Russian Political Allegory Due to his subtle social commentary and familiar stories, during the tumultuous 1850’s, Ivan Turgenev was one of the more respected figures in Russian literature. His story, The District Doctor, focuses on one of the countless middle-class physicians who were split between poor and rich by more than just monetary terms. The doctor comes across as perhaps someone who isn’t terribly intelligent, but is a very earnest man in his intentions and seems slightly uncomfortable talking about this encounter with a particular patient.
He begins to tell the story, explaining how he set out one night to answer a call out in the middle of nowhere. It’s pretty clear from the beginning that the doctor is not at all too pleased with being summoned in the middle of the night to take care of some peasants with terrible roads and most likely a wretchedly primitive house, but unfortunately, he must go as he is poor and has to take anything he can get. Overall, he seems like a pretty negative kind of guy with his numerous self-depreciating moments and frequent apologies.
At last, he arrives at the house to find that the family has been waiting for him. He discovers what is a classic archetype for many Romantic era love stories, the three sisters. The oldest has come down with a nasty case of the fever while the two younger siblings and their widowed mother are trying desperately to keep her alive. Throughout parts of the story, Turgenev delivers a strong but subtle message; life in the “old” Russia may seem to be nasty, brutish, and short, but what it all comes down to is that Western Culture has made these people forget their roots and is ultimately a bad influence.
Though Turgenev’s disdain of the serf system is consistent, he clearly values his Russian heritage over the new regime of westerners. His main way of portraying this is through the depiction of the two love interests in the doctor’s life; the peasant girl Aleksandra and his more recent wife, Akulina, the merchant’s daughter. Aleksandra is young and beautiful. While she is presumably uneducated, she is eloquent, and she seems like the perfect woman for him, however, she is dying of fever, and there’s not much he can do about that.
Near the end, he reveals his feelings for her and vice versa, but just as soon as their relationship begins, it ends. His new wife, Akulina, the affluent merchant’s daughter who symbolizes western influences with her lavish lifestyle and lackadaisical attitude. He also makes sure to include that he received seven-thousand for her dowry, perhaps offering a look as to why a typical Russian would choose western living. It seems as though this whole time, Turgenev had been advocating the Slav lifestyle, but he does seem to understand that it is dying.
He also understands the appeal to living as a westerner; the simple, easy lives they lead are very much preferable to the lousy conditions the peasants of Russia live in. Turgenev is also a social commentator. His observations about the class-structure in Russia are subtle, but offer an insight into his political persuasions. Like many Russian intellectuals, Turgenev was vehemently opposed to serfdom. He wrote for the abolition of the serfs and thought that Russia would be a better place if they were free.
This paints him as a very liberal person during a time of extreme political confusion in Russia. As for the gentry, Turgenev was critical of them as well. He associated them with the western world which he depicted (if only for a moment) as lazy, ill-tempered, and money hungry. It seems as though he favors the middle class, the everyday workers who, for all their flaws, get the job done and make an honest living. His main character, Dr. Ivanich, although he is a doctor, still earns a very modest wage.
However, he is shown as being a good man with high moral values and a deeply rooted sense of himself. These three classes, especially the very rich and very poor, seem to be at a crossroads: the rich want to westernize while the poor wish to stay Slavs. Russia’s problem is that it’s people are nowhere close to being united. While Turgenev never seems to give an indication of what is to be done about this problem, history tells us that many thought the answer to the solution was Communism. If the classes are fighting, eliminate the classes.
The logic is sound enough, unfortunately for the Russian people, the execution of Communism is botched horribly. Another way to create a sense of unity would be through Nationalism and instilling a sense of pride within the people. This type of thinking works occasionally, though only during times of great crisis. However, it does seem possible that in portraying his main character longing for a serf but ending up with a member of the aristocracy that he is surrendering to its hold over the country despite what his heart is telling him to do.
It’s very clear that Turgenev prefers the middle class over the other two, but given a choice between Slav and westerner, he reluctantly picks the luxurious life of the westerner. Not necessarily because he wants to either, perhaps he just believes that siding with the westerners will be beneficial to him in the long run. Russian politics was immensely complex and complicated back in Turgenev’s time; there are literally hundreds of ways that this could be interpreted. That’s what makes this special though.
There are just so many different ways to see what Turgenev is saying and putting a personal take on it. Ivan Serygeyevic Turgenev was a writer, a political analyst, and a social commentator, but really, who says those three are mutually exclusive? He is able to put the reader in the life of a character that he can almost always identify with and weave a story which could be totally familiar. For these reasons, and others like them, he was regarded as one of the greatest writers of the time.