Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev was born into a family of Russian land-owners in Oryol, Russia, on November 9, 1818 (October 28 Old Style). His father, Sergei Nikolaevich Turgenev, a colonel in the Russian cavalry, was a chronic philanderer. Ivan's mother, Varvara Petrovna Lutovinova, was a wealthy heiress, who had an unhappy childhood and suffered in her marriage. Ivan's father died when Ivan was sixteen, leaving him and his brother Nicolas to be brought up by their abusive mother. Ivan's childhood was a lonely one, in constant fear of his mother who beat him often. After the standard schooling for a son of a gentleman, Turgenev studied for one year at the University of Moscow and then moved to the University of Saint Petersburg from 1834 to 1837, focusing on Classics, Russian literature, and philology. He then studied, from 1838 until 1841, at the University of Berlin to study philosophy, particularly Hegel, and history. He returned to Saint Petersburg to complete his master's examination.
Turgenev was impressed with German society and returned home believing that Russia could best improve itself by incorporating ideas from the Age of Enlightenment. Like many of his educated contemporaries, he was particularly opposed to serfdom. In 1841, Turgenev started his career in Russian civil service and spent two years working for the Ministry of Interior (1843-1845).
When Turgenev was a child, a family serf had read to him verses from the Rossiad of Mikhail Kheraskov, a celebrated poet of the 18th century. Turgenev's early attempts in literature, poems, and sketches gave indications of genius and were favorably spoken of by Vissarion Belinsky, then the leading Russian literary critic. During the latter part of his life, Turgenev did not reside much in Russia: he lived either at Baden-Baden or Paris, often in proximity to the family of the celebrated opera singer Pauline Viardot, with whom he had a lifelong affair.
Turgenev never married, but he had some affairs with his family's serfs, one of which resulted in the birth of his illegitimate daughter, Paulinette. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but was timid, restrained, and soft-spoken. When Turgenev was 19, while traveling on a steamboat in Germany, the boat caught fire and Turgenev reacted in a cowardly manner. Rumors circulated in Russia and followed him for his entire career, providing the basis for his story A Fire at Sea. His closest literary friend was Gustave Flaubert, with whom he shared similar social and aesthetic ideas. Both rejected extremist right and left political views, and carried a nonjudgmental, although rather pessimistic, view of the world. His relations with Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky were often strained, as the two were, for various reasons, dismayed by Turgenev's seeming preference for Western Europe. Turgenev, unlike Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, lacked religious motives in his writings, representing the more social aspect to the reform movement. He was considered to be an agnostic. Tolstoy, more than Dostoyevsky, at first anyway, rather despised Turgenev. While traveling together in Paris, Tolstoy wrote in his diary, "Turgenev is a bore." His rocky friendship with Tolstoy in 1861 wrought such animosity that Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel, afterwards apologizing. The two did not speak for 17 years, but never broke family ties. Dostoyevsky parodies Turgenev in his novel The Devils (1872) through the character of the vain novelist Karmazinov, who is anxious to ingratiate himself with the radical youth. However, in 1880, Dostoyevsky's speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin monument brought about a reconciliation of sorts with Turgenev, who, like many in the audience, was moved to tears by his rival's eloquent tribute to the Russian spirit.