Turgenev’s Smoke


In its own time a political novel, in our time a love story.

Smoke was first published in 1867 in the Russian Messenger, the famous literary magazine in which Crime and Punishment and War and Peace were also published. The political message of the novella made it very controversial at the time. Its pro western sentiment was perceived as being anti Russian, and the satirical depiction of the Russian aristocracy in Baden Baden was not appreciated by that same aristocracy either; after publication Turgenev received considerably less dinner invitations.

Social responsibilities

It was the ‘job’ of the nineteenth century Russian realist writer to address social and political issues, and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev succeeded extremely well in conveying both their message and writing a great story around it. It is thanks to that, that we can nowadays still enjoy their works, whether or not we have a background knowledge of Russian history.

A Love Story

When we leave the political message out of Smoke, we are left with a love story. A typical Turgenev love story with autobiographical elements. The novella takes place in Baden Baden in Germany. Baden Baden was a popular destination for the Russian aristocracy at the time. Dostoevsky too visited it several times, once with his young bride Anna. At the time he was still addicted to gambling and he gambled away everything they owned in the casinos of Baden Baden, down to the wedding rings.

Turgenev was no gambler; he tried his best his whole life to take as few risks as he possibly could. Marriage comes with risks. If it’s a happy marriage, there’ll be no more inspiration for writing. If it’s a bad marriage, there’ll be inspiration, but whether it’ll be worth it remains to be seen. And actually, he writes to his friend Leontiev, he doesn’t understand how a young girl can evoke passion in a man. A married woman is much more interesting, because of her experience.


Turgenev was in love with the same married woman his whole life: Pauline Viardot. Pauline was a celebrated singer, and when he saw her perform in 1843 in St Petersburg, he was sold for life. When her career took her to Baden Baden, Turgenev followed and even moved into the house next-door to the Viardots. To love and follow a married woman may sound extreme, but for Turgenev it was a safe choice. She would never leave her husband and it doesn’t seem as if Turgenev would have wanted her to. He was happy with every scrap that she threw at him.


In 1854 he was temporarily back in Russia and during the summer he met his remote cousin Olga. She was eighteen and he was thirty-six. A romance blossomed and for a while it looked like he was going to get married. But when it came down to it, he didn’t choose domestic happiness, but instead, as he described it in a letter to countess Lambert, a gypsy existence abroad, following Pauline wherever she goes, and that shall be his fate. Fate, he said, was invented by weak characters, so that they would not have to take responsibility for the way their lives turned out. 

Ménage à Trois

In Smoke the protagonist Litvinov is in Baden Baden to meet up with his fiancé Olga and travel back to Russia with her. While he is waiting for her to arrive, he unexpectedly meets his first love, Irina. Ten years ago the two of them were going to get married, but Irina broke with him when she had the opportunity to get into the highest social circles in St Petersburg through a wealthy relative. Now she is married to some important person. After a few meetings their old love blossoms up again and they have an affair.

Irina tells him she is willing to give up her luxury life for him, and when the sweet, good and wise Olga finally arrives in Baden Baden, Litvinov breaks off the engagement. Then he receives a letter from Irina: she is not going to leave her husband after all and offers Litvinov the opportunity to become her lover. Litvinov does something that Turgenev never did: he thanks for the honour and returns to Russia alone. In the epilogue Turgenev writes that Litvinov did meet Olga again some years later and that she forgave him, suggesting that they may have gotten married.

What if…

Turgenev was not unhappy in his strange relationship with Pauline, but here he appears to have been thinking “what if…” Politics may be controversial, love is universal.


Text en photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Smoke – Turgenjev 

Turgenev, His Life and Times – Schapiro

Toergenjev’s Liefde – Schmeltzer 


30 thoughts on “Turgenev’s Smoke

  1. There is so much emotional energy and complexity in Turgenev’s writing. Compelling and challenging – consider this quote that I found: “All smoke and steam…all seems for ever changing, on all sides new forms, phantoms flying after phantoms, while in reality it is all the same and the same again; everything hurrying, flying towards something, and everything vanishing without a trace, attaining to nothing.” Something to think about! Another wonderful post, Elisabeth.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I enjoy the political aspects of the C19th realists: they always make me think, how might things have turned out differently for millions of people if the Russian aristocracy had paid attention and reformed their political system?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Actually, I’ve read many of his and I’ve found them most in a very sensitive love story. It was a wonderful feeling for me as a romantic teenager 😉😊 great read as always dear Elisabeth ❤❤🙏❤

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you, Dave, for stopping by and for your honest opinion of Turgenev 😀 He was a bit scared of women. But yes, it’s definitely strange to follow a married woman all over Europe. He even lived in the same house as her and her family in Paris. And did not care what people thought of that. Odd…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you so much, Rebecca. I think you understand exactly what I love about Turgenev. The quote says it all, his writing is so visual and beautiful. The quote is from Smoke; when Litvinov returns to Russia alone, he is sitting in the train watching the smoke from the locomotive. It says it all, doesn’t it?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. It does indeed. The symbol of a train powerful because it carries us from place to place and has a definite time table that we must somehow accommodate in our time frame. The most poignant moment comes when you must decide whether or not to step off the train. When I lived in Northern Canada, the only way to our small tiny mining community was by train or plane – there were no roads. Since train travel was much more economical, our family always took the 200 mile stretch on a “ore carrying” train that took 11 hours. I can relate to this moment in “Smoke”. Thank you again, my dear friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That’s a very good question. These three, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev had an outspoken political opinion, and I’d like to think that Turgenev’s Hunters’ Sketches contributed to the abolition of the life ownership in Russia, and that Tolstoy influenced people like Ghandi with his ideas about resistance without violence.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The train is a very powerful symbol, there might be an idea for a blog post there, the train was also an important symbol in Anna Karenina. It’s so interesting to hear about your youth in Canada, within Holland the longest train journey is less than three hours. I remember a family holiday when we took the ‘sleeper’ from London to Edinburgh.
    Always interesting to hear from you, my dear Rebecca!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I can understand that, he can seem a bit boring and too politically correct. Especially after Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. But I always return to him, he has a special place in my heart.. sigh..

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Elisabeth — without studying it, I am certain that Tolstoy must have influenced Ghandi, and many other advocates of pacifism, with his views about non-resistance to evil.. Great post. — Roger

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I was thinking what to pick up next from the Russian classics and after I read your post, I know it should be Smoke. Turgenev never was my favourite. We were reading and analysing Hunter’s sketchers at school and it was a bit boring and blend to my taste. However, I always enjoyed his poems. Perhaps I need to give a second chance to his novels. Thank you for the post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Yes, the smoke from the train is a symbol for the Idealism of the youth, and also the romantic expectations of the protagonist. It’s fleeting.


  13. Such a wonderful article, Elisabeth! Even though I have never read Smoke, I can recognize Turgenev’s style from your words – the wistful longing, melancholy and gentleness. I have read A Nest of The Gentry and my beloved Sportsman’s Sketches. Thank you for bringing back the memories of my youth 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I loved this post! I’ve never returned to Smoke because my EDITION HAS TINY PRINT IN AN IRRITATING FONT. But you do make me want to reread it. I love Baden-Baden. The Russians all seem to go there, don’t they?

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks so much, Kat! I understand you completely, and that means you need a new version 😄 Yes, they did all go to Baden Baden. I haven’t been yet, but it should be interesting to see.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s