Fathers and Sons – Ivan Turgenev – Russian Ideology Then and Now

I like the insights literature provides about a country’s ideologies and sense of self.   Turgenev published Fathers and Sons in1861 to the criticism of all, both the new order and the established. It became regarded as the first modern Russian novel and his most famous work because it was read widely in Russia and the west.  Compared to his long winded peers, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Fathers and Sons might be considered a masterpiece of Russian brevity.  Perhaps so, the Signet Classic is 244 pages.

If you’ve harbored a deep seated desire to read the great Russians, here’s your start. It’s easy to understand and the historical issues as well as the family and cultural concerns are as enduring as the work of his peers.  It takes time to get used to the Russian names but there are not many characters.  I substituted easy ones for the three names given or pet names Turgenev used.

My book is an especially delightful read.  Purchased at the Strand Book Store in New York City in the third floor Rare Book room, it’s a limited edition with wood engravings. And get this, it set me back just thirty dollars.  When you consider the cost of a hard cover these days, you’ll agree it’s money well spent. (For those who love books and happen to be in NYC, the Strand is a must see, read more here  MyBookTroll – The Strand Book Store  )

Appropriately titled, the story is about two young men who come home from university to visit their fathers.  We learn about 19th century Russian society and the conflicting ideologies of nihilism, traditional Russian Orthodoxy, and the legacy of feudalism with its serfs and landowners, as they play out between the sons and their fathers.

Arkady Kirsanov just finished his studies at University of Petersburg and returned to his father’s modest estate with his friend, Yevgeny Basarov who is a nihilist. Both subscribe to this radical philosophy which decries everything, challenges all authority except what science can offer.  As a medical student and son of an army physician, Basarov answers only to the realities of the tangible world.  He is the ideologue and zealot, Arkady the protege and admirer.  Confounded and offended by their caustic and personal affront to their lives and beliefs, Nikolai Kirsanov (Arkady’s father) and his brother Pavel find they are separated by generational differences as well as the young men’s revolutionary ideas.

Nihilism’s a panacea for every ill, and you — you are saviors and heroes. Very well. But why do you abuse other people, even other accusers like yourselves?  Aren’t you just talking like all the rest?  (10.96)

To Pavel, Basarov’s beliefs are distasteful and his habits and arrogance loathsome.  Waiting for an argument, he challenges that the nihilist abuse of everyone and everything is just as useless as other ideologues.  Pavel is the most vocal critic of the young men and his brother Nikolai is given to accept and empathize as parents are want to do.

Of note historically during this period, the most significant event of the century was the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the same year Turgenev published this.  Here, Nikolai believes himself progressive if not realistic.

Well I have made a change there.  I decided not to keep any of the former house-serfs about the place, once they received their freedom; or at least not to entrust them with any jobs involving responsibility.  (3.37)

He’s convinced he will receive his son’s approval and sympathies when the result is just the opposite.  But there’s more, so much more to this story.

We follow the sons on their journey to both their homes and into society. The sons’ nihilism collapses in the face of love.  And love, like the generational differences between children and their parents, is transcendent of time and place.  Basarov’s admiration for beauty in the physical sense gives way to something stronger when he meets Madame Anna Odintsova.

Basarov was a great devotee of women and of feminine beauty, but love in the ideal — or, as he would have expressed it, the romantic — sense he called tomfoolery, unpardonable imbecility.  (17.3)

And the ardor and passion Basarov finds unpardonable and such tomfoolery do indeed plague him, challenging his own ideology and nihilistic beliefs.  Because he realizes he had fallen deeply in love.  And Arkady must reconcile his own feelings of love though the outcomes of both vary vastly.

 I leave this to the reader to discover.

Reading Turgenev is a good value in page count alone, especially given the lengthy tomes of the eminent Russian writers.  And the intimacies, difficulties, and love between parents and their children are palpable on the page, touching and relevant today as ever. The nihilists, espousing nothing rejecting all, sound increasingly familiar in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  As a bonus, the literature lover and student of history learn a fascinating and inside account of Russian turmoil in the family and in society, pre-revolution.

It’s worth noting that Turgenev was a man of significant means.   Literary elites have been known to scoff at wealthy writers, but Turgenev did not need to answer to anyone, editor, or publisher; indeed he wrote to satisfy his own inclinations.  This proved disturbing to the bourgeoisie, the nobility, and everyone who could read, because they all read Fathers and Sons.  If the case had been otherwise, and Turgenev ideas were subject to scrutiny and review, it might never have been written.

I leave you with a quote.  Given the propensity for self loathing, perhaps more for the Russian gentry than the peasantry, there is undoubtedly a sense of condescension and conceit when Basarov says this, as he is native Russian.  He sees himself differently than his countrymen.  It is an arresting viewpoint to consider:  the arrogance coupled with self loathing that can result in such aggression, both then and now, especially in light of recent events with President Vladimir Putin and Crimea.

The only good thing about a Russian is the poor opinion he has of himself. (9.46)