Turgenev, Ivan Sergeyevich

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Turgenev, Ivan Sergeyevich

Turgenev, Ivan Sergeyevich (1818-1883) Russian novelist, short story writer, and playwright

A contemporary of FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY, NIKOLAY GOGOL, and LEO TOLSTOY and a literary star across Europe during the golden age of the Russian novel, Ivan Turgenev wrote long and short fiction that promoted the Westernization of the czarist Russian Empire. Born in Oryol, Russia, he was the son of a colonel in the Russian imperial cavalry who died when Turgenev was 16 and a wealthy heiress who suffered from her husband's philandering. As a boy, Turgenev had a standard education, followed by studies at the universities of Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Berlin. His time in Germany convinced him that Russia could benefit from Western ideas and attitudes, especially the evil of serfdom. He began writing plays and short stories and first attracted public attention with A Sportsman’s Sketches, a collection of stories published in 1852. It was his novels, however, that brought him the greatest fame. Later in his life, Turgenev lived little in Russia, preferring to spend his time in Paris or Baden Baden; his preference for western Europe threatened his friendships with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Though he had a long-term affair with a Spanish singer, and an illegitimate daughter with a serf, he never married. He received an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1879. Four years later, he died in Bougival, France, near Paris, and was buried in the Volkov Cemetery in Saint Petersburg.

A retiring, fair-minded man, Turgenev nurtured a rebel's heart and yet displayed goodwill as well as integrity. At the same time that abolitionists in the United States, Great Britain, and the Caribbean wrangled over abolition of SLAVERY, he supported serfs and denounced Czar Nicholas I and his arbitrary suppression of civil rights. In his novel Fathers and Sons (1862), the author advocated “active patience, not without some cunning and ingenuity” (Turgenev 1975, 43), a suggestion of the stealth and strategy that brought down Nicholas II and the Romanov dynasty in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Turgenev's championing of liberal authorship caused him to remind Tolstoy that literature should have a political aim, although he admitted: “You loath this political morass; true, it is a dirty, dusty, vulgar business” (16).

In the 25 realistic short stories and two fragments serialized in the magazine Sovremennik (The Contemporary) and anthologized in A Sportsman’s Sketches, Turgenev criticized the imbalance between the elite's self-indulgence and the wretched conditions of an enslaved peasantry. In the opening story, he describes Orel and the typical life of a serf: “He lives in wretched little hovels of aspen-wood, labours as a serf in the fields, and engages in no kind of trading, is miserably fed, and wears slippers of bast (hemp)” (Turgenev 1895, 1). As a result of Turgenev's love of liberty and his praiseworthy obituary of Gogol, Turgenev spent four weeks in a St. Petersburg prison and then 18 months in exile at Spasskoye, the family estate in west-central Russia. During his incarceration, he composed “Mumu” (1852), the story of a wealthy widow's cruel treatment of Gerasim, a deaf-mute farm laborer.

Turgenev wrote more pointedly of his backward country after Russia's defeat in the Crimean War in 1856. He serialized Rudin (1855), his first novel, about an ineffectual scholar frustrated by the barriers posed by Czar Nicholas I to social and land reform. Of the dangers of foreign education to Rudin, defamers charge, “His eloquence is not Russian,” evidence of the protagonist's estrangement from his native land (Turgenev 1908, 99). After Alexander II issued an edict on February 19, 1861, emancipating serfs, the novelist created a stir the next year with the publication of Fathers and Sons, a novel of ideas that he began writing as an expatriate on the Isle of Wight. The narrative debates the generational clash between a recent university graduate, Arkady Nikolaevich Kirsanov, and his elders—his father Nikolai and paternal uncle Pavel—concerning the rising democratic movement. The appeal of the nihilistic pre-med student Yevgeny Bazarov shocked and dismayed the older generation of readers, who promoted traditional values and gradual modernization of Russia rather than revolution and abandonment of serfdom.

Turgenev's last novel, Virgin Soil (1877), begun during a visit to England, anticipates by four decades the end of the Russian Empire. The action prophesies a vigorous Russian generation that will lead a rebellion against the aristocracy. One character worries about backlash: “It's such as you that the inspectors of the Czar are ever eager to clap in custody” (Turgenev 1920, 113). The idealist Nezhdanov replies with an apologue: “If you choose to be a mushroom, you must go in the basket with the rest” (114). In 1878, Turgenev turned to didacticism and wrote a series of first-person FABLES. The best examples—“The Sparrow,” “Cabbage Soup” and “The Fool”—honor humble folk and deride the adulation of the mighty. In his 60s, Turgenev wished that his epitaph would note his activism on behalf of serfs. At his funeral, the imperial police suppressed dissent by concealing the time of his interment from Turgenev’s admirers.


Baring, Maurice. An Outline of Russian Literature. New York: Nova, 2006.

Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds and Isaiah Berlin. London: Penguin, 1975.

------- . Rudin: A Romance. Translated by Isabel F.

Hapgood. Boston: Jefferson Press, 1908.

----- . A Sportsman’s Sketches. Translated by Constance Garnett. London: Heinemann, 1895.

----- . Virgin Soil. Translated by Constance Garnett. London: Heinemann, 1920.