The Pequod Review:
Ivan Turgenev’s first major work was A Sportsman's Sketches, a collection of 24 short stories primarily describing the rural lives of Russian peasants. The stories are humorous, realistic, and deeply sympathetic to the plight of peasants and other victims of serfdom. It remains a minor miracle that this book was approved for publication by the Soviet censorship office.
The entries are of uncommonly high quality, but the highlights are perhaps “Khor and Kalinych” (in which two peasants are shown to be thrifty and intelligent in diverse ways, unlike their landowners) as well as “Bezhin Lea” and "Meeting" (which features some of Turgenev’s most stunning natural imagery):
I was sitting in a birch wood one autumn, about the middle of September. From early morning there had been occasional drizzle, succeeded from time to time by periods of warm sunny radiance; a season of changeable weather. The sky was either covered with crumbling white clouds or suddenly clear for an instant in a few places, and then, from behind the parted clouds, blue sky would appear, lucid and smiling, like a beautiful eye. I sat and looked around me and listened. The leaves scarcely rustled above my head; by their very noise one could know what time of year it was. It was not the happy, laughing tremolo of spring, not the soft murmuration and long-winded talkativeness of summer, not the shy and chill babblings of late autumn, but a hardly audible dreamy chattering. A faint wind ever so slightly moved through the treetops. The interior of the wood, damp from the rain, was continually changing, depending on whether the sun was shining or whether it was covered by cloud; the interior was either flooded with light, just as if everything in it had suddenly smiled: the delicate trunks of the not-too-numerous birches would suddenly acquire the soft sheen of white silk, the wafer-thin leaves which lay on the ground would suddenly grow multi-colored and burn with crimson and gold, while the beautiful stems of tall curly bracken, already embellished with their autumn coloring which resembles the color of overripe grapes, would stand there shot through with light, endlessly entangling and crisscrossing before one’s eyes; or suddenly one would again be surrounded by a bluish dusk: the bright colors would instantly be extinguished and the birches would all stand there white, without a gleam on them, white as snow that has only just fallen and has not yet been touched by the chilly sparkling rays of the winter sun; and secretively, slyly, thinly drizzling rain would begin to filter and whisper through the wood.
The foliage on the birches was still almost completely green, although it had noticeably faded; only here and there stood a young tree all decked out in red or gold, and one could not help watching how brightly it flared up when the sun’s rays broke, gliding and scintillating, through the myriad network of fine branches only just washed by glittering rain. There was not a single bird to be heard: all had taken cover and fallen silent; only the mocking little voice of the tom-tit tinkled occasionally like a little steel bell.
Before I had stopped in this little birch wood, I had gone with my dog through a grove of tall aspens. I confess that I am not particularly fond of that tree – the aspen – with its pale-mauve trunk and grey-green, metallic foliage which it raises as high as possible and spreads out in the air like a quivering fan; nor do I like the continual flutterings of its round untidy leaves which are so awkwardly attached to their long stalks. It acquires beauty only on certain summer evenings when, rising on high in isolation among low bushy undergrowth, it meets the challenge of the ebbing rays of the sunset and gleams and trembles, suffused from its topmost branches to its roots by a uniform yellow and purple light; or when, on a clear windy day, it is all noisily streaming and babbling against the blue sky, and every leaf, seized by the wind’s ardor, appears to want to tear itself free, fly away and hurry off into the distance. But in general I dislike this tree and therefore, without stopping to rest in the aspen grove, I made my way to the little birch wood, settled myself under a tree whose branches began close to the ground and were able, in consequence, to shelter me from the rain, and, having gazed admiringly at the surrounding view, fell into the kind of untroubled and mild sleep familiar only to hunters.
The book was so persuasive in its illustration of the honor and meaning in the lives of peasants that it was believed to have influenced Czar Alexander II’s decision to emancipate the serfs.