The story begins on May 20th in the year 1859. It's not an insignificant date in Russian history. After Russia's disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853 – 1856), Russians had become particularly attuned to their country's backwardness. There was a desire to move from a feudalistic economy, where the majority of the population was composed of serfs that were entirely dependent on a select class of land-owners, to a free-market economy, one where former serfs could become independent land-owners. Combined with a growing abolitionist feeling, these practical factors were pushing Tsar Alexander II toward the Emancipation Reform of 1861, which freed serfs working on private estates.
Nikolai Petrovich is a liberal and a progressive, and he is at the front end of this reformist curve. Having recently freed his serfs and sold off much of his land, he is having a tough time managing his shrinking estate. Throughout the novel, we notice serfs showing little respect to their master; others shirk their duties and waste their time in the pubs. As Nikolai exclaims at one point, "Without the fear of punishment you can do nothing with them!" (22.16). It's clear that his good reformist intentions have not played out too well practically. What is also clear is that the historical background is not actually in the 'background' of the story. It has an enormous effect on the way the characters think and behave.
The most well-known theme of Fathers and Sons – the disconnect between one generation and the next – is in large part a result of this historical setting. As the country became attuned to its own situation, the young increasingly looked to Western Europe for guidance and had very little faith in the tradition of their parents. We see this nowhere as clearly as in the character of Bazarov, who is the embodiment of a widespread cultural phenomenon in the Russian youth of 1859. His philosophy of "nihilism" was a reality; a number of young people were attracted to its revolutionary flavor even if they didn't entirely understand it.
The setting of Fathers and Sons is not just Russia – it is the Russian countryside in particular. Perhaps the most important juxtaposition of setting in Fathers and Sons is the difference between the major Russian cities and the countryside. At the start of the novel, Bazarov and Arkady have just returned from St. Petersburg. After being exposed to the fast-paced culture of the city, the country now strikes them as backward and slow-moving. At one point, Bazarov laughs at the absurdity of the old country bumpkin Nikolai playing his cello on the farm: it seems that Bazarov imagines the countryside as a place of limited culture.
Of course, Bazarov's stereotypes are completely uneven. In his mind, Nikolai and Pavel Petrovich are upper-class gentry, despite the fact that their farm has fallen into disrepair and their estate is rapidly shrinking. Similarly, Anna Sergeyevna, who has inherited a large sum from her dead husband, is a member of the elite upper class, which Bazarov resents. By contrast, Bazarov's family is not very well-off, but they are not exactly impoverished either. They have servants, though not very much land. Though Bazarov often thinks of himself as the simple son of a village doctor, he cannot simultaneously mock the uneducated country-folk and consider himself a man of the people. Bazarov claims to base many of his opinions on class distinctions, but as the novel moves on it is clear that his own vanity lies above all such distinctions.
A last point: the natural world plays a very important role in the story. As Nikolai waits for Arkady in the first chapter, we read,
A grimy cat sprawled affectedly on the railing, observing the hen with an unfriendly eye. The sun blazed down. A smell of warm rye bread was wafted out of the dark passage of the inn [...] A fat blue-grey pigeon flew down on to the road, hurrying to drink from a puddle beside the wall. (1.9)
The story unfolds in a natural setting, and the narrator often seems to emphasize the way in which the human drama is not separate from the rest of nature. The setting even comes to play an aspect in characterization and individual psychology. Bazarov is partly defined by his lack of interest in nature, whereas Vassily Ivanych has a deep romantic feeling for the world around him. Often, the happiness of characters seems to be linked to the degree in which they are in harmony with their setting.
Virginia Woolf probably put it best when she explained the role of nature in Fathers and Sons. She said,
In Turgenev's novels the individual never dominates, many other things seem to be going on at the same time. We hear the hum of life in the fields, a horse champs a bit; a butterfly circles and settles. And as we notice, without seeming to notice, life going on, we feel more intensely for the men and women themselves because they are not the whole of life, but only a part of the whole. (quoted in Edmonds, Rosemary. "Introduction." Fathers and Sons.)