Turgenev as a household name

“The only thing you never turned you hand to // Was teaching English in a boarding school,” wrote Auden in his 1937 Letter to Lord Byron from Iceland. Dmitry Bykov, an influential and remarkably prolific Russian columnist, novelist and poet, teaches Russian literature at one or two Moscow schools. Erik McDonald of XIX век has been listening to Bykov’s discourses on Radio Ekho Moskvy and is wondering (I encourage you to read the whole post):

But would a commentator on the BBC quote Phineas Finn (1867) the way Dmitry Bykov refers to Turgenev’s Smoke (Дым, 1867)?

“Turgenev has one of his characters, Potugin, say ‘if we ceased to exist, the world wouldn’t notice, because we haven’t given it so much as an English pin [the Russian name for a safety pin].’ Of course that’s an exaggeration; it’s said by a negative character. But except for the Sochi Olympics, Russia hasn’t made any powerful contributions to international culture recently…”

Bykov is a Russian man of letters and a teacher of literature so why shouldn’t he be quoting Turgenev? But there’s more to it than Bykov being a literary guy – there’s Turgenev’s slot in the cultural columbarium, or the capsule hotel Kultura.

Turgenev is a household name in Russia because most schoolchildren begin studying Russian literature with his short story Mumu, a sad tale of serfdom, oppression, and silent defiance. It is about Mumu that Russian 10-year-olds write their first literary composition. Things were the same 30+ years ago, when I went to school, and possibly 60 years ago.

Mumu is actually a dog, probably a small spaniel, which ends up forcibly drowned. The story is not so much about the dog as about serfs treated by their masters worse than dogs, and one deaf and mute man who defies his mistress in his own way. The heartless slavemistress who is the story’s anti-hero was based, it is said, on Turgenev’s mother. There’s too much sadness in the tale for children to absorb and, perhaps as a defense mechanism, the dog has evolved into a tragicomical pop culture character.

In the sixth or seventh grade, Russian kids study The Hunting Sketches and a couple of years later move on to Fathers and Sons. All that stuff is studied as thoroughly as is possible at school: kids are required to recite a sizable chunk of Bezhin Lug either by heart or “close to the text”.

I still remember being told by a teacher that there was a landowner called Penochkin (from penochka, “warbler”) somewhere in The Hunting Sketches who enjoyed the sound of a cane hitting peasant bottoms; and by another teacher (a great one), that the first response in the “progressive” press to Fathers and Sons was The Asmodeus of Our Time by Antonovich, Bazarov being the demon Asmodeus, – before Pisarev defended Bazarov as the good guy in his essay The Realists.

Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy do not get the same close reading at school because you cannot assign any major work by either until the kids have grown up a little, and because it’s impossible to study War and Peace in much detail at a regular high school for lack of time. I doubt that most Russian kids leave school having read War and Peace; I’m not even sure about Crime and Punishment.

I have no idea if Trollope has any place at all in the English (let alone Scottish) school curricula. “Trollopian heroines” invite a silly wordplay on “trollop” and “fallopian”. Turgenevskie devushki (Turgenev girls) is a fixed and still relatively common Russian expression although I’ve forgotten what it’s supposed to mean.

As an aside, the Vedomosti columnist and political scientist Yekaterina Shulman, who goes by Catherine Schulmann in the Anglosphere, has wondered what Trollope meant by “b—“. Bedbugs, apparently.


  1. I have no idea if Trollope has any place at all in the English (let alone Scottish) school curricula.

    I doubt it. Trollope’s favourite subjects of Victorian politics and ecclesiastical matters are going to be too difficult for the average schoolkid.

    I only just read Mumu for the first time last month. Despite the depressing plot, it was a refreshing change from trying to improve my Russian by reading the babblings of Alexander Dugin and other members of Putin’s insane clown posse.

  2. There’s no reason Bykov shouldn’t be quoting Turgenev, of course, but he’s hardly the only one. Leonid Radzikhovsky constantly makes witty references to literature on the radio, though I think they often don’t have much to do with the original context of the quotes.

    Aren’t turgenevskie devushki supposed to be strong-willed and independent, but in an elegant and unshocking way? I can’t exactly remember either – I just remember being told there were no good examples of them in Fathers and Sons.

    I already have trouble saying “Trollope” out loud (because of “trollop”), and now I’ll never read him again without thinking of “Fallopian” too.

    Thanks for these posts! I’ve heard a little about literature in the Soviet and Russian school systems, but it had never hit me that Turgenev is taught more and earlier because his famous works are shorter.

    • That is only a working hypothesis. Turgenev has it all – status, brevity, and relevance. The short works by Russian classics I read between 8 and 12 included some great stuff but none measured up to Mumu as the perfect introduction to Russian fiction from the point of view of a socially aware intellectual (not necessarily a Marxist but definitely a narodnik). Chekhov’s Ванька Жуков depicts exploitation of children but not resistance. His Спать хочется has a child murdering a baby. His Kashtanka is a great tale but what’s the moral? Leskov’s Тупейный художник is topical but Leskov has never been properly canonized and he’s so devious. Tolstoy’s After the Ball is also topical but too brutal for 10-year-olds. Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter is near-perfect: not too long and stylistically impeccable, but it’s politically ambivalent. Dubrovsky is more acceptable though. There are also dozens of first-rate stories by second-tier writers – Kuprin, Garshin, Korolenko, Mamin-Sibiryak, Garin-Mikhaloyvsky – but there’s where status enters the picture.

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