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 


First Love, Acia and Torrents of Spring

Love in Turgenev’s work


Turgenev (1818-1883) remained a bachelor throughout his life. His mother was a cold and fickle woman and his father had married her for her money. As a child Turgenev witnessed the constant arguments between his parents and swore to himself that he would never marry. And he didn’t. Most of his adult life he was in love with Pauline Viardot, a married woman. He adored her, but apparently happily accepted that he could never have her completely (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1R ).

His mother and Pauline keep popping up in his work. Let’s have a look at three of his well known love stories: First Love (1856), Acia (1858) and Torrents of Spring (1872). All three are more or less autobiographical and in all three stories the narrator looks back on an episode in his youth. This construction is know as a ”frame story”, a technique that Turgenev uses a lot, and it gives the reader the feeling that he is reading in Turgenev’s memoirs.


Fear the love of woman; fear that bliss, that poison…

First Love is probably the most famous of the three stories. The 16 years old Volodya is head over heels in love with Zinaïda, a beautiful, cheerful, proud and somewhat cruel girl of 21. She has numerous admirers. In the course of the story she changes and becomes pale and depressed. It turns out that she is having an affair with a married man, not with one of her admirers, but with Volodya’s father! Of course the affair leads to arguments between Volodya’s parents and soon they move to another house. Volodya sees Zinaïda once more: when he is out horse riding with his father, his father suddenly disappears. Volodya follows him and sees him talking to Zinaïda. At some point his father lashes her arm with his whip and the shocked Volodya sees her kiss the red streak that the blow has made. ”That’s love (…)” Volodya concludes, ”that’s passion!”. Shortly afterwards his father dies and a few years later Zinaïda dies as well.

The way in which Zinaïda treats her admirers reminds us of Pauline, who let Turgenev sit down on a paw of a giant polar bear rug lying at her feet; the only paw that wasn’t already occupied.. First Love was Turgenev’s personal favourite and he said that it was loosely based on true events. It's remarkable that Volodya isn't jealous when he finds out that is father has an affair with Zinaîda; he understands that she chose his handsome father.

Happiness has no tomorrow, no yesterday…

Acia is set idyllically in Germany. During his travels there the narrator N.N. meets a Russian brother and sister; Gagin and Acia. They get along well and soon they are spending every day together. N.N. likes Acia, but can’t figure her out; one day she is a simple Russian girl, the next she is reckless and passionate. Gagin tells him that that is the result of her childhood. She is the daughter of his father and a serf woman. Acia falls in love with N.N. and he with her. He decides to propse to her, but when he goes to their house it turns out that they have gone away without saying good-bye to him. He unsuccessfully tries to find them. Looking back the narrator admits that he wasn't sad for very long and that a marriage with such a fickle girl would probably not have been very happy.

Acia’s story has similarities with that of Turgenev’s own daughter with a serf woman; Paulinette. Acia’s dark appearance and tiny figure must have been inspired by Pauline.

I am going where you will be, and will be with you till you drive me away…

Torrents of Spring is also set in Germany. Sanin falls in love with the beautiful, Italian Gemma, who is engaged to a solid German. During a day trip in the mountains Gemma gets insulted by an officer and when her fiancee fails to react, Sanin challenges the officer to a duel. The duel ends with both men missing their shot. When Gemma finds out about the duel, she breaks off her engagement. Not long after Sanin proposes to her himself. In order to raise money for the wedding, he will have to sell his estate in Russia. By chance he meets an old school friend who also happens to be in Germany. This friend suggests that his wife Maria might be interested in buying the estate. Maria, however, makes a bet with her (gay) husband that she will be able to seduce Sanin within a couple of days. She wins the bet in a masterly described scene and instead of returning to Gemma with the money, Sanin follows Maria to Paris. He sends Gemma a lame letter, breaking off the engagement.

Only the beginning of this story really happened, in Frankfurt Turgenev met a pretty Jewish girl and her family, but he saw them only once and the rest of the story he made up. The end, of course, echoes his relationship with Pauline, following her around Europe. Although he was perhaps never Pauline’s lover.



The eternal admirer

Three completely different girls, but three very similar love stories. It all starts in high spirits; the weather is ’magnificent’ and ’unusually good for the time of the year’ and the surroundings are idyllic. The sudden appearance of an exceptionally pretty girl surprises the narrator. He falls in love, but he never gets the girl, and remains a bachelor. Again and again Turgenev describes being in love, but he never dares to let it blossom into a relationship, nor in his stories, nor in real life.


Books read:

Eerste Liefde, Asja and Lentebeken, lovingly published by van Oorschot, parts 2 en 3, translated by Carl en Rebecca Ebeling and Wils Huisman

The Gentle Barbarian – V.S. Pritchett


All three stories are available for reading online:





In de voetsporen van Tolstoj en Toergenjev in Parijs


Ah Parijs.. Als ik dit schrijf kijk ik uit over de ontelbare daken van de stad. Ik ben hier om in de voetsporen te treden van twee grote Russische schrijvers, mijn twee favorieten, Toergenjev en Tolstoj. Vanuit Rusland 150 jaar geleden een reis van zo'n tien dagen, voor mij ruim drie uur met de Thalys vanaf Amsterdam.

Pauline Viardot

Toergenjev is in Parijs komen wonen om dichterbij zijn objet d'amour, Pauline Viardot, te zijn. Hij is sinds 1843 (letterlijk) hopeloos verliefd op haar (zie http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1U), maar zij is de vrouw van zijn goede vriend Louis Viardot. Eerst logeert hij heel lang als 'huisvriend' bij de Viardots, maar in 1847 besluit hij uit fatsoenlijke overwegingen toch maar een eigen appartement in de buurt van de Tuilerieën te huren.


In de tijd dat Tolstoj in Parijs is, 1857, woont Toergenjev met zijn dochter Paulinette op de Rue de Rivoli 208 of 210 (de meeste bronnen zeggen 210) De relatie met Pauline is in die periode niet goed, en dit maakt hem depressief.

Rue de Douai 50

Maar in 1871, hij is inmiddels 53, trekt hij definitief in bij de Viardots, die in de Rue de Douai zijn gaan wonen. Hij heeft vier kamers op de derde verdieping tot zijn beschikking. Hij is dan een soort honorair consul van Rusland in Parijs. Ilja Repin komt een portret van hem schilderen en in voormalig restaurant Magny in de Rue Mazet neemt hij deel aan levendige bijeenkomsten met onder andere de Maupassant, Zola, Flaubert en Georges Sand.

Na zijn dood in 1883 wordt hij in Rusland begraven. Hoewel Ivan niet gelovig is wordt zijn lichaam voordat het per trein terug naar Rusland gaat nog een laatste bewieroking gegeven in de Russische Kathedraal aan de Rue Daru.

Rue de Rivoli

Met Tolstoj is het uiteraard een ander verhaal. Niet de liefde, maar het avontuur trekt hem naar Parijs. Op 9 februari 1857 komt hij aan op het Gare du Nord. Hij wordt ontvangen door Toergenjev en de schrijver Nekrasov, die hij ook goed kent. De eerste nacht slaapt hij in Hôtel Meurice aan de Rue de Rivoli en daarna huurt hij gedurende zes weken een gemeubileerd appartement op nummer 206 in dezelfde straat.


Op de avond van 9 februari neemt Toergenjev hem mee naar een gekostumeerd bal in de Opéra, en voordat hij gaat slapen schrijft Tolstoj in zijn dagboek maar één woord, dat typerend is voor zijn bezoek aan de Franse hoofdstad: “Waanzin.”.

Toergenjev, die de stad uitstekend kent laat alle bezienswaardigheden zien, maar ook zonder hem doet Tolstoj heel, heel veel. Hij woont lezingen bij op de Sorbonne, gaat naar concerten, avondjes bij landgenoten. Het graf van Napoleon vindt hij uiteraard maar een walgelijke vertoning. Via Toergenjev had Tolstoj gemakkelijk gerenommeerde Franse schrijvers kunnen ontmoeten, maar daar heeft hij geen behoefte aan, arrogant als hij is.

De Guillotine

Tolstoj vermaakt zich uitstekend, totdat hij op een ongelukkige dag besluit om een executie met de guillotine bij te wonen. Als hij deze machine persoonlijk in werking ziet, schrikt hij enorm, hij walgt ervan, hij walgt van zichzelf dat hij is gaan kijken, hij walgt van de Fransen, die het uitgevonden hebben, hij kan nachten niet slapen en vertrekt kort daarna uit Parijs.


Ook in Parijs is de relatie tussen Tolstoj en Toergenjev zeer wisselvallig (zie http://wp.me/p5zzbs-21). Uit hun dagboeken en brieven blijkt dat overduidelijk:

Toergenjev, 16 februari – Zijn gemopper en geklaag hebben een vervelend effect op een man als ik, wiens zenuwen toch al overspannen zijn.

Tolstoj, 21 februari – Heb weer een aangename avond doorgebracht met Toergenjev en een fles wijn bij de haard.

Tolstoj, 4 maart – Ben bij Toergenjev langs geweest. Hij is een kille en nutteloze man, maar hij is intelligent en zijn werk is niet aanstootgevend.

Toergenjev, 8 maart – Ik kan geen langdurige vriendschap met Tolstoj onderhouden. Onze meningen zijn te verschillend.

Uitzicht vanaf de Rue de Rivoli op de Tuilerieën
In dit gebouw huurde Tolstoj een appartement
Hij woonde er maar zes weken, maar toch zijn ze dat in Parijs niet vergeten
De deur van nummers 206 en 208 is mooi, de locatie is top, maar van binnen schijnt het niet zo comfortabel geweest te zijn als Tolstoj gewend was

Het huis van de Viardots in de Rue de Douai

Toergenjev woonde op de derde verdieping


De deur waar Toergenjev in de loop der jaren vaak in en uit gelopen is

Ici vécut de 1871 à 1883 l'écrivain Russe Ivan Tourguéniev après de ses amis Louis Viardot, historien d'art et hispaniste, et Pauline Viardot-Garcia, cantatrice et compositeur, soeur de la Malibran

Op de begane grond is nu een (overheerlijke) bakker gevestigd, waar je ook kunt ontbijten

Het uitzicht vanuit de bakker

De Russische Katherdraal in de Rue Daru waar Toergenjev's kist bewierookt werd voordat hij naar Rusland overgebracht werd. Toevallig was er toen ik de foto nam ook een rouwdienst aan de gang.

Toen op 19 februari 1871 de lijfeigenschap in Rusland werd afgeschaft was Toergenjev zo blij (zie http://wp.me/p5zzbs-24) dat hij naar deze kerk ging om het te vieren



—Tous les photos prises par moi-même—

Les livres:

Toergenjev's Liefde van Daphne Schmelzer

Tolstoy en Turgenev, his Life and Times van Henri Troyat


Turgenev’s Eternal Love

Turgenev was in love with the same woman his whole adult life: Pauline Viardot. He saw her for the first time in 1843 in the opera of Saint Petersburg. An extremely gifted and celebrated mezzo-soprano. And the wife of his friend Louis Viardot.

Hopelessly in love

He falls hopelessly and irrevocably for her. The next day he goes to visit her. Pauline is lying on the divan in her salon and points Turgenev towards a polar bear skin on the floor. Three out of four paws are already occupied by admirers, he gets the fourth. And that’s where he’ll stay until he’s an old polar bear himself: at her feet!

Turgenev becomes a faithful friend of the family. He accompanies them through Europe wherever Pauline performs. He stays at their house for such long periods at a time that it becomes embarrassing. He buys a house next to the Viardots’ in Baden Baden. Eventually he even moves in with them, occupying the third floor of their house in the Rue de Douai in Paris. By then Turgenev is like an uncle to the children.



Turgenev in Paris

The three of them form an intellectual household. They have friends like Flaubert, George Sand, Zola, Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky. Pauline gives singing lessons when her voice becomes too aged to perform. Louis Viardot has an extensive art collection that includes a Rembrandt, while Turgenev forms the centre of the Russian community in Paris.

But he will never fall in love with another woman and start a family of his own. There are some small romances, including one with Tolstoy’s younger sister. One of those even results in the birth of daughter Paulette, named after Pauline of course. Even so he will never let it come to a marriage.

Did Turgenev have an affair with Pauline or not?

For Turgenev the ideal woman is a woman he can never get. In a letter to the poet Fet he writes “I only know true happiness when a woman presses her boot into my neck and pushes my face into the mud!”. The sad result of an evil mother. We are not certain if Turgenev ever really had an affair with Pauline, but it is assumed that her fourth child, a boy named Paul, is Turgenev’s.

In 1883 he dies in France in the vicinity of Pauline and her children.
*Photos by me, the second shows the house on the Rue de Douai.

For this piece I read ‘Toergenjev’s Liefde’ by Daphne Schmelzer