Today is the birthday (1818) of Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, Russian novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His first major publication, a short story collection entitled A Sportsman’s Sketches (1852), was a milestone of Russian Realism, and his novel Fathers and Sons (1862) is regarded as one of the major works of 19th-century fiction. His mood and prose are a great deal lighter than those of the more turgid writing of later Russians, so I enjoy it a bit more. Does not give me as many headaches late at night. I first encountered his work as an undergraduate when I played in “A Month in the Country,” playing a young college student !!
Turgenev was born into a family of Russian land-owners in Oryol. His father, Sergei Nikolaevich Turgenev, a colonel in the Russian cavalry, was a chronic philanderer which was probably not unusual for Russian cavalry officers in arranged marriages. His mother, Varvara Petrovna Lutovinova, was a wealthy heiress, who had an unhappy childhood and was also not happy in her marriage. Ivan’s father died when Ivan was sixteen, leaving him and his brother Nicolas to be brought up by their abusive mother. Ivan’s childhood was a lonely one, in constant fear of his mother who beat him often. After the standard schooling for a son of a gentleman, Turgenev studied for one year at the University of Moscow and then moved to the University of Saint Petersburg from 1834 to 1837, focusing on Classics, Russian literature, and philology. From 1838 until 1841 he studied philosophy, particularly Hegel, and history at the University of Berlin. He returned to Saint Petersburg to complete his master’s degree.
Turgenev was impressed with German society and returned home believing that Russia could best improve itself by incorporating ideas from the Age of Enlightenment. Like many of his educated contemporaries, he was particularly opposed to serfdom. In 1841, he started his career in Russian civil service and spent two years working for the Ministry of Interior (1843-1845).
When Turgenev was a child, a family serf had read to him verses from the Rossiad of Mikhail Kheraskov, a celebrated poet of the 18th century. Turgenev’s early attempts in literature, poems, and sketches gave indications of genius and were favorably spoken of by Vissarion Belinsky, then the leading Russian literary critic. During the latter part of his life, Turgenev did not live much in Russia: he lived either at Baden-Baden or Paris, often in proximity to the family of the celebrated opera singer Pauline Viardot, with whom he had a lifelong affair.
Turgenev never married, but he had some affairs with his family’s serfs, one of which resulted in the birth of his illegitimate daughter, Paulinette. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but was timid, restrained, and soft-spoken. When Turgenev was 19, while traveling on a steamboat in Germany, the boat caught fire and Turgenev reacted in a cowardly manner. Rumors circulated in Russia and followed him for his entire career, providing the basis for his story A Fire at Sea. His closest literary friend was Gustave Flaubert, with whom he shared similar social and aesthetic ideas. Both rejected extremist right and left political views, and carried a nonjudgmental, although rather pessimistic, view of the world. His relations with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were often strained, as the two were, for various reasons, dismayed by Turgenev’s seeming preference for Western Europe. Turgenev, unlike Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, lacked religious motives in his writings, representing the more social aspect of the reform movement. He was almost certainly agnostic. Tolstoy, more than Dostoyevsky, at first anyway, rather despised Turgenev. While traveling together in Paris, Tolstoy wrote in his diary, “Turgenev is a bore.” His rocky friendship with Tolstoy in 1861 wrought such animosity that Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel, afterwards apologizing. The two did not speak for 17 years, but never broke ties completely. Dostoyevsky parodies Turgenev in his novel The Devils (1872) through the character of the vain novelist Karmazinov, who is anxious to ingratiate himself with the radical youth. However, in 1880, Dostoyevsky’s speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin monument brought about a reconciliation of sorts with Turgenev, who, like many in the audience, was moved to tears by his rival’s eloquent tribute to the Russian spirit.
Turgenev died at Bougival, near Paris, on September 3, 1883. His remains were taken to Russia and buried in Volkoff Cemetery in St. Petersburg. On his death bed he pleaded with Tolstoy: “My friend, return to literature!” After this Tolstoy wrote such works as The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata.
Turgenev first made his name with Sketches from a Hunter’s Album , a collection of short stories, based on his observations of peasant life and nature, while hunting in the forests around his mother’s estate of Spasskoye. Most of the stories were published in a single volume in 1852, with others being added in later editions. The book is credited with having influenced public opinion in favor of the abolition of serfdom in 1861. Turgenev himself considered the book to be his most important contribution to Russian literature; it is reported that Pravda, and Tolstoy, among others, agreed wholeheartedly, adding that Turgenev’s evocations of nature in these stories were unsurpassed. One of the stories, known as “Bezhin Lea” or “Byezhin Prairie”, was later to become the basis for the controversial film Bezhin Meadow (1937) – directed by Sergei Eisenstein.
In the 1840s and early 1850s, during the rule of Tsar Nicholas I, the political climate in Russia was stifling for many writers. This is evident in the despair and subsequent death of Gogol, and the oppression, persecution, and arrests of artists, scientists, and writers (just in case you thought Stalin invented this). During this time, thousands of Russian intellectuals, members of the intelligentsia, emigrated to Europe. Among them were Alexander Herzen and Turgenev himself, although the latter’s decision to settle abroad probably had more to do with his love for Pauline Viardot than anything else.
In 1852, when his first major novels of Russian society were still to come, Turgenev wrote an obituary for Nikolai Gogol, intended for publication in the Saint Petersburg Gazette. The key passage reads: “Gogol is dead!… What Russian heart is not shaken by those three words?… He is gone, that man whom we now have the right (the bitter right, given to us by death) to call great.” The censor of Saint Petersburg did not approve of this and banned publication, but the Moscow censor allowed it to be published in a newspaper in that city. The censor was dismissed; but Turgenev was held responsible for the incident, imprisoned for a month, and then exiled to his country estate for nearly two years. It was during this time that Turgenev wrote his short story Mumu (“Муму”) in 1854. The story tells a tale of a deaf peasant who is forced to drown the only thing in the world which brought him happiness, his dog Mumu. This piece takes aim at the cruelties of a serf society, and was later applauded by John Galsworthy who claimed, “no more stirring protest against tyrannical cruelty was ever penned in terms of art.”
In 1854 he moved to Western Europe, and during the following years produced the novel Rudin (“Рудин”), the story of a man in his thirties, who is unable to put his talents and idealism to any use in the Russia of Nicholas I. Rudin is also full of nostalgia for the idealistic student circles of the 1840s.
In 1858 Turgenev wrote the novel A Nest of the Gentry (“Дворянское гнездо”) also full of nostalgia for the irretrievable past and of love for the Russian countryside. It contains one of his most memorable female characters, Liza, whom Dostoyevsky paid tribute to in his Pushkin speech of 1880, alongside Tatiana and Tolstoy’s Natasha Rostova.
Alexander II ascended the Russian throne in 1855, and the political climate became more relaxed. In 1859, inspired by reports of positive social changes, Turgenev wrote the novel On the Eve (“Накануне”) (published 1860), portraying the Bulgarian revolutionary Insarov.
The following year saw the publication of one of his finest novellas, First Love (“Первая любовь”), which was based on bitter-sweet childhood memories, and the delivery of his speech (“Hamlet and Don Quixote”, at a public reading in Saint Petersburg) in aid of writers and scholars suffering hardship. The vision presented therein of humanity torn between the self-centered skepticism of Hamlet and the idealistic generosity of Don Quixote is one that can be said to pervade Turgenev’s own works. Dostoyevsky, who had just returned from exile in Siberia, was present at this speech, and eight years later wrote The Idiot, a novel whose tragic hero, Prince Myshkin, resembles Don Quixote in many respects. Turgenev, whose knowledge of Spanish, thanks to his contact with Pauline Viardot and her family, was good enough for him to have considered translating Cervantes’s novel into Russian, played an important role in introducing this immortal figure of world literature into the Russian context.
Fathers and Sons (“Отцы и дети”), Turgenev’s most famous and enduring novel, appeared in 1862. Its leading character, Eugene Bazarov, considered the ‘first Bolshevik’ in Russian literature, was in turn heralded and reviled as either a glorification or a parody of the ‘new men’ of the 1860s. The novel examined the conflict between the older generation, reluctant to accept reforms, and the nihilistic youth. In the central character, Bazarov, Turgenev drew a classical portrait of the mid-nineteenth-century nihilist. Fathers and Sons was set during the six-year period of social ferment, from Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War to the Emancipation of the Serfs. Hostile reaction to Fathers and Sons prompted Turgenev’s decision to leave Russia. As a consequence he also lost the majority of his readers. Many radical critics at the time (with the notable exception of Dimitri Pisarev) did not take Fathers and Sons seriously; and, after the relative critical failure of his masterpiece, Turgenev was disillusioned and started to write less.
Turgenev wrote on themes similar to those found in the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but he did not approve of the religious and moral preoccupations that his two great contemporaries brought to their artistic creation. Turgenev was closer in temperament to his friends Gustave Flaubert and Theodor Storm, the North German poet and master of the novella form, who also often dwelt on memories of the past and evoked the beauty of nature.
Turgenev’s artistic purity made him a favorite of like-minded novelists of the next generation, such as Henry James and Joseph Conrad, both of whom greatly preferred Turgenev to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. James, who wrote no fewer than five critical essays on Turgenev’s work, claimed that “his merit of form is of the first order” (1873) and praised his “exquisite delicacy”, which “makes too many of his rivals appear to hold us, in comparison, by violent means, and introduce us, in comparison, to vulgar things” (1896). Vladimir Nabokov, notorious for his casual dismissal of many great writers, praised Turgenev’s “plastic musical flowing prose”, but criticized his “labored epilogues” and “banal handling of plots”. Nabokov said, Turgenev “is not a great writer, though a pleasant one”, and ranked him fourth among nineteenth-century Russian prose writers, behind Tolstoy, Gogol, and Chekhov, but ahead of Dostoyevsky.
Turgenev’s home town of Oryol is known for blini, yeast-raised buckwheat pancakes, traditionally served with caviar or smoked salmon and sour cream – centerpiece, traditionally of Lenten cooking, but now found year round all over the world, and especially common in Jewish cooking. My recipe uses traditional buckwheat, but you can also use plain flour, as is common, although the results are very different.
1 ½ lbs buckwheat flour
4-5 cups milk
3 tbsp butter
2 eggs, separated
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 pkg dry yeast
Dissolve the yeast in 2 cups of warm water in a mixing bowl. Add half of the flour and mix with a whisk until smooth. Cover with a cloth and set aside in a warm place for about an hour, or until the batter becomes bubbly.
Melt the butter and add it along with the salt, sugar, and egg yolks to the flour/yeast mix and combine thoroughly. Then add the remaining flour, a little at a time, and beat until smooth. Gradually add the milk to make a smooth batter.
Cover the batter with a cloth, set aside in warm place and allow to rise. Whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Beat the batter back down, fold in the whipped egg whites, and let rise again.
Pour small portions of the batter on hot, greased griddle and cook, turning once to brown on both sides.
Sour cream and caviar are the common fillings, but you can use smoked salmon, fresh fruit, or what you will.