Fathers and SonsTranslated by Charles James Hogarth
Written in 1862, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons captures the significant philosophical and political changes taking place in Russia at the time. Some of the most important changes were brought about by Tsar Alexander II, who enacted a series of liberal reforms. In 1861, Alexander II abolished serfdom—the class system which had kept serfs, a type of indentured servant, in the control of the landowning aristocracy. From the beginning of Fathers and Sons, we witness the aftermath of this abolition. The upper and lower classes explore new possibilities for interaction in the form of both love affairs and attitudes of disdain. The significant philosophical changes of the time lay in the complete breakdown of traditional Russian value systems. The traditional Russian institutions—Orthodox Christianity, rule of law, emphases on family, art and nature—were called into question by increasingly educated members of the underprivileged classes. On one side were the liberalists, who wished to find new ways of integrating traditional values. On the other side were the nihilists, who rejected every value and principle, intending to rebuild culture and society from nothing while guided only by rationality and utilitarianism. The nihilists Turgenev portrays, exemplified by Bazarov, can be read today as a portend of the postmodern thinkers who would turn the Western world on its head in the late-19th and 20th centuries. Fathers and Sons thus remains a crucial novel for our times, as we continue to struggle with the same philosophical and spiritual dilemmas as do Turgenev’s characters.