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Turgenev and ‘Virgin Soil’

By the 1870s Turgenev’s pre-eminence in Europe as the leading Russian novelist was unquestioned, but he was far from being known to the great public in Europe or America. In 1877 with the publication of Virgin Soil, his longest and most ambitious novel, he became world famous: a month after it was published fifty-two young men and women were arrested in Russia on charges of revolutionary conspiracy, and a shocked public in France, Britain, and America turned to the novel for enlightenment. Its effect on American readers was enormous: as powerful, in its way, as the effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been. For Turgenev the novel was one more attempt to present the Russian situation with detachment, and above all he sought to show to his critics that he had not lost touch with the younger generation.

Virgin Soil is his longest and most complex novel. One can’t deny that it is very much a novel that has been willed—compare, for instance, the fatal example of “the great American novel”—nevertheless it does contain here and there some of Turgenev’s finest things. He set out to portray the various types of educated young men and women who, under the influence of the Populist movement, had thrown up the life of their class “to go the people,” live among them, dress in the clothes of workers and peasants, and to work with them and even to conspire with them.

A quotation from the Notebook of a Farmer on the title page indicates that the novel will be a piece of practical social criticism: ” ‘Virgin Soil’ should be turned up not by a harrow skimming over the surfaces, but by a plough biting deep into the earth.” The Populists were skimmers, but there were many extremists among them. To Stasiulevich, his publisher, Turgenev wrote that he expected the novel would be as violently abused in Russia as Fathers and Sons had been.

Hitherto the younger generation has been presented in our literature either as a crew of crooks and scoundrels…or as much as possible idealised…. I decided to choose the middle course and to get closer to the truth—to take the young people who are, for the most part, good and honest and show that despite their honesty their very course is so false and impractical that it cannot fail to lead them to complete fiasco.

Whether he succeeded or not, he said, the young would at any rate sense his sympathy if not for their aims, then for their personalities.

Turgenev feared the censor and indeed reluctantly suppressed things that might too obviously offend. The novel was published in two parts, and having passed the first, the censor’s committee was in a difficulty about the more disturbing second part. One faction wanted to burn it and insist on the “correction” of the first part. The chairman gave an embarrassed casting vote in its favor, but said if he had known the whole book in the first place he would have banned it. In the end, as Turgenev expected, the novel was damned by the critics of both sides who were swayed by party feeling. The conservatives, the official classes, said Turgenev was a dangerous radical who himself was personally involved with conspiracy—and indeed he did give money to the paper of the Populist leader, Lavrov, but simply because he hoped it would take the place of Herzen’s The Bell as a forum for political discussion. He knew enough about political opinion to know that its phases do not last long.

The Populists were a moral replacement of the Nihilists whose policy of rejection had soon spent itself. The conservatives, especially, derided the idea that one of his characters, the girl Marianna of the gentry class, would involve herself with the movement. The radical critics ranged from those who said he was an old man libeling the young to those who said he knew nothing about the genuine revolutionaries and that, in any case, his absence from Russia made him out of date. Turgenev proved to be more accurate than either party in his diagnosis, as he had been in the case of Bazarov in Fathers and Sons: almost immediately after the publication of his novel fifty-two young conspirators, including eighteen women, were arrested and put on trial.

Turgenev was easily affected by hostile criticism. Once more he said he was finished and, once more, that he would never write again. But presently he recovered and stood by what he had written and, like many gentle men who are bullied, he had his bitter malice and wit, and a sharp firm pride. Indeed, the novel itself has a satirical harshness which is exceptional in his works. He repeated one or two stinging epigrammatic judgments, one particularly on the notorious Oriental love of lying which so many Westerners have complained of in Russians:

A truthful man…that was the great thing! that was what touched her! It is a well known fact, though by no means easy to understand, that Russians are the greatest liars on the face of the earth and yet there is nothing they respect like the truth—nothing attracts them so much.

In the opening pages of Virgin Soil, we are pushed abruptly into a dirty attic and see a slovenly young man and a woman with coarse lips and teeth. Both are smoking and paying no attention to each other; nevertheless, we note their air of honesty, stoicism, and industry. From this moment we see how Turgenev’s familiar world and manner have changed. The style is harder, more photographic; the grace has been replaced by the instant, the summary, and the laconic. He is now attempting a larger number of characters from a wider canvas of life and is about to involve them in an elaborate plot and to grip us with a long story of imposed suspense which he had said earlier was outside his instinct and competence. We remember that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have overtaken him, in this sense, and have given the Russian novel a density where before it had only surface and extent. We remember that what he admired in Dickens was the variety of mood—indeed he wondered, after the book was done, if he had not taken too much of the caricaturist from him. We have certainly an impression of cartoon and in that the book has something in common with, say, Dostoevsky’s The Devils.

Both Turgenev’s conspirators and his innocents who “go to the people” strike one as living in a vacuum. Conspiracy is an urban matter and Turgenev is not by nature an urban novelist, although for once he does give us a picture of a Russian town, probably Orel, for its own sake. It is well photographed:

It was Saturday night; there were no people on the street, but the taverns were still crowded. Hoarse voices broke from them, drunken songs and the nasal notes of the concertina; from doors suddenly opened streamed the filthy warmth, the acrid smell of alcohol, the red glare of lights. Before almost every tavern were standing little peasant carts, harnessed to shaggy, pot-bellied nags; they stood with their unkempt heads hanging down submissively, and seemed asleep.


The coach crossed a wide market place, positively stinking of rush mats and cabbages, passed the governor’s house with striped sentry boxes at the gates, a private house with a turret, a promenade set with trees recently planted and already dying, a bazaar filled with the barking of dogs and the clinking of chains and gradually reaching the boundaries of the town overtook a long long train of wagons, which had set off late for the sake of the cool of the night.

An un-Turgenevean scene, brutally observed, but it must be said well placed.’ For Nezhdanov, the young poet and idealist and, so to say, political guinea pig of the novel, is getting a first sight of the Russia he has vowed to live with and understand. But what one suspects already (as Richard Freeborn says in Turgenev, A Study) is that Virgin Soil is going to be a forerunner of the crude, black and white, schematic novels of the Socialist Realists of our time:

The distinction Turgenev makes between the aims of the Populists and their persons was artificial, especially for a writer who had been used to accepting both the man and his ideas.

This change is certainly felt, and although one can say that Turgenev’s effort of will in keeping in touch with Russian realities has some of the guilt of the absentee in it—a matter that was, as he put it, his fate—we know that he judged rightly when he said that the Populist movement was a pathos, that no root and branch change would take place for another twenty years at least. The central characters are nevertheless representative. The aristocratic young Nezhdanov has traits of Turgenev’s character: like the young Turgenev, he is handsome and has chestnut hair; he has a double nature; he is secretly a poet but ashamed of his poetry; his real interest is political activity. He is an idealist, passionate, chaste, timid; ashamed of these qualities, he even tries to be coarse in his language: “Life did not come easily to him.” His feelings push him forward, but beyond his power of performance. He is the Turgenevean mixture of Don Quixote and Hamlet, a throwback to “the superfluous man.” When he “goes to the people” and solemnly dresses up in workman’s clothes, the workmen see through him at once and make him drunk on raw vodka. Another time he is “beaten up” and makes a mess of everything.

Marianna, the brusque upper-class girl with whom he falls in love when he is tutoring in the grand house of the wordy liberal Sipyagin, is as innocent as he, but she is the new kind of young girl. She is a rebel who has cropped her hair, and (interesting when one remembers Turgenev’s old-fashioned habits) she belongs to the generation who has also given up hand-kissing. When she boldly runs off with Nezhdanov to “go to the people” with him, she refuses to be married and they live together in chastity.

Marianna is a rebel, not a revolutionary—a rebel eager to leave her class, to be useful and to sacrifice herself. The real revolutionary is Mashurina, the unkempt, plain, and awkward girl who silently loves Nezhdanov. She is quietly efficient in secret work, alert for traitors, spies, and mistrustful of some of the hangers-on of the movement, for example of Palkin, a cripple, a foolish yet far-seeing man, but a danger to the cause because he is an unstable and excitable chatterbox, easily flattered. It is Mashurina who will disappear deeper into conspiracy when Palkin’s foolishness and swank give the group away.

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