Can Landscape Writing Change the World? The Human Geography of Ivan Turgenev’s Sketches

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Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (or, less commonly, A Sportsman’s Sketches) is a gargantuan presence in Russian nature writing. True, it rarely enjoys the acclaim of Turgenev’s later family saga novel Fathers and Sons or pithy novellas like First Love, but it’s up there with some of the greatest pieces of landscape writing of the century: from influencing Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels to becoming a cornerstone of the Russian Realist movement, it’s a giant of the art form that’s impossible to overlook in terms of craft or resonance. Sketches is the offbeat Russianist’s choice, the one for which there’s likely a dog-eared paperback in the worn satchel of a Cambridge postgraduate: newly-annotated, bubble-spined, never to be opened past the end of Michelmas term. 

Half poetry and (perhaps) half polemic, the work takes the form of a series of ruminations on the Russian rural landscape as a travelling huntsman journeys through its meadows and villages, forests and tundra, reflecting on the people he meets and their livelihoods as the urban face of Russia rapidly modernises. There’s an air of melancholy to many of the pieces as the narrator stumbles through the guts of the caucuses, rustic and ramshackle, lonely and unforgiving underfoot and brutal in their weathers–but Turgenev’s sketches aren’t about the kind of rural, nostalgic nationalism that characterises a large portion of nature writing from the nineteenth century. What looms large in these writings is a peculiar conjunction of social awareness and legitimate affection for the landscape, characterised by its focus on the Russian rural peasantry and their ways of living and dying. 

The human population of these short narratives are predominantly serfs–the ‘unfree’ peasants living prior to the Russian revolution, feudally bound to the landowning classes and often living in abject poverty with little hope of mobility or respite. Sketches was written at the very end of the period of serfdom, published between 1847 and 1851 and, upon release, promptly banned (and Turgenev exiled) for its unflinching attitude to the way in which these indentured families had struggled to sustain themselves for generations, living poorly and in poverty. As the titular hunter takes an extended trip through the provinces, he listens to their stories, their mythologies and their histories, which often recount the same tale: the land is hard, life is short, and both are governed by ritual and ghosts. But it is in this deep and curious relationship with the rural environment’s human geography that Turgenev’s unique take on the land itself becomes outwardly apparent. 

Sketches is, admittedly, beautiful: amidst the melancholy and the mire there are passages of sweeping, lyrical description that would put even Nan Shepherd to shame, ferocious in their use of colour and movement and powerfully tangible even in translation.

“It was a beautiful July day, one of those days which occur only when the weather has been unchanged for a long time. From early morning the sky is clear and the sunrise does not so much flare up like a fire as spread like a mild pinkness. […] Towards evening these clouds disappear. The last of them, darkling and vague as smoke, lie down in rosy mistiness before the sinking sun. At the point where the sun has set just as calmly as it rose into the sky, a crimson glow lingers for a short time over the darkened earth, and, softly winking, the evening star burns upon the glow like a carefully carried candle. On such days all colours are softened, bright without being gaudy; everything bears the mark of some poignant timidity.”

‘Bezhin Lea’, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album.

Yet these soaring depictions of Russia’s wooded landscape take on a new significance when we look at the ways in which Turgenev describes the people he meets. We find them often depicted in similarly zealous fashion, but more importantly, they often occupy a position between human and landscape: in the sketch Death, Turgenev’s hunter encounters a dying woodland, crippled by the unusually devastating winter of 1840. The trees are being felled by a workforce of serfs as their master tries to reap what profit he can from the brittle remains, and during the course of the day, a serf by the name of Maxim is crushed by the branches of a falling ash tree that had rotted the previous season. The serf hovers between life and death as a doctor is called. 

The mode of Maxim’s death is significant: like the oak and ash trees, he too falls victim to the merciless winter that choked out all foliage and greenery. Like the trees slowly rotting from the inside, he dies neither swiftly nor easily, left shattered and struck by the weight of the weather that ruined the woodland. His final breath is even described in animal terms, again as part of the landscape (“Trembling all over, like a shot bird”), laid out in a wagon in a manner similar to that of the great timber trunks that are to be carted away and sold. It is also perhaps significant that he dies in the service of his squire’s profit: although steering far clear of the ambitions of contemporary works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (to which Death has on occasion been compared), Turgenev’s position on serfdom is plain. 

The serfdom is portrayed as part of the landscape just as it is part of the region’s human geography, affected by the same winds and weathers, and the serfs die in the same way as a bird or beast might: indeed, later in Death, a dying serf is bound in a sheep’s skin as he awaits the inevitable. By contrast, a dying Russian landowner passes from the world fumbling under her pillow for a rouble to respectably pay the priest for reading her last rites. There is a parallelism heavy in the text, a binary that implies the serfdom die as part of the landscape whilst the gentry remain concerned with finance and office. It’s an interesting position in that the peasantry appear much more connected with the land than do the members of society who actually own it, and through this subversion Turgenev delves into the notion of what defines land and landscape.

The same natural imagery is used to describe peasant figures throughout the entirety of Sketches: in one titled Meeting we are party to a meeting between a serf girl “with eyes like a doe” and a pompous valet dressed in gaudy finery. The girl stands within a wooded dell, clutching a bouquet of flowers and listing their uses (“Field tansies, and they’re good for calves. And these are marigolds, they help against scrofula”) as the valet announces he’s leaving, thereby spurning her affections. She is of the landscape–described as animal, rooted in the wooded hollow and brimming with an interior knowledge of the natural landscape that her companion doesn’t possess. He is other, external to the dell, standing out in the trappings of his finery and intent on exiting the landscape. 

It’s easy to discern some manner of disdain in Turgenev’s equation of serfdom and the landscape itself. In reducing the serf to something animal, something flora or fauna, there is an act of dehumanisation well-known in narratives of servitude: to reduce the labourer, the indentured, the slave to something less than human for the purposes of moral distancing. Turgenev’s approach is different. Although his characters are of the landscape, characterised by the same adjectives and subject to the same fears, winds and weathers, they are not lessened by the association. 

In a later sketch, Singers, the huntsman-narrator happens upon a run-down tavern in the desolate village of Kolotovka, which hovers at the edge of a perilous ravine. He enters to find two locals about to enter into a singing competition: Barrowboy and Yashka. Barrowboy is technically skilled and sings well, while Yashka–a young man who, despite his noble bearing, is presented as ashen and sickly–sings with less polish but greater passion, stilling the congregation and evoking thoughts of their national landscape. 

“The honest, fiery soul of Russia resounded and breathed through it and quite simply seized us by the heart, plucked directly at our Russian heart-strings. […] He sang, and in every sound his voice made there breathed something familiar as our birth-right and so vast no eye could encompass it, just as if the Russian steppe were being unrolled before us, stretching away into an endless distance.”

Singers, ‘Sketches from a Hunter’s Album”. 

Turgenev’s inference is plain: although Yashka is little to look at, his passionate song is the very personification of the Russia of the nineteenth-century popular imagination. Although he is poor, sickly-looking and likely a labourer or factory worker, he represents the epithets commonly attached to their homeland: determination, spark, the honest, fiery soul of Russia. Found in a tavern that threatens with every gust of wind to fall into the depths of a ravine, Yashka’s song resonates far beyond the confines of the tumbledown village. Russia is the tavern teetering upon the precipice of so many things: modernity, Westernisation and indeed an oscillating relationship with serfdom, which appeared one day on the brink of abolition and the next at its continuation. To Turgenev, Yashka and his song are the soul of the country, humble and hobbled by his station but representative of the zeal and history of the Russia he imagines, and within the dilapidated building Yashka too is at risk of the impending collapse. 

Singers evokes several emotions: a wistfulness for Romantic nationhood, a sense of affection for the indentured, even a grim consideration of what it is like to labour under the yoke of serfdom–but most importantly, Turgenev raises a question. The work asks, in a deceptively whimsical way, that if these indentured peoples are truly where the honest, fiery soul of the land resides, then what does that make of the land itself? 

Sketches forces the gentry from their horses and carriages. It is an exercise not only in nature writing and navigating the backwaters of a sometimes impassable Russian landscape, but also in underpinning the notion of nation with a sense of human geography. Examining as it does the relationship between those who own the land and those who embody it, the collection gained Turgenev enemies in the country and cities alike–yet Sketches was also cited by Tsar Alexander II as an instrumental part of his burgeoning understanding of the country he inherited, and he remarked to Turgenev himself that it played a large role in the domestic reforms that led to the eventual emancipation of the serfs. In almost animalising serfdom, breaking it down to its component parts and presenting it as a facet of the natural landscape, Turgenev counterintuitively succeeds in humanising the serfs for swathes of the country that previously spared little thought for the rural poor. This seems a curious, even backhanded way to effect social change, but it also speaks volumes as to the contradictory attitudes and priorities of the nineteenth-century nobility and the cultural focus on nationhood as countries across Europe industrialised in preparation for the clamour of the approaching century. 

One must note that emancipation wasn’t a simple process for Russia: many serfs found that the new regulatory systems post-emancipation permitted little more freedom than they had previously enjoyed. Many found themselves similarly indentured, but this time to communities and villages instead of single landowners and estates. The road out of feudalism was long and arduous, and these shadows of the past eventually became a driving force in the revolution of 1917. 

Sketches might be considered as having helped effect change on a national scale, but national changes are by nature mired in condition and compromise; consequently, in using Sketches as an example of landscape writing’s potential as a force for social good, the collection may fall a little short. As an example of how literature may aid in altering societal perceptions, however, Sketches offers a great scope of commentary on how landscape acts as a force in culture and how its importance in a cultural and even national mindset might be used to prompt transition, growth and an altered perception. Turgenev’s points are plain and well-made, his descriptions wry and fiery, and his characters and peoples are sometimes even heartwarming as they rally against the cold. Sketches is more than a simple harbinger of change; indeed, it’s a study in how displays of humanity evoke a human response–and, in turn, how simple it is for that humanity to have become eroded or obfuscated in the first place.  

About Hannah Parkes Smith

Dr. Hannah Parkes Smith is a writer and journalist from the North of England. She finished her PhD in 2018 at Queen Mary University of London and writes on landscape and culture, poetry 1920-1970 and anything a little bit spooky.

Dr. Hannah Parkes Smith is a writer and journalist from the North of England. She finished her PhD in 2018 at Queen Mary University of London and writes on landscape and culture, poetry 1920-1970 and anything a little bit spooky.

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