…Turgenev’s passion for liberty was already well developed when he entered Moscow Uinversity in 1833. It was a tradition that had come to him, some might say, by heredity: his father’s cousin Nicholas had been a leader of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, in which the cream of Russia’s young aristocrats had rebelled against the emperor Nicholas I, demanding a constitution and other reforms. In exile in Paris, this Turgenov had published a book Russia and the Russians, that was one of the first reasoned attacks on serfdom. There was another source for the fifteen-year-old student’s liberalism- his enthusiasm for America.
As early as 1829, Ivan had started studying English and was soon reading everything he could about the United States. He admired America’s practical, inventive citizenry and its democratic institutions, which seemed to him the best assurance of individual liberty. “In my youth, when I studied at Moscow University,” he said, “my democratic tendencies and my enthusiasm for the United States of America became a byword among my fellow students, who nicknamed me ‘The American ‘ ”
It was not a particularly fortunate choice in the Russia of Nicholas I. It was he who set up the Third Division of His Majesty’s Chancery, the organization that became the Cheka, the watchdog over artist’s and intellectuals. The 1830’s and 1840’s were years of terrible oppression. Intolerant and hysterically fearful of dissent, the government tried to curb it by reducing grants to education, controlling the courts, censoring the press, and flooding the country with spies. As Turgenev wrote, “bribery flourishes; serfdom stands firm as a rock…justice is nonexistent…and informers hiss all around tyou.” It was now that he learned that he must turn to fiction if he was to deal with the issue of serfdom.
Fortunately, the oppression of the regime was tempered by the endemic inefficiency of the Russian bureaucracy. On the night of April 19, 1836, Nicholas’s censor prmitted a performance of Gogol’s The Inspector General. Turgenev was in the Petersburg audience and delighted with the rest in the devastating attack on the government. From that moment Gogol became one of his great heroes. When Dead Souls was published in 1842, its deep moral condemnation of serfdom gave him the direction of his own writing. ( to be continued)…