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Ivan Turgenev
Ivan Turgenev; drawing by David Levine

Young Man to Middle-aged Man; “You had content but no force.” Middle-aged Man to Young Man; “And you have force but no content.”

From a contemporary conversation1

This is the topic of Turgenev’s most famous, and politically most interesting, novel Fathers and Children. It was an attempt to give flesh and substance to his image of the new men, whose mysterious, impalpable precence, he declared, he felt about him everywhere, and who inspired in him feelings that he found it difficult to analyze. “There was,” he wrote many years later in a friend,” please don’t laugh—some sort of farum, something stronger than the author himself, something independent of him. I know one thing; I started with no preconceived idea, no ‘tendency’; I wrote naïvely, as if myself astonished at what was emerging.”2 He said that the central figure of the novel, Bazarov, was modeled mainly on a Russian doctor whom he met in a train in Russia: But Bazarov has some of the characteristics of Belinsky too, Like him, he is the son of a poor army doctor, and he possesses some of Belinsky’s brusqueness, his directness, his intolerance, his liability to explode at any sign of hypocrisy, of solemnity, of pompous conservative, or evasive liberal, cant. And there is, despite Turgenev’s denials, something of the ferocious, militant anti-aestheticism of Dobrolyubov too.

The central topic of the novel is the confrontation of the old and the young, of liberals and radicals, traditional civilization and the new, harsh positivism which has no use for anything except what is needed by a rational man. Bazarov, a young medical researcher, is invited by his fellow student and disciple, Arkadi Kirsanov, to stay at his father’s house in the country. Nicholas Kirsanov, the father, is a gentle, kindly, modest country gentleman, who adores poetry and nature, and greets his son’s brilliant friend with touching courtesy. Also in the house is Nicholas Kirsanov’s brother. Paul, a retired army officer, a carefully dressed, vain, pompous, old-fashioned dandy, who had once been a minor lion in the salons of the capital, and is now living out his life in elegant and hritated boredom.

Bazarov scents an enemy, and takes deliberate pleasure in describing himself and his allies as “nihilists,” by which he means no more than that he, and those who think like him, reject everything that cannot be established by the rational methods of natural science. Truth alone matters: what cannot be established by observation and experiment is useless or harmful ballast—“romantic rubbish”—which an intelligent man will ruthlessly eliminate. In this heap of irrational nonsense Bazarov includes all that is irrational, unverifiable, that cannot be reduced to quantitative measurement—literature and philosophy, the beauty of art and the beauty of nature, tradition and authority, religion and intuition, the uncriticized assumptions of conservatives and liberals, of populists and socialists, of landowners and serfs. He believes in strength, willpower, energy, utility, work, ruthless criticism of all that exists. He wishes to tear off masks, blow up all revered principles and norms. Only irrefutable facts, only useful knowledge, matter. He clashes almost immediately with the touchy, conventional Poul Kirsanov: “At present,” he tells him, “the most useful thing is to deny. So we deny.” “Everything?” asks Paul Kirsanov. “Everything.” “What? Not only art, poetry…but even…too horrible to utter….” “Everything.” “So you destroy everything…but surely one must build, too?” “That’s not our business…. First, one must clear the ground.”

The fiery revolutionary agitator Bakunin, who had just then escaped from Sibenu to London, was saying something of this kind: the entire rotten structure, the corrupt old world, must be razed to the ground, before something new can be built upon it; what this is to be is not for us to say; we are revolutionaries, our business is to demolish. The new men, purified from the infection of the world of idlers and exploiters and its bogus values—these men will know what to do. The French anarchist Georges Sorel once quoted Marx as saying “Anyone who makes plans for after the revolution is a reactionary.”3 This went beyond the position of Turgenev’s radical critics of the Contemporary. They did have a program of sorts: they were not ruthless egoistic individualists, disciples of Max Stirner or scientific positivism; they were socialists, democrats, and passionate popullats. But faith in the people seems just as irrational to Bazarov as the rest of the “romantic rubbish.” “Our peasants,” he declares, “are prepared to rob themselves in order to drink themselves blind at the inn.” A man’s first duty is to develop his own powers, to be strong and rational, to create a society in which other rational men can breathe and live and learn.

His mild disciple Arkadi suggests to him that it would be ideal if all peasants lived in a pleasant, white-washed hut, like the head man of their village. “I have conceived a loathing for this…peasant,” Bazarov says. “I have to work the skin off my hands for him, and he won’t so much as thank me for it; anyway, what do I need his thanks for? He’ll go on living in his white-washed hut, while weeds grow out of me….” Arkadi is shocked by such talk; but it is the voice of the new, hard-boiled, unashamed, materialistic egoism.


Nevertheless Bazarov is at his case with peasants, they are not self-conscious with him even if they think him an odd sort of member of the gentry. Bazarov spends hours on examining insects or dissecting frogs. “A decent chemist,” he tells his shaken host, “is twenty times more use than any poet.” Arkadi, after consulting Bazarov, gently draws a volume of Pushkin out of his father’s hands, and slips into them Buchner’s Kraft und Stoff,4 the latest popular exposition of materialism. Turgenev describes the older Kirsanov walking in his garden:

Nikolal Petrovich dropped his head, and passed his hand over his face. “But to reject poetry,” he thought again, “not to have a feeling for art, for nature….” and he cast about him, as if trying to understand how it was possible not to have a feeling for nature.

All principles, Bazarov declares, are reducible to mere sensations. Arkadi asks whether, in that case, honesty is only a sensation. “You find this hard to swallow?” says Bazarov. “No, friend, if you have decided to knock everything down, you must knock yourself down, tool…’

This is the voice of Bakunin and Dobrolyubov: “one must clear the ground.” The new culture must be founded on real, that is, materialist, scientific values: socialism is just as unreal and abstract as any other of the “isms” imported from abroad. As for the old aesthetic, literary culture, it will crumble before the realists, the new, tough-minded men who can look the brutal truth in the face. “Aristocracy, liberalism, progress, principles…what a lot of foreign…and useless words. A Russian would not want them as a gift.” Paul Kirsanov rejects this contemptuously; but his nephew Arkadi cannot in the end accept it either. “You aren’t made for our harsh, bitter, solitary kind of life,” Bazarov tells him.

you aren’t Insolent, you aren’t nasty, all you have is the audacity, the impulsiveness of youth, and that is of no use in our business. Your type, the gentry, cannot get beyond noble humility, noble Indignation, and that is nonsense. You won’t, for instance, fight, and yet you think yourselves terrific. We want to fight…. Our dust will eat out your eyes, our dirt will spoil your clothes, you haven’t risen to our level yet, you still can’t help admiring yourselves, you like castigating yourselves, and that bores us. Hand us others—it is them we want to break. You are a good fellow, but, all the same, you are nothing but a soft, beautifully bred, liberal boy….

Bazarov, someone once said, is the first Bolshevik; even though he is not a socialist, there is some truth in this. He wants radical change and does not shrink from brute force. The old dandy, Paul Kirsanov, protests against this:

Force? There is force in savage Kalmucks and Mongols, too…. What do we want it for?…Civilization, its fruits, are dear to us. And don’t tell me they are worthless. The most miserable dauber…the pianist who taps on the keys in a restaurant…they are more useful than you are, because they represent civilization and not brute Mongol force. You imagine that you are progressive; you should be sitting in a Kalmuck wagon!

In the end, Bazarov, against all his principles, falls in love with a cold, clever, well-born society beauty, is rejected by her, suffers deeply, and not long after dies as a result of an infection caught while dissecting a corpse in a village autopsy. He dies stoically, wondering whether his country had any real need of him and men like him; and his death is bitterly lamented by his old, humble, loving parents.

Bazarov falls because he is broken by fate, not through failure of will or intellect. “I conceived him,” Turgenev later wrote to a young student, “as a somber figure, wild, huge, half-grown out of the soil, powerful, nasty, honest, but doomed to destruction because he still stands only in the gateway to the future….’5 This brutal, fanatical, dedicated figure, with his unused powers, is represented as an avenger for insulted human reason; yet, in the end, he is incurably wounded by a love, by a human passion that he suppresses and denies within himself, a crisis by which he is humiliated and humanized. In the end, he is crushed by heartless nature, by what the author calls the cold-eyed goddess Isis who does not care for good or evil, or art or beauty, still less for man, the creature of an hour; he is not saved either by his egoism or his altruism, by faith or by works, by rational hedonism or puritanical pursuit of duty; he struggles to assert himself; but nature is indifferent; she obeys her own inexorable laws.


Fathers and Children was published in the spring of 1862 and caused the greatest storm among its Russian readers of any novel before or, indeed, since. What was Bazarov? How was he to be taken? Was he a positive or a negative figure? A hero or a devil? He is young, bold, intelligent, strong, he has thrown off the burden of the past, the melancholy impotence of the “superfluous men” beating vainly against the bars of the prison house of Russian society. The critic Strakhov in his review spoke of him as a character conceived on a heroic scale.6 Many years later Lunacharsky described him as the first “positive” hero in Russian literature. Does he then symbolize progress? Freedom? Yet his hatred of art and culture, of the entire world of liberal values, his cynical asides—does the author mean to hold these up for admiration?

Even before the novel was published his editor, Michael Katkov, protested to Turgenev. This glorification of nihilism, he complained, was nothing but groveling at the feet of the young radicals. “Turgenev,” he said to the novelist’s friend Annenkov, “should be ashamed of lowering the flag before a radical,” or saluting him as an honorable soldier.7 Katkov declared that he was not deceived by the author’s apparent objectivity: “There is concealed approval lurking here…this fellow, Bazarov, definitely dominates the others and does not encounter proper resistance,” and he concluded that what Turgenev had done was politically dangerous.8 Strakhov was more sympathetic. He wrote that Turgenev, with his devotion to timeless truth and beauty, only wanted to describe reality, not judge it. He too, however, spoke of Bazarov as towering over the other characters, and declared that Turgenev might claim to be drawn to him by an irresistible attraction, but it would be truer to say that he feared him. Katkov echoes this:

One gets the impression of a kind of embarrassment in the author’s attitude to the hero of his story…. It is as if the author didn’t like him, felt lost before him, and, more than this, was terrified of him!9

The attack from the left was a good deal more virulent. Dobrolyubov’s successor, Antonovich, accused Turgenev in the Contemporary10 of perpetrating a hideous and disgusting caricature of the young. Bazarov was a brutish, cynical sensualist, hankering after wine and women, unconcerned with the fate of the people; his creator, whatever his views in the past, had evidently crossed over to the blackest reactionaries and oppressors. And, indeed, there were conservatives who congratulated Turgenev for exposing the horrors of the new, destructive nihilism, and thereby rendering a public service for which all men of decent feeling must be grateful.

But it was the attack from the left that hurt Turgenev most. Seven years later he wrote to a friend that “mud and filth” had been flung at him by the young. He had been called a fool, donkey, reptile, Judas, police agent.11 And again,

While some accused me of…backwardness, black ob-scurantism, and informed me that “my photographs were being burnt a mid contemptuous laughter,” others indignantly reproached me with kowtowing to the…young. “You are crawling at Bazarov’s feet!” cried one of my correspondents, “You are only pretending to condemn him. Actually you scrape and bow to him, you wait obsequiously for the favor of a casual smile!” …A shadow has fallen upon my name.12

At least one of his liberal friends who had read the manuscript of Fathers and Children told him to burn it, since it would compromise him forever with the progressives. Hostile caricatures appeared in the left-wing press, in which Turgenev was represented as pandering to the fathers, with Bazarov as a leering Mephistopheles, mocking his disciple Arkadi’s love for his father. At best, the author was drawn as a bewildered figure simultaneously attacked by frantic democrats from the left and threatened by armed fathers from the right, standing helplessly between them.13

But the left was not unanimous. The radical critic Pisarev came to Turgenev’s aid. He boldly identified himself with Bazarov and his position. Turgenev, Pisarev wrote, might be too soft or tired to accompany us, the men of the future; but he knows that true progress is to be found not in men tied to tradition, but in active, self-emancipated, independent men, like Bazarov, free from fantasies, from romantic or religious nonsense. The author does not bully us, he does not tell us to accept the values of the “fathers.” Bazarov is in revolt; he is not the prisoner of any theory; that is his attractive strength; that is what makes for progress and freedom. Turgenev may wish to tell us that we are on a false path, but in fact he is a kind of Balaam: he has become deeply attached to the hero of his novel through the very process of creation, and pins all his hopes to him. “Nature is a workshop, not a temple” and we are workers in it; not melancholy daydreams, but will, strength, intelligence, realism—these, Pisarev declares, speaking through Bazarov, these will find the road. Bazarov, he adds, is what parents today see emerging in their sons and daughters, sisters in their brothers. They may be frightened by it, they may be puzzled, but that is where the road to the future lies.14

Turgenev’s familiar friend Annenkov, to whom he submitted all his novels for criticism before he published them, saw Bazarov as a Mongol, a Genghis Khan, a wild beast symptomatic of the savage condition of Russia, only “thinly concealed by books from the Leipzig Fair.”15 Was Turgenev aiming to become the leader of a political movement? “The author himself…does not know how to take him,” he wrote, “as a fruitful force for the future, or as a disgusting boil on the body of a hollow civilization, to be removed as rapidly as possible.”16 Yet he cannot be both, “he is a Janus with two faces, each party will see only what it wants to see or can understand.”17

Katkov, in an unsigned review in his own journal (in which the novel had appeared), went a good deal further. After mocking the confusion on the left as a result of being unexpectedly faced with its own image in nihilism, which pleased some and horrified others, he reproaches the author for being altogether too anxious not to be unjust to Bazarov, and consequently of representing him always in the best possible light. There is such a thing, he says, as being too fair: this leads to its own brand of distortion of the truth. Bazarov is represented as being brutally candid: that is good, very good; he believes in telling the whole truth, however upsetting to the poor, gentle Kirsanovs, father and son, with no respect for persons or circumstances: admirable; he attacks art, riches, luxurious living; yes, but in the name of what? Of science and knowledge? But, Katkov declares, this is simply not true. Bazarov’s purpose is not the discovery of scientific truth, else he would not peddle cheap popular tracts—Büchner and the rest—which are not science at all, but journalism, materialist claptrap.

Bazarov (he goes on to say) is not a scientist; this species scarcely exists in Russia in our time. Bazarov and his fellow nihilists are merely preachers: they denounce phrases, rhetoric, inflated language—Bazarov tells Arkadi not to talk so “beautifully”—but only in order to substitute for this their own political propaganda; they offer not hard scientific facts, in which they are not interested, with which, indeed, they are not acquainted, but slogans, diatribes, radical cant. Bazarov’s dissection of frogs is not genuine pursuit of the truth, it is only an occasion for rejecting civilized and traditional values which Paul Kirsanov, who in a better-ordered society—say, England—would have done useful work, rightly defends. Bazarov and his friends will discover nothing; they are not researchers; they are mere ranters, men who declaim in the name of a science which they do not trouble to master; in the end they are no better than the ignorant, benighted Russian priesthood from whose ranks they mostly spring, and far more dangerous.18

Herzen, as always, was both penetrating and amusing. “Turgenev was more of an artist in his novel than people think, and for this reason lost his way, and, in my opinion, did very well. He wanted to go to one room, but ended up in another and a better one.”19 The author, he declares, clearly started by wanting to do something for the fathers, but they turned out to be such nonentities that he “became carried away by Bazarov’s very extremism; with the result that instead of flogging the son, he whipped the fathers.”20 Herzen may well be right: it may be that, although Turgenev does not admit this, Bazarov, who began as a hostile portrait, came to fascinate his creator to such a degree that, like Shylock, he turned into a figure more human and a great deal more complex than the design of the work had originally allowed for, and so at once transforms and perhaps distorted it.

Bazarov affected the young as Werther had done in the previous century, like Schiller’s The Robbers, like Byron’s Laras and Giaours and Childe Harolds in their day. Yet these new men, Herzen added in a later essay, are so dogmatic, doctrinaire, jargon-ridden, as to exhibit the least attractive aspect of the Russian character, the police-man’s—the martinet’s—side of it, the brutal bureaucratic jackboot; they want to break the yoke of the old despotism, but only in order to replace it with one of their own. The “generation of the Forties,” his own and Turgen v’s, may have been fatuous and weak, but does it follow that their successors—the brutally rude, loveless, cynical, philistine young men of the Sixties, who sneer and mock and push and “jostle and don’t apologize”—are necessarily superior beings? What new principles, what new constructive answers have they provided? Destruction is destruction. It is not creation.21

In the violent babel of voices aroused by the novel, at least five attitudes can be distinguished.22 There was the angry right wing which thought that Bazarov represented the apotheosis of the new nihilists, and sprang from Turgenev’s unworthy desire to flatter and be accepted by the young. There were those who congratulated him on successfully exposing barbarism and subversion. There were those who denounced him for his wicked travesty of the radicals, for providing reactionaries with ammunition and playing into the hands of the police; by them he was called renegade and traitor. Still others, like Dmitri Pisarev, proudly nailed Bazarov’s colors to their mast and expressed gratitude to Turgenev for his honesty and sympathy with all that was most living and fearless in the growing party of the future. Finally there were some who detected that the author himself was not wholly sure of what he wanted to do, that his attitude was genuinely ambivalent, that he was an artist and not a pamphleteer, that he told the truth as he saw it, without a clear partisan purpose.

This controversy continued in full strength after Turgenev’s death. It says something for the vitality of his creation that the debate did not die even in the following century, neither before nor after the Russian Revolution. Indeed, as lately as ten years ago the battle was still raging among Soviet critics. Was Turgenev for us or against us? Was he a Hamlet blinded by the pessimism of his declining class, or did he, like Balzac or Tolstoy, see beyond it? Is Bazarov a forerunner of the politically committed, militant Soviet intellectual, or a malicious caricature of the fathers of Russian communism? The debate is not over yet.23

Turgenev was upset and bewildered by the reception of his book. Before sending it to the printer, he had taken his usual precaution of seeking endless advice. He read the manuscript to friends in Paris, he altered, he modified, he tried to please everyone. The figure of Bazarov suffered several transformations in successive drafts, up and down the moral scale, as this or that friend or consultant reported his impressions. The attack from the left inflicted wounds which festered for the rest of his life. Years later he wrote, “I am assured that I am on the side of the ‘fathers’—I, who in the person of Paul Kirsanov, actually sinned against artistic truth, went too far, exaggerated his defects to the point of travesty, and made him ridiculous!”24 As for Bazarov, he was “honest, truthful, a democrat to his fingertips.”25

Many years later, Turgenev told the anarchist Kropotkin that he loved Bazarov “very, very much…I will show you my diaries—you will see how I wept when I ended the book with Bazarov’s death.”26 “Tell me honestly,” he wrote to one of his most caustic critics, the satirist Saltykov (who complained that the word “nihilist” was used by reactionaries to damn anyone they did not like), “how could anybody be offended by being compared to Bazarov? Do you not yourself realize that he is the most sympathetic of all my characters?”27 As for “nihilism,” that, perhaps, was a mistake. “I am ready to admit…that I had no right to give our reactionary scum the opportunity to seize on a name, a catchword; the writer in me should have brought the sacrifice to the citizen—I admit the justice of my rejection by the young and of all the gibes hurled at me…. The issue was more important than artistic truth, and I ought to have foreseen this.”28 He claimed that he shared almost all Bazarov’s views, all save those on art.29

A lady of his acquaintance had told him that he was neither for the fathers, nor for the children, but was a nihilist himself; he thought she might be right.30 Herzen had said that there had been something of Bazarov in them all, in himself, in Belinsky, in Bakunin, in all those who in the Forties denounced the Russian kingdom of darkness in the name of the West and science and civilization.31 Turgenev did not deny this either. He did, no doubt, adopt a different tone in writing to different correspondents. When radical Russian students in Heidelberg demanded clarification of his own position, he told them that “if the reader does not love Bazarov, as he is—coarse, heartless, ruthlessly dry and brusque…the fault is mine; I have not succeeded in my task. But to ‘dip him in syrup’ (to use his own expression)—that I was not prepared to do…I did not wish to buy popularity by this sort of concession. Better lose a battle (and I think I have lost this one), than win it by a trick.”32

Yet to his friend the poet Fet, a conservative landowner, he wrote that he did not himself know if he loved Bazarov or hated him. Did he mean to praise or denigrate him? He did not know.33 And this is echoed eight years later: “My personal feelings [toward Bazarov] were confused (God only knows whether I loved him or hated him)!”34 To the liberal Madame Filosofova he wrote, “Bazarov is my beloved child; on his account I quarrelled with Katkov…Bazarov, that intelligent, heroic man—a caricature?!” And he added that this was “a senseless charge.”35

He found the scorn of the young unjust beyond endurance. He wrote that in the summer of 1862 “despicable generals praised me, the young insulted me.”36 He bitterly complained to the socialist leader Lavrov of the injustice of the radicals’ change of attitude toward him. He returned to this in one of his late Poems in Prose: “Honest souls turned away from him. Honest faces grew red with indignation at the mere mention of his name.”37 This was not mere wounded amour propre. He suffered from a genuine sense of having put himself into a politically false position. All his life he wished to march with the progressives, with the party of liberty and protest. But, in the end, he could not bring himself to accept their brutal contempt for art, civilized behavior, for everything that he held dear in European culture. He hated their dogmatism, their arrogance, their destructiveness, their appalling ignorance of life. He went abroad, lived in Germany and France, and returned to Russia only on flying visits. In the West he was universally praised and admired. But in the end it was to Russians that he wished to speak. Although his popularity with the Russian public in the Sixties, and at all times, was very great, it was the radicals he most of all cared about. They were hostile or unresponsive.

His next novel, Smoke, which he began immediately after the publication of Fathers and Children, was a characteristic attempt to stanch his wounds, to settle his account with all his opponents. It was published five years later, in 1867, and contained a biting satire directed at both camps: at the pompous, stupid, reactionary generals and bureaucrats, and at the foolish, shallow, irresponsible left-wing talkers, equally remote from reality, equally incapable of remedying the ills of Russia. This provoked further onslaughts on him. This time he was not surprised. “They are all attacking me, Reds and Whites, from above and below, and from the sides, especially from the sides.” 38

The Polish rebellion of 1863 and, three years later, Karakozov’s attempt to assassinate the Emperor produced great waves of patriotic feeling even within the ranks of the liberal Russian intelligentsia. Turgenev was written off by the Russian critics, of both the right and the left, as a disappointed man, an expatriate who no longer knew his country from the distance of Baden-Baden and Paris. Dostoyevsky denounced him as a renegade Russian and advised him to procure a telescope which might enable him to see Russia a little better.39

In the Seventies he began nervously, in constant fear of being insulted and humiliated, to rebuild his relations with the left wing. To his astonishment and relief, he was well received in Russian revolutionary circles in Paris and London; his intelligence, his goodwill, his undiminished hatred for Czardom, his transparent honesty and fairmindedness, his warm sympathy with individual revolutionaries, his great charm, had its effect on their leaders. Moreover, he showed courage, the courage of a naturally timorous man determined to overcome his terrors: he supported subversive publications with secret gifts of money, he took risks in openly meeting proscribed terrorists shadowed by the police in Paris or London; this melted their resistance.

In 1876 he published Virgin Soil (which he intended as a continuation of Fathers and Children) in a final attempt to explain himself to the indignant young. “The younger generation,” he wrote in the following year, “have, so far, been represented in our literature either as a gang of cheats and crooks…or else…have been elevated into an ideal, which again is wrong, and, what is more, harmful. I decided to find the middle way, to come closer to the truth—to take young people, for the most part good and honest, and show that, in spite of their honesty, their cause is so devoid of truth and life that it can only end in a total fiasco. How far I have succeeded is not for me to say…. But they must feel my sympathy…if not for their goals, at least for their personalities.”40

The hero of Virgin Soil, Nezhdanov, a failed revolutionary, ends by committing suicide. He does so largely because his origins and character make him incapable of adapting himself to the harsh discipline of a revolutionary organization, or to the slow and solid work of the true hero of the novel, the practical reformer Solomin, whose quietly ruthless labors within his own democratically organized factory will do more to create a juster social order than violence and terror. Nezhdanov is too civilized, too sensitive, too weak, above all too complex, to fit into an austere, monastic, new order: he thrashes about painfully, but, in the end, fails because he “cannot simplify himself.”

Nor—and this (as Mr. Irving Howe has pointed out)41 is the central point—could Turgenev. To his friend Jacob Polonsky he wrote: “If I was beaten with sticks for Fathers and Children, for Virgin Soil they will beat me with staves, from both sides, as usual.”42 Three years later Katkov’s newspaper again denounced him for “performing clownish somersaults to please the young.”43 As always, he replied at once: he had not, he said, altered his views by an iota during the last forty years. “I am, and have always been a ‘gradualist,’ an old-fashioned liberal in the English dynastic sense, a man expecting reform only from above. I oppose revolution in principle…I should regard it as unworthy of [our youth] and myself, to represent myself in any other light.”44

By the late Seventies his short-comings had been forgiven by the left. His moments of weakness, his constant attempts to justify himself before the Russian authorities, his disavowals of relations with the exiles in London or Paris—all these sins seem to have been all but forgotten.45 His charm, his sympathy for the persons and convictions of individual revolutionaries, his truthfulness as a writer, won much goodwill among the exiles, even though they harbored no illusions about the extreme moderation of his views and his inveterate habit of taking cover when the battle became too hot. He went on telling the radicals that they were mistaken. When the old has lost authority and the new works badly, what is needed is something that he spoke of in the Nest of Gentlefolk: “Active patience, not without some cunning and ingenuity.” When the crisis is upon us, “when,” in his telling phrase, “the incompetent come up against the unscrupulous,” what is wanted is practical good sense, not the absurd, nostalgic idyll of Herzen and the populists, with their blind, idolatrous adoration of the peasant who is the worst reactionary of the lot.

He said over and over again that he loathed revolution, violence, barbarism. He believed in slow progress, made only by minorities “if only they do not destroy each other.” As for socialism, it was a fantasy. It is characteristic of Russians, says his hero and mouthpiece, Potughin, in Smoke, “to pick up an old, worn-out shoe which long, long ago fell from the foot of a Saint-Simon or a Fourier, and, placing it reverently on one’s head, to treat it as a sacred object.” As for equality, to the revolutionary Herman Lopatin he said, “We are not really, all of us, going to walk about in identical yellow tunics à la Saint-Simon, all buttoned at the back?”46

Still, they were the young, the party of freedom and generosity, the party of the have-nots, of those in pain or at least in distress; he would not refuse them his sympathy, his help, his love, even while all the time looking over his shoulder guiltily at his right-wing friends to whom he tried again and again to minimize his unceasing flirtation with the left. On his visits to Moscow or St. Petersburg he tried to arrange meetings with groups of radical students. Sometimes the conversations went well, at other times, particularly when he tried to charm them with his reminiscences of the Forties, they tended to become bored, contemptuous, and resentful. Even when they liked or admired him, he felt that a gulf divided them, divided those who wanted to destroy the old world, root and branch, from those who, like him, wished to save it, because in a new world, created by fanaticism and violence, there might be too little worth living for.

It was his irony, his tolerant skepticism, his lack of passion, his “velvet touch,” above all his determination to avoid too definite a social or political commitment that, in the end, alienated both sides. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, despite their open opposition to “the progressives,” embodied unshakable principles and remained proud and self-confident, and so rarely became targets for those who threw stones at Turgenev. His very gifts, his power of minute and careful observation, his fascination with the varieties of character and situation as such, his detachment, his inveterate habit of doing justice to the full complexity and diversity of goals, attitudes, beliefs—these seemed to them morally self-indulgent and politically irresponsible. Like Montesquieu, he was accused by the radicals of too much description, too little criticism.

Beyond all Russian writers, Turgenev possessed what Strakhov described as his poetic and truthful genius—a capacity for rendering the very multiplicity of interpenetrating human perspectives that shade imperceptibly into each other, nuances of character and behavior, motives and attitudes, undistorted by moral passion. The defense of civilization by the spoiled but intelligent Paul Kirsanov is not a caricature, and carries a kind of conviction, while the defense of what are apparently the very same values by the worthless Panshin in the Nest of Gentlefolk does not, and is not meant to, do so; Lavretsky’s Slavophile feeling is moving and sympathetic; the populism of both the radicals and the conservatives in Smoke is—and is intended to be—repulsive.

This clear, finely discriminating, slightly ironical vision, wholly dissimilar from the obsessed genius of Dostoyevsky or the unambiguous values of Tolstoy, irritated all those who craved for primary colors, for certainty, who looked to writers for moral guidance and found none in Turgenev’s scrupulous, honest, but—as it seemed to them—somewhat complacent ambivalence. He seemed to enjoy his very doubts: he would not cut too deep. Both his great rivals found this increasingly intolerable. Dostoyevsky, who began as an enthusiastic admirer, came to look on him as a smiling, shallow, cosmopolitan poseur, a cold-hearted traitor to Russia. Tolstoy thought him a gifted and truthful writer but a moral weakling, and hopelessly blind to the deepest and most agonizing spiritual problems of mankind. To Herzen he was an amiable old friend, a gifted artist and a feeble ally, a reed that bent too easily before every storm, an inveterate compromiser.

Turgenev could never bear his wounds in silence. He complained, he apologized, he protested. He knew that he was accused of lack of depth or seriousness or courage. The reception of Fathers and Children continued to prey upon him. “Seventeen years have passed since the appearance of Fathers and Children,” he wrote in 1880, “yet the attitude of the critics…has not become stabilized. Only last year, I happened to read in a journal à propos Bazarov, that I am nothing but a Bashiboozook47 who beats to death men wounded by others.”48 His sympathies, he insisted again and again, were with the victims, never the oppressors—with peasants, students, artists, women, civilized minorities, not the big battalions. How could his critics be so blind? As for Bazarov, there was, of course, a great deal wrong with him, but he was a better man than his detractors; it was easy enough to depict radicals as men with rough exteriors and hearts of gold: “the trick is to make Bazarov a wild wolf, and still manage to justify him….”49

The one step Turgenev refused to take was to seek an alibi in the doctrine of art for art’s sake. He did not say, as he might easily have done, “I am an artist, not a pamphleteer; I write fiction, which must not be judged by social or political criteria; my opinions are my private affair; you don’t drag Scott or Dickens or Stendhal or even Flaubert before your ideological tribunals—why don’t you leave me alone?” He never seeks to deny the social responsibility of the writer; the doctrine of social commitment was instilled into him once and for all by his adored friend Belinsky, and from it he never wholly departed.

This social concern tends at times to color even his most lyrical writing, and it was this that broke through the reserve of the revolutionaries he met abroad. These men knew perfectly well that Turgenev was genuinely at his ease only with old friends of his own class, men who held views that could not conceivably be described as radical—with civilized liberals or country squires with whom he went duck shooting whenever he could. Nevertheless, the revolutionaries liked him because he liked them, because he sympathized with their indignation: “I know I am only a stick they use to beat the government with, but” (at this point according to the exiled revolutionary Lopatin, who reports this conversation, he made an appropriate gesture) “let them do it, I am only too glad.”50

Above all, they felt drawn to him because he was responsive to them as individuals and did not treat them simply as representatives of parties or outlooks. This was, in a sense, paradoxical, for it was precisely individual social or moral characteristics that, in theory, these men tried to ignore; they believed in objective analysis, in judging men sociologically, in terms of the role that, whatever their conscious motives, they played (whether as individuals or as members of a social class) in promoting or obstructing desirable human ends—scientific knowledge, or the emancipation of women, or economic progress, or the revolution.

This was the very attitude that Turgenev recoiled from; it was what he feared in Bazarov and the revolutionaries of Virgin Soil. Turgenev, and liberals generally, saw tendencies, political attitudes, as functions of human beings, not human beings as functions of social tendencies.51 Acts, ideas, art, literature were expressions of individuals, not of objective forces of which the actors or thinkers were merely the embodiments. The reduction of men to the function of being primarily carriers or agents of impersonal forces was as deeply repellent to Turgenev as it had been to Herzen or, in his later phases, to his revered friend Belinsky. To be treated with so much sympathy, understanding, and indeed affection, as human beings, and not primarily as spokesmen for ideologies, was a rare enough experience, a kind of luxury, for Russian revolutionary exiles abroad.

This alone goes some way to account for the fact that men like Stepnyak, Lopatin, Lavrov, and Kropotkin responded warmly to so well-disposed and, moreover, so delightful, and so richly gifted a man as Turgenev. He gave them secret subsidies but made no intellectual concessions. He believed—this was his “old-fashioned” liberalism “in the English dynastic [he meant constitutional] sense”52—that only education, only gradual methods, “industry, patience, self-sacrifice, without glitter, without noise, homoeopathic injections of science and culture” could improve the lives of men. He shook and shivered under the ceaseless criticisms to which he had exposed himself, but, in his own apologetic way, refused to “simplify” himself. He went on believing—perhaps this was a relic of his Hegelian youth—that no issue was closed forever, that every thesis must be seen against its antithesis, that systems and absolutes of every kind—social and political no less than religious—were a form of dangerous idolatry,53 above all, one must never go to war unless and until all that one believes in is at stake and there is literally no other way out.

Some of the fanatical young men responded with genuine regard and, at times, profound admiration. A young radical wrote in 1883, “Turgenev is dead. If Shchedrin54 should die too, then one might as well go down to the grave alive…. For us these men replaced parliament, meetings, life, liberty!”55 A hunted member of a terrorist organization, in a tribute illegally published on the day of Turgenev’s funeral, wrote, “A gentleman by birth, an aristocrat by upbringing and character, a gradualist by conviction, Turgenev, perhaps without knowing it himself…sympathized with, and even served, the Russian revolution.”56 The special police precautions at Turgenev’s funeral were clearly not wholly superfluous.

(This is the second part of a three-part essay on Turgenev which 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

November 1, 1973