Virgin Soil, by Ivan Turgenev

I attended a book club this week who read my memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. The attendees were mostly lawyers or law students, and we had a lively and wide-ranging discussion. I especially enjoyed hearing people's personal stories; as always there was a mix of people who had been in the system themselves at some point (even if just getting food stamps) and people whose eyes were opened to a world foreign to them.

One question that stumped me, though, came when we were discussing the chapter on the Welfare Rights Organization that so changed the system in the 1960s and 1970s, making it more consistent and fair. We agreed that with all the cuts in eligibility and services, the time was ripe for a new wave of activism to support those in poverty, both on public assistance and the working poor so dramatically brought to the limelight by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed. Why, I was asked, isn't this happening? Where is the outrage? Where are the activists?

I don't know what happened to all of the energy of the 1960s and 1970s activism. Maybe we just got older, busy with jobs and children. Maybe our early successes made us complacent. I do know that, contrary to the media stereotype, nearly everyone I know has remained true to those ideals of peace and freedom, of fairness and equal rights. Recently the Occupy Movement has given me a glimmer of hope that the long sleep is finally ending.

Virgin Soil, Turgenev's last novel, is about the Populist movement in Russia a hundred years before my experiences, in the late 1860s and 1870s. These idealistic revolutionaries want to awaken the slumbering people and help them take back their country from the ruling classes. The story focuses on Alexey Nezhdanov, a young student in St. Petersburg, who wants to devote his life to the cause, condemning as elitist the poetry he cannot keep himself from writing.

So much of this is familiar! Nezhdanov and his friends go among the poor, hoping to blend in and teach them to expect more, with the result you would expect. There's paranoia about possible infiltrators and dissension over which leaders to trust. Some advocate a violent uprising while others work within their own small sphere to create change. Some show common sense while others seem more concerned with self-aggrandizement. There are witting and unwitting betrayals. Nezhdanov falls in love with a young woman from a good family who shares his ideals and commitment to the cause.

The most interesting characters to me were two of his friends, minor characters whose loyalty is tested, and the aristocrat for whom he works, whose charming duplicity drives much of the action. This dramatic story helps me understand what happened to the movements of my youth, the disillusion and disarray they fell into. In these troubled times, with many people suddenly furloughed from work without a paycheck and others still bearing the brunt of losing most of their savings in the banking fiasco, perhaps the awakening has begun. What do you think it will take to create a new movement for change?

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