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
A remarkably prolific writer, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev’s romanticized view of justice, thirst and liberalism contributed greatly to the thinking of Soviet Underground writers, particularly the mid-dynasty.
Part of Turgenev’s liberalistic search goes back to tribulations he experienced in his childhood. Regularly beaten by his mother, neglected by his father, observing his mother’s cruelty to serfs and his parents’ marital strife — all helped to foster his barbarically practical, austere, even dispassionate writing. Turgenev believes that progress comes through political change and that the mystical and the religious are distractions. The literary, however, is quite important.
Born into a wealthy family in the Ukraine on October 28th, 1818, he studied at universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg and became embroiled in the radical political circles that were becoming increasingly popular. Turgenev and many of his revolutionary associates believed that Russia needed to throw off its inward-looking, Eastern-influenced Tsarist leadership and become a cosmopolitan, Western European society.
The Romantic liberalism of the age brought about Turgenev’s first attempts at poetry, prose and drama. He published many early works in many forms, but did not become famous until his 34th year when a book of short stories entitled “A Sportsman’s Sketches” became a popular success.
But as his fame grew, Turgenev found himself increasingly hounded and repressed by the governmental and Tsarist authorities that shadowed his movements in St. Petersburg. The critique of serfdom in “A Sportsman’s Sketches” had branded him a troublemaker. He was finally arrested, imprisoned and held under house arrest for a year and a half.
After traveling to Europe again, Turgenev published A Month in the Country in 1854. It had been written years earlier, as were his subsequent novels, The Diary of a Superfluous Man, A Conversation on the Highway, The Provincial Lady, Where it’s Thin, there it Tears (a play), A Poor Gentleman. These were highly concerned with man’s destiny and disconnections between people in Russian society.
A Month in the Country (also a play) portrays the modern urban liberal struggles of Turgenev in a rural setting. In it, he develops concepts from earlier novels while building on different ones. The concept of the Nihilist, for example, which was so prevalent in Sportsman’s Sketches, has a subtler undertone in its rural successor. In A Month in the Country, the characters are unaware of the tyranny befalling them. In Sportsman’s Sketches, liberal idealists talk of change but do nothing in the face of opposition; hence the term, Nihilist.
In Rudin (1856), Turgenev tackles the problem from a wholly urban outlook. Witnessing the drudgery of filthy urban slums encourages the main character (Rudin) to adopt a Nihilistic philosophy.
Turgenev skill in writing was largely in his ability to capture character as he explored political and social themes. He dealt with male-female relations in Asya (1858), while A Nest of Gentlefolk (1859) launched an onslaught on passivity and once again, Nihilism. The erotic stories On the Eve and First Love (both published in 1860) inflamed most of Russia.
Leaving his reactionary motherland to travel the western world, he was welcomed with open arms by Americans and Europeans. Occasionally returning home, where he was much less well understood, he published Fathers and Sons in 1862. It was met with strong criticism by his fellow Russians, as always. This time, Turgenev left St. Petersburg, and Russia, for good.
Eventually, Turgenev’s fame and glory grew all over the world. He continued to publish numerous works while travelling the cities of Europe in high style. He attended literary salons where he was worshipped by younger writers including an impressed young American named Henry James. Turgenev died August 22, 1883 at the age of 64.
The passage of time has ranked Turgenev just below the exalted level of his fellow radicals, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (both of whom he maintained bitter lifelong quarrels with). But Turgenev’s influence remains unquestioned, a writer for the ages.