Fathers and Sons

Ivan Turgenev

This humane, moving masterpiece of families, love, duels, heartache, failure and the clash between generations caused a scandal in nineteenth-century Russia with its portrayal of youthful nihilism.

‘Aristocracy, liberalism, progress, principles...useless words! A Russian doesn’t need them’


‘Well, Pyotr, can you see anything yet?’ It was 20 May 1859. The speaker was a gentleman a little over forty years old, wearing a dusty coat and checked trousers, who had gone out without his hat on to the low porch of an inn on the *** Highway. He was asking his manservant, a round-faced young fellow with fair down on his chin and small, colourless eyes.

Everything about Pyotr – his turquoise earring, dyed and pomaded hair and deferential body movements – in short, everything – declared him to be a man of the modern, educated generation. He gave a supercilious glance down the road and answered, ‘Nothing, sir, I can’t see anything at all.’

‘Can’t you see them?’ the gentleman repeated.

‘No, nothing,’ the servant answered a second time.

The gentleman sighed and sat down on a bench. Let us acquaint the reader with him while he is sitting with his feet tucked in beneath him and looking thoughtfully around.

His name is Nikolay Petrovich Kirsanov. Ten miles from that little inn he has a decent property of 200 souls, or, as he now puts it since he settled the boundaries with the peasants and started a modern ‘farm’, of 5,000 acres of land. His father, a general and a veteran of the War of 1812, a semi-literate Russian type, coarse-grained but decent, had served in the army all his life. He commanded first a brigade, then a division, and had always lived in the provinces, where by virtue of his rank he played a fairly important role. Nikolay Petrovich was born in the south of Russia, like his elder brother Pavel, of whom we shall speak later, and till the age of fourteen he was educated at home, surrounded by ill-paid tutors, easy-going but obsequious adjutants and other regimental and staff personnel.

His mother, née Kolyazin, as a girl had been known as Agathe but when she became the general’s lady, as Agafokleya Kuzminishna Kirsanova. She could be classed as a ‘barracks matriarch’. She wore splendid caps and rustling silk gowns; in church she was first to go up and kiss the cross; she spoke loudly and a great deal, in the mornings she gave her children her hand to kiss, and at night she blessed them – in short, she did exactly as she pleased.

As a general’s son Nikolay Petrovich was destined for the army, like his brother Pavel – although not only was he far from being a hero, he even had the reputation of being ‘a bit of a softy’. But he broke his leg on the very day the news of his commission arrived. He spent two months lying in bed and for the rest of his life he had a ‘bad leg’. His father gave up on him and let him follow a civilian career. He took him to St Petersburg as soon as he was eighteen and enrolled him in the university. At the same time his brother happened to get his commission in a Guards regiment. The young men began sharing an apartment, under the distant supervision of a cousin on their mother’s side, Ilya Kolyazin, a senior civil servant. Their father returned to his army division and his spouse, and only occasionally sent his sons large sheets of grey paper scrawled in his bold clerk’s hand, the last sheet graced by the words ‘Piotr Kirsanov, Major-General’, laboriously surrounded by flourishes.

In 1835 Nikolay Petrovich left university with a degree, and in the same year General Kirsanov, who had been forced into retirement after a poor performance by his troops on review, came with his wife to live in St Petersburg. He intended to rent a house near the Tauride Garden and had put his name down for the English Club, but he suddenly died of a stroke. Agafokleya Kuzminishna soon followed him. She could not get used to an obscure life in the capital. The boredom of a pensioned existence consumed her.

Meanwhile Nikolay Petrovich, while his parents were still alive and to their considerable chagrin, had managed to fall in love with the daughter of Prepolovensky, a minor civil servant who was his former landlord. She was a pretty young lady, and a ‘cultured’ one too: meaning that she read the serious articles in the ‘Science’ section of the reviews. He married her as soon as the period of mourning for his parents was over. He left the Ministry of Crown Lands – where his father had got him a position through connections – and led a life of bliss with his Masha, first in a dacha near the Forestry Institute, then in the city, in a small and attractive apartment with clean stairs and a chilly drawing room, and eventually in the country, where he finally settled, and where after a short time he had a son, Arkady. The couple lived very happily and quietly: they were almost never parted, they read together, sang and played duets on the piano. She planted flowers and looked after the poultry yard, he occasionally went shooting and looked after the estate, and Arkady grew and grew – also happily and quietly.

Ten years passed like a dream. In 1847 Kirsanov’s wife died. He was hardly able to bear that blow, and his hair went grey in a few weeks. He was planning to go abroad for a little distraction . . . but then came 1848. He had no choice but to go back to the country and after a rather long period of doing nothing he occupied himself with introducing changes on his estate. In 1855 he took his son to university and spent three winters with him in St Petersburg, hardly ever going out and trying to get to know Arkady’s young classmates. The final winter he couldn’t go to Petersburg – and so we see him now in May 1859, completely grey-haired, a little plump and slightly bent: he is waiting for his son, who has just got his master’s degree as he had once done himself.

The manservant, out of a feeling of propriety but maybe also not wishing to remain under his master’s eye, went out through the gates and lit a pipe. Nikolay Petrovich bent his head and began to study the dilapidated steps of the porch. A sturdy speckled hen sedately walked up and down the steps, firmly tapping with its big yellow feet, and a dirty cat posed curled up on the rail and gave it hostile looks. The sun was baking. A smell of warm rye bread came from the half-lit entrance of the little inn. Our Nikolay Petrovich fell into a reverie. ‘My son . . . a graduate . . . Arkasha . . .’ were the thoughts that went through his head. He tried to think of something else, and the same thoughts came back. He remembered his dead wife . . . ‘She didn’t live long enough!’ he whispered sadly . . . A fat grey pigeon alighted on the road and hurriedly went to drink from a puddle by the well. Nikolay Petrovich started to watch it, but his ear now caught the rattle of approaching wheels . . .

‘This time they’re coming, sir,’ his servant reported, dashing in from outside the gates.

Nikolay Petrovich jumped up and directed his eyes along the road. A tarantas appeared, harnessed to a trio of carriage horses. In it he caught a glimpse of the peak of a student’s cap, and the familiar outline of a beloved face . . .

‘Arkasha! Arkasha!’ Kirsanov shouted; and he ran out waving his arms . . . A few moments later his lips were touching the beardless, dusty and sunburnt cheek of the young graduate.

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