry on like an old post horse, worn out but courageous."

Turgenev's later works include the novellas “A King Lear of the Steppes” (1870) and “Spring Torrents,” which rank with “First Love” (1860) as his finest achievements in the genre. His last published work was a collection of meditations and anecdotes, entitled “Poems in Prose” (1883).

The writings of Turgenev have been made familiar to those unacquainted with Russian by French translations and almost all of Turgenev’s works are available in English. There are many versions in English, among which we may mention the translation of the "Nest of Nobles" under the

name of "Lisa," by Ralston, and "Virgin Soil," by Ashtoil Dilke. There is also a complete and excellent translation by Mrs. Garnett.

For example, to the English reader “On the Eve” is a charmingly drawn picture of a quiet Russian

household, with a delicate analysis of a young girl's soul, but to Russians it is also a deep and penetrating diagnosis of the destinies of the Russia during the fifties of the 19th century. From this novel on, Turgenev creates a special female character known now as “Turgenev’s young woman.”

Elena, the Russian girl, is the central figure of the novel. In comparing her with Turgenev's other women, the reader will remark that he allows us to come into close spiritual contact with her. When Elena stands before us, we know all the innermost secrets of her character; her strength of will, her serious, courageous, proud soul, her capacity for passion, all the play of her delicate idealistic nature troubled by the contradictions, aspirations, and unhappiness that the dawn of love brings to her - all this is conveyed to the reader by the simplest and the most consummate art of Turgenev.

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