A Sportsman’s Sketches by Turgenev

As I said in my previous post, I would love to tell you a bit more about Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches. It’s a series of short, separate stories, not about sports (hunting, in this case) but about the narrator’s encounters while out hunting. I read these stories for the first time at university and was immediately sold. They’re such beautiful, humble stories. They have been of literary influence on writers like Tolstoy, Chekhov and Hemingway. Socially they have contributed to the abolition of serfdom* in Russia.

The serfs

The narrator is a landowner with a passion for hunting. During his roams around the countryside he meets all kinds of people, usually serfs belonging to other landowners. He likes to listen to their stories and encourages them to talk. This is how we hear, almost imperceptibly, about their often deplorable circumstances. The serfs don’t purposely tell the narrator this, it is said between the lines, without them realising it. They don’t want to speak badly of their masters. They have reconciled with their fates and simply remark that that is how things were or should be. The sympathy of the narrator is also merely subtly shown, you can feel it for instance when he calls one of the peasants ‘our poor friend’.

Childhood memories

Turgenev wrote the sketches after his childhood experiences at his mother’s estate Spasskoye. His mother was an evil woman. She owned 5000 souls and didn’t leave those 5000 souls any doubt about who was in charge. She abused them, had them deported to Siberia, controlled their private lives, in short, ruled with an iron fist.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

In 1852 the stories are published together. In the same year another book appears that has had an enormous social impact: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both books may not have been the direct cause of the abolition of serfdom / slavery, but they made the public sympathy for the respective causes much bigger. Both books give the slaves a personality, emotions and a face, perhaps for the first time in literary history.

Alexander II

At first the sketches were considered politically dangerous in Russia and Nicholas I banished Turgenev to (by now) his estate Spasskoye. His son Alexander II (tsar from 1855 until 1881) however, appeared to be less narrow minded and lifted the sentence. He liked the stories a lot. In his youth he had made a tour around Russia and saw with his own eyes the sad circumstances under which the serfs often lived. Ever since he was determined to address the issue once he was tsar himself. He understood that it would be better to force it from above than to risk a revolution. In 1861 Alexander II signs the Emancipation Manifest; in 1862 Lincoln signs his Emancipation Proclamation.

Tomb

Turgenev never wanted to be too outspoken politically, a fact that was often held against him by his contemporaries. But he did call the sketches a political manifest later. In any case he was pleased with the result. In 1862 he writes at Goncourt (the Viardot’s country house close to Paris): My only desire for my tomb is that they should engrave upon it what my books accomplished for the emancipation of the serfs. Yes, that’s all I ask.

Alexander II is supposed to have thanked him personally.

*Serfs are usually peasant families that come with a piece of land. Unlike slaves they cannot normally be traded. These Russian peasants belonged to the same families for generations.

If you do only one thing this week… read Raspberry Spring. You can read it online in English or Russian:

http://www.eldritchpress.org/ist/hunt.htm

http://ilibrary.ru/text/1204/p.3/index.html

My booklist:

Empathy and Morality by Heidi L. Maibom

A Sportman’s Sketches by Turgenev

Toergenjev’s Liefde by Daphne Schmelzer

Tolstoy – A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

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