Andrei Turgenev, aspiring Romantic hero

Andrei Zorin, The Emergence of a hero: a tale of Romantic love in Russia around 1800 (Oxford University Press, 2023), translated by Leo Shtutin.

The Emergence of a hero: a tale of Romantic love in Russia around 1800 discusses the history of Russian emotional culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – an epoch when the court, masonic lodges, and literature were competing for the monopoly on the feelings that an educated and Europeanised Russian was supposed to interiorise and reproduce. Major cultural shifts often manifest themselves in the lives of individuals possessed of a particular sensitivity to the tectonic tremors of their age. Andrei Turgenev (1781–1803) was one of the first Romantic figures in Russian culture, the author of a confessional diary never published in full and a gifted poet.

Turgenev’s identity crystallised during a period when court culture was still a predominant force. Artificially sequestered from its influence during his adolescence and early manhood by dint of his upbringing in a masonic milieu, he was nonetheless exposed to it in the theatre and through interactions with peers. Though he did fall under its spell, he never fully internalised its symbolic models of feeling. His father, an eminent Moscow freemason, taught his son implacable self-exactingness and the habit of subjecting his inner life to careful scrutiny. Equally, however, young Turgenev was disaffected by the order’s institutional discipline and focus on esoteric knowledge.

Unknown artist, portrait of Andrei Turgenev, Vienna, 1802 (Wikipedia Commons).

Instead, he imbibed the emotional patterns developed in early Romantic literature: the works of Rousseau, Sterne, and the authors of Sturm und Drang especially shaped his inner world. The models of feeling he found in his favourite books were for him not so much aesthetic or cultural but rather ones of destiny and life choices. He felt the need to emulate his exemplars not only in terms of his literary output, but also – and far more significantly – in terms of his own personality. His dream was to become a great writer, but he had no doubt that writing in the manner of Rousseau, Goethe, and Schiller would only become possible once he could feel in the manner of Saint-Preux, Werther, and Karl Moor.

As was appropriate for a Romantic hero, Turgenev tried to apply these emotional patterns first and foremost in love – first in his teenage infatuation with famous singer and actress Elizaveta Sandunova; then his hopeless love to Anna Sokovnina who was engaged with his brother Alexander; then in equally hopeless and torturous relations with her sister Ekaterina who fell in love with him; and finally in his affair with a married baroness. Unable to disentangle himself from the web of these relations and deeply dissatisfied with himself, he died at the age of 22. Some circumstances of his enigmatic death suspiciously resemble Wertherian suicide.

Turgenev underwent the same process as the entire early Romantic culture he had assimilated, a culture that transitioned from the cult of enthusiasm, sincerity, and ardour, to a poetry of disillusion and loss, a poetry that railed bitterly against the misconceptions of youth. The emotional matrices supplied by the culture of the eighteenth century could not accommodate the experiences that Turgenev underwent in the opening years of the nineteenth, and he found himself at a loss for how to feel, and at a loss, therefore, for how to live. In the final months of his short life, he committed to his diary a despairing confession:

The grave of Andrei Turgenev at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg (photo by the author).

‘If only I did not exist in this world! If only my heart were not replete with these passions, which give me no peace, and with this ambition, which I am powerless to subdue; if only I were more enterprising […] I conjure visions of the past, yet I did not inhabit it either! I dreamed of the impossible, despised the present and its tedium, and my soul was in a stupor. What shall awaken it? It exists, at present, in a state now of impatient restless expectancy, now of despondency and inaction.’

Having not immersed himself in Chateaubriand, Constant and Byron, he could not understand that the discrepancy between his imagination and reality, his soul’s vacillation between ‘stupor’ and ‘restless expectancy’, was symptomatic not of his failure as an individual but of the advent of a new cultural epoch with a far more flexible emotional regime – one which could accommodate such phenomena as abrupt swings from far-reaching ambition and fervid passion to apathy and inaction; romantic relationships predicated on varying degrees of personal involvedness; sensations of guilt vis-à-vis ‘simple and innocent souls’; disdainful pleasure derived from worldly diversions; and much more besides.

Turgenev soon found the principles and models he cherished too narrow for his individuality. He experimented not so much in his literary work as in his life but was not able to achieve the breakthrough. Who knows what resources he lacked to instigate a potentially redemptive turnaround – time, experience, self-confidence, independence of mind, literary talent? He lived on the cutting edge. And it was on the cutting edge that he died.

– Andrei Zorin

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