Turgenev’s Phantoms


We’ll stay with Turgenev a bit longer, if you don’t mind. One of Turgenev’s best know ghost stories is ‘Phantoms’ (Призраки). It’s an interesting story, and not in the least so because it appears to have been influenced by Gogol. 

Struggles with Dostoevsky

It was published first in 1866 in the first episode of the new literary magazine Epoch that was launched by Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail. As we know Turgenev and Dostoevsky were not the best of friends. Turgenev had sent the story to Dostoevsky when he was in Baden Baden. Dostoevsky, however, was too busy playing roulette and returned the story without having read it. Mikhail told him in a letter that that had been a big mistake, because their magazine was sure to be a succes if they could have a new Turgenev in the first episode. Dostoevsky proceeded to write an apologetic letter to Turgenev and managed to secure Phantoms for the magazine.*

How it came about

From an 1849 letter to Pauline Viardot we know that the inspiration came from a dream that Turgenev had had. In this dream there was a whitish creature claiming to be his brother Anatoli (Turgenev had two brothers: Nikholai and Sergei). They both turned into birds and flew over the ocean. In another letter Turgenev writes that he was looking for a way to connect several landscape sketches that he had written. He combined the flying with the landscapes and came up with a vampire woman to explain the flying.

Short summary

The protagonist is under the spell of a female vampire who calls herself Alice. Alice takes him along on a few of her nightly flights and during the flights she sucks his blood. They fly over Russia, the Isle of Wight, Paris and ancient Rome, some flights go back in history.

Inspired by Gogol?!

The first flight particularly reminded me strongly of the scene in Gogol’s The Viy, where the student is forced to fly by a witch. The setting of the two scenes and the words used to describe them are very similar. Both protagonists are taken on a nightly flight over forests, fields and rivers. The night air is moist and it is quiet. The moons shines and the shadows of the trees are visible from above. Both writers use words like ‘mist’, ‘moonshine’ and ‘shadow’ to emphasise the dreamy atmosphere. Both protagonists hear a strange dream-like sound.


It’s even almost as if Turgenev’s protagonists is thinking of Gogol’s student; Turgenev’s hero apparently is not someone who thinks about the devil. In Gogol’s world the devil is part of daily life. Gogol’s hero is not surprised when the witch tries to possess him; he merely says “Ah! it is a witch!”. He knows what do do and says his prayers and speaks out formulas of exorcism against evil spirits. Turgenev hero, perhaps following Gogol’s hero’s example, also starts to say some prayers. Alice’s grip becomes less tight, but he doesn’t persist and he doesn’t win from Alice.

Pauline Viardot

This story too can be seen in the context of Turgenev’s strange relationship with Pauline Viardot: the female apparition has a foreign face and takes the protagonist all around Europe. The protagonist appears unable and unwilling to get out of her spell. Even if it costs him his life.

Not political enough?

Turgenev himself was not entirely convinced about his story. He worried that it should have a more political message, that is was too fantastic. Of course because it isn’t political, we can still enjoy it today. So let’s do that! It’s a short read, the link can be found here and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

*Dostoevsky: His Life and Work – Konstantin Mochulsky 




20 thoughts on “Turgenev’s Phantoms

  1. What a marvelous beginning to my day. I’m having coffee at Starbucks and noticed several crows gathering outside the window as I was reading Turgenev’s Phantoms. Is this a sign????!!! Several thoughts came to me as I read the strange encounter with Alice. First – “I came for you.” We love to be “chosen” and to think that an apparition came to “me” would be a powerful story. Second, we cannot help being curious. The sane thing to do was NOT to meet Alice. But i’ts like someone telling us not to “go through that door.” Our reaction is that we do want to open the door – what’s behind it? It’s our FOMO reaction (fear of missing out). Travel and flying – we want to be able to easily move around the globe. What better way than somehow we are able to “beam” over. Time travel – who wouldn’t want to go back, but then will we like what we see. And the greatest image – death. Ah, I could go on and on… but now I know how to pronounce Turgenev! I continue to learn.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Is it possible that he was aware of the historical link between the Isle of Wight and the vestiges of Rome, whose rulers could claim descent from both Melusine through the Lusignans and from the great Marozia of the Theophylact dynasty of Rome, called the vampire queen by her enemies and ruler of the senate, and her doomed love Hugh of Arles? It seems to me that Turgenev may be commenting on the tension between Hegelian and reigiuos unfolding of intention through time. So, maybe a political dimension in what seems a fantasy of Freudian death transcendence and the frission of a femme fatalle figure. I read this as a critique of Romantic Idealism.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good morning, Becky! Crows gathering outside the window? I can’t be a coincident;-)
    Absolutely, we are curious and easily tempted, especially when flattered. Turgenev would probably have loved to fly in an airplane. I can just imagine him in first class, sipping champagne and admiring the view from above! And time travel, yes, that would be completely fascinating! Thank you for sharing your thoughts:-)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is fascinating! I would say that it’s possible. I think Turgenev spent three weeks on the Isle of Wight, and it’s likely that he took an interest in the history of the Isle of Wight while he was there. It’s certainly the kind of story that would have caught his attention. Thank you for this additional and fascinating information.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Argh, our man Dostoevsky and his gambling problem! It’s easy to forget just how badly it got out of hand sometimes . . . too busy gambling to read a submission by Turgenev?! No wonder his brother had to step in . . .

    I hadn’t heard of this story before either — thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes, luckily his brother stepped in… Of course, he had also borrowed money from Turgenev and was not able to return it, which made the relationship between the two writers a bit weird. It’s an interesting story, you’ll enjoy it!


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