Ivan Turgenev is a 19th-century Russian novelist, poet, and playwright who, like most authors during this time, focused his writing on portraying what he saw in everyday life in the most realistic way possible. What Ivan saw in his world was the peasantry of his homeland, and the need to remove established Russian thought for new, modern ideas. With this in mind it isn’t surprising that Ivan Turgenev was the first coin the term nihilism.
Unfortunately Turgenev never received as much exposure as his fellow Russian authors, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, but he is still considered one of the greatest authors of 19th-century Russian literature.
Early Life of Ivan Turgenev
Born on October 28th, 1818 in Oryol, a Ukrainian region of Russia, Ivan Turgenev had a rough childhood. Although his family was apart of the wealthy landed gentry class in Russia his strict mother beat him and often times Ivan was alone, without friends. This had an impact later on his writing, and his life in general, as he developed low self esteem and low confidence.
In fact Turgenev almost didn’t become a writer at all. During his schooling years, between 1834 and 1841, he attended universities in both Moscow, and St. Petersburg, where he eventually received his masters degree in philosophy. It was during this time in college that Turgenev was introduced to ideas involving the westernization of Russia.
However, once Turgenev received his masters degree he went straight into the Russian civil service, where he worked for the Ministry of Interior between 1843 and 1845. But Turgenev was greatly discouraged with the life he was living during this time, so he took to writing more and more. It was with the success of two of his published story-poems that he decided to devote his life to writing and the pursuit of knowledge through world travel.
Although Turgenev had been writing poems, criticism, and short stories throughout the 1840’s, his literary breakthrough came with A Sportsman's Sketches in 1852. A Sportsman's Sketches is a short story cycle that revolves around a young nobleman learning to appreciate the wisdom of the peasants who live on his family's estates. Turgenev’s writing was so powerful with this piece that it is said to have influenced Tsar Alexander II's decision to liberate the serfs. On the flipside, however, Turgenev was thrown into jail in St. Petersburg for a month because of his views expressed in the short stories.
Leo Tolstoy entered Turgenev’s world in 1855, when the two met after Tolstoy had just returned to St. Petersburg from the siege of Sebastopol. Tolstoy hadn’t published any of his great works at this time, but Turgenev still saw great potential in the soon-to-be-great writer. In 1857 the two traveled together to Paris, where their friendship began to dwindle as the younger Tolstoy found Turgenev boring. However, they two kept in touch through out the years.
In 1856 Turgenev began to acquire his heavily realistic style. During this time Turgenev published Rudin and On The Eve, two of his better-known works, which revolved around themes of failed love and smashed dreams. But all of his novels were leading up to his masterpiece, which came in 1862.
Fathers And Sons
In 1862 Ivan Turgenev published his most famous piece of literature, Fathers And Sons. This novel revolves around the conflicting ideologies of older and younger generations. The older generation is given representation through Petrovich Kirsanov and his brother Pavel Kirsanov, with the younger generation being represented through the young nihilists Arkady Kirsanov and Yevgeny Bazarov.
Much of the novel revolves around the metaphysical battle between Bazarov and Pavel. The two end up resolving their differences through a duel, where Pavel is wounded and Bazarov, being a doctor, ends up healing Pavel’s wounds. However, the book also involves much dialog between the four main characters, in an effort to portray his ideology on the nature of mankind.
This novel caused a great amount of controversy for Turgenev, which resulted in his decision to leave Russia, and the authors dwindling support. For those on the political right Fathers And Sons was a glorification of nihilism, while for those on the political left believed it to be a shabby caricature of their progressive thought.
After leaving Russia Turgenev traveled from Germany, to London, and then finally to Paris, where he lived for the rest of his life. His literary productivity took a sharp fall with his leaving Russia, as he only published a few novellas and collections of poems before he died on September 3, 1883.