Fathers and Sons

By Sergeyevich Turgenev


Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev was born on October 28th 1818 (Old Style) in the town of Oryol, the second of three sons of a somewhat badly matched couple. His father, an impoverished noble who had served in the Yelizavetgrad cuirassier regiment which was stationed in the town of Oryol, was thirteen years younger than his wife Varvara Petrovna Lutovinova on whose large family estate of five thousand serfs the family lived at Spasskoye. While his father was from the ancient Russian nobility, Turgenev's mother's family sprang from an unexceptional line of country gentry, and this disparity in backgrounds was mirrored by an equal contrast in temperament. Turgenev's father was on the whole calm, reserved and controlled while his wife Varvara Petrovna was tyrannical and excessively possessive. It was she who administered the running of the estates, leaving her husband to a life of hunting, gambling and womanising which ended in an early death at the age of forty-one, at which point Ivan was only sixteen.

At four Ivan had accompanied his parents on a tour of Europe and, if we are to believe a short autobiographical sketch of 1875, only narrowly escaped death when he nearly fell into the bear-pit at the Bern zoo, saved only when his father caught hold of his leg as he was on the point of tumbling into the enclosure. However, the majority of his first nine years were spent living in a large manor house on his mother's main estate in the midst of a large and beautifully landscaped park in which the young Turgenev loved to wander. It was at this time that the foundations were laid for his subsequent love and knowledge of nature and also his passion for hunting, both of which are famously displayed in his novels.

Turgenev's mother ran her estates like an autocrat unhindered by outside laws. To her the serfs were little more than slaves and, embittered by her own unhappy childhood and the infidelities of her husband she found respite in the suffering of others. The serfs, like her three sons, were regularly cruelly punished by flogging, and were also often banished to far-off estates or put to work that denied their natural abilities.

The young Ivan hungered in vain for his father's love and attention in the absence of that of his mother and found that his younger brother Sergei was too young to provide that companionship that he so desperately yearned for, while his elder brother Nikolai was too different in mentality to give him what he needed. It was therefore to the serfs that he turned for his early education in life. It was a serf who helped him to break in to the library next to his nursery and who introduced him at the age of eight to the reading and appreciation of poetry. It was also serfs who would have taught him to learn of the ways of nature, and of hunting and shooting and it was to a serf that he lost his virginity at the age of about fifteen. It is all the more understandable then that he should later in his novels show a concern for the moral and socio- political systems governing the lives of the Russian peasantry.

In 1827 the Turgenev family moved to Moscow where Nikolai and Ivan spent two years in boarding schools while their parents travelled in pursuit of treatments for the ailing father. On their return the family moved back to Oryol, where Ivan continued to study under a succession of tutors. At fifteen he returned to Moscow to enter the university, but spent only one year there, then moving to St. Petersburg with his family and continuing his degree at the university there. After finishing his degree in 1837, in 1838 he travelled to Germany and spent most of his twenty-seven months there studying classical languages and literatures, history and philosophy at the University of Berlin. On returning to Moscow in 1841 he studied for a Master of Philosophy, completing the oral and written examinations, but never finishing his dissertation. Turgenev himself later said that this was because he had been distracted by his overwhelming passion for hunting, but it has also been speculated that he at this point saw the futility of pursuing a career in philosophy in Russia, where the subject had become somewhat anathematised since the Decembrist rising of 1825.

However, the education he had received in Berlin and his experiences over two months spent travelling in Italy, coupled with his contacts with cultured Germans and with Russian ex-patriots in both Germany and Italy formed the basis for his subsequent emergence as the most highly-educated Russian writer of his generation.

In 1843 Turgenev met the influential critic Belinsky, a strong man who shaped to a great degree the development of Turgenev's literary exploits, dealing harshly with his early dilettantism and childish lack of consideration, and directing him towards a life dedicated to writing. For the five following years of friendship that preceded Belinsky's death, Turgenev looked up to him as a mentor and he continued to revere his memory to the end of his own life.

Towards the end of the same year, 1843, Turgenev met Pauline Viardot, a twenty-two year old opera diva who had come to Russia with an Italian opera company and had become the darling of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Turgenev fell madly in love with her and remained in that state for the remaining forty years of his life. Although the pair wrote hundreds of letters to each other, the nature of their relationship over these years still remains unclear. On Turgenev's side however, one sees an attitude towards Pauline of courtly romantic worship much reminiscent of that to be found in mediaeval Italian or French literature. It seems however from Pauline's responses and from the quantities of Turgenev's letters to her that their relationship was sweetest in the first ten years, which proved to be a period of great productivity for Turgenev. During this time he wrote his four long poems, all his ten plays, all but five of his twenty- five sketches and nine of his thirty-three stories. He also made many visits to the West; broadening his knowledge of foreign cultures, literature and languages, absorbing political and philosophical views and, importantly, living through the unsuccessful French Revolution of 1848, forcing him to create a new philosophy for his own worldview. He came to believe that Russia could not be saved by the people or by revolution but instead that it must be changed from "above" and through education.

After the death of Turgenev's mother in the early 1850's he was finally freed from the awful dependence on her that had up until that point been the chief bane of this life. However, although her death left him theoretically a very rich man, his unbridled generosity combined with the bad management of his estates by a succession of poorly-chosen stewards meant that during the course of his life he was often short of money.

In 1852, after the publication of an obituary to Gogol in which Turgenev proclaimed him a "great man", he was sentenced on the instructions of the Emperor himself to one month in a police jail, followed by internal banishment to his estate.

Apart from a brief meeting with Pauline Viardot using a borrowed passport, it was not until after the death of the Emperor and the end of the Crimean War that Turgenev once again saw his love and returned to the West, finally arriving in Paris in August 1856. Pauline soon made it clear however that they would never again be able regain the intimacy in their relationship that they had previously enjoyed, and there followed a ten-year period of estrangement.

Strangely, it was during this ten year period that Turgenev turned away from the literary forms of lyric and narrative poetry, plays and sketches with which he had previously been primarily concerned, concentrating his efforts instead on the story and novel genres, producing nine stories and his four best novels, including Fathers and Sons, which was written in 1862. It was also during this time that Turgenev met the young Tolstoy, an impetuous young man at the time who admired and was admired by his fellow writer, and although they enjoyed a tempestuous love-hate relationship over the following years they undoubtedly exchanged views on many of the primary concerns of both of their writings.

Turgenev returned to France in 1856, but torn between his love for Pauline and his yearning for a wife and family amongst his own people he returned to Russia in 1858, where he stayed for eleven months before returning to France for the summer of 1859 after which he was back in Russia again for seven and a half months, these two spells in Russia constituting his two most prolonged visits home in the last twenty-seven years of his life.

At this time it was evident that the emancipation of the Russian serfs was on the horizon, and Turgenev decided to preempt the event, freeing his own peasants in 1859, even though in the end it proved to be to his own personal financial loss.

In 1860 it seems that Turgenev was spurned by Pauline when he returned to France to see her, and it is not until the later half of 1862 that her attitude towards him seems to have changed. In 1863 the Viardots moved to a villa they had built in Baden-Baden, prompted by Pauline's decision to stop singing for the big opera houses and by her husband's hatred of the political regime of Napoleon III, and Turgenev followed their example. There Pauline summoned Turgenev back to her and, while she composed operettas, he wrote the libretti for them and even acted in them himself at the small opera house that she had had built in the grounds of her house. Turgenev also followed the Viardots to Karlsruhe in 1869-69 and to Weimar in 1869-70. Indeed, during the years 1864-70 his visits back to Russia added up to no more than eight months, and his only reality seemed to be that found when close to Pauline.

However, during this period he also found a new passion, namely for Pauline's second child, Didie, who had been born in 1852. From 1862 she became an object of devotion for him, and in 1868 he even began to put aside money for her dowry, which by the time she married in 1874 amounted to 100,000 francs, a not inconsiderable sum. But despite the happiness of the period 1863-70, Turgenev was by no means at his most productive and only produced one novel, Smoke, during that time, which is generally considered to be his worst.

Turgenev's time in Germany was brought to an end by the advent of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1 and until the end of that conflict he joined the Viardots in England, where they had gone for refuge, and after their return to Paris in 1871 he still stayed with them, occupying rooms on an upper floor of their house. In 1874 they jointly bought a summerhouse on the river west of Paris and Turgenev continued to live with them in this and their Paris house until his death nine years later. During these years, although increasingly reluctant to spend time away from Pauline and his adoptive family, Turgenev returned several times to Russia to keep a current knowledge of conditions and opinions there with a view to writing his last novel, and also in order to write in the tranquil surroundings afforded by his estate at Spasskoye. And although his actual literary output at this time was lower than ever before, Turgenev made great efforts to introduce his fellow countrymen to the literature of the leading French writers of the time such as Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant, Daudet and Edmond de Goncourt, who were not only his admirers but had also become his friends. He also, importantly, went to great lengths to bring the works of Lev Tolstoy, whom he considered to be the greatest Russian writer of his era, to the attention of a Western readership. At the same time he took great pains to help young Russian radicals and émigrés who found themselves drawn to his side by his sympathetic demeanour, appealing on their behalf to the Russian authorities, giving them money and applying his influence in efforts to get their political writings published. He called these protégés "my revolutionaries", and in correspondence with P. L. Lavrov remarked that he himself was under police surveillance and was regarded by them as "the very fountainhead of nihilism" ("samaya matka nigilistov").

Ever since his student days Turgenev was sporadically plagued by cardiac problems and other ailments such as the bladder or kidney trouble, which made such a misery of his life at the end of the 1850s and reappeared for extended periods during the 1870s. This strain on his health was also exhibited by his premature physical ageing, which began when his hair started to turn white in his early thirties.

The spinal cancer that finally killed him was not discovered until after his death, but it seems that it cannot have set in any later than April, 1882, when he was diagnosed as having angina pectoris and became immobilised. On occasions he let himself be deceived into thinking of a lasting remission, but when in the second half of 1882 the symptoms hit once again with their full strength, he hardened himself "to look the devil in the eye".

During the last year of his life Turgenev could neither stand nor walk, but he still continued to write (he penned four hundred and sixty letters in the last sixteen months of his life). A few weeks after the death of Pauline's husband Louis in May 1883, Turgenev admitted that his pain had become "unbearable" and that he longed for death. During his last months he was nursed by Pauline and her daughters and died on 3rd September 1883.

His body was taken back to St. Petersburg by Pauline's daughters Didie and Marianne and their husbands and was seen off at the Gare du Nord in Paris by several hundred Russians and distinguished Frenchmen, and despite strict measures taken by the Russian government to minimize public mourning, the funeral train was met at every station by large crowds of mourners, and the funeral procession in St. Petersburg, where Turgenev had asked to be buried close to Belinsky, was said to have been (with the exception of that for Dostoyevsky two years later) the most impressive farewell to a private Russian citizen ever seen.

Those who knew him praised his honesty and generosity of spirit, his charm, enthusiasm and willingness to hear the opinions of others while not being afraid to express and defend his own views. He was a great conversationalist who could hold his own well even in the company of a great mind such as Flaubert, who paid tribute to his friend's "distinction". He did not make attachments easily, but kept those he did, and although Pauline once called him "the saddest of men" he kept this facet of his personality under control with intelligence and irony. After Gogol's death in 1852 Turgenev took his place as the leading figure in contemporary Russian literature, and by the 1870's his fame had spread even as far as America. In 1878 he was elected vice-president of the International Literary Congress convened in Paris and in 1879 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of Civil Law by the University of Oxford, becoming the first novelist ever to be thus distinguished.