Virgin Soil

Turgenev's final novel, published in 1877, was a surprisingly easy and enjoyable read.  Maybe I'm just getting better at understanding Russian literature?  Anyway, it's a sympathetic rendering of young and idealistic reformers (called Populists) in the 1860s/70s -- so, the Russian serfs have been liberated from serfdom, and Tsar Alexander II has instituted some reforms, but he's also become more reactionary after an assassination attempt in 1866.*  The Populists wanted to bridge the massive divide between the wealthier, more educated classes and the people.  (Remember, at this time a lot of wealthier Russians didn't speak Russian; they spoke French.  There were essentially two populations.)  So a lot of them put on folk outfits and went out to the people, trying to educate them and encourage them to become revolutionaries.  It didn't go very well.

This novel was a big success internationally, but upper-class Russians didn't like it much; I think they saw revolutionaries as lower-class and violent, unthinking nihilists, while Turgenev was depicting well-educated young people.  Just after the novel was published, though, the Trial of Fifty began -- one of the first big political trials -- and they were all young, idealistic types just as Turgenev had written about.  The trial brought them some popular sympathy, but that same trial -- and the peasants' surprising (to the Populists) resistance to strange, untried ideas preached by city folks -- embittered the revolutionaries, who got much more into violence, revenge, and purifying the people with blood after that.

The story concerns Nezhdanov, who is well-educated but illegitimate, and thus has no real place to be.  He's sympathetic to the revolutionaries, but he really needs a job.  He lucks out by meeting Sipyagin, who lives on a country estate and needs a tutor for his son -- which would also be a wonderful opportunity for going to the people!  Sipyagin is amused by Nezhdanov's ideas and claims to be quite a liberal himself.  So Nezhdanov goes out to the estate, where he meets a constellation of country-house family and guests, including Marianna, who has Populist beliefs too, so naturally they are attracted to one another.

Marianna is on fire for the cause; she is eager to sacrifice herself in a blaze of glory.  Nezhdanov, on the other hand, feels awkward and dubious about the whole thing.  He goes around to talk with the locals, but it doesn't go that well, except for the competent factory manager, Solomin.  Solomin is one of those quiet, matter-of-fact guys who get stuff done; he's what Turgenev likes.

Nezhdanov and Marianna plan to run away together, hide out at the factory, and go to the people.  They and their friends are full of a missionary zeal; only Nezhdanov has private doubts about the ideas of the revolution and his own fitness for the job.  So he refuses to marry Marianna until he is worthy, and they live as brother and sister.  Marianna is thrilled about wearing an old dress, but she wants the heat of battle, not the slow plodding of teaching a peasant to read.  Nezhdanov tries to give pamphlets out and talk with the people, but it's discouraging work and he becomes more and more convinced that he is not cut out for converting the people.  Probably he ought to get out of Marianna's way and let her do things with Solomin....

There's a lot to think about.  Turgenev is sympathetic to these young idealists, but he also sees a lot of flaws in their philosophy.  I think he feels that they have tunnel vision and don't appreciate the complexity and beauty of Russia.  And he highlights the problem of upper-class people trying to educate lower-class people; these revolutionaries are right that there is a lot of suffering and oppression, but they also don't actually understand the peasants or their concerns very well.  The people see them as clueless city folks, and often betray them to the authorities.

I particularly like Marianna, who is so impatient to sacrifice herself that she has a hard time slowing down and doing ordinary things.   I know that personality so well!  And Markelov, whose betrayal embitters him and convinces him that force is the way to go -- he's all wrong, but he's very much what seems to have actually happened.

I didn't even know about the existence of this novel until I saw it; Turgenev's other works all seem to be more famous.  But I though it was wonderful.  A really great novel.

Some quotations:
Nezhdanov tried to question Markelov about his reforms in a socialistic direction on his estate...but at this Ostrodumov interposed.  "What's the good of discussing that now?" he observed.  "It makes no difference; everything must be transformed afterwards."

Marianna belonged to a special class of unhappy persons (in Russia one may come across them pretty often)...Justice satisfied but does not requite them, while injustice, which they are terribly keen in detecting, revolts them to the very depths of their being.

The young men proceeded to 'exchange ideas,' generally a rather tedious process, especially at a first meeting, and a particularly unprofitable occupation at all times.

"We couldn't do without discipline in our work; obedience is essential."  ("And that's all rot," was his inward comment.)

"But, Marianna, let me say . . . How did you picture it to yourself — the beginning?  It's not a matter of building barricades with a flag over them, and shouting 'hurrah! for the republic!' .... But you now to-day will start training some Lukerya in something good, and it'll be a hard task for you, as Lukerya won't be over quick of understanding, and she'll be shy of you, and will fancy too that what you 're trying to teach her won't be of the least use to her; and in a fortnight or three weeks you'll be struggling with some other Lukerya, and meanwhile you'll be washing a child or teaching him his ABC, or giving medicine to a sick man . , . that will be your beginning."
"But the sisters of mercy do all that, you know, Vassily Fedotitch!  What need, then ... of all this?"  Marianna pointed to herself and round about her with a vague gesture. "I dreamt of something else."
"You wanted to sacrifice yourself?"
Marianna's eyes glistened. "Yes...yes...yes!"...
Solomin looked intently at Marianna.
"Do you know what, will excuse the unpleasantness of the expression...but to my idea, combing the scurfy head of a dirty urchin is a sacrifice, and a great sacrifice, of which not many people are capable."
"But I would not refuse to do that, Vassily Fedotitch."
"I know you wouldn't! Yes, you are capable of that. And that's what you will be doing for a time ; and afterwards, maybe — something else too."...
"You are laughing at me, Vassily Fedotitch."
Solomin shook his head slowly.  Marianna raised her downcast eyes.
"I should like to justify your expectations, Solomin . . . and then — I'm ready to die!"
Solomin got up. "No,! That's the great thing."

And Markelov's head sank on his breast. There was great confusion in his soul, quiet as he was outwardly. More than all he was fretted and tortured by the thought that he had been betrayed by none other than Eremey of Goloplyok!  Eremey in whom he had believed so blindly!  That Mendely, the Sulker, had not followed him had not really surprised him...Mendely had been drunk and was frightened. But Eremey!  To Markelov, Eremey was a sort of personification of the Russian peasantry. . . . And he had deceived him.
Then, was all Markelov had been toiling for, was it all wrong, a mistake? And was Kislyakov a liar, and were Vassily Nikolaevitch's orders folly, and were all the articles and books, works of socialists and thinkers, every letter of which had seemed to him something beyond doubt, beyond attack — was all that too rubbish?  Could it be?  And that splendid simile of the swollen abscess, ready for the stroke of the lancet, was that too a mere phrase?  "No! no!" he murmured to himself, and over his bronzed cheeks flitted a faint tinge of brick-dust colour; "no; it's all true; is I am to blame, I didn't understand, I didn't say the right thing, I didn't go the right way to work!  I ought simply to have given orders, and if any one had tried to hinder or resist, put a bullet through his head!  What 's the use of explanations here? Any one not with us has no right to live,...spies are killed like dogs, worse than dogs!"

*It seems to me that the revolutionaries shot themselves in the foot there; after all, if they'd succeeded, Alexander III was the next fellow in line.  And when they didn't succeed, they turned a fairly liberal tsar into a much more typical one.  When Alexander II was really assassinated later on, all it did was lead to more tyranny.


  1. I bet you are getting better at Russian literature! This is what happened to me (eventually) with translated books -- for the longest time it felt like I couldn't get anywhere with any of them, and then eventually I settled in. It's neat!

  2. Fun fact: Turgenev could speak 7 languages! Great review. I feel like every single thing Turgenev wrote is just beautiful and I've read a big chunk of his books/plays/stories.


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