Ancient Russians abroad


January 7, 2015 by AK

If Henry James was the grand master of the Americans Abroad novel, Turgenev probably deserves the first prize in the pre-1917 Russians Abroad nomination. Other Russian majors used that setting, Gogol in Nights on the Villa, Dostoevsky in The Gambler, Leskov in A Passionate Patriot. But there are at least three major works by Turgenev which focus on Russians living or traveling in Central Europe.

First, Asya, a novella published in 1857. Second, Smoke, the 1867 novel I read last year thanks to Erik McDonald. Unfortunately, it got overshadowed by other Russian masterpieces of the 1860s. Third, The Torrents of Spring (1872). Turgenev called it a povest’, that is, a tale or novella, but it is commonly referred to as a novel in English translations. It’s a love story of sorts, narrated by an aging man who had, thirty years earlier, fled the girl he loved for a more mature woman and the more down-to-earth pleasures of her companionship. A sad tale of betrayal and self-betrayal; thankfully, Turgenev was averse to moralizing.

Post-1917, Russians Abroad became a common literary theme for obvious reasons. Take Nabokov’s pre-WWII Russian prose for example.


  1. JCass says:

    One thing I remember from Turgenev is that those Russians abroad would throw drinking parties and smash up their hotel rooms. A bit like an early Led Zeppelin.

    This kind of thing wouldn’t happen in a contemporary British Victorian novel, although it might well have done in the Regency era that preceded it, Jane Austen notwithstanding. For instance, Pierce Egan’s upper-class hooligans Tom and Jerry liked to round off an evening on the town by smashing the windows of respectable citizens.

    • AK says:

      Can’t recall where that Turgenev bit comes from but by his time, merchants had taken over from nobles as notorious revelers and havoc-wreakers. Not for long, though.

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