Turgenev in Baden

In 1861 Turgenev’s great novel Fathers and Sons was published in St. Petersburg. He was forty-three; the book was his masterpiece but it brought violent abuse upon him in Russia both from the conservatives and the young radicals who considered that they had been caricatured in the portrait of Bazarov, the Nihilist doctor. The abuse was wounding, for until then Turgenev had been able to think of himself as the liberating voice of the young. From this moment his life as an expatriate began: he left Russia in disgust and anger.

The attacks were not the sole cause of his decision to leave. There was an emotional reason of deep importance. Ever since he was thirty, indeed earlier, he had been in love with Pauline Viardot, the famous Spanish opera singer. At one time they were possibly lovers, living out the drama of A Month in the Country, but it seems that the feeling was stronger on his side than on hers and that she put her art, her career, her marriage, and her children first and kept Turgenev at a distance.

But in 1861 there was a change: the feeling or the need for Turgenev revived on her side. Her famous voice was failing although she was scarcely forty; she withdrew from the great opera houses of Europe, and she and her husband settled at the immensely fashionable spa and little court of Baden on the Rhine, where she could hold a salon, give concerts, and take a few pupils for enormous fees. Now she beckoned to Turgenev once more. He was rich. He could build a small theater for her, help her publish her musical albums, and he was an enormous social asset at her salons. The slavery (as he called it) of his old love for her revived, their affections were close. What Russians resented was that from this time until his death his home was Europe and close to the Viardots: to his estate in Russia he certainly went from time to time, but as one whose ties were elsewhere.

It is clear from his letters to his friends in the Baden period that he feared expatriation would injure his talent. More and more, he feared he would drift into mere reminiscence and lose his knowledge of contemporary Russia. He began to defend himself and to ask what was wrong with noncontemporary characters, what was wrong with the past. In 1870—which turned out to be the end of his Baden period because of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war—we find him writing to a correspondent that a “Russian writer who has settled in Baden by that very fact condemns his writing to an early end. I have no illusions on that score, but since everything else is impossible, there is no point in talking about it…. But are you really so submerged in what is ‘contemporary’ that you will not tolerate any non-contemporary characters?” Such people, Turgenev says, have lived and have a right to be…

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