The title of Turgenev’s last novel, Virgin Soil, evokes Russia’s vast countrysides and its fertile lands, ready to receive the seed of future crops from the farmer’s hands.
It also indirectly refers to the Russian peasantry, the object of propaganda and organizing actions by the ‘Going to the People’ movement of the 1870s, which is Turgenev’s chief focus in his novel.
This populist movement, the Narodniki, was led by young students and intellectual radicals, most in their twenties, who went to the countrysides to politicize “the people” for revolutionary action against the Czar.
Immediately before writing the novel, Turgenev was staying abroad. He was depressed because his previous books were not well received in Russia. So great was the hostility to his works that it was said even fellow novelist Dostoevsky commented that perhaps Turgenev needed a telescope to get in touch with the realities in his own country.
Turgenev thus saw Virgin Soil as his final farewell to his readers. It was to be the culmination of life’s work and was intended to prove his strong connection with the happenings, particularly socio-political ones, in his homeland.
The Russian novelist was previously attacked from all sides for his criticisms of both the young radicals and the czarists in his previous works. Turgenev belonged to an older generation of Russian liberals who saw the reforms and industrial advances instituted in Western Europe as the model for their own country’s future.
Some, however, were beginning to see the possibility of bypassing capitalism to move directly to socialism. This line was particularly advanced by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, radical writer and author of What Is to Be Done? (1861), an influential literary work, the title of which Lenin will later adopt for his own guide for political action.
While not shying away from criticisms and pointing out of the young radicals’ inconsistencies, Turgenev sides with them in Virgin Soil. He contrasts their boundless idealism and sacrifices to the the passivity of the middle classes and the corruption of the liberal aristocrats, which Turgenev once saw as the driving forces of Russia’s progress. He mercilessly attacks those who most loyal to the old order:
Kollomietzev was rich and had a great many influential friends… Kollomietzev had come away on a two months’ leave to look after his estate, that is, to threaten and oppress his peasants a little more. “You can’t get on without that!” he used to say. p.40
Virgin Soil took six years to write and is the Turgenev’s longest novel at three hundred plus pages. It also contains many features from his previous works: a love story, the superfluous man, the poetic rendering of landscape, the aristocratic country home, generational conflict, etc. But while it does not work quite as well as a novel as Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Virgin Soil’s socio-political relevance makes up for this lack.
His depiction of these young radicals’ often secretive ways (passwords, aliases, etc.) at a time when open opposition to the Czarist regime is repressed is often humorous:
Ostrodumov remained motionless for a time, then he looked around, stood up, bent down, turned up one of the legs of his trousers, and carefully pulled a piece of blue paper out of his high boot, blew at it for some reason or another, and handed it to Nezhdanov. The latter took the piece of paper, unfolded it, read it carefully, and passed it on to Mashurina. She stood up, also read it, and handed it back to Nezhdanov, although Paklin had extended his hand for it. Nezhdanov shrugged his shoulders and gave the secret letter to Paklin. The latter scanned the paper in his turn, pressed his lips together significantly, and laid it solemnly on the table. Ostrodumov took it, lit a large match, which exhaled a strong odour of sulphur, lifted the paper high above his head, as if showing it to all present, set fire to it, and, regardless of his fingers, put the ashes into the stove. No one moved or pronounced a word during this proceeding; all had their eyes fixed on the floor. Ostrodumov looked concentrated and business-like, Nezhdanov furious, Paklin intense, and Mashurina as if she were present at holy mass. p. 18-19
You cannot but laugh as Turgenev writes about the sometimes ridiculous way these young radicals’ spontaneous sojourn to the countryside to “go to the people” garbed in folksy attires. Instead of convincing the peasants of their cause, many were turned over to the police by the suspicious peasants.
“Of course I did, as much as I could. And then I’ve discovered that absolutely everyone you come across is discontented, only no one cares to find out the remedy for this discontent. I made a very poor show at propaganda, only succeeded in leaving a couple of pamphlets in a room and shoving a third into a cart. What may come of them the Lord only knows! I ran across four men whom I offered some pamphlets. The first asked if it was a religious book and refused to take it; the second could not read, but took it home to his children for the sake of the picture on the cover; the third seemed hopeful at first, but ended by abusing me soundly and also not taking it; the fourth took a little book, thanked me very much, but I doubt if he understood a single word I said to him. Besides that, a dog bit my leg, a peasant woman threatened me with a poker from the door of her hut, shouting, ‘Ugh! you pig! You Moscow rascals! There’s no end to you!’ and then a soldier shouted after me, ‘Hi, there! We’ll make mince-meat of you!’ and he got drunk at my expense!” p.239
Virgin Soil’s publication was Turgenev’s most powerful refutation of his critics. Charlotte Hobson writes in the Introduction to the New York Review Books edition of the novel:
Turgenev was vindicated by a spectacular case of life following art. In February 1877, less than a month after the publication of Virgin Soil, the Trial of the Fifty began. Russian society crowded to see a group of ﬁfty revolutionaries tried for spreading propaganda in Moscow factories. They’d expected to ﬁnd the seedy, ill-educated types that they’d read about in the press; instead they found intelligent, high-minded young people, “taken away and destroyed for no greater crime than being true to their convictions,” as one of the accused remarked. An eyewitness reported, “Many were saying, ‘They are saints,’ ‘These are apostolic times.’”
More prophetic is Turgenev’s prediction that “in twenty or thirty years your landed gentry won’t be here…” Indeed, forty years after the Virgin Soil’s publication in 1877, the Great October Revolution of 1917 swept away the Czar and the old nobility along with the repressive old order. ■