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Turgenev's "Virgin Soil"

It is a popular misconception of Marxist materialism that it can be used to establish a rigidly determining link between economic factors and appearance of, for example, works of literature. This is a vulgar and mechanistic interpretation of what materialism sets out to explain. There is no law of economic inevitability that provides a formula for a determining link between economic factors and the creative ability that appears from time to time uniquely in the personality of one artist. Nevertheless, the social framework provides the possibilities within which the talent of artists expresses itself and comes to fruition.

Moreover, the whole history of literature, its form, and subject matter, can be shown to have a developing relationship with the development of all other aspects of society and ultimately hinges upon economic evolution.  Especially can the work of 19th century Russian writers present a clear and explicit example of how literature can be closely involved in political controversies and can reflect the conflict of social forces which are ultimately of a class nature.

Due to the intolerance and authoritarianism of Russian life, there was a complete absence  of freedom of speech in print. There was no freedom whatsoever for the kind of political pamphleteering that was common in Western Europe. Even so, great controversies did rage and the tradition grew up that viewpoints were expressed through the medium of fiction. Turgenev was one writer who used his art as a vehicle for polemics and pamphleteering, so much so, that after incurring the Tsar's displeasure for his polemical tone, he went into exile in 1855 and spent the remainder of his life in Baden and Paris.

In Turgenev's novel "Virgin Soil", the major forces of Russian 19th century society are shown interlocked in close conflict. The character of Kollomietzev personifies the rigidity of the established landed aristocracy and typifies what Engels described in 1874 as " . . . oriental despotism whose arbitrariness we in the west simply cannot imagine. A despotism which from day to day comes into more glaring contradiction with the views of the enlightened classes and in particular with those of the rapidly developing bourgeoisie."

In drawing the character of Kollomietzev, Turgenev describes the affected arrogant postures of the landed nobility. "The only principle that I acknowledge," remarks Kollomietzev, "is the whip." He holds the toiling masses in complete contempt, regarding than as less than animals, and sees the church and the government as necessarily oppressive instruments of upper class authority. He sees his own social role as that of upholding privilege, and leading a life as remote as possible from useful production. He despises even what he considers to be the vulgarity of the capitalists' interest in factories and commercial profit.

Sipiagin is a man of property who is interested in factory production. In outlook, he is more flexible, liberal minded and free from the stultifying prejudices of his fellow landowner. In the novel he goes to some lengths to win over into his own employment an efficient factory manager. Such competent technical men in Russia were rare.

The novel also includes a collection of revolutionaries who are referred to as "socialists." They are forced to operate underground, as a secret society. Though they are inspired and dedicated, they conduct their conspiracies with a completely false and unrealistic view of Russian social consciousness. One of the revolutionaries insists that soon " . . . there would be nothing to hinder them from making a 'beginning' as the masses refused to wait any longer!"

They cannot come to terms with the general ignorance that precludes any useful point of contact between the peasants and their own well-developed ideas, and cover failure with self-reproach, lamenting their own inadequacies. "He wrote a long letter to his friend Silin about the whole thing, in which he bitterly regretted his incapacity, putting it down to the vile education he had received and his hopelessly aesthetic nature." In the book, the activities of the revolutionaries inevitably end in failure and disillusion.

In his essay "Social Relations in Russia", Engels predicted revolution in the offing, but it must be said that he did not extend its possibilities to the introduction of Socialism. The farthest that he would go was in saying that "  . . . it will destroy at one blow the last, so far intact, reserve of the entire European (landed) reaction," which of course it did.

Turgenev's "Virgin Soil" is about the unresolved nature of 19th century Russian politics, and its stifling effect upon the historical demand for industrialisation. The longer the balance of economic forces that underlay this political indecision continued, the more critical became the dislocation between dynamic European capitalism and the faltering vacillation of Russian society. At the same time the Russian state was inextricably involved in Western Europe, whether it desired it or not, especially about the waging of war.

It is a matter of history now that the discrepant relationship between Russia and Europe reached its critical climax in October 1917. With the decisive shock of the Bolshevik revolution, Russia at last became unreservedly committed to the building of industrial capitalism.

Although the characters in Turgenev's novel represent economic and political forces, except for two who are deliberate caricatures, this does not diminish them as human personalities. As the novel unfolds itself, they act and react with convincing realism. This is history in microcosm, with men, seldom conscious of their historical role, clashing as individuals in specific situations, prejudiced, bigoted, pragmatic, idealistic, but ultimately intelligible within a framework of material struggle and class conflict.

Pieter Lawrence

This article has been compiled from notes taken at a recent discussion at the Bromley Group.