Historical Context in Fathers and Sons

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.

Historical Context Examples in Fathers and Sons:

Chapter I 7

"he took up the subject of Industrial Reform..."   (Chapter I)

Referring to this as “Industrial Reform” is not a completely accurate translation. The original Russian says that Nikolai busied himself with economic reforms (занялся хозяйственными преобразованиями). Recall that this story is set a few years before Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs. These reforms then refer to the progressive agenda of redesigning work on Russian estates, business, and the economy in general. So, Nikolai Petrovich is actually portrayed as being far more forward thinking than readers might have initially assumed because he has implemented many of these changes.

"the English Club..."   (Chapter I)

When the Russian Tsar Peter the Great built St. Petersburg, he modelled much of the city on London, and many of the foreigners that settled in St. Petersburg in the 18th century were English. On March 1, 1770, Francis Gardner opened the English club. Initially, the club was open only to Englishmen, but shortly thereafter Russian aristocrats were able to join.

"Paul..."   (Chapter I)

While Paul hasn’t come into the story yet, it’s important to note that this translator, Charles Hogarth, has anglicized the Russian name. In Turgenev’s original, Nikolai’s brother is named Pavel Petrovitch Kirsanov (Павл Петрович Кирсанов). It is unclear why a name like “Pavel” has been transliterated to “Paul” when a name like “Nikolai” has not; however, we can speculate that this name was more accessible to English readers at the time of translation.

"one of the generals of 1812..."   (Chapter I)

In 1812, the French General Napoleon invaded Russia. This invasion is known in Russia as the Patriotic War of 1812 (Отечественная война 1812 года [Otechestvennaya Voyna 1812 Goda]). The Russian General Kutuzov met the French forces several times on the battlefield, only to retreat and draw the French deeper into Russian territory. Eventually, due to a lack of preparation for the Russian winter, Napoleon’s forces became overextended and were forced to retreat back to France.

"May, 1859..."   (Chapter I)

Turgenev published Fathers and Sons in 1862, a year after Tsar Alexander II instituted the emancipation reform which liberated the Russian serfs. By situating his story several years prior, Turgenev explores the attitudes related to class and social position in the wake of the various reforms that led to the eventual emancipation. This tension between the classes further plays into the social differences the older and younger generations are experiencing.

"posting-house..."   (Chapter I)

This is a translation of постоялый двор (postal’niy dvor). Since industrialization was slow to start in the Russian Empire compared to Western Europe, transportation by horse and carriage remained popular into the 20th century. Posting-houses served as a kind of inn where travelers could get fresh horses, food, and shelter.

"barin..."   (Chapter I)

Many translations consider “barin” a synonym for “gentleman” or a “squire”; however, this term also has an association with the Russian aristocracy, the landowners who controlled the lives of the serfs. To call someone барин (barin) is to also call them “lord” or “master.” This distinction is important throughout the story as it acknowledges landowning, privileged, or politically influential citizens.

"the prominent convolutions of the skull..."   (Chapter II)

In the 19th century, several pseudosciences gained prominence in the public mind as well as in literature. One of the more notable ones is phrenology, or the study of the size and shape of the skull and how that relates to moral and intellectual characteristics. Turgenev likely points out Bazarov’s skull to indicate to readers something subliminal in Bazarov’s character or intellect.

"my good friend Bazarov, who is the comrade..."   (Chapter II)

It is important to note that Hogarth has added the word "comrade" (товарищ) to this sentence. Garnett's 1917 translation simply says "my great friend, Bazarov, about whom I have so often written to you." Hogarth's translation came out in 1921, and Lenin and the Communists had largely taken over the Russian Empire. This addition of "comrade" then is a political choice and not true to Turgenev's original.

"Eugène Onegin..."   (Chapter III)

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin’s most famous work is Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse which Pushkin wrote and published between 1825 and 1832. The novel traces the story of the title character, a highly educated, world-weary young man who moves from St. Petersburg to the country. Onegin becomes a mentor to a naive younger man and an object of desire for a young woman, whom he initially rejects and then longs for. In both personality and action, Bazarov resembles Onegin. Turgenev introduces this allusion with irony: Bazarov despises poetry, despite the fact that he mirrors one of the central characters of Russian poetry.

"Pushkin..."   (Chapter III)

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was a Russian poet, novelist, and playwright. Born in 1799 and working until his premature death in 1837, Pushkin defined the modern Russian language and was perhaps the central figure of the romantic era of Russian literature. Given Nikolai’s professed love for poetry and romanticism, it is appropriate that Pushkin appeals to him. To this day, Pushkin is considered by many to be the greatest poet of the Russian language.

"antique land-measurement of Katherine's day..."   (Chapter III)

This translation is a little unclear: instead of “Katherine’s Day,” this should convey the land measurements that were using during Catherine the Great’s time. The narrator is referring to the former ruler of Imperial Russia Catherine II, whose work in the 18th century revitalized Russia and turned it into one of the great powers of Europe.

"miestchanin..."   (Chapter III)

This Russian word can be translated as “philistine” or “petty bourgeois.” So, Nikolai is stating that his new steward is a member of the middle class. In 19th century Russian, there was a small (compared to Europe) middle class that was not as well educated as the upper class, which likely explains why Nikola says that the steward “seems at least capable.”

"il est libre, en effet..."   (Chapter III)

Il est libre, en effet = [French] “He is free, in fact” For the Russian aristocrats and the educated, knowledge of French was essential. In fact, many Russian writers (like Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy) used French throughout their works to reflect this. Translations are not offered because contemporary readers these texts would have had passing knowledge of the French language.

""No; I have appointed a fresh one, for I came to the conclusion that I could not have any freed serfs about the place...."   (Chapter III)

In 1861, Tsar Alexander II freed all serfs—a kind of indentured servant—in Russia. Turgenev wrote Fathers and Sons in the immediate aftermath of this decree. Turgenev includes the tension between the ruling classes and the newly freed workings classes in the story—in this case, the tension which arises from Nikolai’s decision not to “have any freed serfs about the place.”

"repapered..."   (Chapter III)

This verb refers to Nikolai’s having Arkady’s room redone with new wallpaper. At the start of the 19th century, and lasting well into the 20th century, there was a revival of interest in wallpaper designs and use around the world and in England and France in particular. Considering that the Russian aristocratic class had close, historical ties with these nations, the French in particular, it is not surprising that the Kirsanov house utilizes this means of decor over bare wood or paint.

"Ah, you elderly Romanticists!..."   (Chapter IV)

Bazarov identifies Nikolai as a “romanticist.” Romanticism was a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement in the first half of the 19th century. Romantics—or romanticists—emphasize emotion, intuition, and aesthetic experience over the rationality emphasized by the Enlightenment. Romantics such as Nikolai value emotional and aesthetic reactions, exemplified by Nikolai’s spontaneous recitation of Pushkin when beholding the spring landscape.

"they represent 'progress.'"..."   (Chapter IV)

That Bazarov claims the English washstands represent progress is important. Among the rise of socialists, nihilists, and other educated liberals at this time, there was a common perception in Russia that Western Europe was the home of advanced progress and civilized society. For Bazarov, Russian goods and systems represent backward views and modes of living.

"(formerly we had Hegelists, and now they have become Nihilists)..."   (Chapter V)

Hegelists are those who subscribe to the ideas of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher writing at the turn of the 19th century. Hegel was a seminal philosopher who worked on a number of intellectual areas, including metaphysics, logic, and phenomenology. As a university student, Turgenev studied Hegel’s work extensively. The apparent similarity between Hegelian and Nihilistic philosophy lies in the question of meaning. One of Hegel’s central ideas is that life is inherently meaningless, a fact which is in itself also meaninglessness. In this way, Nihilism evokes shades of Hegel for Paul.

"When apportioning allotments to his peasantry..."   (Chapter V)

After Tsar Alexander II liberated the serfs, the landowners were obligated to provide them with land to work for a living. Many of these allotments were apportioned unequally or in such ways that the serfs were still indentured through taxation to the land-owning aristocrats.

"Liebig..."   (Chapter VI)

Justus Freiherr von Liebig, who lived from 1803 to 1873, was a renowned German chemist. Liebig is best known as the founder of agricultural chemistry. Nikolai references Liebig out of a desire to find common ground between himself and Bazarov: Nikolai cares about agriculture; Bazarov cares about chemistry.

"Goethe..."   (Chapter VI)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German poet, novelist, philosopher, and scientist who lived during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Goethe is widely considered one of the most important figures in the history of German literature, akin to Shakespeare’s position in English letters. Paul mentions Goethe as a symbol for a bygone era in which Germany produced notable artists, and not only scientists.

"Schiller..."   (Chapter VI)

Friedrich Schiller was a German poet, playwright, philosopher, and historian who lived during the late 18th century. Along with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Schiller founded the literary and cultural movement known as Weimar classicism. Paul cites Schiller as a past example of German achievement, particularly in the arts.

""In fact, the Germans are, in the same respect, our masters."..."   (Chapter VI)

Bazarov’s comment reveals both his personal opinion as well as the intellectual landscape of his time. As someone without allegiance for tradition or national pride, Bazarov has no inclination to praise Russia without reason. In the century preceding the publication of Fathers and Sons in 1862, Germany was the premier intellectual powerhouse of continental Europe, producing many of the era’s most significant works of philosophy and science.

"Princess R...."   (Chapter VII)

Another possibility for Turgenev’s providing only the first initial of this name is the censorship practices of the 19th century. Many Russian authors—like Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy—either omitted the full names of people and places to avoid issues with the censors, or the censors themselves redacted this information prior to publication.

"Imperial Corps of Pages..."   (Chapter VII)

The Imperial Corps of Pages was a military academy in St. Petersburg. Founded in 1759, the school prepared the sons of the upper classes for lives of military service. As a page—or young male servant—in the Corps, Paul was groomed from childhood to be an officer.