How does nihilism challenge the conservative order of nineteenth-century Russia?
Since the uprising of the Decembrists in 1825, Russia had to deal with recurrent insurgence and turmoil due to popular Russian discontent with the prevailing Tsarist system, missing human rights, inequalities, and poverty. During the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856, Russia tried to expand its territory at the expense of the Ottoman Empire; however, the allies France, Great Britain and Piedmont-Sardinia defeated Russia soundly. It became apparent that Russia did not only lack behind in regard to infrastructure and latest technology but it also was not able to carry on its policy of serfdom while aspiring toward economic growth with the help of rapid industrialization.
Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons is set in the middle of these turbulent times with concentration on two major progressive movements, liberals and nihilists, opposing each other. The main protagonists are graduate Arkady Kirsanov and his friend Bazarov, prospective doctor of medicine, who Arkady sees as his mentor and teacher of nihilistic ideas. Both pay a visit to both their parents as well as new acquaintances in the country. In doing so, they encounter alternative, sometimes deprecatory opinions as well as the experience that personal convictions cannot always bear up against emotions and traditional values. Hence, nihilism often challenges the rather conservative, in this context liberal order of nineteenth-century Russia.
According to Merriam-Webster, nihilism is defined as a point of view which rejects traditional values and beliefs, denying “objective ground of [moral] truths”, and the desire of using destruction in order to establish a basis for revolutionary reforms. Arkady explains the term with “a man who does not acknowledge any authorities, or accept faith” (23). His liberal family, employing serfs themselves, are characterized as archaic phenomenon or “old world romantic types” (18), as Bazarov puts it shortly after he and his friend Arkady arrive in Marino, the Kirsanov estate.