Fathers and Sons, published in 1862, was more than a breakout novel for Ivan Turgenev; it was a breakout novel for Russian literature as a whole. In its realism and its careful depiction of the rise of nihilism (a philosophy that takes no principle whatsoever for granted; everything is open to question), it anticipates the great Russian novels of the second half of the nineteenth century. Both Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky were admirers of Turgenev, and one could argue that his little book did a great deal to open up the landscape that those two later authors would plow.
When Fathers and Sons was released, however, it created a scandal that broke like a thunderstorm right over Turgenev's head. Conservative Russians read Turgenev's book and thought that he was glorifying nihilism through the character of Bazarov. Radical Russians read the book and were convinced that he was caricaturing the younger generation. In short, both groups went to the book and wanted to see their own opinions and beliefs right there on the page, but neither found them. It is, in a sense, a testament to the success of Turgenev's novel. He refuses to come down on one side or another, to offer a dogmatic bottom line. Put another way, ideology takes a back seat to art. Turgenev's goal is to depict the lives of his characters as carefully as he can, not to transmit a political message.
The book is a fantastic piece of literature, but one might argue that it has become even more than that. It's almost impossible to speak of mid-nineteenth-century Russian history without a reference to Turgenev's novel. Any discussion of the growing liberalism of Russia, the move to emancipate the serfs in 1861, the anger and radicalism of the younger Russian generation, feels somehow abstract without Turgenev. What this means is that Turgenev's carefully crafted fiction has become part of the historical record. He took upon himself a role that not too many modern novelists are even ambitious enough to attempt: national elegist. His personal struggle to understand what it meant to be a Russian circa 1860 was so well articulated that it became his country's.
Of course, what has made his novel last is not just that it is a piece of Russian history, but that it has universal appeal. Parents relate to Nikolai Petrovich attempting to understand his son, and children relate to Arkady and Bazarov trying to surpass their fathers. More importantly, though, the novel exposes parents and children to the vantage point of the other, and by doing so, creates the possibility of empathy.
We don't know if you're somebody's parent, but we're willing to bet that you're somebody's child. As somebody's child, you probably know what it is to be frustrated with the people who raised you, to feel like they're hemming you in, to feel that they're holding you to standards that no longer apply. You likely understand what it is to want to feel close to your parents, but at the same time to need to define yourself separately from them.
Turgenev so carefully depicts the family struggles at the heart of his novel that one can't help but come away from the book with a better understanding of what it means to be someone's child, someone's parent. Yet this is not a feel-good novel and there is no easy moral to take away from it. If a parent's goal is to make their child more docile and obedient, then Fathers and Sons probably isn't the right book to pass on because the story is propelled, above all, by the revolt of children against their parents.
Bazarov, the central character in the novel, is a rebel. In popular American culture, we might equate him with James Dean, the young rebel without a cause. He's a bad boy with a magnetic personality, convinced he's going to be great even though he isn't sure why or how. He's the fighter that most of us are too timid (or wise) to be. And whether or not you know much about nihilism or nineteenth century Russian history, if you've lived through adolescence, you know something about what it is to be Bazarov.