3 Lessons to Learn from a Russian Classic About the Generational Gap

A Russian family gathers around a table to celebrate the Orthodox New Year. (Image via Siberian Times)
“When we were young there was a so-called humoralist — one Hoffmann — and a certain Brown with his vitalism. They seemed quite ridiculous to us but they had great reputations in their day. Now with you someone new has taken the place of Rademacher, and you bow down to him, but in another twenty years no doubt it will be his turn to be laughed at.” — Vassily Ivanych Bazarov, “Fathers and Sons”

Not too long ago, a group of us took a walk on a hiking trail not too far from us. The fathers and mothers, and the sons and daughters together.

The fathers and mothers discussed the usual harshness of adulthood. Whether it be the rise of expenses or the difficulties of raising a child in a world of social media begetting social anxiety, the fathers and mothers knew all too well of life’s struggles.

The sons and daughters were, naturally, filled with the optimism that only youth know, but eventually grow out of. With glittering eyes filled with childlike wonder, the sons and daughters opened their hearts to each other about the dreams they had for the future.

At the bend in the road, the fathers and sons, mothers and daughters mingled together. And we landed on the topic of the infamous gap.

The generational gap.

“You know, teaching used to be such a joy when I first started out in the profession. Kids were sweeter and more eager to learn than they are now. Kids are so disrespectful these days,” said one of the mothers.

The unchallenged silence that followed confirmed the veracity of the mother’s claim. Even the sons and daughters saw some truth to this.

Even with my youthful optimism, I didn’t dare dispute the claim. Immediately, I thought of the kids I taught swimming lessons during my time as a swim instructor. While the majority of them were well-behaved or at least moderately so, there were always a handful that required a little more patience than usual.

One in particular would drift into the deep end even though he’d start halfway drowning. And he’d do this repeatedly. Even after I’d repeatedly told him not to swim out there and given him time outs for his lack of respect for my orders. Sometimes I wondered whether he was just a daredevil and not just a poor listener.

When my mind came back to that present moment, I started thinking again about the mother’s point.

Are children these days disrespectful? Or did the fathers and mothers set such a high standard for us that would never be attainable?

Why the Fathers and Mothers Think the Sons and Daughters are Disrespectful

A son refusing to listen to his father. (Image via The Cardinal Newman Society)

There is no simple answer to this question. It is in fact a result of effects compounded together I’m sure.

My mind, however, gravitates toward the opportunities the sons and daughters have today.

A conversation with a peer sticks out for me. I remember discussing with a peer in one of my French classes about language learning. She complimented me on my French pronunciation and asked how I learned my pronunciation. I told her that participating in French class mattered, but that also I would spend hours at home listening to French news and music or read French stories aloud before going to sleep.

Before I started doing any of that extra practice on my own, my French pronunciation was awful. Period. I would pronounce French words with an English accent constantly. But it wasn’t until I dedicated some extra time to improve that I saw results.

In short, the Internet provides our younger generation with opportunities that the older generation only dreamed of. There isn’t anything we can’t do if we only set our goals and put in the many hours necessary to achieve our goals. While it may be more difficult, you can learn a language on your own with the information and tools out there on the Internet. You can learn about how to build a DIY tiki bar in your backyard if you wanted to.

The older generation then believes we are disrespectful when we complain to them about not being able to achieve our goals. Or blaming someone or something for our laziness.

It’s because rather than cultivating an attitude of gratefulness for the opportunities we have that they didn’t, we choose to complain about having to put a little extra effort to get to where we want to be.

Understanding the Generational Gap with Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev’s Classic “Fathers and Sons”

Joshua James (left) plays Arkady and Seth Numrich as Bazarov in London Theatre’s dramatic adaptation of “Fathers and Sons.” (Image via Variety)

In 1862, Russian author Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev published the beloved part novel, part philosophical tract, and part historical work “Fathers and Sons.”

As a novel, Turgenev’s masterpiece tells a rather simple story. The story of Nikolay Petrovich Kirsanov’s son Arkady Nikolayevich Kirsanov graduating from the University of Petersburg and coming home to the traditional, yet warm home of Maryino. But Arkady doesn’t come alone. He brings his mentor Yevgeny Vasilyevich Bazarov — a nihilist and challenger of traditional, Orthodox values. While Nikolay Petrovich is more accepting but still hesitant of Bazarov’s worldview, his brother Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov is resolute in his rejection of nihilism. And so let the clash of values begin.

As a philosophical tract, Turgenev’s work shows the duality of character that humans possess. Humans are not one-sided and Turgenev paints this picture clearly for his audience through the main characters Arkady and Bazarov. The student and mentor are both nihilists, and yet both find it difficult curtailing thir emotions. Especially in the case of Bazarov who falls hopelessly in love with Madame Anna Sergeyevna Odintsova. As well, the novel popularized the belief in nihilism, as seen through Arkady but more so Bazarov.

As a historical tract, the timeless work shows the cultural schism that occurred in Imperial Russia between the liberals of the 1830s and 1840s and the emerging nihilists of the 1860s. The liberals of the 1830s and 1840s firmly held onto traditional Orthodox social mores and spirituality. The Russian nihilist movement of the 1860s challenged traditional authority such as the Tsar’s absolute political authority.

1) Showing Emotion is a Sign of Strength

Lee Keum-seom holds her son Ri Sang Cool who she has been separated from for 68 years. (Image via Evening Standard)

Throughout “Fathers and Sons,” the fathers and mothers often show emotion toward their sons. The way these fathers and mothers welcome their sons back home after a long period of absence is full of romantic emotion.

As soon as Nikolay Petrovich hears the wheels of the tarantass pull up to his porch, he runs forward to give his son Arkady a bear hug. Arkady, however, is only too eager to shift emotional conversations toward more commonplace ones.

Though nothing compares to the outpour of emotion that Bazarov receives from his parents Vasily Ivanych and Arina Vlasevna. Vasily Ivanych is more stoic in his approach toward Bazarov. He does give way to the joy of seeing his son after so many years of absence also. It is Arina Vlasevna who is so emotionally overwhelmed to see her son that she needs her son’s support to keep her from falling over.

Moments like these remind us that showing this level of vulnerability to even just family members, never mind friends or colleagues or acquaintances, takes an immense amount of strength. Loving another person and showing this love visibly requires strength.

2) Accepting the Littleness of Our Bigness with Grace

Our place in the universe may be small, but we are all here for a reason. (Image via Pixabay)

Another lesson we can take away from “Fathers and Sons” is that our happiness is more important than progress. Sure, progress may contribute to our happiness. However, sometimes it’s important to take stock of the moments you have with the special people in your life who bring you happiness.

In “Fathers and Sons,” through the character Bazarov, Turgenev shows that the fathers’ and mothers’ happiness stems from spending time on fulfilling pursuits:

“…what a happy life my parents lead! At the age of sixty my father can still find plenty to do, talks about ‘palliative measures,’ treats patients, plays the bountiful lord of the manor with the peasants — has a gay time of it in fact; and my mother’s happy too: her days are so chockful of all sorts of occupations, sighs and groans, that she doesn’t know where she is…”

Then Bazarov considers his own “insignificance” as he calls it:

“The period of time in which it is my lot to live is so infinitesimal compared with the eternity in which I have not been and shall not be …. And yet here, in this atom which is myself, in this mathematical point, blood circulates, the brain operates and aspires to be something too.”

Part of the reason Bazarov sees his own existence as insignificant is that he’s taken his nihilistic worldview and turned it on himself. Another reason is that he does not accept his life with gratefulness. Rather, he focuses on whether or not people will remember him after his life.

The important lesson here is that you should seek to find happiness wherever you are and do the little good in your power for those around you.

3) A Clash of Values Can End in Violence

The classic clash between the Democrats and Republicans. (Image via Budget and the Bees)

There is no better illustration of the potential violence in the generational gap than the face-off between Pavel Petrovich and Bazarov. Pavel Petrovich can no longer handle Bazarov’s lack of reverence for his generation. He challenges Bazarov to a good old-fashioned shoot out in the open field.

During the shootout, Bazarov draws first and shoots Pavel Petrovich in the leg. Though what follows is just as important as the clash itself. Bazarov no longer sees Pavel Petrovich as his mortal enemy, but as a patient. Bazarov is a med student after all. He comes to the older gentlemen’s aid and treats him until a trained doctor is present. This moment is crucial as we see that the sons generation are the ones to let go of their animosity toward the principles of older generation.

While, in this case, violence spurred a moment of empathy between the two generations, there are other ways to end in empathy. In this situation, it was Pavel Petrovich who consistently spurred on an indifferent Bazarov. The young med student wasn’t interested in picking apart the military man’s principles.

Rather than listening to another’s perspective for sake of refuting their views, listen to understand. Even if you may not agree with that person’s perspective, give them the right to have their own opinions.

Empathy as a Way to Bridge the Generational Gap

Building the bridge of empathy requires setting aside your ego. (Image via Connector Man)

A response to the potential clash of violence between the younger and older generations is empathy — putting yourself in the other person’s skin.

While a lifeguard, I worked with an older colleague who I felt nagged me to complete tasks that I already knew had to be done. At first, I thought that she was trying to micromanage me. However, the more often I worked with her, I realized that giving small orders like that was her way of not only leading, but also teaching others of the expectations she had while working with her during a shift. She wanted to teach us junior staff to be ready for anything. When an unexpected situation arose, I was thankful that she took the time to teach us the ropes because I was prepared.

Sometimes that’s all empathy takes. Giving the other person time to show who they are and taking the time to accept who they are. Other times it requires more effort on both parties’ parts. But one thing is for certain: You never know where it will lead you.

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Originally published at elizabethivanecky.com on March 6, 2019.