One can imagine arriving at the conclusion that Russia would never reform itself, that the only way to liberate it from its medievalism was to start over. Bazarov, a doctor whose empirical nature, we are led to understand, informs his nihilism, is convinced that Russia must start over, and everything about him—his sarcasm, his lack of empathy—is meant to convey disdain, destruction, a sweeping away of the old. He is openly disrespectful of the fathers in the novel—Nikolai Petrovich and Vasily Ivanovich—because they’re old. They’re fathers. They come before, so they are necessarily less developed. To Bazarov, those who do not see the world exactly as he does—most people—are simply roadblocks or enemies. They are not really people. They are not wholly human.

One wonders if Bazarov is that different from today’s protesters and statue-topplers, the 20-somethings sowing discord in our newsrooms, the cancellers, the uber-woke, the sociopaths who police our social media feeds, those who would massage or rewrite history in the service of a glorious future. Like Bazarov, they are incapable of empathizing with those who do not view the world the way they do. Like Bazarov, they assume that the place they come from (America) is cancerous to the core—regressive, hateful, an affront to right-thinking people everywhere. Like Bazarov, there is about them a crude sarcasm (or snark). Like Bazarov, there is a logic to their outrage: Today, we are witnessing Americans revolting against the vestiges of a barbaric, racial hierarchy that was constructed four centuries ago. That hierarchy continues to be felt. It is not unreasonable to wonder, When will we finally transcend the past?

The only important obvious difference between the fictional, Russian nihilist and his nonfictional, American counterpart is the lens through which they view history.