Turgenev and ‘Virgin Soil’

Ivan Turgenev
Ivan Turgenev; drawing by David Levine

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…

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