Introducing Turgenev (and Russia before the Bolsheviks)

I started reading Fathers and Sons today. It’s a novel by Ivan Turgenev, published in 1862. The introduction reminded me that I must learn more about nineteenth century Russia, or pre-Bolshevik Russia more generally. It said that they abandoned serfdom in that century and that Turgenev, though associated primarily with the left, had some sort of falling out with them. He never became a right-winger or anything but he did sell some stories to more conservative outlets and much of his work after this schism was enjoyed by left and right alike. I realised that I don’t actually know what constituted left and right in Turgenev’s Russia aside from some general sense of desire for reform and loyalty to the Czar respectively.

This is the milieu that birthed Lenin and the Bolsheviks. There was clearly more diversity of thought in Russian society and within the left before Lenin took power. He crushed all opposition to his right and also to his left, sanctifying the centralised, authoritarian government that Stalin would subsequently develop into a totalitarian state. So much of our image of Russia comes from the cultural and intellectual monolith those two would build in the twentieth century.

To break these limited notions, I must read the Russian books I have. I got a collection of Gogol’s work in a selection of books I got as a graduation present, which I should finish. There’s also some novels by Turgenev, Pushkin and Gogol among the stacks of books I inherited a few years back. I can start there.

Inspired by A.B. McMillan’s introduction to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Liza, appearing in an edition published by Heron Books of London c.1967.


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