The Perplexities of the Russian Ideals

Navigating through the labyrinths of Russian literature is an adventure like no other. The  seminal works of Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and a whole lot more, give one an intimate peek into the stoic and enigmatic Russian society and culture. Through their works, it is easy to glean how the Russian society, and culture, in general, is abound with a flurry of different ideals and philosophies which has influenced the flow of tides in this historic nation. Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev was no different from his countrymen, as can be gleaned from his Fathers and Sons.

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev introduces the readers to Evgeny Bazarov, a young upstart revolutionary man who studied in the major urban centers of Russia. Bazarov is a swept by the newly born philosophy called nihilism. His advocacy led hem to abhor all social institutions and norms. It is in this same spirit that he tried to preach to his friend, Arkady Kirsanov.

After graduating from the university, Evgeny and Arkady traveled to Arkady’s family estate in the Russian countryside. They were warmly received by Arkady’s father Nikolay, but his uncle Pavel wasn’t too keen on Evgeny’s advocacies. Tension barely disquiets the mundane surface of the faraway rural Russia but with the arrival of two cynical young men who set out to transform Russia is about to change that. Far from the centers of revolutionary enthusiasm, Evgeny’s political beliefs were challenged by the coarse countryside which showed these these two men that they have more to learn about the ancient land.

“As we all know, time sometimes flies like a bird, and sometimes crawls like a worm, but people may be unusually happy when they do not even notice whether time has passed quickly or slowly.” ~ Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

Quite simply, the title of the book itself summarizes what the narrative is all about – an understudy of the relationship between fathers and their sons in a fast-changing Russia. Turgenev wrote Fathers and Sons as a response to the growing cultural divide between liberal-minded Russia, represented by the fathers, and the quickly growing nihilist movement, represented by the sons. At the time the novel was written, the nihilism movement was slowly gaining traction amongst the younger Russians.

It is worth noting that both movements sought Western-based social change in Russia. Moreover, Turgenev compared these two schools of thoughts with the traditionalist Slavophiles; they believed that country’s growth relies on its traditional spirituality. Fathers and Sons popularized the use of the term “nihilism”; it became popular after the novel’s publication.

With his strong belief in the school of nihilism, Evgeny wanted to tear down all of the institutions that currently administer the affairs of the nation. His plan has one flaw, however: he doesn’t have a concrete design on how to rebuild after razing everything to the ground. As he contritely puts it, “first, let us destroy everything, raze it to the ground, and we’ll worry about re-building later. As readers, one can’t help but feel that Evgeny is nothing but a half-baked nihilist.

“A withered maple leaf has left its branch and is falling to the ground; its movements resemble those of a butterfly in flight. Isn’t it strange? The saddest and deadest of things is yet so like the gayest and most vital of creatures?” ~ Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

The rough outlines of the Russian countryside inevitably unsettled Evgeny’s deep beliefs. He and Arkady are met with crushing disappointments and humiliations as they begin to learn that not everything that there are deeper wisdoms that are beyond what they’ve been indoctrinated in the urban areas. The distance from the sources of revolutionary enthusiasm inevitably showed them that the ancient land has more stories to tell.

Whilst the narrative depicts the schism between the fathers and sons, Turgenev took the time to distinguish between Arkady and Evgeny. A character-driven story, Turgenev did well in contrasting the two characters. On many an instance, he displayed a dual character study. Although they were great friends, they have differing opinions and mindsets; while Evgeny was stern on his beliefs, Arkady was more docile and servile. These worlds of differences led to deep conflicts between the two friends.

At the crossroads of the story, the two friends found themselves stuck in a love quadrangle. This love quadrangle is perhaps the greatest manifestation of the dual character study. This can be gleaned on from the gradual collapse of Arkady’s and Evgeny’s nihilistic opposition to emotional display. It just shows how lacking both men are in dealing with the perplexities of the world and that their romanticized ideals sprung out of this underhanded understanding of the realities of life.

In spite of the dual study of the primary characters, the story took on a very straightforward path. There were small digressions, but it flowed diaphanously. The prose, as can be expected from a Russian work, reeks of strong ideals but when the novel was published in the 1860s, it stirred quite an uproar, especially amongst the rising nihilist idealist. Ironically, the novel is not as laden with scandal as one might assume.

“Every man hangs by a thread, any minute the abyss may open under his feet, and yet he must go and invent for himself all kinds of troubles and spoil his life.” ~ Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

Largely touted as the greatest of Turgenev’s literary arsenals, Fathers and Sons is also considered as one of the classical Russian works, and all for good reasons. It is regarded as the first wholly modern Russian novel and is one of the Russian novels to gain prominence in the Western world. It may not be as lengthy as the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky but it is as historically significant as their epic masterpieces. Just goes to show that verbosity is not needed in order to create an impact.

The transitions between the different schools of thoughts prevailed mostly in the novel that the main theme nearly became a contravention. Thankfully, Turgenev made up for it with a fitting, albeit morose, conclusion. It is a reminder of the powerful relationship between father and sons, that no revolutionary ideals, no differences of opinion, will ever break. Moreover, in spite of the rifts and conflicts, parents will always forgive and accept their children. with arms wide open.

Rating:

85%

I highly recommend this book, as I always do with Russian works; they do have a special place in me. Haha. It is a powerful narrative that draws both on local sensitivities and national proclivities. It is the perfect study for both whilst being the archetype of Russian prose.

Books Specs

Author: Ivan Turgenev
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Publishing Date: 1996
Number of Pages: 200 pages
Genre: Political, Romance, Philosophical

Synopsis

Fathers and Sons is one of the greatest of nineteenth century Russian novels and has long been acclaimed as Turgenev’s finest work. It is a political novel set in a domestic context with a universal theme – the generational divide between fathers and sons. Set in 1859 at the moment when the Russian autocratic state began to move hesitantly towards social and political reform, the novel explores the conflict between the liberal-minded fathers of Russian reformist sympathies and their free-thinking intellectual sons whose revolutionary ideology threatens the stability of the state. At its centre is Evgeny Bazarov, a strong-willed antagonist of all forms of social orthodoxy who proclaims himself a nihilist and believes in the need to overthrow all the institutions of the state. As the novel develops, Bazarov’s political ambitions become fatally meshed with emotional and private concerns and his end is a tragic failure. The novel caused a bitter furore on its publication in 1862, and this, a year later, drove Turgenev from Russia.

About the Author

800px-Turgenev_by_Repin(Turgenev, by Ilya Repin, 1874, from Wikipedia Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev was born on November 9, 1818 in Oryol, Oryol Governorate (modern-day Oryol Blast), Russian Empire.

Ivan received the standard schooling for a son of a gentleman (his father, Sergei Nikolaevich Turgenev, being part of the Tula aristocracy). Turgenev studied first at University of Moscow before moving to University of Saint Petersburg, studying there from 1834 to 1837. His studies focused on the Classics, Russian literature and philology. He also studied philosophy, particularly Hegel, and history at the University of Berlin from 1838 to 1841.

As a writer, Turgenev first made a name for himself with A Sportsman’s Sketches (also known as Sketches from a Hunter’s Album or Notes of a Hunter), a collection of short stories based on his astute observations of peasant life and nature while hunting. It is considered by most, including Turgenev himself, as his most important contribution to Russian literature. Among his notable novels are Rudin (1857), A Nest of Gentlefolk (1859), On the Eve (1860) and Smoke (1867). His most renowned work is Fathers and Sons (1862).

On September 3, 1883, Turgenev, at the age of 64, died of spinal abscess, a complication of the metastatic liposarcoma that struck him earlier in the year.