Thursday, March 30, 2017

Virgin Soil by Ivan Turgenev

You say you want a revolution?
Virgin Soil, published in 1877, is the final novel by Russian author Ivan Turgenev. The narrative takes place in the late 1860s, at a time when the Narodnik or Populist movement was gaining influence in Russia. Middle-class intellectuals preached socialist ideas to workers and the rural poor, urging them to organize, rise up against their masters, and seize farmlands and factories, with the long-term goal of a nationwide overthrow of the feudal system maintained by the Tsarist government. The story focuses on one such populist revolutionary, Alexai Dmitrich Nejdanov (the spellings of names used here are from the English translation by R. S. Townsend). He and his circle of bohemian friends in St. Petersburg carry on the work of their revolutionary cell, spreading propaganda and taking orders from a mysterious Moscow superior named Vassily Nikolaevitch. Despite their objections to the capitalist system, these insurgents still need to make a living, so Nejdanov accepts the job of live-in tutor at the country estate of Sipiagin, an aristocrat and ministerial chamberlain. While in the country, Nejdanov decides to take advantage of his proximity to the peasantry by converting some to his radical cause.

Although Nejdanov and his friends talk like idealists, the reader is never quite sold on the courage of their convictions or the efficacy of their actions. The collective portrait Turgenev paints of these revolutionaries is frequently unflattering. Nejdanov and his cronies often come across as posers who talk a good game but don’t actually accomplish anything. Nejdanov fails miserably in his initial attempts to mingle with the common folk. The peasants he’s trying to incite to rebellion are not excited by his socialist rhetoric, and he begins to question his own devotion to the cause. Meanwhile, Sipiagin is ostensibly a liberal as far as government bureaucrats go, but he shares little ideological common ground with his new employee. This brings about almost immediate conflict between the tutor and his boss. When Nejdanov falls in love with Sipiagin’s niece, it only aggravates the already strained relations between the two.

Though Virgin Soil deals with serious matters, it is often quite comical. After taking up residence at the Sipiagin estate, Nejdanov meets with other revolutionaries in an attempt to organize a resistance movement. The reader is thus introduced to a series of characters, representing various positions on the political spectrum, who resemble caricatures from the sketchbook of Daumier, each more laughable than the next in their hypocrisy or cluelessness. This satirical tour culminates with a visit to Fomishka and Fimishka, a married couple who live as if they were frozen in the 18th century.

Even though Nejdanov makes for a pathetic hero much of the time, one still becomes sufficiently engaged by his story and actively involved in the lives of his circle of acquaintances. Their very failure to live up to their revolutionary ideals makes them all the more identifiable as realistic human beings, and you sympathize with their hopes and fears. Although Fathers and Sons may be Turgenev’s best known work, at least to English language readers, it is positively boring compared to the much livelier Virgin Soil. Despite of, or perhaps because of, its satirical bent, this social tragicomedy ultimately succeeds as a naturalistic depiction of its time and place, and one learns a lot about the history of Russia from reading it.
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