Fathers and Children: Turgenev and the Liberal Predicament

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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…

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