His first major publication, a short story collection entitled A Sportsman's Sketches (1852), was a milestone of Russian realism, and his novel Fathers and Sons (1862) is regarded as one of the major works of 19th-century fiction.
Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev was born in Oryol (modern-day Oryol Oblast, Russia) to noble Russian parents Sergei Nikolaevich Turgenev (1793–1834), a colonel in the Russian cavalry who took part in the Patriotic War of 1812, and Varvara Petrovna Turgeneva (née Lutovinova; 1787–1850). His father belonged to an old, but impoverished Turgenev family of Tula aristocracy that traces its history to the 15th century when a Tatar Mirza Lev Turgen (Ivan Turgenev after baptizing) left the Golden Horde to serve Vasily II of Moscow. Ivan's mother came from a wealthy noble Lutovinov house of the Oryol Governorate. She spent an unhappy childhood under the tyrannical stepfather and left his house after her mother's death to live with her uncle. At the age of 26 she inherited a huge fortune from him. In 1816, she married Turgenev.
Ivan, his brothers Nicolai and Sergei were raised by their mother, a very educated, but authoritarian woman, in the Spasskoe-Lutovinovo family estate that was granted to their ancestor Ivan Ivanovich Lutovinov by Ivan the Terrible. Varvara Turgeneva later served as an inspiration for the landlady from Turgenev's Mumu. She surrounded her sons with foreign governesses; thus Ivan became fluent in French, German, and English. Their father spent little time with the family, and although he was not hostile toward them, his absence hurt Ivan's feelings (their relations are described in the autobiographical novel First Love). When he was four, the family made a trip through Germany and France. In 1827 the Turgenevs moved to Moscow to give their children a proper education.
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. During that time his father died from kidney stone disease, followed by his younger brother Sergei who died from epilepsy. From 1838 until 1841 he studied philosophy, particularly Hegel, and history at the University of Berlin. 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 the 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.