Ivan Turgenev 1818-1883
(Full name Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev)
The first Russian author to achieve widespread international fame, Turgenev was considered his country's premiere novelist by nineteenth-century audiences and is today linked with Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy as one of the greatest Russian authors of the nineteenth century. As a writer deeply concerned with his country's politics, he vividly documented the tumultuous political environment in Russia from the 1840s to the 1870s. As a literary artist, he created works noted for their psychological truth, descriptive beauty, and haunting pathos.
Turgenev was born into a weathy family in the city of Orel. His father, a charming but ineffectual officer in the cavalry, paid little attention to Turgenev. His childhood on the family estate of Spasskoye was dominated by his eccentric and capricious mother. Her treatment of her son alternated between excessive affection and mental and physical cruelty. She ruled Spasskoye and its 5000 serfs with the same arbitrary power. Biographers have cited his mother's influence to explain much about the development of Turgenev's personality—particularly his horror of violence and his hatred of injustice—as well as his writing, which is populated by strong women and well-meaning but weak-willed men. When Turgenev was nine, the family left the country for Moscow, where he attended boarding schools before entering Moscow University in 1833. The following year Turgenev transferred to the University of St. Petersburg. After graduation, he went abroad to study, and in 1838 he enrolled in the University of Berlin. During the next several years he studied philosophy, but he never finished his degree.
Although Turgenev had begun writing poetry as a student in St. Petersburg, the work that first established his reputation as a writer was the narrative poem Parasha, published in 1843. It was highly praised by the influential Vissarion Belinsky, who was associated with the radical journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary). Between 1847 and 1852 Turgenev published in the Contemporary a series of short prose pieces whose common theme is the injustice of Russian serfdom. When these pieces were collected and published in book form as Zapiski okhotnika (A Sportsman's Sketches) in 1852, they were enormously popular with everyone but government officials.
That same year Turgenev wrote an admiring obituary of Nikolai Gogol which was refused publication by St. Petersburg censors. When he instead published the piece in Moscow, he was arrested and jailed for a month, then placed under house arrest at Spasskoye for nearly two years. Although he was ostensibly arrested for excessive approval of the "suspect" author Gogol, he was more likely detained as the author of the controversial A Sports-man's Sketches. When the serfs were finally freed in 1861, many credited the collection with having helped to achieve their emancipation. Turgenev's first novel, Rudin, which was published in 1856, introduced several character types and themes that appear in his subsequent work. The title character is a political idealist who combines a genius for words with an inability to act on them. Such "Russian Hamlets" recur frequently in Turgenev's work and were regarded by his contemporaries as insightful personifications of a national malaise of irresolution and indecision.
The Russia of the nineteenth century was a divided and politically troubled country, unsure of its future political course. Tension existed not only between conservatives and liberals but also, in the latter camp, between the radicals, who called for immediate change and economic communism, and the moderates, who favored slow, peaceful reform and free enterprise. Turgenev managed to draw the enmity of nearly every Russian ideologue, from reactionary to revolutionary, with his most famous novel, Ottsy i deti (Fathers and Sons), published in 1862. Bazarov, the protagonist of the book, is considered Turgenev's most successful and most ambiguous character (alternately attractive and repellent, he aroused ambivalent feelings even in his creator), as well as an intriguing portrayal of a political type just then coming into existence in Russia: the nihilist. Distressed by this unfavorable reaction, Turgenev spent more and more time abroad, and he counted among his friends some of the most illustrious authors of his era, including Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, and George Sand. His absence from Russia left him vulnerable to charges, leveled at his subsequent novels, that he was out of touch and out of sympathy with his native land. His remaining works—prose poems and stories—are described by critics as nostalgic, philosophical, and frequently pessimistic, and are often concerned with the occult. After a long and debilitating illness, Turgenev died in Bougival, near Paris, on September 3, 1883. His body was returned to Russia by train. There, despite the unfavorable reception of his later works and the efforts of the Russian government to restrict memorial congregations, Turgenev was widely mourned by his compatriots.
MAJOR DRAMATIC WORKS
Turgenev wrote some dozen plays, but his best-known drama is Mesiats v derevne (A Month in the Country). This work was completed in 1850 and submitted to the Russian censors for review. They demanded significant changes to the text, which Turgenev made. Ultimately, however, the censors withheld permission to stage the work. The censored version of A Month in the Country was published in the Contemporary in 1855 and finally received its first performance in 1872. The publication and the performance had equally little impact on audiences and critics of the time. Its first successful staging came in 1879, in a performance by the actress Maria Gavrilovna. After the Moscow Art Theatre in 1909 mounted a brilliant production directed by Konstantin Sergeevich Stanislavsky, it became one of the most famous plays in the Russian repertory. Prior productions stressed the elements of social commentary in A Month in the Country, but Stanislavsky's staging emphasized the psychology of the characters, an approach to the play that long remained dominant. A Month in the Country continues to be frequently performed, and it is heralded as an important influence on the works of the preeminent Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov.
Because of the highly political content of most of Turgenev's works, the earliest Russian commentators tended to praise or disparage his writings along partisan lines. Similarly, foreign critics of the nineteenth century were interested in Turgenev's works for the light they shed on the volatile sociopolitical situation in Russia. Early Russian and English-language critics by no means neglected the aesthetic qualities of Turgenev's works, however, recognizing from the start that his writing was more than simply the literal portrayal of the people and concerns of a particular country at a given historical moment.
Turgenev's literary reputation has remained generally stable over the years, with twentieth-century commentators echoing and amplifying the conclusions reached by their nineteenth-century counterparts. Critics agree that Turgenev's work is distinguished by solid literary craftsmanship, especially in the areas of description and characterization. Keenly observant, he infused his work with precise, realistic detail, bringing a natural scene or character into focus through the evocative power of his words. Given Turgenev's slight plots, interest in the works centers largely on the characters. Critics note that his characters—recognized both as unique individuals and as representatives of universal human qualities—are drawn with a psychological penetration. Turgenev was particularly adept, critics contend, at portraying women in love and at creating an atmosphere of pathos but not sentimentality in his unhappy love stories. Fatalism and thwarted desires are hall-marks of Turgenev's work: his characters are generally unable to control their destiny, either because of their own flaws or through the arbitrariness of fate. Scholars suggest that Turgenev's work reveals his own sense of the futility of life, but they add that he tempered his essentially pessimistic outlook with an appreciation of life's beauty. As the author himself remarked, "Everyming human is dear to me."