Ivan Turgenev: Biography & Books

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the biography and most important works of one of Russia's greatest authors and social commentators of the 19th century, Ivan Turgenev.

Ivan Turgenev

In America today, we can sometimes be faulted for taking our freedom of speech for granted. After all, since the very founding of our country, nearly two and a half centuries ago, all Americans have enjoyed this fundamental right. But that is not, and was not, the case everywhere. In 19th-century Russia, for example, any form of speech deemed subversive to the Russian crown could cause someone to be jailed with little justification.

In this lesson, we'll explore the life and work of an author who once ran afoul of the authorities for his ideas and work: Ivan Turgenev.


Turgenev was born in Oryol in eastern Russia in 1818, to a wealthy landowning family. Turgenev was the second son of a cavalry officer who died while he was young. Turgenev's mother proved to be a domineering presence in his life, and she insisted that he pursue a career in the civil service. This was a traditional occupation reserved for the aristocracy in 19th-century Russia.  

Turgenev was originally educated at home by private tutors, though he also spent time at universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg. His formative education, however, came when Turgenev attended the University of Berlin. There Turgenev became acquainted with liberalism and the philosophers of 19th-century Germany. He was particularly influenced by Georg Hegel's idealism which show through in his work.

After graduation, Turgenev returned to Russia intending to teach, but he instead took a career in the public service, likely at the behest of his mother. Nonetheless, he continued to write and his early short stories, such as Parasha, earned him fame in literary circles. He resigned his post in the public service in 1845, which threw his mother into a rage. She drastically cut the allowance that he received from the family estate, and forced Turgenev to live more fully off his writing.

In 1847, he again left Russia, this time attached to the French singer and actress, Pauline Viardot, with whom Turgenev had an on-again, off-again relationship his entire life. From that point on, Turgenev wandered about Europe, spending time in France, Rome, London, and other places. In 1852, while back in Russia, he was arrested and sentenced to 18 months of house confinement on his family estate after the publication of A Sportsman's Sketches which was considered subversive to the status quo of Russian society.

In the early 1870s, Turgenev bought a house with Viardot in Bougival, near Paris, though he continued his frequent travels around Europe. He died there, of cancer, in 1883. He was buried in St. Petersburg.

Short Stories and Books

Turgenev turned out a prodigious amount of literature, both short stories and books. Many of his works centered on the Russian countryside and the exploitation of the serfs and peasantry by Russia's ruling classes. For example, his first widely popular work, A Sportsman's Sketches was a collection of short stories focused on rural landowners and serfs, pointing out the drawbacks of serfdom and the cruelty some serfs faced at the hands of their landlords.

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