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Turgenev girls: romantic, subtle heroines of today’s cruel world By Daria Donina on Russia beyond the headlines

A “Turgenev girl” is a particular type of female character invented, or rather documented, by the 19th century writer Ivan Turgenev.

Photographer Philippe Herbet tells the story of his project: “A few years ago, in Vladivostok, my friend Irina had spoken to me about the Turgenev girls, with whom she felt very close.”

A “Turgenev girl” is a particular type of female character invented, or rather documented, by the 19th century writer Ivan Turgenev. “We had listed the peculiarities of today’s Turgenev girls: delicate manners, modest, refined, simple, romantic, living in their dreams, feminine, though with no make up…”
“She’s neither vulgar nor provocative, nor sexy, dressed with retro fashioned – even vintage – clothes, fond of literature, of classical music, playing an instrument, speaking several languages (often French and Italian), waltzing, blushing when they hear rude remarks, they have well established and strong moral principles, they are devoted, they come from several social classes, they are not part of any network,” Philippe says.
It’s proved by the quotes from Turgenev: “There was something innately special in the constitution of her somewhat dark, round face with small, thin nose, almost childlike cheeks and black, bright eyes. She was gracefully formed, but somehow not fully developed.” (Asya, 1858)
“I never saw a being more mobile. She did not sit still for one moment, was constantly getting up, running to the house and back, humming in a low voice, laughing often and in a strange way: she seemed to be laughing not at what had been said, but at other thoughts that had entered her head. Her large eyes looked straight ahead, bright and bold, yet sometimes the eyelids squinted, whereupon her gaze suddenly became profound and gentle.” (Asya, 1858)
Turgenev wrote the short story Asya in 1858, while in the middle of working on Home of the Gentry. It was during this highly creative period that Turgenev gradually came to occupy a leading position in Russian literature.
In this story Turgenev draws largely on Pushkin’s canonical image of the archetypal Russian woman — Tatyana Larina, with her bright, natural, undisguised feelings, which generally do not find an adequate response in a male environment. She is an introvert, but one with an artfully arranged inner world and mobile psyche.
“She had turned twenty a while ago. She was tall and in possession of a face both pale and swarthy, large gray eyes under round eyebrows surrounded by tiny freckles, a forehead and nose that were perfectly straight, a compressed mouth, and a rather pointed chin. Her dark blonde plait hung low on her delicate neck.” (Elena Stakhova from the novel On the Eve, 1860)
“Throughout her entire being, in her facial expression attentive and a little timid, in her unsteady gaze, in her smile that seemed strained, in her voice quiet and uneven, there was something nervous and electric, something impetuous and hasty; in short, there was something that could not possibly please everyone and that some even found repellent.” (Elena Stakhova from the novel On the Eve)
Her nature is most fully revealed in the vicissitudes of love: she faithfully follows her beloved regardless of her parents’ disapproval or other circumstances. Sometimes she overestimates a man’s spiritual qualities and falls in love with someone unworthy of her.
“But her whole being exuded something strong and audacious, something impulsive and impassioned. Her legs and hands were tiny, her firmly and flexibly formed diminutive body resembled the Florentine statuettes of the 16th century; she moved with graceful ease. (Marianna Sinetskaya from the novel Virgin Soil, 1877)
“She spoke little, listened and gazed attentively, almost fixedly, as if wanting to be aware of everything. She often remained motionless, lowered her hands and became pensive; at such moments her face expressed the inner workings of her thoughts …” (Natalia Lasunskaya from the novel Rudin, 1855)
What does contemporary Turgenev girl look like according to the author of the photos Philippe Herbet? “Today this stereotype is distorted, it means a kind of girl idealistic, soft, old-fashioned, wearing vintage clothes, sentimental, poetic and subtle, living in her dreams… she has some difficulties to live in the contemporary world. I intend to make a series of portraits in their living environment, scenes related to their favorite activities, and some « landscapes », between Moscow and southern Russia countryside.”
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