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Ivan Turgenev
Ivan Turgenev; drawing by David Levine

You do not, I see, quite understand the Russian public. Its character is determined by the condition of Russian society, which contains, imprisoned within it, fresh forces seething and bursting to break out; but crushed by heavy repression and unable to escape, they produce gloom, bitter depression, apathy. Only in literature, in spite of our Tartar censorship, there is still some life and forward movement. This is why the writer’s calling enjoys such respect among us, why literary success is so easy here even when there is little talent. … This is why, especially among us, universal attention is paid to every manifestation of any so-called liberal trend, no matter how poor the writer’s gifts. … The public … sees in Russian writers its only leaders, defenders and saviours from dark autocracy, Orthodoxy and the national way of life. …1

—Vissarion Belinsky
Open Letter to Gogol, July 15, 18472

On October 9, 1883, Ivan Turgenev was buried, as he had wished, in St. Petersburg, near the grave of his admired friend, the critic Vissarion Belinsky. His body was brought from Paris after a brief ceremony near the Gare de l’Est at which Ernest Renan and Edmond About delivered appropriate addresses. The burial service took place in the presence of representatives of the Imperial Government, the intelligentsia, and workers’ organizations, perhaps the first and last occasion on which these groups met peacefully in Russia.

The times were troubled. The wave of terrorist acts had culminated in the assassination of Alexander II two years earlier; the ringleaders of the conspiracy had been hanged or sent to Siberia, but there was still great unrest, especially among students. The government feared that the funeral procession might turn into a political demonstration. The press received a secret circular from the Ministry of the Interior instructing it to print only official information about the funeral without disclosing that any such instructions had been received, Neither the St. Petersburg municipality nor the workers’ organizations were permitted to identify themselves in the inscriptions on their wreaths. A literary gathering at which Tolstoy was to have spoken about his old friend and rival was cancelled by government order. A revolutionary leaflet was distributed during the funeral procession, but no official notice of this was taken, and the occasion seems to have passed off without incident.

Yet these precautions, and the uneasy atmosphere in which the funeral was conducted, may surprise those who see Turgenev as Henry James or George Moore or Maurice Baring saw him, and as most of his readers perhaps see him still: as a writer of beautiful lyrical prose, the author of nostalgic idylls of country life, the elegiac poet of the last enchantments of decaying country-houses and of their ineffective but irresistibly attractive inhabitants, the incomparable storyteller with a marvelous gift for describing nuances of mood and feeling, the poetry of nature and of love, gifts which have given him a place among the foremost writers of his time. In the French memoirs of the time he appears as le doux géant, as his friend Edmond de Goncourt had called him, the good giant, gentle, charming, infinitely agreeable, an entrancing talker, known as “The Siren” to some of his Russian companions, the admired friend of Flaubert and Daudet, George Sand and Zola and Maupassant, the most welcome and delightful of all the habitués of the salon of his intimate lifelong companion, the singer Pauline Viardot. Yet the Russian government had some grounds for its fears. They had not welcomed Turgenev’s visit to Russia, more particularly his meetings with students, two years before, and had found a way of conveying this to him in unambiguous terms. Audacity was not among his attributes; he cut his visit short and returned to Paris.

The government’s nervousness is not surprising, for Turgenev was something more than a psychological observer and an exquisite stylist. Like virtually every major Russian writer of his time, he was, all his life, profoundly and painfully concerned with his country’s condition and destiny. His novels constitute the best account of the social and political development of the small, but influential, elite of the liberal and radical Russian youth of his day—of it and of its critics. His books, from the point of view of the authorities in St. Petersburg, were by no means safe. Yet, unlike his great contemporaries Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, he was not a preacher and did not wish to thunder at his generation. He was concerned, above all, to enter into, to understand, views, ideals, temperaments, both those which he found sympathetic and those by which he was puzzled or repelled. Turgenev possessed in a highly developed form what Keats called negative capability, an ability to enter into beliefs, feelings, and attitudes alien and at times acutely antipathetic to his own, a gift which Renan had emphasized in his eulogy;3 indeed, some of the young Russian revolutionaries freely conceded the accuracy and justice of his portraits of them.


During much of his life he was painfully preoccupied with the controversies, moral and political, social and personal, which divided the educated Russians of his day; in particular, the profound and bitter conflicts between Slavophile nationalists and admirers of the West, conservatives and liberals, liberals and radicals, moderates and fanatics, realists and visionaries, above all between old and young. He tried to stand aside and see the scene objectively. He did not always succeed. But because he was an acute and responsive observer, self-critical and self-effacing both as a man and as a writer, and, above all, because he was not anxious to bind his vision upon the reader, to preach, to convert, he proved a better prophet than the two self-centered, angry literary giants with whom he is usually compared, and discerned the birth of social issues which have grown world-wide since his day.

Many years after Turgenev’s death the radical novelist Vladimir Korolenko, who declared himself a “fanatical” admirer, remarked that Turgenev “irritated … by touching painfully the most exposed nerves of the live issues of the day”; that he excited passionate love and respect and violent criticism, and “was a storm center … yet he knew the pleasures of triumph too; he understood others, and others understood him.”4 It is this relatively neglected aspect of Turgenev’s writing, which speaks most directly to our own time, that I propose to discuss.


By temperament Turgenev was not politically minded. Nature, personal relationships, quality of feeling—these are what he understood best, these, and their expression in art. He loved every manifestation of art and of beauty as deeply as anyone has ever done. The conscious use of art for ends extraneous to itself, ideological, didactic, or utilitarian, and especially as a liberate weapon in the class war, as demanded by the Russian radicals of the Sixties, was detestable to him. He was often described as a pure aesthete and a believer in art for art’s sake, and was accused of escapism and lack of civic sense, then, as now, regarded in the view of a section of Russian opinion as being a despicable form of irresponsible self-indulgence.

Yet these descriptions do not fit him. His writing was not as deeply and passionately committed as that of Dostoyevsky after his Siberian exile, or of the later Tolstoy, but it was sufficiently concerned with social analysis to enable both the revolutionaries and their critics, especially the liberals among them, to draw ammunition from his novels. The Emperor Alexander II, who had once admired Turgenev’s early work, ended by looking upon him as his bête noire. In this respect Turgenev was typical of his time and his class. More sensitive and scrupulous, less obsessed and intolerant than the great tormented moralists of his age, he reacted just as bitterly against the horrors of the Russian autocracy.

In a huge and backward country, where the number of educated persons was very small and was divided by a gulf from the vast majority of their fellow-men—they could scarcely be described as citizens—living in conditions of unspeakable poverty, oppression, and ignorance, a major crisis of public conscience was bound sooner or later to arise. The facts are familiar enough: the Napoleonic wars precipitated Russia into Europe, and thereby, inevitably, into a more direct contact with Western Enlightenment than had previously been permitted. Army officers drawn from the land-owning elite were brought into a degree of companionship with their men, lifted as they all were by a common wave of vast patriotic emotion. This for the moment broke through the rigid stratification of Russian society.

The salient features of this society included a semi-literate, State-dominated, largely corrupt church; a small, incompletely Westernized, ill-trained bureaucracy struggling to keep under and hold back an enormous, primitive, half-medieval, socially and economically undeveloped, but vigorous and potentially undisciplined, population straining against its shackles; a widespread sense of inferiority, both social and intellectual, before Western civilization; it was a society distorted by arbitrary bullying from above and nauseating conformity and obsequiousness from below, in which men with any degree of independence or originality or character found scarcely any outlet for normal development.

This is enough, perhaps, to account for the genesis, in the first half of the century, of what came to be known as the “superfluous person,” the hero of the new literature of protest, a member of the tiny minority of educated and morally sensitive men, who, unable to find a place in his native land, and driven in upon himself, is liable to escape either into fantasies and illusions, or into cynicism or despair, ending, more often than not, in self-destruction or surrender. Acute shame or furious indignation caused by the misery and degradation of a system in which human beings—serfs—were viewed as “baptized property,” together with a sense of impotence before the rule of injustice, stupidity, and corruption, tended to drive pentup imagination and moral feeling into the only channels that the censorship had not completely shut off—literature and the arts. Hence the notorious fact that in Russia social and political thinkers turned into poets and novelists, while creative writers often became publicists.


Any protest against institutions under an absolute despotism, no matter what its origin or purpose, is eoipso a political act. Consequently literature became the battleground on which the central social and political issues of life were fought out. Literary or aesthetic questions which in their birthplace—in Germany or in France—were confined to academic or artistic coteries, became personal and social problems that obsessed an entire generation of educated young Russians not primarily interested in literature or the arts as such. So, for example, the controversy between the supporters of the theory of pure art and those who believed that it had a social function—a dispute that preoccupied a relatively small section of French critical opinion during the July Monarchy—in Russia grew into a major moral and political issue, of progress against reaction, enlightenment against obscurantism, moral decency, social responsibility, and human feeling against autocracy, piety, tradition, conformity, and obedience to established authority.

The most passionate and influential voice of Turgenev’s generation was that of the radical critic Vissarion Belinsky. Poor, consumptive, ill-born, ill-educated, a man of incorruptible sincerity and great strength of character, he became the Savonarola of his generation—a burning moralist who preached the unity of theory and practice, of literature and life. His genius as a critic and his instinctive insight into the heart of the social and moral problems that troubled the new radical youth made him its natural leader. His literary essays were to him and to his readers an unbroken, agonizing, unswerving attempt to find the truth about the ends of life, what to believe and what to do.

A man of passionate and undivided personality, Belinsky went through violent changes of position, but never without having lived painfully through each of his convictions and having acted upon them with the whole force of his ardent and uncalculating nature until, one by one, they failed him, and forced him, again and again, to make a new beginning, a task ended only by his early death. Literature was for him not a métier, nor a profession, but the artistic expression of an all-embracing outlook, an ethical and metaphysical doctrine, a view of history and of man’s place in the cosmos, a vision that encompassed all facts and all values.

Belinsky was, first and foremost, a seeker after justice and truth, and it was as much by the example of his profoundly moving life and character as by his precepts that he bound his spell upon the young radicals. Turgenev, whose early efforts as a poet he encouraged, became his devoted and lifelong admirer. The image of Belinsky, particularly after his death, became the very embodiment of the committed man of letters; after him Russian literature was dominated by the doctrine, whether it was accepted or resisted, that to write was, first and foremost, to bear witness to the truth: that the writer, of all men, had no right to avert his gaze from the central issues of his day and his society. For an artist—and particularly a writer—to try to detach himself from the deepest concerns of his nation in order to devote himself to the creation of beautiful objects or the pursuit of personal ends was condemned as self-destructive egoism and frivolity; he would only be maimed and impoverished by such betrayal of his chosen calling.

The tormented honesty and integrity of Belinsky’s judgments—the tone, even more than the content—penetrated the moral consciousness of his Russian contemporaries, sometimes to be rejected, but never to be forgotten. Turgenev was by nature cautious, judicious, frightened of all extremes, liable at critical moments to take evasive action; his friend, the poet Jacob Polonsky, many years later described him to a reactionary minister as being “kind and soft as wax … feminine … without character.”5 Even if this goes too far, it is true that he was highly impressionable and liable to yield to stronger personalities.

Belinsky died in 1848, but his invisible presence seemed to haunt Turgenev for the rest of his life. Whenever from weakness, or love of ease, or craving for a quiet life, or sheer amiability of character, Turgenev felt tempted to abandon the struggle for individual liberty or common decency and to come to terms with the enemy, it may well have been the stern and moving image of Belinsky that, like an icon, at all times stood in his way and called him back to the sacred task. A Sportsman’s Sketches was his first and most lasting tribute to his dying friend and mentor. To its readers this masterpiece seemed, and seems still, a marvelous description of the old and changing rural Russia, of the life of nature and of the lives of peasants, transformed into a pure vision of art. But Turgenev looked on it as his first great assault on the hated institution of serfdom, a cry of indignation designed to burn itself into the consciousness of the ruling class. When, in 1879, he was made an Honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Oxford in this very place,6 James Bryce, who presented him, described him as a champion of freedom. This delighted him.

Belinsky was neither the first nor the last to exercise a dominating influence on Turgenev’s life; the first, and perhaps the most destructive, was his widowed mother, a strong-willed, hysterical, brutal, bitterly frustrated woman who loved her son, and broke his spirit. She was a savage monster even by the none too exacting standards of humanity of the Russian landowners of those days. As a child Turgenev had witnessed abominable cruelties and humiliations which she inflicted upon her serfs and dependants; an episode in his story “The Brigadier” is apparently founded on his maternal grandmother’s murder of one of her boy serfs: she struck him in a fit of rage; he fell wounded to the ground; irritated by the spectacle, she smothered him with a pillow.7 Memories of this kind fill his stories, and it took him his entire life to work them out of his system.

It was early experience of scenes of this kind on the part of men brought up at school and university to respect the values of Western civilization that was largely responsible for the lasting preoccupation with the freedom and dignity of the individual, and for the hatred of the relics of Russian feudalism, that characterized the political position of the entire Russian intelligentsia from its beginnings. The moral confusion was very great. “Our time longs for convictions, it is tormented by hunger for the truth,” wrote Belinsky in 1842, when Turgenev was twenty-four and had become intimate with him. “Our age is all questioning, questing, searching, nostalgic longing for the truth. …”8 Thirteen years later Turgenev echoed this: “There are epochs when literature cannot merely be artistic, there are interests higher than poetry.”9 Three years later Tolstoy, then dedicated to the ideal of pure art, suggested to him the publication of a purely literary and artistic periodical divorced from the squalid political polemics of the day. Turgenev replied that it was not “lyrical twittering” that the times were calling for, or “birds singing on boughs”;10 “you loathe this political morass; true, it is a dirty, dusty, vulgar business. But there is dirt and dust in the streets, and yet we cannot, after all, do without towns.”11

The conventional picture of Turgenev as a pure artist drawn into political strife against his will but remaining fundamentally alien to it, drawn by critics both on the right and on the left (particularly by those whom his political novels irritated), is misleading. His major novels, from the middle Fifties onward, are deeply concerned with the central social and political questions that troubled the liberals of his generation. His outlook was profoundly and permanently influenced by Belinsky’s indignant humanism and in particular by his furious philippics against all that was dark, corrupt, oppressive, false.12 Two or three years earlier, at the University of Berlin, he had listened to the Hegelian sermons of the future anarchist agitator Bakunin, who was his fellow student, sat at the feet of the same German philosophical master and, as Belinsky had once done, admired Bakunin’s dialectical brilliance.

Five years later he met in Moscow and soon became intimate with the radical young publicist Herzen and his friends. He shared their hatred of every form of enslavement, injustice, and brutality, but unlike some among them he could not rest comfortably in any doctrine or ideological system. All that was general, abstract, absolute, repelled him: his vision remained delicate, sharp, concrete, and incurably realistic. Hegelianism, right-wing and left-wing, which he had imbibed as a student in Berlin, materialism, socialism, positivism, about which his friends ceaselessly argued, populism, collectivism, the Russian village commune idealized by those Russian socialists whom the ignominious collapse of the left in Europe in 1848 had bitterly disappointed and disillusioned—these came to seem mere abstractions to him, substitutes for reality, in which many believed, and a few even tried to live, doctrines which life, with its uneven surface and irregular shapes of real human character and activity, would surely resist and shatter if ever a serious effort were made to translate them into practice.

Bakunin was a dear friend and a delightful boon companion, but his fantasies, whether Slavophile or anarchist, left no trace on Turgenev’s thought. Herzen was a different matter: he was a sharp, ironical, imaginative thinker, and in their early years they had much in common. Yet Herzen’s populist socialism seemed to Turgenev a pathetic fantasy, the dream of a man whose earlier illusions were killed by the failure of the revolution in the West, but who could not live long without faith; with his old ideals, social justice, equality, liberal democracy, impotent before the forces of Western reaction, he must find himself a new idol to worship; against “the golden calf” (to use Turgenev’s words) of acquisitive capitalism, he set up “the sheepskin coat” of the Russian peasant.

Turgenev understood and sympathized with his friend’s cultural despair. Like Carlyle and Flaubert, like Stendhal and Nietzsche, Ibsen and Wagner, Herzen felt increasingly asphyxiated in a world in which all values had become debased. All that was free and dignified and independent and creative seemed to Herzen to have gone under beneath the wave of bourgeois philistinism, the commercialization of life by corrupt and vulgar dealers in human commodities and their mean and insolent lackeys who served the huge joint-stock companies called France, England, Germany; even Italy (he wrote), “the most poetical country in Europe,” when the “fat, bespectacled little bourgeois of genius,” Cavour, offered to keep her, could not restrain herself and, deserting both her fanatical lover Mazzini and her Herculean husband Garibaldi, gave herself to him.13 Was it to this decaying corpse that Russia was to look as the ideal model?

The time was surely ripe for some cataclysmic transformation—a barbarian invasion from the East which would clear the air like a healing storm. Against this, Herzen declared, there was only one lightning conductor—the Russian peasant commune, free from the taint of capitalism, from the greed and fear and inhumanity of destructive individualism. Upon this foundation a new society of free, self-governing human beings might yet be built.

Turgenev regarded all this as a violent exaggeration, the dramatization of private despair. Of course the Germans were pompous and ridiculous; Louis Napoleon and the profiteers of Paris were odious, but the civilization of the West was not crumbling. It was the greatest achievement of mankind. It was not for Russians, who had nothing comparable to offer, to mock at it or keep it from their gates. He accused Herzen of being a tired and disillusioned man, who after 1849 was looking for a new divinity and had found it in the simple Russian peasant.14

You erect an altar to this new and unknown God because almost nothing is known about him, and one can … pray and believe and wait. This God does not begin to do what you expect of him; this, you say, is temporary, accidental, injected by outside forces; your God loves and adores that which you hate, hates that which you love; [he] accepts precisely what you reject on his behalf: you avert your eyes, you stop your ears. …15

“Either you must serve the revolution, and European ideals as before. Or, if you now think that there is nothing in all this, you must have the courage to look the devil in both eyes, plead guilty to the whole of Europe—to its face—and not make an open or implied exception for some coming Russian Messiah”—least of all for the Russian peasant who is, in embryo, the worst conservative of all, and cares nothing for liberal ideals.16

Turgenev’s sober realism never deserted him. He responded to the faintest tremors of Russian life; in particular, to the changes of expression on what he called “the swiftly altering physiognomy of those who belong to the cultured section of Russian society.”17 He claimed to do no more than to record what Shakespeare had called “the body and pressure of time.”18 He faithfully described them all—the talkers, the idealists, the fighters, the cowards, the reactionaries, and the radicals, sometimes, as in Smoke, with biting polemical irony, but, as a rule, so scrupulously, with so much understanding for all the overlapping sides of every question, so much unruffled patience, touched only occasionally with undisguised irony or satire (without sparing his own character and views), that he angered almost everyone at some time.

Those who still think of him as an uncommitted artist, raised high above the ideological battle, may be surprised to learn that no one in the entire history of Russian literature, perhaps of literature in general, has been so ferociously and continuously attacked for his opinions, both from the right and from the left, as Turgenev. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy held far more violent views, but they were formidable figures, toward the end of their lives, men of spiritual authority treated with nervous respect by most of their bitterest opponents. Turgenev was not in the least formidable; he was amiable, skeptical, “kind and soft as wax,”19 too courteous and too self-distrustful to frighten anyone. He embodied no clear principles, advocated no doctrine, no panacea for the “accursed questions,” as they came to be called, personal and social. “He felt and understood the opposite sides of life,” said Henry James of him, “our Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, moralistic, conventional standards were far away from him … half the charm of conversation with him was that one breathed an air in which cant phrases … simply sounded ridiculous.” 20

In a country in which readers, and especially the young, to this day look to writers for moral direction, he refused to preach. He was aware of the price he would have to pay for such reticence. He knew that the Russian reader wanted to be told what to believe and how to live, expected to be provided with clearly contrasted values, clearly distinguishable heroes and villains. When the author did not provide this, Turgenev wrote, the reader was dissatisfied and blamed the writer, since he found it difficult and irritating to have to make up his own mind, find his own way. And, indeed, it is true that Tolstoy never leaves you in doubt about whom he favors and whom he condemns; Dostoyevsky does not conceal what he regards as the path of salvation. Among these great, tormented Laocoöns Turgenev remained cautious and skeptical; the reader is left in suspense, in a state of doubt; central problems are raised, and for the most part left—it seemed to some a trifle complacently—unanswered.

No society demanded more of its authors than Russia, then or now. Turgenev was accused of vacillation, temporizing, infirmity of purpose, of speaking with too many voices. Indeed, this very topic obsessed him. Rudin, Asya, On the Eve, the major works of the Fifties, are preoccupied with weakness—the failure of men of generous heart and sincerely held ideals, who remain impotent and give in without a struggle to the forces of stagnation. Rudin, drawn partly from the young Bakunin, partly from himself,21 is a man of high ideals, talks well, fascinates his listeners, expresses views which Turgenev could accept and defend. But he is made of paper. When he is faced with a genuine crisis which calls for courage and resolution, he crumples and collapses.

His friend, Lezhnev, defends Rudin’s memory: his ideals were noble but he had “no blood, no character.” In the epilogue (which the author added as an afterthought to a later edition), after aimless wanderings, Rudin dies bravely but uselessly on the barricades of Paris in 1848, something of which his prototype Bakunin was, in Turgenev’s view, scarcely capable. But even this was not open to Rudin in his native land; even if he had blood and character, what could he have done in the Russian society of his time? This “superfluous” man, the ancestor of all the sympathetic, futile, ineffective talkers in Russian literature, should he, could he, in the circumstances of his time, have declared war upon the odious aristocratic lady and her world to which he capitulates? The reader is left without guidance.

The heroine of On the Eve, Elena, who looks for a heroic personality to help her escape from the false existence of her parents and their milieu, finds that even the best and most gifted Russians in her circle lack will-power, cannot act. She follows the fearless Bulgarian conspirator Insarov who is thinner, drier, less civilized, more wooden than the sculptor Shubin or the historian Bersenev, but, unlike them, is possessed by a single thought—to liberate his country from the Turk, a simple dominant purpose that unites him with the last peasant and the last beggar in his land. Elena goes with him because he alone, in her world, is whole and unbroken, because his ideals are backed by indomitable moral strength.

Turgenev published On the Eve in the Contemporary, a radical journal then moving steadily and rapidly to the left. The group of men who dominated it were as uncongenial to him as they were to Tolstoy; he thought them dull, narrow doctrinaires, devoid of all understanding of art, enemies of beauty, uninterested in personal relationships (which were everything to him), but they were bold and strong, fanatics who judged everything in the light of a single goal—the liberation of the Russian people. They rejected compromise: they were bent on a radical solution. The emancipation of the serfs, which moved Turgenev and all his liberal friends profoundly, was to these men not the beginning of a new era, but a miserable fraud: the peasants were still chained to their landlords by the new economic arrangements. Only “the peasant’s axe,” a mass rising of the people in arms, would give it freedom.

Dobrolyubov, the literary editor of the magazine, in his review of On the Eve, acclaimed the Bulgarian as a positive hero: for he was ready to give his life to drive out the Turk from his country. And we? We Russians, too (he declared), have our Turks—only they are internal: the court, the gentry, the generals, the officials, the rising bourgeoisie, oppressors and exploiters whose weapons are the ignorance of the masses and brute force. Where are our Insarovs? Turgenev speaks of an eve; when will the real day dawn? If it has not dawned yet, this is because the good, the enlightened young men, the Shubins and Bersenevs in Turgenev’s novel, are impotent. They are paralyzed, and will, for all their fine words, end by adapting themselves to the conventions of the philistine life of their society, because they are too closely connected with the prevailing order by a network of family and institutional and economic relationships which they cannot bring themselves to break entirely.

“If you sit in an empty box,” said Dobrolyubov, in the final version of his article, “and try to upset it with yourself inside, what a fearful effort you have to make! But if you come at it from outside, one push will topple this box.”22 Insarov stood outside his box—the box is the Turkish invader. Those who are truly serious must get out of the Russian box, break off every relationship with the entire monstrous structure, and then knock it over from outside. Herzen and Ogaryov sit in London and waste their time in exposing isolated cases of injustice, corruption, or mismanagement in the Russian empire; but this, so far from weakening that empire, may even help it to eliminate such shortcomings and last longer. The real task is to destroy the whole inhuman system.

Dobrolyubov’s advice is clear: those who are serious must endeavor to abandon the box—remove themselves from all contact with the Russian state as it is at present, for there is no other means to acquire an Archimedean point, leverage for causing it to collapse. Insarov rightly lets private revenge—the execution of those who tortured and killed his parents—wait until the larger task is accomplished. There must be no waste of energy on piecemeal denunciations, on the rescue of individuals from cruelty or injustice. This is mere liberal fiddling, escape from the radical task. There is nothing common between “us” and “them.” “They,” and Turgenev with them, seek reform, accommodation. We want destruction, revolution, new foundations of life; nothing else will destroy the reign of darkness. This, for the radicals, is the clear implication of Turgenev’s novel; but he and his friends are evidently too craven to draw it.

Turgenev was upset and, indeed, frightened by this interpretation of his book. He tried to get the review withdrawn. He said that if it appeared he would not know what to do or where to run. Nevertheless he was fascinated by these new men. He loathed the gloomy puritanism of these “Daniels of the Neva” as they were called by Herzen,23 who thought them cynical and brutal and could not bear their crude anti-aesthetic utilitarianism, their fanatical rejection of all that he held dear—liberal culture, art, civilized human relationships. But they were young, brave, ready to die in the fight against the common enemy, the reactionaries, the police, the State. Turgenev wished, in spite of everything, to be liked and respected by them. He tried to flirt with Dobrolyubov, and constantly engaged him in conversation. One day, when they met in the offices of the Contemporary, Dobrolyubov suddenly said to him, “Ivan Sergeyevich, do not let us go on talking to each other: it bores me”24 and walked away to a distant corner of the room.

Turgenev did not give up immediately. He was a celebrated charmer; he did his best to find a way to woo the grim young man. It was of no use; when he saw Turgenev approach he stared at the wall or pointedly left the room. “You can talk to Turgenev if you like,” Dobrolyubov said to his fellow editor Chernyshevsky, who at this time still looked with favor and admiration on Turgenev, and he added, characteristically, that in his view bad allies were no allies.25 This is worthy of Lenin. Dobrolyubov had, perhaps, the most Bolshevik temperament of all the early radicals. Turgenev in the Fifties and early Sixties was the most famous writer in Russia, the only Russian writer with a great and growing European reputation. Nobody had ever treated him like this: he was deeply wounded. Nevertheless, he persisted for a while, but in the end, faced with Dobrolyubov’s implacable hostility, gave up. There was an open breach. He crossed over to the conservative review edited by Michael Katkov, a man regarded by the left wing as their deadliest enemy.

In the meanwhile the political atmosphere grew more stormy. The terrorist Land and Liberty League was created in 1861, the very year of the great Emancipation. Violently worded manifestoes calling on the peasants to revolt began to circulate. The radical leaders were charged with conspiracy, were imprisoned or exiled. Fires broke out in the capital and university students were accused of starting them; Turgenev did not come to their defense. The booing and whistling of the radicals, their brutal mockery, seemed to him mere vandalism; their revolutionary aims, dangerous utopianism. Yet he felt that something new was rising—a vast social mutation of some kind. He declared that he felt it everywhere. He was repelled and at the same time fascinated by it. A new and formidable type of adversary of the regime—and of much that he and his generation of liberals believed in—was coming into existence.

Turgenev’s curiosity was always stronger than his fears: he wanted, above everything, to understand the new Jacobins. These men were crude, fanatical, hostile, insulting, but they were undemoralized, self-confident, and, in some narrow but genuine sense, rational and disinterested. He could not bear to turn his back upon them. They seemed to him a new, clear-eyed generation, undeluded by the old romantic myths; above all they were the young, the future of his country lay in their hands; he did not wish to be cut off from anything that seemed to him alive, passionate, and disturbing. After all, the evils that they wished to fight were evils; their enemies were, to some degree, his enemies too; these young men were wrong-headed, barbarous, contemptuous of liberals like himself, but they were fighters and martyrs in the battle against despotism, the forces of darkness. He was intrigued, horrified, and dazzled by them. During the whole of the rest of his life he was obsessed by a desire to explain them to himself, and perhaps himself to them.

(This is the first part of a three-part article on Turgenev.)

This essay was first given in November, 1970, as the Romanes lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford. It was published as a pamphlet in December, 1972, by Oxford's Clarendon Press which has now issued a corrected text, soon to be available in the US to those who write directly to the Oxford University Press in New York. Copyright © Oxford University Press, 1972.

This Issue

October 18, 1973