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Ivan Turgenyev and Jean-Baptists Troppman.

The fervor of nationalism brooks no neutral parties. Dostoevsky’s infuriated response to Ivan Turgenev’s ill-fated novel, Smoke, demonstrates the extent to which opting out of a position on the ideological barricades only ensures that someone else will decide it for you. 

Kaynak – alina_stefanescu.typepad.com

As a messianic, Eastern Orthodox, lover of Russia, Dostoevsky railed against Turgenev’s willingness to portray Russia’s backwardness alongside its charm. He was revolted by Turgenev’s admitted atheism, and the way in which his novels left Slavophilia without a primary source in God. In a letter to his friend Maykov, Dostoevsky claimed Turgenev told him “we should crawl back to the Germans because there was only one way, ineluctable and common to all, and that way was civilization”. 

Even Turgenev’s longtime poet friend, Fet, found a way to undercut Smoke . “It consists of insults to all things Russian, at the very moment when everyone in Russia is doing their utmost to be Russian,” Fet wrote to Tolstoy, going on to express his chagrin at the way in which Smoke  urged a turn towards the West to embrace a foreign future.

“As regards Smoke ,” Tolstoy replied, “I think that the force of poetry is in love; the direction taken by that force depends upon character. Without the force of love there is no poetry….. In Smoke , there is love for nothing, or almost nothing, and so there is almost no poetry. The only love is for a superficial, trifling adulterer and that is why the poetry in this novel is objectionable”. 

Always suspecting himself of being a “superfluous man”, a man in the mold of the character Rudin, Turgenev grew to honor his own reluctance to follow the political winds where they blew. Though a liberal, Turgenev viewed ideology as a dangerous fire that burned through the hands of those holding its torches, leaving behind only a smoke as old as time itself. 

In the Paris of 1870, the crimes of the century had proper names. One of them was Jean-Baptiste Troppman, a 22-year-old mechanic convicted of murdering a family of eight. Troppman had been planning a counterfeiting operation with Jean Kinck.  When they visited a proposed site for the money printing plant, Troppman fed his partner a lethal dose of prussic acid (cyanide) mixed in wine.

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Posing as Jean Kinck, Troppman then wired Mrs. Kinck asking her for money. Mrs. Kinck sent him a check along with her son.  Unable to cash the money, Troppman arranged a meeting with the wife in Paris and, having no more use for the boy, hacked him into to pieces. When Mrs. Kinck met Troppman in Paris, she handed over the 55,000 francs thinking that they were for her husband. With money in hand, Troppman butchered Mrs. Kinck and her remaining five children in a remote spot near the Pantin Common.

A workman uncovered the mutilated corpses the next day. Troppmann faced additional murder charges when the bodies of Jean and Gustave Kinck were unearthed. Tropmann confessed to the crimes and described them in great detail to the French police. “I killed Kinck to grab the money he said he had in his bank,” explained Troppman. “It was a necessity for me to kill the other members of the family so to suppress all the witnesses.“ 

A few weeks later, Troppmann revised his confession to exonerate himself. He touted three accomplices whose identity he refused to reveal. And he announced the burial of a mysterious wallet containing all the proof against his accomplices in the neighborhood of Steinbach. The wallet was never found- but it left behind a soil well-tilled for ghosts and conspiracy theories. 

On the December 31st of 1860, Troppmann’s five days in court ended with a guilty verdict and a condemnation to die by guillotine. The French emperor refused to pardon Troppmann. The preparations for the spectacle commenced in earnest.

Maxime du Camp invited Turgenev to observe the preparations for Troppman’s execution. Turgenev quickly regretted accepting the invitation to a scene of such horror. “I shall not forget that dreadful night when I supped full of horrors and acquired a permanent aversion for capital punishment in general and the way it is carried out in France in particular,” Turgenev wrote to Annekov.  

On January 19th, 1870, Troppmann faced his execution as both participant and spectator. To be sure, the spectators packed the place de la Roquette to witness the spectacle of state-sponsored justice. At 7 am, Troppmann was swiveled on the guillotine’s board. At the moment when the blade descended, Troppman somehow managed to bite the finger of his executioner. He was buried alongside other French citizens in the pauper’s cemetery of Ivry.

In a long article called “Troppmann’s Execution”, Turgenev detailed the preparations as well as his response to them. He remarked upon the shared guilt, the complicity between the guilty man and the entire society in this modern spectacle of revenge. He felt ashamed, his hands dirty with blood from the legalized murder. He linked this secret, unspeakable shame with “the fact that the horses harnessed to the wagon, which we peacefully munching oats, seemed to be the only innocent creatures present”.  

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The man who gave us literature’s first nihilist found himself revolted by the European liberalism that could produce a spectacle so murderous and barbaric. Shaken to the core, Turgenev rushed back to his Russian estate at Spasskoye, where he stayed long enough to throw a few parties and remember, afresh, how his name was anathema in literary circles.

Turgenev was indeed a superfluous man. But his liberalism outlasted that of his literary compatriots, many of whom embraced killing fellow humans under the rapture of a flag or historical imperative. 

wikipedia.org – Jean-Baptiste Troppmann

Turgenev – The Execution of Tropmann Pdf

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