In 2020, we have boomers vs. millennials, at least according to every other clickbait article and meme on the internet (not to mention my uncle Marv’s neverending Facebook posts). In mid 19th century Russia however, it was liberals vs. nihilists. And so it seems that while philosophies and descriptors vary, the schism between generations remains evergreen, immune to time and place. Indeed, while reading Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, first published in 1862 and one of the first “modern” Russian novels, all I could think was “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
An elegant melodrama, Fathers and Sons is in short the story of beloved son Arkady’s return to his father’s estate. To the discomfort of lords and serfs alike, Arkady has brought along charismatic classmate Bazarov, a med student and nihilist with little respect for the sunsetting liberalism exemplified by Arkady’s father, Nikolai, and uncle, Pavel.
Wisely, Turgenev does not take sides: neither liberal nor nihilist are portrayed as necessarily right or wrong. Still, line after line had me slapping my knee, proclaiming to nobody in particular that the ineffectual Nikolai and pretentious Pavel are just like the 2020 boomers who still want praise for their Obama votes, or that the patronizing, contemptuous Bazarov might as well be today’s MAGA hatter or Bernie broseph. Don’t like that interpretation? That’s ok! If you read Fathers and Sons you will find your own parallels. Therein lies the beauty of Turgenev’s 150-something year old masterpiece.
(Side note: There are many translations of Fathers and Sons, sometimes known as Fathers and Children. I read the translation from Constance Garnett, a fascinating English woman who pretty much brought Russian literature to the West. Her complicated legacy is sorely overdue for a feminist reappraisal, but that is a discussion for another time.)