Ivan Turgenev

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Turgenev, Ivan Sergeevich


Born Oct. 28 (Nov. 9), 1818, in Orel; died Aug. 22 (Sept. 3), 1883, in Bougival, near Paris; buried in St. Petersburg. Russian writer.

Turgenev’s mother was V. P. Lutovinova by birth; his father was S. N. Turgenev, an officer who had fought in the Patriotic War of 1812. Turgenev spent his childhood on his mother’s estate in the village of Spasskoe-Lutovinovo, Orel Province. The dvo-rianstvo (nobility or gentry) culture of this estate was a striking contrast to the tyranny that Turgenev’s mother exercised over her serfs. Turgenev enrolled in Moscow University in 1833. The following year he transferred to the University of St. Petersburg, where he studied in the department of literature of the faculty of philosophy, graduating in 1837 with the degree of candidate.

Turgenev’s earliest extant work, the dramatic narrative poem Steno (1834; published 1913), centered on a demonic hero. Turgenev wrote poetry beginning in the mid-1830’s. His first published work was a review of A. N. Murav’ev’s A Journey Around Russia’s Holy Places (1836). The first poems published by Turgenev, “Evening” and “To the Medici Venus, ” appeared in Sovre-mennik (The Contemporary) in 1838.

From 1838 to 1840, Turgenev intermittently continued his education abroad. At the University of Berlin he studied philosophy, Greek and Latin, and history. In Berlin and later in Rome he became close friends with N. V. Stankevich and M. A. Bakunin. Turgenev passed the examination for the degree of master of philosophy at the University of St. Petersburg in 1842. That year he took another trip to Germany. Upon returning to Russia he served in the Ministry of the Interior as an official in charge of special assignments, holding this post from 1842 to 1844.

In 1843, Turgenev became acquainted with the French singer P. Viardot. His friendly relations with her and her family, which continued throughout Turgenev’s life, had an important influence on his works; his attachment to Viardot was to a great extent responsible for his frequent travels and later for his prolonged residence abroad.

Turgenev’s acquaintance with V. G. Belinskii, whom Turgenev met in late 1842, was of great importance in his life. Turgenev soon established close ties with Belinskii’s circle and with the St. Petersburg literary figures, including A. I. Herzen, who were aligned with the Westernizers. Belinskii’s critiques and personal convictions were instrumental in consolidating Turgenev’s antagonism toward serfdom and toward Slavophilism. The stories “The Bailiff and “Two Landowners” in Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches (1847–52) reflected the influence of Belinskii’s Letter to Gogol, which Belinskii wrote during a stay abroad with Turgenev in 1847.

Turgenev’s narrative poem Parasha, published in 1843, was highly praised by Belinskii. It was followed by the narrative poems A Conversation (1845) and Andrei and The Landowner (both 1846). These works were physiological sketches in verse that linked Turgenev to the Gogolian school. There are two heroic types in Turgenev’s poetry: the first a passionate, rebellious dreamer characterized by inner anxiety and indefinite aims, and the second a skeptic akin to Onegin and Pechorin. Typical traits of Turgenev’s narrative poems are the longing expressed for what is lofty, ideal, and heroic, and the melancholy irony with which the poems’ homeless wanderers are treated.

Turgenev’s short stories of this period, “Andrei Kolosov” (1844), “Three Portraits” (1846), and “The Duelist” (1847), explored an issue first dealt with by the romantics—the relations between the individual and society. In the second half of the 1840’s, the figure of the skeptical hero, by now an epigone of Pechorin, had lost all significance for Turgenev. He now favored a hero whose will and feelings were spontaneous and free. At this time, Turgenev also published critical articles and book reviews, including reviews of M. Vronchenko’s translation of Faust, and of plays by N. V. Kukol’nik and S. A. Gedeonov. In these articles and reviews, Turgenev, like Belinskii, viewed literature as having a lofty social aim.

Turgenev’s earlier dramatic works included the genre plays Without Money (1846), Lunch at the City Marshal’s (1849; published 1856), and The Bachelor (1849) and the social drama The Boarder (1848; staged 1849, published 1857). These works, which in the manner of Gogol depicted humble, ordinary people, also had elements found in Dostoevsky’s psychological approach, as seen in the figure of Kuzovkin in The Boarder. The plays A Chain Is Only as Strong as Its Weakest Link (1848), The Provincial Lady (1851), and A Month in the Country (1850; published 1855) expressed Turgenev’s characteristic dissatisfaction with the idle, introspective gentry intelligentsia and suggested a new hero—the raznochinets (a member of no definite class). Whereas Turgenev’s earlier dramas had dealt with persons oppressed by serfdom, his later plays depicted with psychological acuteness the conflicts between different social groups and different viewpoints, for example, between the gentry and the raznochintsy. Turgenev’s dramaturgy prepared the way for A. N. Ostrovskii’s socially oriented plays and for Chekhov’s psychological dramas with their subtle lyricism and their keen sense of man’s alienation.

A Sportsman’s Sketches was Turgenev’s most important early work. It significantly influenced later Russian literature and brought its author worldwide renown. The work was translated into many European languages, and by the 1850’s, when it was in effect banned in Russia, it had been published in many editions in Germany, France, England, and Denmark. According to M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, A Sportsman’s Sketches “laid the foundation for an entire literature whose subject was the common people and their needs” (Sobr. soch., vol. 9,1970, p. 459). The sketches focus on the peasant serf, who is intelligent and talented but deprived of rights. Turgenev revealed the sharp contrast between the soullessness of the landowners and the lofty inner qualities of the peasants, who were one with the majestic, mysterious, and beautiful world of nature. Turgenev’s masterful depiction of the peasants as thoughtful, sensitive human beings who were worthy of respect was an innovation in Russian literature. Turgenev was also the first in Russian literature to portray peasants as distinct individuals with an inner life as refined, subtle, complex, and profound as the life of nature itself.

Turgenev’s concept of the Russian peasant was of great importance for the development of advanced social thought in Russia. Progressive readers saw in A Sportsman’s Sketches a convincing argument for the abolition of serfdom. In the 1870’s the Narod-niki (Populists) viewed the work as a revelation of the peasants’ moral loftiness and their state of poverty. A Sportsman’s Sketches influenced the depiction of the common people in Russian literature, as seen in works by L. N. Tolstoy, V. G. Korolenko, and Chekhov. The work was the first of Turgenev’s writings to be published in Nekrasov’s Sovremennik, and Turgenev soon became one of the journal’s most outstanding contributors.

In February 1852, Turgenev wrote an obituary on the death of Gogol in which he called Gogol a great writer who “delineated an entire period in the history of our literature” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 14,1967, p. 72). The obituary served as a pretext for Turgenev’s arrest and banishment under police surveillance to the village of Spasskoe for a year and a half. The true reason for this official action was Turgenev’s criticism of serfdom in A Sportsman’s Sketches. At this time, Turgenev wrote the novellas Mumu (published 1854) and The Inn (published 1855), which, like A Sportsman’s Sketches, were critical of serfdom.

In 1856 the novel Rudin was published in Sovremennik; it was a unique summing-up of Turgenev’s thoughts on the progressive hero of the times. Before the publication of Rudin, Turgenev wrote novellas and short stories depicting the idealist of the 1840’s from various viewpoints. The novellas Two Friends and A Quiet Spot (both 1854) presented negative portrayals of vacillating, introspective characters. In contrast, the short stories “A Hamlet of the Shchigry District” (1849), “The Diary of a Superfluous Man” (1850), “Iakov Pasynkov” (1855), and “A Correspondence” (1856) revealed the tragedy of the superfluous man and his tormenting alienation from the world and other people.

In Rudin, Turgenev manifested a dual view of the superfluous man: the author acknowledged Rudin’s contribution in arousing the civic awareness of the Russians of the 1840’s, but at the same time he made it clear that in the context of Russian life of the 1850’s the mere propagation of lofty ideas was insufficient. Turgenev had a sensitive perception of the demands of the contemporary age and, as was typical in his works, he integrated his hero with these demands. The Russians of this period awaited a progressive, civic-minded hero, and Rudin belonged to the generation that prepared the ground for such a figure. At this time, N. G. Chernyshevskii and N. A. Dobroliubov encouraged the protest against serfdom that was implicit in many negative psychological traits of the superfluous man.

The novel A Nest of Gentry (1859) deals with Russia’s historical destiny. Lavretskii, the hero, is more ordinary than Rudin, but he is closer to the life of the common people and has a better understanding of their needs. Lavretskii considers it his duty to ease the lot of the peasants. However, for the sake of his personal happiness he abandons his civic obligations, although happiness too eludes him. Liza, the heroine, seeks to sacrifice herself for humanity but finds such sacrifice impossible in the real world, which constantly offends her moral sense. In a unique protest, Liza enters a convent; she thereby rejects life, although in a passive way. The figure of Liza is surrounded by the radiant aura that Saltykov-Shchedrin noted in “every sound [word] of this novel.” Whereas Rudin depicts the idealist of the 1840’s, A Nest of Gentry marks that idealist’s departure from history’s stage.

The publication of A Nest of Gentry and of the novellas that preceded it, Faust (1856) and Asya (1858), engendered a polemic in the press about renunciation, duty, and egoism. Turgenev’s views on these issues differed from those of the revolutionary democrats, who focused on the weakness and indecisiveness of the superfluous man and on his lack of a sense of civic responsibility. Chernyshevskii discussed this problem in a critique of Asya contained in his article “A Russian at a Rendezvous.” The ideal of the revolutionary democrats was a morally upright man in whom there was no conflict between personal needs and social obligations. The dispute about a new Russian hero was of profound importance at this time in view of the impending reforms and in the context of an atmosphere that was increasingly conducive to revolution.

Sensitive to the demands of the times, Turgenev presented in the novel On the Eve (1860) a positive hero capable of action, the Bulgarian raznochinets Insarov, an upright man who concentrates all his moral forces on seeking to liberate his native land. Turgenev paid tribute to heroes of this type, although he considered them narrow. In the article “When Will the Real Day Arrive?” (1860), which dealt with On the Eve, Dobroliubov observed that Insarov is not fully delineated or made believable. Consequently, in Dobroliubov’s view, the main figure in the novel is Elena Stakhova, who embodies the “civic need for action, a living action, and contempt for outdated principles and passive virtues” (Sobr. soch., vol. 3,1952, p. 36).

For Turgenev, Russia was soon to bring forth active heroes; to Dobroliubov, this meant revolutionary heroes. Turgenev could not accept Dobroliubov’s strongly topical interpretation of On the Eve, nor could he agree with the radical conclusions that Dobroliubov drew from the novel. Turgenev opposed the publication of Dobroliubov’s article, and when it was published on Nekrasov’s insistence, Turgenev left Sovremennik. He left the journal mainly because as a liberal he did not believe in the necessity of revolution; in V. I. Lenin’s words, Turgenev “was repelled by the peasant democracy of Dobroliubov and Chernyshevskii” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 36, p. 206). At the same time, Turgenev had respect for the lofty spiritual qualities of the revolutionary democrats, whom he saw as the heralds of Russia’s future.

In the novel Fathers and Sons (1862), Turgenev continued his exploration of Russia’s new man. The work does not merely deal with the contrast between two generations; it also depicts the conflict between the two ideological trends of idealism and materialism and the inevitable and irreconcilable clash between the old and new sociopolitical forces. Fathers and Sons reveals the painful, complex dissolution of former class relations, as well as the conflicts between the landowners and the peasants, who no longer adhere to their former obligations. The novel also reveals the antagonism existing between members of the dvorianstvo and the raznochintsy, as well as within the dvorianstvo class itself. This process of dissolution is presented in the novel as a destructive force that disrupts the secluded life of the aristocracy, breaks down class barriers, and alters the time-honored way of life.

The alignment of characters in Fathers and Sons and the development of the action indicated where the author’s sympathies lay. Turgenev had a dual view of the novel’s hero, the nihilist Bazarov, and carried on a polemic with him concerning Bazarov’s attitudes toward nature, love, and art. Yet Bazarov, who denied all values, was presented as a manly figure with consistent convictions who served a great, important cause. Bazarov’s rational opinions were in contrast with his intense, passionate nature. The Kirsanov brothers, who upheld old-fashioned principles and who represented the best members of the dvorianstvo, were depicted as inferior to Bazarov in moral force and in their understanding of life.

The tragic love of Bazarov and Odintsova in Fathers and Sons, which revealed the split between Bazarov’s inner character and his rational opinions, emphasized his moral superiority over the best representatives of the dvorianstvo. In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev gave a sober, serious appraisal of the role of Bazarov, who was depicted both as a man standing on the threshold of the future and as “a strange counterpart of Pugachev.” Turgenev in the novel also appraised the position of the common people in the late 1850’s. He was aware of the alienation between the people and the progressive intelligentsia, who had undertaken to defend the people’s interests. To Turgenev, this alienation was one of the reasons for the tragic position of the progressive intelligentsia at this time.

Turgenev’s contemporaries reacted sharply to the publication of Fathers and Sons. The reactionary press accused the author of seeking to gain the approval of the young generation, and the democratic press reproached him for slandering that generation. The critic D. I. Pisarev, on the other hand, viewed Bazarov as a faithful depiction of the new hero. Turgenev wrote to K. K. Slu-chevskii concerning Bazarov: “If he is called a nihilist, by this is meant ‘a revolutionary’” (Poln. sobr. soch. ipisem: Pis’ma, vol. 4,1962, p. 380). Nevertheless, a certain ambiguity in Turgenev’s view of Bazarov has engendered disputes lasting to the present time concerning the author’s real attitude toward his hero.

After Fathers and Sons, Turgenev went through a period of doubt and disillusionment. In an open dispute with A. I. Herzen, he defended his humanist views. The novellas Phantoms (1864) and Enough (1865) were pessimistic, reflective, and melancholy. In Turgenev’s novels published after Fathers and Sons, the role played by the hero became increasingly less important. The novel Smoke (1867) focused on the upheavals in Russian life after the reforms, during a period when “the new was accepted badly and the old had lost all its force” (Poln. sobr. soch. i pisem: Soch., vol. 9,1965, p. 318). The novel has two heroes: Litvinov, whose tragic love reflects both the uncertainty of life in contemporary Russia and Litvinov’s own contradictory, vacillating relations with others, and Potugin, an advocate of Western civilization. The novel is anti-Slavophile and is sharply satirical in tone. Turgenev mocks both the representatives of the revolutionary emigration (the “Heidelberg arabesques”) and the higher circles of the Russian government (the “Baden generals”). In the novel, Turgenev condemns Russian life after the reforms, comparing it to smoke (hence the novel’s title). He views the political opposition not as foreign in origin but as engendered by Russian life. These authorial views distinguish Smoke from other antinihilist works of the period.

Turgenev’s novella Torrents of Spring (published 1872) was written in the form of the melancholy reminiscences of a superfluous man. In the novella A King Lear of the Steppes (published 1870), Turgenev meditated on the common people and on the essence of the Russian character. These two works prepared the ground for the most important work of Turgenev’s last period, the novel Virgin Soil (1877).

Virgin Soil was published at a time when Russian intellectuals were engaged in heated discussions on history and art. The novel deals with the Narodnik (Populist) movement. The author clearly respected the heroic impulses of the young Narodniki and their spirit of self-sacrifice, but he did not believe in the possibility of revolutionary changes. Turgenev gave the romantic realist Ne-zhdanov, who takes part in the movement of “going to the people, ” the traits of a Russian Hamlet. To Turgenev the sober and practical Solomin, who believes in gradual progress by means of small useful deeds, is closer to reality. In the ideological disputes among the novel’s representatives of liberalism (Sipiagin), conservatism (Kallomeitsev), and Narodnichestvo, or Populism (Ne-zhdanov, Marianna, and Solomin), Turgenev was clearly on the side of the Narodniki. In Virgin Soil, Turgenev finally became reconciled with the younger generation.

Late in life, Turgenev wrote a number of short works, including Poems in Prose (part 1, published 1882). In the poems “The Threshold” and “In Memory of Iu. P. Vrevskaia, ” he praised self-sacrifice in the service of the common people.

While living in Paris in the 1870’s, Turgenev became closely acquainted with leading Narodniki, including G. A. Lopatin, P. L. Lavrov, and S. M. Stepniak-Kravchinskii. Turgenev contributed money to the Narodnik journal Vpered! (Forward!). He had a keen interest in Russian and French literature and art and belonged to the circle of the most important French writers of the time, including Flaubert, Zola, Daudet, and the Goncourt brothers, who praised him as one of the greatest contemporary realist writers. At this time and later, Turgenev’s mastery of refined psychological analysis was unquestionably an influence on Western European writers. Mérimée regarded Turgenev as one of the leaders of the realist school, and Sand and Maupassant acknowledged a debt to Turgenev. In the Scandinavian countries, Turgenev’s novels, particularly Rudin, were especially popular, attracting the attention of a number of prominent playwrights and prose writers. Swedish critics noted the influence of Turgenev in Strind-berg’s plays. Turgenev was also instrumental in popularizing Russian literature abroad.

Turgenev’s contributions to literature, scholarship, and art were highly valued in France and England. In 1878 he was elected vice-president of the International Literary Congress in Paris, and the following year he was awarded the honorary degree of doctor of civil law at Oxford University. During trips to Russia in 1879 and 1880, Turgenev took part in readings of literary works for the benefit of the Society of Lovers of the Russian Word. In 1880 he made a speech in praise of Pushkin, and was hailed by all of progressive Russia.

Turgenev’s works marked a new stage in the development of Russian realism. Their sensitivity to topical issues, their profound interpretation of events and human nature, and their authenticity of depiction made them a unique chronicle of Russian life from the 1840’s to the 1870’s. Turgenev’s contribution to the development of the Russian novel was particularly great. While continuing the traditions of Pushkin, Gogol, and Lermontov, Turgenev created a new biographical, personal novel that centered on a hero who typified his times. Turgenev’s profound, objective analysis of the superfluous man was further developed in works by Goncharov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov.

In his novels, Turgenev analyses the hero and the other characters, appraising them from a social and historical standpoint. The hero represents a certain world view, and his fate depends on his success in defending this view. The other characters, who express their own views through arguments and personal clashes, interrelate with the hero and bring into focus the strong and weak aspects of his convictions and character.

Women occupy a special place in Turgenev’s prose. Turgenev’s heroines—upright, uncompromising, sensitive, pensive, and passionate—expect, in the spirit of their times, an original, heroic male counterpart. Consequently, Turgenev gives his favorite heroines the right to pass judgment on the heroes. The development of love is predominant in Turgenev’s novels. Love is viewed as the source both of the highest happiness and of tragedy; emphasis is placed on the tragic significance of love.

An incompatibility between personal happiness and a sense of civic obligation is reflected in the conflicts between the hero’s inner nature and his outwardly expressed convictions. This incompatibility expresses Turgenev’s own views that the conflict between progressive figures and society was insoluble in Russia under serfdom and that the human personality could not manifest itself freely under the same conditions. Turgenev’s profound understanding of life’s conflicts and of human nature, his approval of progressive social trends, and his faith in a social ideal coexisted with his realization that such an ideal could not be achieved during that historical period. This realization also explains the duality in Turgenev’s attitude toward his heroes: he respects their lofty moral qualities but questions the correctness of their viewpoints. The same awareness that the social ideal was unattainable at the present time was at the basis of the melancholy, lyric atmosphere surrounding both Turgenev’s heroes, who do not succeed in realizing their convictions, and his heroines, who strive to accomplish positive deeds.

In Turgenev’s works, nature serves both as the background for the action’s development and as one of the chief means of characterization. Turgenev’s concept of nature fully reveals his world view and his aesthetic principles. To Turgenev, nature was an indifferent, imperious, egoistic, and overpowering force (see Poln. sobr. soch. i pisem: Pis’ma, vol. 1,1961, p. 481). Nature in Turgenev’s works is simple and direct in its naturalness, but infinitely complex in its mysterious, elemental manifestations, which are often inimical to man. However, nature in its joyful moments is for man a source of happiness, energy, spiritual loftiness, and self-awareness.

Turgenev was a master of subtle shadings and of the dynamics of lyric landscapes. As with painting, the effects of his portrayals of nature are generally created by the use of light. Turgenev captured the life of nature by means of an interplay of light and shadow, correlating this interplay with changes in the character’s moods. Nature in Turgenev’s novels has many meanings, and often assumes a universal, symbolic significance. Nature may reflect a character’s transition from one mood to another and may also reflect turning points in the development of the action; examples are the scene at the Avdiukhin Pond in Rudin and the thunderstorm in On the Eve. This method was continued by Tolstoy, Korolenko, and Chekhov.

In terms of psychological and satirical characterization, Turgenev continued the traditions of Pushkin and Gogol. Turgenev’s descriptions of his characters are objective; Turgenev believed it was necessary “to be a psychologist, but a covert one” (ibid., vol. 4, 1962, p. 135). The tension of man’s inner life, with its subtle shifts of mood, is conveyed through facial expressions, gestures, and bodily movements, by means of which the missing elements of a full psychological portrait may be divined. Like his great literary predecessors, Turgenev was also a consummate stylist who combined archaic elements of the Russian language with a wealth of colloquialisms.

Turgenev’s literary approach influenced both the Russian and the Western European novel of the second half of the 19th century. To a great extent, Turgenev’s novels provided a model for the intellectual novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in which the heroes’ fates depend on their resolution of important philosophical problems that have universal significance for mankind. Turgenev’s works have also influenced many Soviet writers, including A. N. Tolstoy and K. G. Paustovskii. The plays of Turgenev have become a permanent part of the repertoire of Soviet theaters, and many of his works have been made into motion pictures.

Since the earliest years of the Revolution, Soviet literary scholars have engaged in an intensive study of Turgenev’s heritage. Many scholarly studies have been devoted to Turgenev’s life and works and to his role in Russian and world literature. The texts of Turgenev’s works have been subjected to scholarly analysis, and editions of his collected works have been published with extensive notes and commentaries. Museums devoted to Turgenev have been established in the city of Orel and at Spasskoe-Lutovi-novo, the former estate of Turgenev’s mother.


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Poln. sobr. soch. ipisem, vols. 1–28. Moscow-Leningrad, 1960–68.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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