“Virgin Soil” by Ivan Turgenev

What is to be done?

This is always a pressing question regardless of which time or place we may happen to live in, but it seemed a particularly pressing question in pre-revolutionary Russia. Chernyshevsky wrote a hugely influential polemical novel with that question as title. (Tom of the Amateur Reader blog kindly read it for us so we don’t have to*, and recorded his impressions in a series of posts starting with this one. Scott Bailey, of the Six Words for a Hat blog, also wrote about it here.)

Chernyshevsky’s perspective was that of a utopian socialist. Tolstoy wrote an essay with the same title in 1886, and his perspective was … well, Tolstoyan, I suppose: the very idiosyncratic views he developed later in his life resist categorisation with any kind of “-ism”. And in the early years of the twentieth century, Lenin too wrote a pamphlet with that title: although I haven’t read it, I think I’m on safe ground in thinking Lenin’s perspective to be Communist. And even those writers who did not use this title addressed nonetheless this vital question. However they may have disagreed with each other on the answer, on this one point they seemed to be united: something had to be done.

Russia then – and, many would argue, now too – was, up to a significant point, part of Europe, and also, up to a similarly significant point, not part of Europe. Peter the Great had forced westernisation on to the country, but had used the most barbaric of means to achieve it, and, throughout the 19th century, the intelligentsia seemed very much split on whether to look to the West for enlightenment, or to find spiritual transformation in the soul of Mother Russia itself. The social iniquities were horrendous: serfdom – essentially “slavery” by another name – was abolished only in 1861, but that act alone did little to improve the peasants’ lot. There were all sorts of social and political unrest, and the crackdowns were vicious: the sound of the lash was never too distant. Whatever one’s political stance, there seemed no two ways about it: something had to be done.

Extreme views were very common, and I suppose it may be said that Turgenev was an extreme moderate. By which I mean that he espoused moderation not out of indecisiveness or out of pusillanimity, but out of a firmly held conviction that extremism in any direction was inherently dangerous. This made him, I suppose, something of an anomaly in the intellectual climate of Russia at the time – indeed, he was severely criticised by all sides – and it is hardly surprising that he spent much of his life in Europe. And it is towards Europe he looked. As a consequence, he made himself hugely unpopular amongst the Slavophiles: Dostoyevsky, especially, took against him, although he had personal reasons as well as ideological ones. Demons, which Dostoyevsky wrote in the early 1870s, contains a particularly nasty and unfair (though, it must be admitted, very funny) caricature of Turgenev.

Demons, too, is a novel that addresses the question “What is to be done?” Dostoyevsky had long disliked the idea of turning towards Western Enlightenment: given the history and traditions of Russia, he felt, foreign ideas wouldn’t work so well. It is easy to dismiss Dostoyevsky’s hostility to western ideas as mere nationalistic pride – though no doubt there is much of that there – but what Dostoyevsky saw in Europe did not seem to him a Utopia worth striving for. In Demons, he depicted the revolutionaries either as amoral nihilists and psychopaths, or as duped followers. Once again, it is easy to dismiss all this, and say his depictions are mere reactionary hysteria, but, given the uncanny accuracy of his prediction in the same novel of the Communist totalitarianism that gripped Russia only a few decades later, perhaps we shouldn’t. Dostoyevsky’s answer to the question “What is to be done?” isn’t simple: it involved turning back to the roots of Russian spirituality, which, he felt, could save not merely Russia, but the rest of the world too. (This is, inevitably, an oversimplification of complex ideas that, I must admit, I do not claim to adequately grasp, even after several re-readings.) On what we shouldn’t do, he was clearer: we shouldn’t accept the agenda of those who sought revolution. His vision of where these agenda would lead us was remarkably far-sighted.

Turgenev wrote Virgin Soil, his final novel in the late 1870s, only a few years after the appearance of Demons, and, although he does not refer directly to that novel, it would have been surprising indeed if he had not had it in mind, especially given that he, too, was writing about revolutionaries. However, his view of revolutionaries was very different.

Not that he approved of their aims, or, indeed, of their methods: he was too committed to the path of moderation to do that. But he approved of their moral seriousness. In On the Eve, written some twenty-five years earlier, he had similarly admired the moral seriousness of the Bulgarian revolutionary Insarov, and had juxtaposed it with the moral complacency and laxity of the older generation. However, moral seriousness and good intentions are clearly not enough, and in Virgin Soil, he digs a bit deeper into these issues. In the earlier novel, Turgenev had not actually delved into what it meant to be a revolutionary, but here he does: how does one foment a revolution? What does it involve? Where does it all lead? And the conclusions he seemed to reach, while not apocalyptic as is the unforgettable closing section of Demons, are nonetheless rather pessimistic. For reasons rather different from Dostoyevsky’s, Turgenev too could not support the revolutionaries’ cause.

While a novel based on such themes is inevitably political in nature, Turgenev’s interest was primarily in the human aspect. All ideologies stand or fall by how humans implement them, how humans respond to them, how humans, with all their manifold strengths and equally manifold shortcomings, affect them, and are affected by them. And this is where Turgenev’s interest primarily lies – not so much in the ideologies themselves, but in what we may call (to anticipate the title of a rather fine Graham Greene novel from about a century later) “the human factor”.

The principal character here is Nezhdanov, an illegitimate (and disinherited) son of an aristocrat, who is drawn to the revolutionary cause. He is employed by Sipyagin to be tutor to his son, and soon finds himself in a country estate – a standard setting in Turgenev’s work. We are introduced here to the lady of the house, the beautiful but self-centred and manipulative Valentine Mikhailovna; to Sipyagin himself, who affects liberalism, but knows, as they say, which side his bread is buttered; and to a neighbouring landowner Kallomeitsev, a brutish and unthinking reactionary. We are introduced also to Sipyagin’s ward, the young but self-assured Marianna, whose independence of thought and of action mark her out as very different from the gentle submissive ingenues of many of Turgenev’s earlier works. All are characterised expertly, with a few deft but unobtrusive strokes.

The scope here is wider than usual: Nezhdanov’s revolutionary comrades are also making the journey from town to country, in an attempt to bring the revolution to the peasantry, who seem to be little better off than they had been before the Emancipation of 1861.

Nezhdanov is serious and conscientious about his revolutionary mission, but there seems to be, quite disastrously, something missing: Nezhdanov himself realises, to his immense shame, that he lacks commitment to the cause. Why, he does not know: it is a mystery even to himself. This is a theme Turgenev had long explored – the “superfluous man”, the man who may be, and, indeed, often is, intelligent and talented and capable, but who is, nonetheless, curiously ineffective. And yes, even here, amongst people consciously dedicated to action, we find this “superfluous man”.

Nezhdanov is also a poet, and on a number of occasions, he attributes his lack of effectiveness, his lack of true commitment, to his aesthetic nature. This seems highly dubious: why should an aesthetic nature inhibit commitment? Does not sensitivity to beauty render even more ugly the brute suffering visited so iniquitously on so many humans?

Nezhdanov himself does not know the answer to this, but the thought of a connection of sorts between his lack of commitment on the one hand, and his aestheticism on the other, does, nonetheless, haunt his mind. Perhaps we need to go to a novel written after the revolution, Doctor Zhivago, to find a further exploration of this. There, Pasternak’s protagonist, Zhivago, is also a poet, an aesthete. When the revolution had come, he had cautiously welcomed it: it was the cleaning of the Augean Stables that was very much needed. But as the novel progresses, Zhivago’s aestheticism seems to become, in itself, and by itself, a statement against the totalitarian nature of the revolution: a sensitivity to the beauty of life cannot reconcile itself to an ideology that sees humans as but terms in a mathematical equation. If I may be so self-centred as to quote from my earlier post on Pasternak’s novel:

Pasternak was writing in a time where even the description of the beauty of a tree was a political statement, a statement against totalitarianism.

[D]octor Zhivago is a celebration, or, if not a celebration as such, at least an affirmation, of everything that totalitarianism attempts to suppress – human feelings, human emotions, the human sense of beauty, human individuality, the apprehension of love, the need for companionship, for affection … indeed, the novel is an affirmation of everything that is human.

(I think I should add at this point that there is also much in that earlier post that I now find myself disagreeing with.)

Possibly, Turgenev was aware of all this; but Nezhdanov certainly isn’t. As he increasingly becomes aware of his lack of commitment, the more he sees himself as a “superfluous man”, a failure. As with Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, he cannot force himself into becoming what he is convinced he should, but knows he cannot.

The pages where Turgenev describes how these would-be revolutionaries attempt to bring the revolution to the peasants introduce a most uncharacteristic strain of humour (Turgenev, for all his many gifts, was not really the funniest of writers): these people may mean well, but they do not have the first clue, as they distribute pamphlets to largely illiterate and mainly indifferent (and sometimes hostile) peasants. Eventually, in one case, the peasants themselves turn the revolutionaries in to the authorities; and the authorities are merciless.

So what should be done? It is of course not the novelist’s duty to give answers, but an answer of sorts is suggested by the character Solomin, whose name sounds too close to that of the wise king Solomon to be ignored. Solomin is also part of the revolutionary movement, but, apart from providing the odd bit of assistance, he doesn’t seem too heavily involved in revolutionary activity. He is the manager of a factory, and has a reputation of running the factory well: as a consequence, he is much respected by factory owners in the region, and is much in demand. However, we hear disappointingly little of what Solomin thinks is the answer to the question “What is to be done?” Perhaps he does not have much of an answer. We do hear towards the end of the novel that he goes on to run his own factory on a co-operative basis, but we do not see any of that: what we do see of him, he is running a factory as, effectively, his own kingdom. He may refer to the other workers as “brothers”, but he is in charge, and everyone, including both the workers and the grateful factory owners, knows it. He seems, to be frank, an unlikely revolutionary.

But if we do not get much of an answer to the question “What is to be done?”, this is not really Turgenev’s focus of interest: he was interested in how humans feel, and how they behave, when faced with this question, and when they try to propound answers, and then live up to them.

Reading through Turgenev’s work (and with this, I think I have now read all of Turgenev’s major work – all that has been translated into English, at least) I often get the impression that he was writing on political matters much against his will; that he was writing on such themes because, as an intelligent man living in deeply troubled times, and as a man who believed passionately in a moderate liberalism, he had no choice but to address such matters; but that, if he had his way, he would turn his back on all the politics and write melancholy love stories instead – the sort of thing that had my younger self dismissing his work as “soppy”. (Turgenev did sometimes do just this, even late in his career, as in that exquisite novella The Torrents of Spring.) In Virgin Soil, he has much scope for “soppiness”: there’s the country setting for a start, and few writers if any could match Turgenev when it came to lyrical descriptions of nature; and there’s also a love story. But, despite this novel being by some distance considerably longer than his other works, he shuns all these temptations: the focus here is neither on the beauties of nature, nor on the lyricism of romantic love; there’s a sort of single-mindedness in his determination here not to be deflected from his principal themes. This refusal to indulge his lyrical inclinations results in what is, by his standards, almost an austere novel: there is a single-mindedness of purpose that presents with the utmost clarity and starkness the tragic course of the “superfluous man” – of a man who, though not lacking either in intelligence or in ability, becomes aware of how utterly dispensible he is in the wider scheme of things.

So whose depiction of revolutionaries, I wonder, was closer to the mark – Dostoyevsky’s in Demons, or Turgenev’s in Virgin Soil? I’d hazard a guess that both types of revolutionaries existed, and that, after the revolution, the kind of revolutionaries Turgenev depicts were liquidated by the kind Dostoyevsky depicts. Until they, too, were liquidated in turn. Possibly Turgenev did not foresee the liquidations; but Dostoyevsky did. It’s a paradoxical case of the writer who appears hysterical piercing deeper than the writer who seems more balanced and clear-sighted. But Turgenev’s depiction remains important for all that: there were revolutionaries who went in there with serious moral purpose, and with the best of intentions. They may have been misguided, they may have been wrong; they may not have consciously realised that what they were aiming for was nothing less that totalitarianism itself. They may, in the final analysis, have been superfluous. But Turgenev’s vision was humane and gentle, and for this alone, if nothing else, I find him among the most companionable of writers.


[The translation of “Virgin Soil” I read was by Michael Pursglove, published by Alma Classics.]

* Please Note: the gag about Tom reading Chernyshevsky so the rest of us don’t have to is shamelessly nicked from this post in Di Nguyen’s blog “The Little White Attic”.



7 responses to this post.

  1. How did you like the Fomushka and Fimushka section? What on earth do you think it was doing in this novel?


    • It is certainly an odd chapter, isn’t it? I take it that the point of it is the moment near the end when cards are dealt to determine the guests’ personalities, and Nezhdanov is declared to be “pitiful”. I suppose it may all seem a bit hackneyed by now – this sudden and unexpected foreshadowing of the protagonist’s fate. Turgenev has gone out of his way to accentuate the eccentricity and grotesqueness, presumably to avoid a sense of the portentous. But the grotesque in such a setting inevitably evokes Gogol, and the comparison doesn’t really do Turgenev too many favours.


  2. Very interesting post indeed, particularly the contrast of the two authors and their books – I have both of these lurking on the review pile and I suspect I know which I will prefer though I will give Turgenev a fair chance! 🙂


    • They are too very different novels, produced by writers of very different temperaments, and comparable only because they both depict revolutionaries. Dostoyevsky’s “Demons” is his most controversial, however!


  3. “While a novel based on such themes is inevitably political in nature, Turgenev’s interest was primarily in the human aspect”
    I think that describes Turgenev very well. Living in Paris most of the time, the political issues in Russia were less urgent for him than for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And he wasn’t very political in the first place. But he definitely was interested in people. And for my taste that makes a better read.


  4. “…the character Solomin, whose name sounds too close to that of the wise king Solomon to be ignored.”

    In Russian, as in English, the difference to the eye is just one vowel. But the stress, in Russian, falls on the second syllable in Solomin and on the last in Solomon. The Russian reader, at first glance at least, is more likely to think of solòma – straw – than of Solomon. As a rule, common Russian surnames are possessive adjectives in form: Solomin, literally speaking, is someone related to soloma. (Perhaps “straw” was once a popular nickname, whatever it referred to – hair type possibly?) Likewise, a Russian speaker would associate Nezhdanov with something unexpected (ne zhdat’, literally “not to expect”). These are not made-up names, to be clear.


    • That’s very interesting – thank you very much for that. I suppose the resemblance (in English pronunciaton) between Solomin & Solomon is no more than a happy accident. Well, possibly not “happy”. But it’s strange how influenced we are by association of names: I imagined Solomin throughout as sage and wise. Which he is, of course,


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