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Nihilism in Russian Literature

Written by eastern writer on Monday, January 04, 2010

Fathers and Sons and Crime and Punishment are two novels that deal with similar issues as well as having what might be considered as parallel characters between the two novels. Both of these great pieces of Russian literature focus on what was a big issue in Russian society during the time they were written, nihilism. Webster defines nihilism as "A doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility". This definition fits our situation of 19th century Russia quite well, for it shows the conflict between the younger (those rebelling) and older generations (the authority).

The main characters in both novels, Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, are nihilists, and both have close friends who adhere more loosely to these ideals of nihilism. There are, however, some distinct differences in the characters that display themselves over time throughout the novels. We see that Raskolnikov acts out his nihilism; he respects no authority and even commits a double murder to act out his ideals. Bazarov, however, seems to only preach about nihilism and even seems to question himself as the story progresses. These differences in personality traits become interesting once we also begin to compare the living situations, the environments, of these different characters.

In Fathers and Sons, Bazarov and Arkady live in manors with large estates that are taken care of by peasants. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov and Razumikhin live in small apartments in St. Petersburg. After examining these differences in characters and their environments, we can begin to analyze what these differences actually mean, that is what the authors are trying to say through them.

To understand the characters in Turgenev and Dostoevsky's great novels we need to not only understand the persons themselves but their environments as well, for their living spaces reflect and create much of their character. Turgenev's novel, Fathers and Sons, takes place in rural Russia, on large manors such as Arkady's Marino. The open spaces lend themselves for a unique experience, much different from that of the city, especially one such as St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg is as Dostoevsky says, "the most artificial city in the world". Peter the great ordered it to be constructed after conquering the land it was built on. Many of Russia's resources were spent constructing the city, and it was even forbidden for stone buildings to be created outside of St. Petersburg while it was being built so that all the stonemasons and serfs would work to build St. Petersburg instead of other things. The building itself was very tricky as well, for St. Petersburg lies right on the water in what is essentially a swamp. It is estimated that around thirty thousand people died in the creation of the city.

These details may seem trivial, but by examining them closely and learning about how St. Petersburg was built, we can begin to see the mood that it exudes - the city's personality. This is important because it was not by chance that Dostoevsky chose to use this particular city as the
setting for Crime and Punishment. The city itself creates a stuffy, suffocating sense of claustrophobia that can be felt throughout the story. Add to the general dirtiness of the city the fact that the main character, Raskolnikov lives in a bad part of the city in a tiny apartment that is constantly referred to as a "closet" and you can understand the horrible living conditions that Raskolnikov deals with every day. These conditions contribute to Raskolnikov's "illness" his sense of despair and his nihilism. Raskolnikov seems to be fundamentally different than Bazarov in this way, for Bazarov managed to be a nihilist despite living in relatively good conditions. Raskolnikov's seems to characterize a true, bred from the earth, nihilism that began only when society had pushed Raskolnikov down into the depths of poverty and despair. It is very interesting to look at how Dostoevsky characterizes Raskolnikov's nihilism, for he repeatedly refers to it as is an "illness". (quote) This treatment of Raskolnikov's nihilism paints is as a product of the environment, a reaction to inhumane living conditions. Therefore it can be seen as a true nihilism with just cause behind it, yet it is in the way that this kind of thinking unfolds itself for Raskolnikov through Crime and Punishment that will tell us Dostoevsky's take on this intellectual trend of his time. (discuss if raskolnikov is a real nihilist or just rebelling against circumstances)

Bazarov's conditions are quite different from Raskolnikov's, however, for he grew up in a more rural area of Russia and in a manor instead of an apartment. Instead of having a tiny one room "closet" for all his needs, such as Raskolnikov has, Bazarov's family has an entire manor and even peasants under him that work on the manor. Rural Russia proves to be quite the opposite setting as St. Petersburg as we can see when Arkady has a revelation upon seeing the beautiful landscape and forgets his problems. (quote). At face value it seems very strange that these two similar characters could come from such different environments, but it is only in closer inspection of Bazarov that we can see that they are not necessarily so similar.

Bazarov preaches nihilism to anyone who is there to listen, but never seems to act on his ideals, only talk. This inaction could quite feasibly be connected to the better than average living conditions that Bazarov benefited from. Growing up on a manor with peasants instills a certain mindset of superiority and a sort of managerial leadership - the notion that you can tell people what to do, or what to think in Bazarov's case, and they will do it. After learning of the movement of nihilism in school, it seems as if Bazarov has taken it upon himself to force it onto other people in this way even though he himself is not fully immersed in its ideals. We can see Bazarov's faith in nihilism begin to dwindle as he falls in love with Madame Odintsova and is confronted with a real situation in which nihilism should be applied.

(more info)

Due to the environment which fostered his nihilism, he is unable to follow through with its ideals and succumbs to the forces of love. Comparing this to how Raskolnikov treats a situation in which he can test his nihilistic beliefs and ends up committing a double murder, we can see the difference in character between these two despite their common belief system. Having studied Turgenevs treatment of Bazarov's nihilism through the novel we can now deduce how he, Turgenev, feels about this interesting social movement of his time.

Since Bazarov and Raskolnikov are characters with similar beliefs, by examining how they are treated throughout their respective stories, we can learn a great deal about what the authors' opinions were on these beliefs. Turgenev's character, Bazarov, follows through with the motions of
nihilism but does not seem to completely accept the tenets of this idealism, for he does not act out his belief. As Nietzsche states, nihilism is not just the lack of respect for authority, but it is the act of destroying authority and deconstructing society's values. Although Bazarov does not follow this course of action, it is clear that he does believe in the values (or lack of values) associated with nihilism. From this, one might say that Turgenev is attacking nihilism with this novel, showing how it is a set of values that is easy to preach but impossible to maintain in action, yet Arkady's relationship with Bazarov makes this a much harder interpretation to accept. Arkady idolizes Bazarov, considering him a great influential man. (quote). This other character's notion of Bazarov can show us something of what Turgenev is thinking, and perhaps is why Turgenev's novel was not received well from either the revolutionary (nihilist) group or the conservative group. It is hard to tell just exactly what Turgenev was saying, for he seems to straddle the issue here by presenting these contrasting views. (elaborate)

Dostoevsky, however, is quite clear in how he treats the nihilist movement. Raskolnikov's nihilism is more pure in form, more rooted in reality and experience. Since Raskolnikov is able to pass his test of his values (he commits a double murder instead of falling in love like Bazarov) we can tell that he is a true nihilist. From Dostoevsky's interpretation, this seems to only be possible if you are one of the downtrodden, living in despicable conditions such as Raskolnikov. Therefore, nihilism becomes a reaction, an "illness" associated with the poor and underprivileged. This "illness" causes one to be a delinquent in society, to cause trouble and commit heinous acts. It is therefore delegitimized and associated as a sort of hoodlumism that can attain no useful product. From this analysis we can see that Dostoevsky is blatantly conservative and that Crime and Punishment is an assault on this nihilist intellectual movement of his time. Therefore by analyzing the different environments of Bazarov and Raskolnikov and comparing them with their form of nihilism we learn that Turgenev is unable to take a distinct position on this matter, instead straddling the line in an attempt to please both sides yet ends up angering them, while Dostoevsky unabashedly criticizes nihilism and preaches his own conservative politics.

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