Virgin Soil

Author: Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev


FOMISHKA and Fimishka, otherwise Foma Lavrentievitch and Efimia Pavlovna Subotchev, belonged to one of the oldest and purest branches of the Russian nobility, and were considered to be the oldest inhabitants in the town of S. They married when very young and settled, a long time ago, in the little wooden ancestral house at the very end of the town. Time seemed to have stood still for them, and nothing "modern" ever crossed the boundaries of their "oasis." Their means were not great, but their peasants supplied them several times a year with all the live stock and provisions they needed, just as in the days of serfdom, and their bailiff appeared once a year with the rents and a couple of woodcocks, supposed to have been shot in the master’s forests, of which, in reality, not a trace remained. They regaled him with tea at the drawing-room door, made him a present of a sheep-skin cap, a pair of green leather mittens, and sent him away with a blessing.

The Subotchevs’ house was filled with domestics and menials just as in days gone by. The old man-servant Kalliopitch, clad in a jacket of extraordinarily stout cloth with a stand-up collar and small steel buttons, announced, in a sing-song voice, "Dinner is on the table," and stood dozing behind his mistress’s chair as in days of old. The sideboard was under his charge, and so were all the groceries and pickles. To the question, had he not heard of the emancipation, he invariably replied: "How can one take notice of every idle piece of gossip? To be sure the Turks were emancipated, but such a dreadful thing had not happened to him, thank the Lord!" A girl, Pufka, was kept in the house for entertainment, and the old nurse Vassilievna used to come in during dinner with a dark kerchief on her head, and would relate all the news in her deep voice—about Napoleon, about the war of 1812, about Antichrist and white niggers—or else, her chin propped on her hand, with a most woeful expression on her face, she would tell of a dream she had had, explaining what it meant, or perhaps how she had last read her fortune at cards. The Subotchevs’ house was different from all other houses in the town. It was built entirely of oak, with perfectly square windows, the double casements for winter use were never removed all the year round. It contained numerous little ante-rooms, garrets, closets, and box-rooms, little landings with balustrades, little statues on carved wooden pillars, and all kinds of back passages and sculleries. There was a hedge right in front and a garden at the back, in which there was a perfect nest of out-buildings: store rooms and cold-store rooms, barns, cellars and ice-cellars; not that there were many goods stored in them—some of them, in fact, were in an extremely delapidated condition—but they had been there in olden days and were consequently allowed to remain.

The Subotchevs had only two ancient shaggy saddle horses, one of which, called the Immovable, had turned grey from old age. They were harnessed several times a month to an extraordinary carriage, known to the whole town, which bore a faint resemblance to a terrestrial globe with a quarter of it cut away in front, and was upholstered inside with some foreign, yellowish stuff, covered with a pattern of huge dots, looking for all the world like warts. The last yard of this stuff must have been woven in Utrecht or Lyons in the time of the Empress Elisabeth! The Subotchev’s coachman, too, was old—an ancient, ancient old man with a constant smell of tar and cart-oil about him. His beard began just below the eyes, while the eyebrows fell in little cascades to meet it. He was called Perfishka, and was extremely slow in his movements. It took him at least five minutes to take a pinch of snuff, two minutes to fasten the whip in his girdle, and two whole hours to harness the Immovable alone. If when out driving in their carriage the Subotchevs were ever compelled to go the least bit up or down hill, they would become quite terrified, would cling to the straps, and both cry aloud, "Oh Lord.. . give .. the horses . . . the horses . . . the strength of Samson . . . and make us . . . as light as a feather!"

The Subotchevs were regarded by everyone in the town as very eccentric, almost mad, and indeed they too felt that they were not in keeping with modern times. This, however, did not grieve them very much, and they quietly continued to follow the manner of life in which they had been born and bred and married. One custom of that time, however, did not cling to them; from their earliest childhood they had never punished any of their servants. If one of them turned out to be a thief or a drunkard, then they bore with him for a long time, as one bears with bad weather, and when their patience was quite exhausted they would get rid of him by passing him on to someone else. "Let others bear with him a little," they would say. But any such misfortune rarely happened to them, so rarely that it became an epoch in their lives. They would say, for instance, "Oh, it was long ago; it happened when we had that impudent Aldoshka with us," or "When grandfather’s fur cap with the fox’s tail was stolen!" Such caps were still to be found at the Subotchevs’. Another distinguishing characteristic of the old world was missing in them; neither Fomishka nor Fimishka were very religious. Fomishka was even a follower of Voltaire, while Fimishka had a mortal dread of the clergy and believed them to be possessed of the evil eye. "As soon as a priest comes into my house the cream turns sour!" she used to say. They rarely went to church and fasted in the Catholic fashion, that is, ate eggs, butter, and milk. This was known in the town and did not, of course, add to their reputation. But their kindness conquered everybody; and although the Subotchevs were laughed at and called cranks and blessed ones, still they were respected by everyone. No one cared to visit them, however, but they were little concerned about this, too. They were never dull when in each other’s company, were never apart, and never desired any other society.

Neither Fomishka nor Fimishka had ever been ill, and if one or the other ever felt the slightest indisposition they would both drink some concoction made of lime-flower, rub warm oil on their stomachs, or drop hot candle grease on the soles of their feet and the little ailment would soon pass over. They spent their days exactly alike. They got up late, drank chocolate in tiny cups shaped like small mortars (tea, they declared, came into fashion after their time), and sat opposite one another chatting (they were never at a loss for a subject of conversation!), or read out of "Pleasant Recreations", "The World’s Mirror", or "Amides", or turned over the leaves of an old album, bound in red morocco, with gilt edges. This album had once belonged, as the inscription showed, to a certain Madame Barbe de Kabyline. How and why it had come into their possession they did not know. It contained several French and a great many Russian poems and prose extracts, of which the following reflections on Cicero form a fair example—"The disposition in which Cicero undertook the office of quaestor may be gathered from the following: Calling upon the gods to testify to the purity of his sentiments in every rank with which he had hitherto been honoured, he considered himself bound by the most sacred bonds to the fulfilment of this one, and denied himself the indulgence, not only of such pleasures as are forbidden by law, but refrained even from such light amusements which are considered indispensable by all." Below was written, "Composed in Siberia in hunger and cold." An equally good specimen was a poem entitled" Tirsis," which ran like this—

The universe is steeped in calm, The delightful sparkling dew Soothing nature like a balm Gives to her, her life anew. Tersis alone with aching heart, Is torn by sadness and dismay, When dear Aneta doth depart What is there to make him gay?

And the impromptu composition of a certain captain who had visited the place in the year 1790, dated May 6th—

N’er shall I forget thee, Village that to love I’ve grown, But I ever shall regret thee And the hours so quickly flown, Hours which I was honoured in Spending with your owner’s kin, The five dearest days of my life will hold Passed amongst most worthy people, Merry ladies, young and old, And other interesting people.

On the last page of the album, instead of verses, there were various recipes for remedies against stomach troubles, spasms, and worms. The Subotchevs dined exactly at twelve o’clock and only ate old-fashioned dishes: curd fritters, pickled cabbage, soups, fruit jellies, minced chicken with saffron, stews, custards, and honey. They took an after-dinner nap for an hour, not longer, and on waking up would sit opposite one another again, drinking bilberry wine or an effervescent drink called "forty-minds," which nearly always squirted out of the bottle, affording them great amusement, much to the disgust of Kalliopitch, who had to wipe up the mess afterwards. He grumbled at the cook and housekeeper as if they had invented this dreadful drink on purpose. "What pleasure does it give one?" he asked; "it only spoils the furniture." Then the old people again read something, or got the dwarf Pufka to entertain them, or sang oldfashioned duets. Their voices were exactly alike, rather highpitched, not very strong or steady, and somewhat husky, especially after their nap, but not without a certain amount of charm. Or, if need be, they played at cards, always the same old games— cribbage, ecarte, or double-dummy whist. Then the samovar made its appearance. The only concession they made to the spirit of the age was to drink tea in the evening, though they always considered it an indulgence, and were convinced that the nation was deteriorating, owing to the use of this "Chinese herb." On the whole, they refrained from criticising modern times or from exulting their own. They had lived like this all their lives, but that others might live in a different and even better way they were quite willing to admit, so long as they were not compelled to conform to it. At seven o’clock Kalliopitch produced the inevitable supper of cold hash, and at nine the high striped feather-bed received their rotund little bodies in its soft embrace, and a calm, untroubled sleep soon descended upon their eyelids. Everything in the little house became hushed; the little lamp before the icon glowed and glimmered, the funny innocent little pair slept the sound sleep of the just, amidst the fragrant scent of musk and the chirping of the cricket.

To these two odd little people, or poll-parrots as Paklin called them, who were taking care of his sister, he now conducted his friends.

Paklin’s sister was a clever girl with a fairly attractive face. She had wonderfully beautiful eyes, but her unfortunate deformity had completely broken her spirit, deprived her of selfconfidence, joyousness, made her mistrustful and even spiteful. She had been given the unfortunate name of Snandulia, and to Paklin’s request that she should be re-christened Sophia, she replied that it was just as it should be; a hunchback ought to be called Snandulia; so she stuck to her strange name. She was an excellent musician and played the piano very well. "Thanks to my long fingers," she would say, not without a touch of bitterness. "Hunchbacks always have fingers like that."

The visitors came upon Fomishka and Fimishka at the very minute when they had awakened from their afternoon nap and were drinking bilberry wine.

"We are going into the eighteenth century!" Paklin exclaimed as they crossed the threshold of the Subotchevs’ house.

And really they were confronted by the eighteenth century in the very hall, with its low bluish screens, ornamented with black silhouettes cut out of paper, of powdered ladies and gentlemen. Silhouettes, first introduced by Lavater, were much in vogue in the eighties of last century.

The sudden appearance of such a large number of guests—four all at once—produced quite a sensation in the usually quiet house. A hurried sound of feet, both shod and unshod, was heard, several women thrust their heads through the door and instantly drew them back again, someone was pushed, another groaned, a third giggled, someone whispered excitedly, "Be quiet, do!"

At last Kalliopitch made his appearance in his old coat, and opening the drawing-room door announced in a loud voice:

"Sila Samsonitch with some other gentlemen, sir!"

The Subotchevs were less disturbed than their servants, although the eruption of four full-sized men into their drawing-room, spacious though it was, did in fact surprise them somewhat. But Paklin soon reassured them, introducing Nejdanov, Solomin, and Markelov in turn, as good quiet people, not "governmental."

Fomishka and Fimishka had a horror of governmental, that is to say, official people.

Snandulia, who appeared at her brother’s request, was far more disturbed and agitated than the old couple.

They asked, both together and in exactly the same words, if their guests would be pleased to partake of some tea, chocolate, or an effervescent drink with jam, but learning that they did not require anything, having just lunched with the merchant Golushkin and that they were returning there to dinner, they ceased pressing them, and, folding their arms in exactly the same manner across their stomachs, they entered into conversation. It was a little slow at first, but soon grew livelier.

Paklin amused them very much by relating the well known Gogol anecdote about a superintendent of police, who managed to push his way into a church already so packed with people that a pin could scarcely drop, and about a pie which turned out to be no other than this same superintendent himself. The old people laughed till the tears rolled down their cheeks. They had exactly the same shrill laugh and both went red in the face from the effort. Paklin noticed that people of the Subotchev type usually went into fits of laughter over quotations from Gogol, but as his object at the present moment was not so much in amusing them as in showing them off to his friends, he changed his tactics and soon managed to put them in an excellent humour.

Fomishka produced a very ancient carved wooden snuff-box and showed it to the visitors with great pride. At one time one could have discerned about thirty-six little human figures in various attitudes carved on its lid, but they were so erased as to be scarcely visible now. Fomishka, however, still saw them and could even count them. He would point to one and say, " Just look! this one is staring out of the window.. . . He has thrust his head out!" but the place indicated by his fat little finger with the nail raised was just as smooth as the rest of the box. He then turned their attention to an oil painting hanging on the wall just above his head. It represented a hunter in profile, galloping at full speed on a bay horse, also in profile, over a snow plain. The hunter was clad in a tall white sheepskin hat with a pale blue point, a tunic of camel’s hair edged with velvet, and a girdle wrought in gold. A glove embroidered in silk was gracefully tucked into the girdle, and a dagger chased in black and silver hung at the side. In one hand the plump, youthful hunter carried an enormous horn, ornamented with red tassels, and the reins and whip in the other. The horse’s four legs were all suspended in the air, and on every one of them the artist had carefully painted a horseshoe and even indicated the nails. "Look," Fomishka observed, pointing with the same fat little finger to four semi-circular spots on the white ground, close to the horse’s legs, "he has even put the snow prints in!" Why there were only four of these prints and not any to be seen further back, on this point Fomishka was silent.

"This was I!" he added after a pause, with a modest smile.

"Really! " Nejdanov exclaimed, "were you ever a hunting man?"

"Yes. I was for a time. Once the horse threw me at full gallop and I injured my kurpey. Fimishka got frightened and forbade me; so I have given it up since then."

"What did you injure?" Nejdanov asked.

"My kurpey," Fomishka repeated, lowering his voice.

The visitors looked at one another. No one knew what kurpey meant; at least, Markelov knew that the tassel on a Cossack or Circassian cap was called a kurpey, but then how could Fomishka have injured that? But no one dared to question him further.

"Well, now that you have shown off," Fimishka remarked suddenly, "I will show off too." And going up to a small bonheur du jour, as they used to call an old-fashioned bureau, on tiny, crooked legs, with a round lid which fitted into the back of it somewhere when opened, she took out a miniature in water colour, in an oval bronze frame, of a perfectly naked little child of four years old with a quiver over her shoulders fastened across the chest with pale blue ribbons, trying the points of the arrows with the tip of her little finger. The child was all smiles and curls and had a slight squint.

"And that was I," she said.


"Yes, as a child. When my father was alive a Frenchman used to come and see him, such a nice Frenchman too! He painted that for my father’s birthday. Such a nice man! He used to come and see us often. He would come in, make such a pretty courtesy and kiss your hand, and when going away would kiss the tips of his own fingers so prettily, and bow to the right, to the left, backwards and forwards! He was such a nice Frenchman!"

The guests praised his work; Paklin even declared that he saw a certain likeness.

Here Fomishka began to express his views on the modern French, saying that they had become very wicked nowadays!

"What makes you think so, Foma Lavrentievitch?"

"Look at the awful names they give themselves nowadays!"

"What, for instance?"

"Nogent Saint Lorraine, for instance! A regular brigand’s name!"

Fomishka asked incidentally who reigned in Paris now, and when told that it was Napoleon, was surprised and pained at the information.

"How? . . . Such an old man—" he began and stopped, looking round in confusion.

Fomishka had but a poor knowledge of French, and read Voltaire in translation; he always kept a translated manuscript of "Candide" in the bible box at the head of his bed. He used to come out with expressions like: "This, my dear, is Jausse parquet," meaning suspicious, untrue. He was very much laughed at for this, until a certain learned Frenchman told him that it was an old parliamentary expression employed in his country until the year 1789.

As the conversation turned upon France and the French, Fimishka resolved to ask something that had been very much on her mind. She first thought of addressing herself to Markelov, but he looked too forbidding, so she turned to Solomin, but no! He seemed to her such a plain sort of person, not likely to know French at all, so she turned to Nejdanov.

"I should like to ask you something, if I may," she began; "excuse me, my kinsman Sila Samsonitch makes fun of me and my woman’s ignorance."

What is it? "

"Supposing one wants to ask in French, ’What is it?’ must one say ’Kese-kese-kese-la?’"


"And can one also say ’Kese-kese-la?’


"And simply ’Kese-la?’"

"Yes, that’s right."

"And does it mean the same thing?"

"Yes, it does."

Fimishka thought awhile, then threw up her arms.

"Well, Silushka," she exclaimed; "I am wrong and you are right. But these Frenchmen . . . How smart they are!"

Paklin began begging the old people to sing them some ballad. They were both surprised and amused at the idea, but consented readily on condition that Snandulia accompanied them on the harpsichord. In a corner of the room there stood a little spinet, which not one of them had noticed before. Snandulia sat down to it and struck several chords. Nejdanov had never heard such sour, toneless, tingling, jangling notes, but the old people promptly struck up the ballad, "Was it to Mourn."

Fomisha began-

"In love God gave a heart Of burning passion to inspire That loving heart with warm desire." "But there is agony in bliss"

Fimishka chimed in.

"And passion free from pain there is, Ah! where, where? tell me, tell me this,"

"Ah! where, where? Tell me, tell me this,"

Fomisha put in.

"Ah! where, where? tell me, tell me this,"

Fimishka repeated.

"Nowhere in all the world, nowhere, Love bringeth grief and black despair,"

they sang together,

"And that, love’s gift is everywhere,"

Fomisha sang out alone.

"Bravo!" Paklin exclaimed. "We have had the first verse, now please sing us the second."

"With the greatest of pleasure," Fomishka said, "but what about the trill, Snandulia Samsonovna? After my verse there must be a trill."

"Very well, I will play your trill," Snandulia replied. Fomishka began again-

"Has ever lover loved true And kept his heart from grief and rue? He loveth but to weep anew"

and then Fimishka-

"Yea—hearts that love at last are riven As ships that hopelessly have striven For life. To what end were they given?"

"To what end were they given?"

Fomishka warbled out and waited for Snandulia to play the trill.

"To what end were they given?"

he repeated, and then they struck up together-

"Then take, 0h God, the heart away, Away, away, take hearts away, Away, away, away today."

"Bravo! Bravo!" the company exclaimed, all with exception of Markelov.

"I wonder they don’t feel like clowns?" Nejdanov thought. "Perhaps they do, who knows? They no doubt think there is no harm in it and may be even amusing to some people. If one looks at it in that light, they are quite right! A thousand times right!"

Under the influence of these reflections he began paying compliments to the host and hostess, which they acknowledged with a courtesy, performed while sitting in their chairs. At this moment Pufka the dwarf and Nurse Vassilievna made their appearance from the adjoining room (a bedroom or perhaps the maids’ room) from whence a great bustle and whispering had been going on for some time. Pufka began squealing and making hideous grimaces, while the nurse first quietened her, then egged her on.

Solomin’s habitual smile became even broader, while Markelov, who had been for some time showing signs of impatience, suddenly turned to Fomishka:

"I did not expect that you," he began in his severe manner, "with your enlightened mind—I’ve heard that you are a follower of Voltaire—could be amused with what ought to be an object for compassion—with deformity!" Here he remembered Paklin’s sister and could have bitten his tongue off.

Fomishka went red in the face and muttered: "You see it is not my fault . . . she herself—"

Pufka simply flew at Markelov.

"How dare you insult our masters?" she screamed out in her lisping voice. "What is it to you that they took me in, brought me up, and gave me meat and drink? Can’t you bear to see another’s good fortune, eh? Who asked you to come here? You fusty, musty, black-faced villain with a moustache like a beetle’s!" Here Pufka indicated with her thick short fingers what his moustache was like; while Nurse Vassilievna’s toothless mouth was convulsed with laughter, re-echoed in the adjoining room.

"I am not in a position to judge you," Markelov went on. "To protect the homeless and deformed is a very praiseworthy work, but I must say that to live in ease and luxury, even though without injury to others, not lifting a finger to help a fellowcreature, does not require a great deal of goodness. I, for one, do not attach much importance to that sort of virtue!"

Here Pufka gave forth a deafening howl. She did not understand a word of what Markelov had said, but she felt that the "black one" was scolding, and how dared he! Vassilievna also muttered something, while Fomishka folded his hands across his breast and turned to his wife. "Fimishka, my darling," he began, almost in tears; "do you hear what the gentleman is saying? We are both wicked sinners, Pharisees. . . . We are living on the fat of the land, oh! oh! oh! We ought to be turned out into the street . . . with a broom in our hands to work for our living! Oh! oh!"

At these mournful words Pufka howled louder than ever, while Fimishka screwed up her eyes, opened her lips, drew in a deep breath, ready to retaliate, to speak.

God knows how it would have ended had not Paklin intervened.

"What is the matter?" he began, gesticulating with his hands and laughing loudly. "I wonder you are not ashamed of yourselves! Mr. Markelov only meant it as a joke. He has such a solemn face that it sounded a little severe and you took him seriously! Calm yourself! Efimia Pavlovna, darling, we are just going, won’t you tell us our fortunes at cards? You are such a good hand at it. Snandulia, do get the cards, please!

Fimishka glanced at her husband, who seemed completely reassured, so she too quieted down.

"I have quite forgotten how to tell fortunes, my dear. It is such a long time since I held the cards in my hand."

But quite of her own accord she took an extraordinary, ancient pack of cards out of Snandalia’s hand.

"Whose fortune shall I tell? "

"Why everybody’s, of course!" Paklin exclaimed. "What a dear old thing ......... You can do what you like with her," he thought. "Tell us all our fortunes, granny dear," he said aloud. "Tell us our fates, our characters, our futures, everything!"

She began shuffling the cards, but threw them down suddenly.

"I don’t need cards!" she exclaimed. "I know all your characters without that, and as the character, so is the fate. This one," she said, pointing to Solomin, "is a cool, steady sort of man. That one," she said, pointing threateningly at Markelov, "is a fiery, disastrous man." (Pufka put her tongue out at him.) "And as for you," she looked at Paklin, "there is no need to tell you- -you know quite well that you’re nothing but a giddy goose! And that one—"

She pointed to Nejdanov, but hesitated.

"Well?" he asked; "do please tell me what sort of a man I am."

"What sort of a man are you," Fimishka repeated slowly. You are pitiable—that is all!"

"Pitiable! But why?

"Just so. I pity you—that is all I can say."

"But why do you pity me?"

"Because my eyes tell me so. Do you think I am a fool? I am cleverer than you, in spite of your red hair. I pity you—that is all!"

There was a brief silence—they all looked at one another, but did not utter a word.

"Well, goodbye, dear friends," Paklin exclaimed. "We must have bored you to death with our long visit. It is time for these gentlemen to be going, and I am going with them. Goodbye, thanks for your kindness."

"Goodbye, goodbye, come again. Don’t be on ceremony," Fomishka and Fimishka exclaimed together. Then Fomishka suddenly drawled out:

"Many, many, many years of life. Many—"

"Many, many," Kalliopitch chimed in quite unexpectedly, when opening the door for the young men to pass out.

The whole four suddenly found themselves in the street before the squat little house, while Pufka’s voice was heard from within:

"You fools!" she cried. "You fools!"

Paklin laughed aloud, but no one responded. Markelov looked at each in turn, as though he expected to hear some expression of indignation. Solomin alone smiled his habitual smile.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Virgin Soil

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Virgin Soil

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, "XIX," Virgin Soil, ed. CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb and trans. Maude, Louise, Maude, Aylmer in Virgin Soil (New York: The Modern Library Publishers, 1918), Original Sources, accessed December 3, 2022,

MLA: Turgenev, Ivan Sergeevich. "XIX." Virgin Soil, edited by CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb, and translated by Maude, Louise, Maude, Aylmer, in Virgin Soil, New York, The Modern Library Publishers, 1918, Original Sources. 3 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Turgenev, IS, 'XIX' in Virgin Soil, ed. and trans. . cited in 1918, Virgin Soil, The Modern Library Publishers, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 3 December 2022, from