The Russian experience has always made for literature both emotionally moving and intellectually stimulating to an extraordinarily high degree. It is no wonder (and certainly no secret) that the masters of Russian literature, particularly from the 19th century, make up so much of the Western canon. And it is precisely the predisposition to universality that obscures the potential oddity of Russian literature’s place in Western culture, given the question of whether Russia is part of the West at all. For a clear lens through which to view this demand, the beguilingly refined works of playwright and novelist Ivan Turgenev provide critique and admiration of both Russian tradition and the values founded in Western Europe’s Age of Reason. His delicate, incisive play, A Month in the Country, which does just this, has found new life in the hands of renowned translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who continue their thirty-odd-volume streak of reminding English readers of the greatness—and relevance—of the best Russian literature. They are joined on this occasion by Richard Nelson, who, in addition to his own large catalogue of plays, produced A Month in the Country at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2012.
A central animating tension in 19th century Russia was the varied response to the 18th -century modernizing reforms of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. These included a move toward constitutionalism and the implementation of a series of ranks in government service, which sought to mitigate the pure nepotism of the aristocracy. These liberal advancements were accompanied by strict censorship, imperial expansion, and an unrelenting grip on the serf system, and so did not grant the kind of freedom we now take as given. But they were nevertheless sufficiently radical—if only in implication—to effectively rend the country’s intellectual life in two.
On one side were the Slavophiles, a diverse range of mystics, writers, religious thinkers, and politicians who, despite their many differences, adhered to the opinion that Russia was a country of unique origin with a self-contained destiny which could only be diluted by Western influence. Most famous now among these were, in their own ways, the novelists Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.
Opposing this view were the zapadniks, or Westernizers, who embraced the reforms and sought a greater identification with the rest of Europe, particularly France, Germany, and England. This way of thinking found favor amongst the upper classes, who enjoyed the elegant dress, amusing opera, and refined sensibility of the West, even if those brash young men interested in the scientific and political Enlightenment upset their affinity for a particularly soft brand of Russian mysticism.
But the Westernizers were not exclusively society women and vulgar scientists. Many were drawn not only to the West’s freedom and prosperity, but also to the vibrancy and depth of its artistic and philosophical traditions. Chief amongst this brand of admirers was Turgenev, many of whose works explore the possible outcomes of Western influence in a style less like that of his fiery compatriots and more like the realism of his friends Flaubert and Henry James.
Born in 1818 to a wealthy family, Turgenev spent his early years studying philosophy, history, and literature in the capitals of Europe. He spent time in the universities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin. He read Hegel, was personally acquainted with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and received early encouragement from Westernizing critic Vissarion Belinsky. During the difficult final years of Nicholas I, Turgenev emigrated to Paris (along with most of Russia’s intelligentsia), where befriended Flaubert. The two shared literary tastes and a disdain for radical politics, and it was this companionship (as well as a hostile Russian readership, exasperating censors, and a life-long affair with opera singer Pauline Viardot) that kept Turgenev in Paris—and away from Russia—for much of his later life.
The reign of Nicolas I was notoriously reactionary, with a special zeal censorship. This created a suffocating environment, with every writer fearing for his life should he say the wrong word. And justifiably so: the young Dostoevsky’s participation in a liberal reading group was enough to have him sentenced to death, though the sentence was famously commuted to four years hard labor at the moment the future novelist stared down the firing range. Turgenev himself was given a month in prison and two years exile on his estate in part for publishing an obituary for Gogol, in part for 1852’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, a collection of short stories which, in addition to influencing virtually every subsequent Russian writer, played a significant role in turning public (that is, aristocratic) opinion against serfdom. With both his idyllic hunting days and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his domineering mother in mind, Turgenev crafted these stories with a remarkable light touch, the themes of degradation and death balanced by pastoral beauty and an almost noble vitality.