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Youth rebels. It’s true today and it was true in Russia, in 1862, when Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons first appeared. At the novel’s center stands Evgeny Bazarov, medical student, doctor’s son, and self-proclaimed nihilist. Bazarov rejects all authority, all so-called truths that are based on faith rather than science and experience. His ideas bring him into conflict with his best friend, recent graduate Arkady Kirsanov, with Arkady’s family, with his own parents, and eventually with his emotions, when he falls helplessly in love with the beautiful Madame Odintsova.
Turgenev’s earlier A Sportsman’s Sketches had helped hasten the liberation of the serfs in 1861. But the complex portrait of Bazarov, whose goals he admired but whose rejection of art and embrace of violence he could not accept, enraged both right and left. The right saw Fathers and Sons as a glorification of radical extremists; the left saw it as a denunciation of progress. Even today, readers argue over Turgenev’s attitude towards Bazarov. But they can’t resist the novel’s power to grip the heart while engaging the mind.
David Goldfarb is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages at Barnard College. He has published numerous scholarly articles as well as the Introduction and Notes to the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories.
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From David Goldfarb’s Introduction to Fathers and Sons
Ivan Turgenev completed his best-known novel, Ottsy i deti, familiarly rendered in English as Fathers and Sons, in 1861 and published it in the following year, after the emancipation of the serfs in Russia, but he set the novel in 1859, immediately prior to this pivotal moment in Russian history. Though serfdom was already on the wane, as suggested by references in Turgenev’s novel to the “quitrent system” adopted by progressive estate holders Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov and Anna Sergeevna Odintsova, the legal abolition of serfdom marked the end of a manorial tradition and a vision of old Russia as defined by a class division that seemed to have emerged from the soil itself. The official end of serfdom marked social and intellectual divisions in many spheres of Russian life. The inteligentsia vigorously debated issues of Russia’s sense of modernity, its relation to the West and to Slavic traditions as they were then understood, the organization of the Russian family and position of women, and the reach of the Russian empire. A railway boom fueled economic development, brought the Russian provinces and colonial outposts closer to the major cities, and made Western Europe more accessible. The social and political debate of the 1860s would be reflected in one of the most productive eras of the Russian novel, yielding not only Fathers and Sons, but also Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s radical novel What Is to Be Done?, Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead, The Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. All these novels struggled with the dilemma of the “superfluous man” in Russian society and attempted to imagine the “new man” who might abandon tradition, return to tradition, or make some compromise between old and new, Russia and the West.
Turgenev’s hero, Evgeny Bazarov, was at the center of this debate and was criticized roundly on all sides. Turgenev’s publisher Mikhail Nikoforovich Katkov, a former liberal who became more conservative with age, charged Turgenev with creating an “apotheosis” of the young generation of radicals, having in mind figures like Nikolai Dobroliubov and Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Dobroliubov published in 1859 one of the most incisive critiques of the “superfluous man” of the old aristocracy in the form of a critical essay praising Ivan Goncharov’s novel Oblomov. Chernyshevsky would publish What Is to Be Done?, his Fourierist utopian novel, written during his Siberian exile, in 1863, a year after the appearance of Fathers and Sons. (For Charles Fourier, see endnote 7.) The young radicals read Bazarov as a satirical caricature of themselves, and Turgenev defended himself against this accusation by repeating Katkov’s accusation. The key to the novel’s long-lasting success, perhaps, is precisely this ambiguity. Turgenev asserted in several letters and in a reflection on the novel published in 1869 that he did not know whether his “new man” was good or bad for the future of Russia, but only that he was a new “hero of our time,” alluding to Mikhail Lermontov’s novel of that title and adopting a stance in favor of a literary realism that strives for neutrality rather than ideological tendency.
Because Turgenev himself was a cosmopolitan figure with perhaps the strongest international reputation of any Russian writer of his day, his position on such social issues was important. He was born in 1818 to an aristocratic family in Orel, and his father is thought to have been a possible model for the Romantic dandy in the Fathers and Sons, Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov. His mother was wealthy and notoriously cruel. Though Turgenev had a foot in the petty aristocracy, he was seen as a “westernizer” with a politically progressive, literary realist vision. He came to prominence as a writer after Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol, but before Dostoevsky, Chernyshevsky, and Tolstoy. He would spend much of his career abroad in Paris and Baden-Baden in a close liaison with the opera star Pauline Viardot, greatly enhancing his European presence compared to other Russian authors, such that writers from the East in the latter half of the century would often be compared to Turgenev in the West. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, for example, the Austrian author from Lemberg (now Lviv, Ukraine) of Venus im Pelz (1870; Venus in Furs), after whom “masochism” was named, was called “the Turgenev of Little Russia [Ukraine].” This was not a comparison that Turgenev particularly fancied.
Though Turgenev’s upbringing among the gentry might have made for an unlikely revolutionary career, his short prose work The Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850) captured the object of social critique that runs through virtually all of the major Russian novels of the nineteenth century, from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, through Gogol’s Dead Souls and Goncharov’s Oblomov and many of the works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. The idea of the “superfluous man” seemed to apply to the lovable but ultimately ineffectual aristocrat Oblomov, living in the city on credit from his mismanaged estate and unable to lift himself from his couch to set things aright, as well as to Dostoevsky’s petty bureaucrats, unable to liberate themselves from the administrative mind-set of the Russian state. Could Bazarov, the leading man of Fathers and Sons (to call him a “hero” or even a “protagonist” would be prejudicial), a self-proclaimed “nihilist” and a man of science, become the “new man” who would lead Russia in the future, or would he become yet another ineffectual “superfluous man” symbolizing Russian social and cultural stagnation?
“Nihilism” in this context should not be taken in the modern sense of “profound existential doubt.” Bazarov certainly believes in his existence and in the existence of all that can be perceived with the senses. He is an empiricist who believes in science and the principle that there is no truth beyond what is observable, or at least that we can have no knowledge of such things. Physics is metaphysics for this new nihilist. Arkady Kirsanov extends this scientific principle to a whole social philosophy in his definition for his uncle Pavel Petrovich: “‘A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in’.” This belief in the ultimate authority of science would challenge any claims about Romantic notions of the “Russian soul,” “Slavic brotherhood,” a metaphysical connection between the peasants and the soil, the existence of God, the divine source of the social and political order, the validity of emotional judgment, or the possibility of love as the expression of anything beyond biological necessity.