“I’ve already told you that I believe in nothing.”
Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons examines the emerging generation gap that reflects the growing changes in 19th century Russian society. When the novel begins middle-aged widower Nikolai Petrovich Kirasnov is waiting for the return of his son Arkady. Arkady, who has just graduated from university, returns with his close friend the nihilist, medical student Bazarov. Bazarov is the son of a retired army doctor, and he comes from a humble, yet vital background. While Bazarov embodies the ideals of nihilism, Arkady’s belief system seems to be a pale reflection of his friend’s. Arkady’s foppish effete uncle, Pavel, a former army officer, is deeply disturbed by Bazarov, and sees Bazarov and his belief system as a personal affront.
The novel begins in 1859–right before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861–and a significant shift is taking place in Russian society. The relatively enlightened Kirasnov has freed his serfs, and he’s attempting to adjust to employing people who can produce. The management of his estate, however, is problematic. Kirasnov has an illegitimate child with a peasant girl he refuses to marry because of the differences in their social status, and the girl, Fenichka and her child live in one of the back rooms of the house. Fenichka’s role is a peculiar one–she’s obviously Kirasnov’s mistress, but she’s also a servant within the household.
Kirasnov and his brother Pavel are “men of the old school”–whereas Bazarov and to a lesser degree Arkady represent the new wave of thought–Nihilism. Bazarov “does not look up to any authorities … does not accept a single principle on faith, no matter how highly that principle may be esteemed.” Both Bazarov and Arkady find their nihilist beliefs under assault when they fall in love. Bazarov, who believes that the “study of personalities is a waste of time” and that “all people are alike” finds himself inexplicably falling in love with the elegant, cold, elusive widow Anna Odintsova. While Anna is immensely attracted to Bazarov, she cannot allow herself to engage in any passionate affair. He threatens her passionless, ordered world, and she threatens his nihilist beliefs. But falling in love is just the first of Bazarov’s problems. He also discovers that prolonged exposure to the Kirasnov family is a contaminating influence, and he tells Arkady, “that’s what comes of living with feudal lords. You’ll become a feudal lord yourself, before you know it, and take part in knightly tournaments.”
Bazarov is a marvelous, strange and unforgettable character, and Fathers and Sons–one of the seminal novels from the period–is a must for Russophiles. As a companion piece, I recommend Nihilist Girl by Sofya Kovalevskaya.