Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Russian Nihilism--Part 1


Ad Honorem
Mar 2011
The Celestial Plain
Works such as Young Russia and A History of Russian Thought from Enlightenment to Marxism similarly narrate the radicalization of the Russian Intelligentsia as well as the emergence of nihilism. Exposure to French culture in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars engendered in Russians an inferiority complex towards Europeans. Some of the young men who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars desired to reform Russia. Eventually, they lead what historians call the Decembrist revolt to overthrow the Czarist regime. The revolt failed. In response Nicholas I heavily censored intellectual activity until his death. Russians were hopeful that the next Czar would be more enlightened. At first Alexander vindicated the hopes of Liberals with reforms, including the most important reform, the emancipation of the serfs. But the horrible terms dealt to the serfs provoked feelings of disappointment and cynicism—the reforms seemed to be a sham to protect the status quo. The rising expectations created by the reforms turned to violent oscillations in opinion towards the new Czarist regime. Since the superfluous men of the thirties and forties failed to bring about social change through moderate means, the younger generation resorted to extremism and underground organization to bring about the “regeneration of the human race.”

Nihilism was one of the forms of extremism the younger generation resorted to. Two of the most widely regarded writers on Russian nihilism were Ivan Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Turgenev’s Fathers and Children consciously depicts the first nihilist in literature, Bazarov. Dostoevsky’s Demons follows the disease of nihilism in Russia as it infects communities and individuals. Though Turgenev and Dostoevsky philosophically diverged on a fundamental level, their portrayals of nihilism were remarkably similar. And unlike modern expositions on Russian nihilism, both Turgenev and Dostoevsky seem to agree, at least implicitly, that nihilism was more than just an historical byproduct or sociological phenomena. Somehow, though it variously manifests, nihilism has to do with the human condition. Though they agree that the affliction is common, they disagree about the origins and cure of the affliction.

As the first deliberately depicted nihilist in literature, it is no coincidence that Bazarov arrives at a time of unrest and unease. There are stirrings that the peasants will be freed. Nikolai Petrovich, the father of Bazarov’s friend Arkady, is eager to be a magnanimous liberal, but there are inklings that he is unsure of his position in and that he is perhaps less than capable of managing his estate in a post-feudal world. Looking over his father’s land, Arkady thinks that it is impossible for the land to stay the way it is so that “reforms are essential." (Turgenev 10) He knows that his father’s estate is in disarray and that the peasants are intractable. This is a time of reform, of rebirth, of change, of uncertainty; it is fitting that Bazarov, the man of the new generation, arrives on the cusp on the future. How the older generation responds to Bazarov’s mysteriousness and brazen distinctiveness will indicate how liberals will react to a future that genuinely deviates from the past.

Stavrogin plays the role of Bazarov in Demons. Like Bazarov, Stavrogin arrives (actually returns, but for the reader it is an arrival) unexpectedly during a time of great social unrest. Rumors circling about town suggest that the serfs were to be emancipated, and that “the whole of Russia suddenly became exultant and all ready to be reborn." (Dostoevsky 16)”All must be excited about the peasant’s emancipation, or at least feign to be excited, because it is the “trend.” But Stavrogin is indifferent to the opinions of the town. Like Bazarov, Stavrogin is an egoist, doing only what he thinks he wants to do. And like Bazarov, Stavrogin is the subject of others attributions; the women in the town either love him or loathe him for no apparent reason and his mother thinks he is a kind of savior. Despite all the town’s intense reactions, Stavrogin is indifferent.

The passivity of Bazarov and Stavrogin draws out the other character's motivations to reveal the common affliction of the Russian people. In Father’s and Children, the affliction causes paralysis, self-loathing, self-pity. All the characters suffer alienation that comes from a fear of change and of facing nature. Only through acknowledging nature and making a full change can the characters break the paralysis. They try to suppress nature, to deny it, to compromise with it. In Demons, there is an inherent urge for greatness. The characters want to be more than they are. They believe that through achieving greatness, they can reconcile themselves with humanity. These visions of grandeur are almost comical in their results, but they hint at Dostoevsky's notion that reconciliation can only occur through something greater than the individual.

The character who reacts most vehemently to Bazarov is Pavel Petrovich, the brother of Nikolai. Without provocation, Pavel Petrovich seems to take offense to Bazarov’s presence. It is not what Bazarov does that revulses as it is his very existence, which is anathema to Pavel’s construction of reality. Pavel’s makes his disdain for Bazarov a mission that broils in all-consuming passion. His hatred is unnatural—something that is willed; “Pavel Petrovich came to despise Bazarov with all the strength he could muster: he considered him arrogant, impudent, a cynic, and a plebian; he suspected that Bazarov didn’t respect him, that he might even despise him…" (Turgenev 34) He seeks arguments with Bazarov and becomes obsessed with defeating his imaginary nemesis.

It seems natural for Pavel to hate Bazarov, but upon deeper inspection the reasons are contrived. Pavel’s is correct about his nemesis; Bazarov is an impudent cynical plebian. And he does despise Pavel. But there are also parallels between the two. The narrator describes Pavel as having a touch of “French misanthropy.” Pavel is not impudent or a plebian, but he and Bazarov embody themselves in an unnatural philosophy to resist their own inner natures. Pavel defends the French people whom Bazarov scorns; he says that “The only good point about a Russian is that he has a very low opinion of himself." (33) But Pavel is no Slavophil. The narrator says that “in general he arranged his entire life on the English model… "(25) He is described as having a “striving upward, away from the earth…" (12) He arranges his life so as to not be Russian and to not be what he is. The aristocratic bearing and demand for deference is a façade hiding his alienation from nature, an alienation that manifests as an inability to appreciate nature because “his fastidiously dry and passionate soul…didn’t even know how to dream." (45)The narrator equates dryness with passion, and passion with an inability to dream and to appreciate nature. Bazarov is also passionate and is unable to appreciate nature. He also seems to be unable to dream, but at least he is honest in his scorn for people and for nature. All that matters in his philosophy is that two plus two equals four. Nature is not wondrous and transcendent; it is man’s workshop.

Perhaps the most critical similarity between Pavel and Bazarov is that both meet woman who irrevocably alter their destinies. When Bazarov and Pavel first meet they are almost a before and after consequence of these meetings: Bazarov is yet to meet Anna Sergeevna, while Pavel has long suffered the aftermath of his infatuation with Princess R. Arkady's biography of Pavel reveals striking similarities between Pavel and Bazarov. When Pavel was young he was dynamic, attractive, and successful. Arkady says he was “lionized by many people” and that “Women were crazy about him." (22) Like Bazarov, Pavel did not believe in romantic love, instead choosing to indulge himself. But then he met Princess R, an enigmatic and conflicted woman who “devoted herself eagerly to all sorts of pleasures, dancing until she collapses,” but at night “she wept and prayed, finding no solace anywhere." (22) The mystery of her inner-conflict is never revealed. Pavel falls passionately in love with her, but even when he had her he could not fathom “what was hidden away in her soul." (23) She was a sphinx. When she no longer loved him he became obsessed with her, pursuing her for four years. He finally gave up, but the result was that “like someone deranged, he wandered from place to place; he still appeared in society and maintained all the habits of a man about town; he could boast of two or three new conquests; but he no longer expected anything much from himself or other people…" (24)Pavel eventually settled down with his brother, which is when he started to arrange his life on the English model. He suppresses his melancholy and disillusion by living as someone else, an English aristocrat. Both the landowners and the younger generation respected him for his “superb aristocratic manners and the rumors surrounding his conquests." (25) Pavel feeds off this respect, which further legitimizes the delusion. That is why Pavel is especially appalled by Bazarov’s disregard.

What Princess R was to Pavel Anna Sergeevna would be to Bazarov. On the surface, Anna Sergeevna nothing like Princess R. Rather than dissolution, Anna Sergeevna structures her life by planning every hour to stave off boredom. But the only real difference is the manifestation of their alienation from nature. Whereas Princess R tried to dance and party so much as to obliviate her consciousness, Anna tries to control her surroundings. Fundamentally, Anna Sergeevna is as conflicted as Princess R. The narrator says that Anna “longed for something without knowing precisely what it was. Strictly speaking, she didn’t want anything, although it seemed to her she wanted everything." (68) Anna never really experienced life; she had never “thrown herself into the struggle” so that she could “come to know real passion." (68) The fact that she controls her surroundings and submits her inner nature to her Will makes her appealing to someone such Bazarov, who repudiates romantic love and admires artifice as well as control. Anna Sergeevna, like Bazarov, treats her inner nature as a workshop. A contradiction inevitably arises from their encounter. It makes sense that Bazarov would love a woman like Anna, except that he rejects the notion of romantic love. But he still falls passionately in love with Anna. She rejects him after he confesses his passion for her.

Ostensibly, Bazarov’s reaction to his rejection is nothing like Pavel’s reaction to Princess R’s cooling off. But like so many other instances in the novel, what seems different on the surface is merely the same affliction with a different manifestation. It makes sense for Pavel, the aristocrat, to pursue what he wants, because he always gets what he wants. As the son of a provincial doctor, Bazarov was not used to getting anything. So he reacted in the only way he knew how; to repudiate his feelings, to scorn his desires, and to negate his nature. As someone of poor origins, Bazarov only guarantee in life was work, so he makes a philosophy of it. He tries to engross himself into his work, to embody his philosophy, only to be confronted with the reality that work in itself cannot be fulfilling. His “fever to work had deserted him and been replaced by dreary boredom and vague restlessness." (142) Though he never acknowledges it, Bazarov realizes that though a person may try to chose what he finds fulfilling, which is almost always that which is easily available, one cannot overcome nature.

Bazarov’s condition is in part a consequence of the social stratification in Russia; so much was denied Bazarov, a man of enormous abilities, that he could either languish in bitterness or withdraw from the world. Like Pavel, Bazarov chooses to repudiate his world and to reject Russia altogether. Pavel fancies himself an Englishman, whereas Bazarov tries to become a universal man. Their reactions are typical of reactions in Russia at the time. Bazarov condition is the same as other peoples and groups in Russia. There are real-life examples such as that of Vera Zasulich. Despite her incredible imagination, her only option in life was to because a governess because of her social status and gender. She says that if she were a boy, she “could have done almost anything.” Her only outlet was the “distant specter of revolution,” which could make her “equal to a boy.” Only in the context of revolution could she too “dream of ‘action,’ of ‘exploits,’ and of the ‘great struggle.’"(Zasulich 69) But Bazarov does not have the option of Revolution, although he says he wants to fight. So he is trapped in a world where he is not free to achieve his desires.

It can be said that Father and Children has no plot, but the tension between Pavel and Bazarov culminates in a duel that moves forward the story and the character’s lives. By just showing up, Bazarov breaks the stagnation. The duel in its buildup, execution, and aftermath is rich with symbolism. Ostensibly, Pavel challenges Bazarov to a duel to defend Nikolai’s honor. Bazarov had kissed Fenechka—
he had dared to defile that which belonged to the Fathers. But Pavel's real motivation was his own desire for Fenechka. Through her Bazarov and Pavel intersect in their common desire for the simplicity and honesty that is buried under their philosophies. But Pavel never gives this as a reason for the duel. His reason is simply that he cannot stand Bazarov, and he had been meaning to do it for some time. This seems an honest reason, and the kiss with Fenechka was just the final outrage for Pavel. The duel between Pavel and Bazarov represents what an outright war between the generations would look like, with Pavel lacking the strength to vanquish Bazarov and Bazarov lacking the will to annihilate Pavel. The result is embarrassing; Pavel is physically wounded and spiritually crushed while Bazarov is ashamed for having fought the duel in the first place. Bazarov goes into self-imposed exile, whereas Pavel is finally broken.

But the duel brings resolution. Pavel goes to Nikolai and says that “we’ve spent enough time putting on airs and worrying about what other people think: we’ve already become old and tranquil folk; it’s time for us to put aside all vanity. Let’s do our duty…and let’s see if we can achieve happiness in the bargain." (Turgenev 127) The fact that Nikolai marries Fenechka after Pavel gives him his blessing reveals a lot about Nikolai. Unlike Pavel, Nikolai is an appreciator of nature. When Bazarov tells him that nature is merely man’s workshop, not to be worshipped, Nikolai is disheartened and realizes that there was a distance between him and his son. Nikolai seems to suffer from some self-loathing, as he tries to please all people and believes that the youth have an advantage over the older generation because “there’re fewer traces of gentry"(43) in them. He wants to shed his gentry’ mentality, yet he will not marry Fenechka, his peasant partner, because he fears the reproach of his gentrified brother. Pavel’s humiliation enables Nikolai to marry his partner, and symbolically, allows for the reconciliation between the gentry and the peasants and between the higher passions of the gentry and what Gary Saul Morson calls the “prosaic love” of the people. It is reconciliation between all the forces of nature. The separation between the peasantry and the gentry is an unnatural division that is finally resolved.

Arkady and the other characters also find reconciliation. Arkady had practically worshipped Bazarov, who seemed to provide answers in a time of uncertainty. But to follow Bazarov, Arkady had to repudiate his natural affection for poetry and nature as well as his natural sympathy for his father. Bazarov realizes that Arkady has not the personality to be a nihilist, telling him that “There’s no arrogance in you, no malice; there’s only youthful audacity and youthful fervor…"(140) Arkady lusts for Anna, but because a woman like her is inevitably more attracted to an independent man like Bazarov, Arkady finds solace in Anna’s sister, Katy. There’s a sense that all along Arkady just wanted something viable; in Bazarov he thought that only radical change could be viable. But what was really needed was simplicity, “prosaic love.” Bazarov’s death also brings his parents together. In Bazarov, Vasily Ivanovich had placed all his suppressed dreams and desires, hoping that he could vicariously achieve greatness through Bazarov. His greatest ambition was that he would be recognized in his son’s biography; “Son of a simple regimental doctor, but one who was able to recognize his son’s talents early and spared no expense for his education." (95) Despite his simplicity and his smallness, Vasily hopes to matter, to become someone whose existence had meaning by being the one to recognize and nurture Bazarov’s greatness. But Turgenev shows that it was not Russian society that needed Vasily, but his wife. Bazarov death brings them together; “They walk with a heavy step, supporting each other;” they are “two feeble old people…a man and his wife." (156) It may be a melancholy image, but there are no longer dreams of recognition or becoming. They are forced to be something to each other, instead of hoping of becoming something to everyone else through Bazarov.