Ivan Turgenev and his Birds

Turgenev knew nature very well and certainly knew his birds. Part of the reason for this was that he liked to rise early of a morning and blast them to pieces with guns – and so we kill the things we know so well and love.

The following examples are all from Fathers and Sons (Oxford edition, translated by Richard Freeborn), but the list could be extended considerably by including references from his Sportsman’s Notebook (also published in English under the title Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook.) And I have to admit that the list is not complete – I have omitted the reference to an ornamental bird of paradise found on a lady’s hat.

I particularly like the intervention of a chaffinch deflating the balloon of a declaration of love. Such declarations should be deflated wherever possible.


If it is open to dedicate a post, I dedicate this one to elizabethm. Here is a link to her latest post which takes Turgenev as its subject.


And if you are a native speaker (Hi there, Gerard!)  then this post is also available in Dutch.

1 Chicken

A plump young chicken in motley plumage strutted self-importantly along them, tapping away firmly with its large yellow claws.

2 Dove

A large grey dove flew down on to the road and hurriedly set about drinking from a puddle beside the well. Nikolai Petrovich started watching it and then his ear caught the sound of approaching wheels.

3/4 Skylarks and Rooks

Everywhere skylarks poured out their song in unending, resonant streams. Lapwings cried as they circled above the low-lying meadows or ran about silently among the tufts of grass. Rooks wandered about, darkening beautifully among the soft green of the low spring wheat and disappearing in the rye, which was already beginning to whiten, their heads showing here and there among its smoky waves.

5 Snipe

‘You’ve got a bit of marshland there, by a grove of aspens. That’s where I started up half-a-dozen snipe. You can go and kill them, Arkady.’ ‘You’re not a hunter yourself?’ ‘No.’

6 Long-tailed Siskin

From the ceiling, on a long cord, there hung a cage containing a short-tailed siskin; it ceaselessly chirruped and jumped about and the cage ceaselessly rocked and shook and hemp seeds pattered down on to the floor.

7 Quail

Dunyasha would gladly giggle at him and give him sidelong, significant looks as she ran past him all aflutter like a little quail.

 8 Swallows

Swallows flew high above; the wind had quite died;

9 Nightingale

And now I hope, Arina Vlasevna, having sated your mother’s heart to the full, you’ll think about sating our dear guests because, as you know, even nightingales can’t live on songs alone.’

10 Telling a bird from its flight

‘Have it your way, please,’ responded Vasily Ivanovich with a friendly grimace. ‘I may be put on the shelf now, but I’ve also been about the world a bit and I can tell what a bird is from its flight.

11 Fledgling Hawk

Somewhere high above in the tips of the trees the unceasing screech of a fledgling hawk rang out plaintively.

12 Falcon

‘There’s nothing for it, Vasya! Our son’s cut off from us. He’s a falcon, like a falcon he wanted to come and he flew here, then he wanted away and he flew away. But you and I, we’re just a couple of old mushrooms, we are, stuck in the hollow of a tree, sitting side by side and never moving. Except that I’ll always remain the same for you for ever and ever, just as you will for me.’ Vasily Ivanovich took his hands away from his face and suddenly embraced his wife, his true friend, more tightly even than he’d been used to embrace her in his youth, for she had comforted him in his misery.

13 Sparrows

He held in his hand a half-opened book while she picked out of a basket some last crumbs of white bread and threw them to a small family of sparrows which, with their characteristic cowardly impudence, jumped about twittering at her feet.

 14 Chaffinch 

‘I suppose,’ he began again in a more excited voice, just as a chaffinch in the birch foliage above him launched casually into song, ‘I suppose it’s the duty of any honest man to be entirely candid with those … with those who … with people close to him, I mean … and so I, er, intend …’

15 Jackdaw

‘Goodbye, old mate!’ he said to Arkady when he’d already climbed into the cart and, pointing to a pair of jackdaws sitting side by side on the stable roof, added ‘There’s a lesson for you! Learn from them!’ ‘What’s that mean?’ asked Arkady. ‘What? You can’t be all that poor at natural history! Or have you forgotten that the jackdaw is the most respectable family bird? Let them be your example! Farewell, signor!’

16 A wee grouse hen

Arina Vlasevna was so flustered and ran about the house so much that Vasily Ivanovich compared her to ‘a wee grouse-hen’ and the docked tail of her short blouse actually did give her rather a bird-like look.

17 A Crowing Cock

Everyone had long faces and a strange quiet descended. A noisily crowing cock was removed from the yard and carted off to the village, quite unable to understand why it was being treated in this way.




10 thoughts on “Ivan Turgenev and his Birds

  1. Just liked this post very much, Rod. She was so right about Tolstoy using far too many words. In War & Peace one can only encounter galloping horses and their elegantly dressed lady passengers entering St Petersburg in ornately decorated carriages so many times before it becomes sleep inducing.
    The Dutch section I relished reading too. Language is a funny thing. At fifteen one keeps languages. Below that age, languages seem to get lost when living permanently in a country with a different tongue.

  2. I’m glad you still have the language, Gerard. It’s a good thing in itself, and I read that using the brain in more than one language helps keep dementia at bay in the event it is trying to get a hold in the first place.

    • Oh Rod, keeping dementia at bay is the next battle. I have as yet to put my car- keys in the fridge or start the car with a litre of milk.
      I reckon the Shiraz as good a medicinal treat as using languages. All in moderation.
      How is Australia coming across in YUK?

      • I’m not sure how best to the answer. The migrant question comes up quite often, but mostly because UKIP and others keep promoting ‘an Australian points-based system.’ I have a problem with this because, over the years, we have met many people from Eastern Europe (Latvia, Estonia, Hungary and Poland), and this has been wonderful for us. Would they be here if they had to earn points? I doubt it. Some politicians keep talking is if we need skilled people, which no doubt we do, but several sectors of our economy here would be in serious trouble if all these people left – hotels, restaurants, the health service and so on. And there is definitely a need for seasonal workers on farms. They may not be brain surgeons but they are needed. Returning to Australia . . .

        For me, I am conscious of how much pollution per capita Australia is responsible for and the influence of mining there.

        And I haven’t even mentioned Nick Kyrgios yet.

  3. Hello Rod, I thouroughly enjoyed reading this blog post and I am suitably honoured that you dedicated it to me! Such a great idea, it makes me want to re-read Fathers and Sons. I particularly like how Turgenev attributes human characteristics to birds, a chicken strutting self-importantly, or a dove setting about drinking hurriedly, but also comparing humans to birds, like Arina to a wee grouse-hen ( that makes her sound Scottish in translation). Fantastic. And yes, the chaffinch launching casually into song is another great example of how Turgenev clearly used birds in this novel not only as a natural background, but also symbolically. Thank you!!!

  4. I’m just glad you liked it, Elisabeth, though I’m conscious that it’s not on the same analytical level as yours, which is excellent.

    (I have another post in mind concerning Turgenev, but don’t know when I’ll write it.)

  5. Pingback: Toergenjev’s Vogels | van Poesjkin tot Pasternak

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