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  RusNet :: Encyclopedia :: T  

Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)

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Novelist, poet, and playwright, known for his detailed descriptions about the everyday live in Russia in the 19th century. Turgenev portrayed realistically the peasantry and the rising intelligentsia in its attempt to move the country into a new age. Although Turgenev has been overshadowed by his contemporaries Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, he remains one of the major figures of the 19th-century Russian literature.

Ivan Turgenev was born in Oryol, into a wealthy family. His childhood was lonely. Especially he was afraid of his strict mother, who beat him constantly.

Turgenev studied at St. Petersburg (1834-37) and Berlin Universities (1838-41), and completed his master's exam in St Petersburg.

At the age of 19 Turgenev travelled to Germany. He was on a steamer when it caught fire and rumours spread in Russia that he had acted cowardly. This revealing experience, which followed the author throughout his life, formed later the basis for his story A Fire at Sea.

In 1841 Turgenev started his career at the Russian civil service. He worked for the Ministry of Interior (1843-45) for a short time.

After the success of two of his story-poems, Turgenev devoted himself to literature, country pursuits, and travel. He had a relationship with the opera singer Pauline Garcia Viardot, living near her or at times with her and her husband the rest of his life. Turgenev travelled to France with them in 1845-46 and 1847-50.

Viardot remained Turgenev's great and unfulfilled love; in his youth he had had one or two affairs with servant-girls, and produced an illegitimate daughter, Paulinette.

During his studies in Berlin, Turgenev had become confirmed for the need of westernisation of Russia. Lacking the interest in religious issues like his two great compatriots, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, he represented the social side of reform movement. In a letter he wrote about Tolstoy's 'charlatanism' and even from his death-bed he begged Tolstoy to cast away his prophet's mantle.

Turgenev's solution was not revolution, mystical nationalism, or spiritual renewal but in the industriousness of the confident, methodical builders embodied by the engineer Vassily Fedotitch Solomin, a side character, in Virgin Soil. The 'positive hero' was a new type of personality, who will liberate Russia from her backwardness. In the centre of the book, full of discussions about progression, literature, aesthetic life, emancipation, beauty, patriotic principles, etc., is a love story, in which a young woman must choose her of way in life.

In the 1840s Turgenev wrote poems, criticism, and short stories under the influence of Nikolay Gogol. With the short-story cycle A Sportsman's Sketches, he (1852) made his reputation. It is said that the work contributed to the Tsar Alexander II's decision to liberate the serfs. The short pieces were written from a point of view of a young nobleman who learns to appreciate the wisdom of the peasants who live on his family's estates.

However, Turgenev's opinions brought him a month of detention in St. Petersburg and 18 months of house arrest.

In 1855 he met Leo Tolstoy, who had returned to St. Petersburg from the siege of Sevastopol. The relationship between these two great writers remained tense, although they never broke contacts.

Following the thoughts of the influential critic Vissarion Belinsky, who defended sociological realism in literature, Turgenev abandoned Romantic idealism for a more realistic style. During the period of 1853-62 Turgenev wrote some of his finest stories and novels as and the first four of his six novels: Rudin (1856), Noblemen's Nest (1859), On the Eve (1860) and Fathers and Sons (1862). In these works central themes were the beauty of early love, failure to reach one's dreams, and frustrated love, which partly reflected the author's lifelong passion for Pauline.

Hostile reaction to Fathers and Sons (1862) prompted Turgenev's decision to leave Russia. As a consequence he also lost the majority of his readers.

Turgenev lived first in Germany, then moved to London, where Fathers and Sons had had great success. He settled finally in Paris, where he lived with the Viardots from 1871 until his death. He became a corresponding member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in 1860 and Doctor of Civil Law at the Oxford University (1879).

Among Turgenev's close friend's in France was the writer Gustave Flaubert, with whom he had similar social and aesthetic ideals. They both rejected extremist right and left and stuck to non-judgemental if somewhat pessimistic depiction of the world.

Turgenev died in Bougival, near Paris, on September 3, 1883. His remains were taken to Russia and buried in the Volkov Cemetery, St.Petersburg.

Turgenev's later works include novellas A King Lear of the Steppes (1870) and Spring Torrents, which rank with First Love (1860) as his finest achievements in the genre.

His last published work was a collection of meditations and anecdotes, entitled Poems in Prose (1883).

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