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“…that promised land of the Great Russian serf”

October 19, 2014

Near the beginning of The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865), Leskov writes a chapter exposing the horrors of now-abolished slavery. This isn’t unique for early Leskov — slaves are made to fight in a story told in Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-72) — but the story of Prince Aggei Lukich Surskii in The Bypassed is as intense as the much later “Toupee Artist” (Тупейный художник, 1883) and “Ancient Psychopaths” (Старинные психопаты, 1885).* Surskii, a polished and ambitious aging aristocrat whose fingernails are often mentioned, suffers a reversal of fortune and has to retire to his estate, where he becomes a tyrant.

Leskov’s rhetoric escalates: horrors become more detailed, less expected, and closer to home for non-peasant readers. First we hear Surskii gave out lash-strokes to his slaves by the hundreds, and we’re appalled, but hardly surprised. Slaves are driven to suicide because they can’t stand the physical pain. A woman landowner brings her coachman so Surskii, as a locally renowned disciplinarian, can beat him as an example to her other slaves. Surskii has him whipped. Then he has her, the landowner, whipped. He has a French governess whipped, though she holds a knife to her throat. He tries to have an “American Yankee” overseer beaten, but the American escapes brandishing two loaded pistols. This enrages Surskii so much that, while having everyone who let the American escape whipped, he has a “fatal attack of apoplexy.” (See part 1, chapter 2, especially pp. 11-16.) Surskii is like Vishnevskii in “Ancient Psychopaths”: besides their slaves, both get away with having people beaten over whom they have no legal power. Both have at least one biological child among their slaves.

But that isn’t why I started this post. Surskii considers no one worthy to be his son’s godfather, but even the terrified and paid-off local priest won’t let him be godfather to his own son, so he forces a random peasant to be godfather, then gives him money and freedom papers and sends his family away:

The prince’s orders were executed with precision. The family of the newborn princelet’s accidental sponsor — wailing quietly and sorrowfully lamenting, and mourned by their relatives by blood and marriage — left their native village a day later on shaggy horses they had raised themselves. Pursued by a terrible apparition of the fearsome prince, they started off from their native trans-Volga steppes far, far away to flourishing trans-Dnieper Ukraine, that promised land of the Great Russian serf [крепостной] fleeing his sad, sad life. (12)

The “promised land” image makes me think of how the Pharaoh-Moses-out of Egypt-mountaintop-promised land allegory has been used about American slavery and its aftermath. But what kind of promised land was trans-Dnieper Ukraine for Leskov’s narrator or “the Great Russian serf”? I don’t think it meant acquiring a new legal status by leaving the Russian Empire for the Habsburg Empire — as far as I can tell, “trans-Dnieper Ukraine” meant Russian-controlled central Ukraine, not modern-day western Ukraine around Lviv (then Lemberg).

I’m still getting my bearings in the novel, but I think Surskii moves to his estate after either 1796 or 1801. Maybe at this time Russian peasants remembered a partially historical, partially legendary chaotic borderland of Cossack freedom. At the same time, maybe there’s supposed to be dramatic irony, with the narrator (and, he assumes, the reader) believing that the serfs were incorrect about their promised land, and that landowners from the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were even more tyrannical than Russian ones (cf. Leskov’s brutal Vishnevskii or Nekrasov’s Pan Glukhovskii from “On Two Great Sinners” [О двух великих грешниках]). I’m honestly not sure, and I’m probably overthinking it. Do any of you know exactly what made trans-Dnieper Ukraine a promised land for serfs in the eyes of an 1865 reading public or the serfs of several decades earlier?

* I’m reading a 1902 edition of The Bypassed, and I hereby make a note to myself to check if the Prince Surskii story was the same in 1865 or was revised near the time of those 1880s stories.

Leskov, ethnographer of the Jews

October 14, 2014

Some time ago I was looking at the word кагал and portrayals of Jews in Leskov’s “Episcopal Justice” (Владычный суд, 1877) and “Yid Somersault” (“Жидовская кувырколлегия,” 1882). I’ve just read an article by Gabriella Safran that tries to get at Leskov’s ideas about Jews through “a series of twenty articles on Judaism and Jewish rituals” that Leskov published in 1880, 1881, and 1884. Where did Leskov learn so much (sometimes inaccurate) specific information about holidays, prayers, rituals, and legends?

He appears to have taken the first drafts of his pieces in their entirety from a single book, Obriady evreiskie [Rituals of the Jews], that was published in 1830 in Orel, Leskov’s home town. It was edited by a person who was not the writer and who sometimes contradicted the writer in the footnotes. It may have been translated into Russian from German or Latin by a person with some knowledge of Hebrew and of Judaism who added the notes. The book contains twenty-seven chapters, the first sixteen of which cover precisely the same topics as Leskov’s articles, in the same order. (241-42, link added)

“In the same order,” even! But since Leskov is Leskov, the story doesn’t end with this unmasking of plagiarism; instead, it’s worth going into how Leskov did or didn’t follow his source material.

There are a lot of contexts for Safran to consider. The 1830 book was unflattering to Jews and full of inaccuracies, but, Safran thinks, it may have been a response to the more anti-Jewish 1828 book Обряды жидовские (Rituals of the Yids); responding to the 1828 book’s allegations that Jews were dangerous, the 1830 book claims they are harmless and silly (242). Leskov may have been staking out an analogous position in the 1880 incarnation of the debate: as others ask “do they threaten us or not?” he replies that their traditions are interesting and quaint (242-43).

From the first articles to the last, Leskov’s position seems to grow less anti-Jewish. It’s hard to tell, though: he promised to be hostile to the Jews when trying to sell the series of articles to Aleksei Suvorin (who, by the end of the 1870s, “was known as an outspoken judeophobe”), and the first four articles may have been calculated to please Suvorin or edited to be more anti-Jewish by Suvorin’s staff (237-39, 244). Safran also writes that “Leskov consciously battled his own judeophobic tendencies throughout his life, and especially in the 1880s,” and notes that as “judeophobic voices sounded especially loudly in the Russian press” in the wake of the 1881-82 pogroms, Leskov, always swimming against the current, moved away from judeophobia (as did Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin at the same time, 244-45).

Safran compares Leskov’s articles on the Jews to two distinct nineteenth-century traditions, Victorian anthropology and Russian ethnography. In England and Western Europe, anthropologists looked at a distant other and implicitly tried “to demonstrate that the group they described was less ‘civilized’ than the one doing the describing.” Meanwhile Russian ethnographers looked inward, seeking an understanding of what made “the Russian people [...] unique” in a “nonjudgmental and descriptive” way, and were “concerned more with amassing data on the peasants’ beliefs, language, and folklore than with measuring skulls or determining whether all humans possess the same genetic heritage” (243-44). Leskov was like the Victorian anthropologists when he followed the 1830 book he was cribbing his articles from, and like the nonjudgmental Russian ethnographers when he expanded and embroidered on his source (244).

Even though in 1880s Russia “most non-Jews saw Judaism as an excessively formal religion, a perfect example of the ritualism that Tolstoy and his followers criticized,” Leskov couldn’t help becoming more sympathetic to Judaism as he immersed himself in rituals and legends. Safran draws a parallel between Leskov’s failure to condemn Jewish formal ritualism and his “only somewhat successful” efforts to transform stories from the Prolog (“an ancient collection of saints’ lives, sermons, and didactic tales”) so that they would “draw in the simple reader with their canonical plots, but then reveal the falsity of a Christianity based on formal observance of rituals and show the superiority of good deeds to traditional rites” (248). Leskov’s need to embroider everything he wrote instead of hacking it down to a rational minimalist kernel showed that “in the end, Leskov was more interested in the details of culture than in the heights of a noble philosophy, more compelled by the lure of an exotic vision than the arguments for a rational religion” (248). Jewish legends, such as one about the dead being thirsty and drinking out of ponds (246),  were so important to Leskov that he argued with Jewish correspondents about whether contemporary assimilated Jews believed in them — Leskov insisted they did, even if they wouldn’t admit it (249).

One more Jewish/Christian parallel that reveals a general pattern in Leskov’s worldview: Leskov contrasted the “Westernized brand of Judaism” of the St. Petersburg Choral Synagogue — where by 1884 he knew some actual Jewish people (245) — to the “authentic folk culture” of a large synagogue on Pod’iacheskaia Street, calling the second group “Jewish Old Believers [starovery]” (249-50).

See Gabriella Safran, “Ethnography, Judaism, and the Art of Nikolai Leskov,” The Russian Review 59 (2000): 235-51.


October 10, 2014

All of us are the children, and the victims, of the society that has molded our thinking; and even our originality tends to express itself within the conventional patterns of thought and action that each society creates for its individualists. The rebel in nineteenth-century Russian society tended to express his rebellion through such traditional channels of non-conformism as hostility to the tsarist regime, defiance of the Orthodox Church (which he associated with all religion), and reverence for what he thought was science. In this the radical intellectual observed a standard of radical behavior that was probably as rigid in its own way as the conventions of the conservatism he opposed. Leskov’s path of development, on the other hand, was difficult just because it was genuinely independent, and led in a direction that defied analysis in terms of the thought patterns that divided — and therefore united — the conventional radicals and conservatives of his time. (527-28)

This is from a 1953 article by William B. Edgerton, whose translations in Satirical Stories of Nikolai Leskov (1969) are still drawing praise from the likes of Robert Chandler. He was also a trailblazing Leskov scholar, and his work is a pleasure to read, though a lot of what he had to say about English and Protestant influences on Leskov had trickled down to me through Hugh McLean (who translated two of those Satirical Stories besides writing the wonderful Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art).

Edgerton’s article is about the “literary heretics” Leskov and Tolstoi, and he makes the case that Leskov considered himself a follower of Tolstoi’s “from the time of their first meeting in 1887 until Leskov’s death in 1895,” but he also quotes both Leskov and Tolstoi as saying that Leskov got to the late-Tolstoyan ideas first (525). There was a turning point for Leskov on a trip to Western Europe in 1875. Reading books banned in Russia and talking to intellectuals with a non-Russian perspective led him to reevaluate his thinking about religion and the Orthodox Church: “had I read all the many things I have now read on this subject and heard all that I have now heard, I would not have written The Cathedral Folk as I did write it, for that would have been distasteful to me” (533-34; see this letter of July 29, 1875 to P. K. Shchebal’skii). Tolstoi’s role, Edgerton argues, is as “a sort of catalytic agent in Leskov’s philosophy, crystallizing a set of convictions, a world outlook, that had been in the process of formation since Leskov’s early childhood” (525). McLean would expand on this line of thinking, and more recently Irmhild Christina Sperrle has argued that despite both men’s claims that Leskov was a Tolstoyan, Leskov’s ideas were never as similar to Tolstoi’s as they appeared to be to many observers (see her contrast of their philosophies and aesthetic methods in two treatments of a “three questions” story).

Edgerton also touched on Tolstoi’s humorlessness:

Leskov at his best, however, was able to fulfill Tolstoy’s own requirements for good art: he was able to “infect” the reader with feelings of unity with all mankind. Moreover, he did this in stories that were suffused with a warmth and humor that have no counterpart anywhere in Tolstoy. Space does not permit the discussion that ought to be given in support of this heretical opinion about these two gifted heretics. I will say only that in addition to the works already mentioned I have in mind such stories by Leskov as “Pugalo” (The Scarecrow), “Figura,” “Tomlenie Dukha” (Anguish of Spirit), “Skomorokh Pamfalon” (Pamphalon the Clown), “The Sentry” (Čelovek na časakh), “Pustopljasy,” and “The Beast” (Zver’). (532, link added)

See William B. Edgerton, “Leskov and Tolstoy: Two Literary Heretics,” American Slavic and East European Review 12.4 (1953): 524-34. I rather wish Edgerton’s title “The One-Track Mind” had caught on for Leskov’s Однодум (1879), which I’ve seen rendered as “Singlethought” and “The Monognome.” I suppose you could argue that “The One-Track Mind” is too normal, while “Singlethought” is the same kind of easily understood but unusual compound as однодум, but it doesn’t feel the same somehow. The word однодум exists in a marginal way outside of and even before Leskov in print, and I’m not sure the same is true of “singlethought” or “monognome.”


Leskov on the Old Believers and the radicals

October 9, 2014

In the early 1860s, Russian radicals thought the Old Believers might be their allies in a coming revolution, on the logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” This was argued about in the press, and it bled into literature, with Pisemskii in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) and Leskov in “The Musk-Ox” (Овцебык, 1863), No Way Out (Некуда, 1864), and “An Enigmatic Man” (Загадочный человек, 1870) discussing the subject quite directly. It’s even possible that the name Raskolnikov (which is the word for ‘schismatic, Old Believer’ plus the last name suffix -ov) in Dostoevskii’s Crime and Punishment (Преступление и наказание, 1866) was chosen to refer to this dispute. Katkov was publishing articles attacking the idea of an Old Believer–radical alliance from at least 1862 to 1867, even as he serialized Troubled Seas and Crime and Punishment.

This much I knew, but thanks to Inès Müller de Morogues I’ve learned more about the debate and Leskov’s extensive participation in it.

IMdM dates the idea to an 1859 doctoral thesis by the radical historian A. P. Shchapov, who “put forward the entirely new idea that the schism was also a social phenomenon.” Radicals came to see the schismatics as “a political force, a revolutionary element,” while conservatives wanted to interpret the schism in strictly religious terms (400). The conservatives drew on the work of, among others, Mel’nikov-Pecherskii.

At this time Alexander II wanted to pursue a comparatively tolerant policy toward the Old Believers, and Leskov was sent by the government to Pskov and Riga to investigate the schism there. He published his findings in 1863, but the book was printed in only 60 copies, and he recycled bits and pieces of it in other articles through the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s (400-01). Presumably his time in Riga and Pskov helped make his portrait of Old Believers in Moscow so vivid in book 2 of No Way Out.

As was often the case with Leskov, his view on the Old Believer question had something to displease everyone. He had no use for the idea that Old Believers could be allies of revolutionaries and sided with Mel’nikov-Pecherskii against Shchapov, suggesting that his own (and Mel’nikov-Pecherskii’s) direct experience with Old Believers was more valuable than Shchapov’s toiling in archives. He also thought the Old Believers were too internally divided to be a singular political force of any kind (404-07).

He opposed measures to persecute or forcibly assimilate the Old Believers, and wanted them to be provided with their own schools, which should not be controlled by Orthodox clergy (409-10). But he considered their form of religion a fanatical commitment to formal ritual that contradicted the living and changing spirit of Christ (407-08). (Cf. in this connection Sperrle’s idea of his “organic worldview.”)

It irritated Leskov when people failed to distinguish between different types of Old Believers or conflated schismatics and heretics. Leskov supported Andrei Zhuravlev’s classification of Old Believers into popovtsy and bespopovtsy, groups who did or did not acknowledge any genuine priests. There were endless subdivisions within these groups. Though Leskov knew a great deal about these subgroups and their history, he found that, at least in Pskov, the Old Believers themselves did not know what group they belonged to and were content to declare that they “followed the old way” (401-02).

The priestless Old Believers, who held that the line of apostolic succession had ended with seventeenth-century reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church, had to develop ways to live without sacraments, including marriage. Some groups had officially forbidden, secret quasi-marriages; others had “free marriages,” performed according to different rites, but without priests or legal contracts. This especially interested Leskov, whose first marriage was extremely unhappy, and who hated the rules of the Orthodox Church that made divorce difficult but also hated civil marriage (401-03). Here Leskov comes around to the radicals again. He disapproves of the way certain Old Believer men treat their unofficial wives and refuse to acknowledge their children, and he compares this to what the radicals considered their pro-woman belief in sexual freedom, wishing to “remind the radicals that free love benefits men more than women” (404).

See Inès Müller de Morogues, “Leskov face aux schismatiques,” Cahiers du Monde russe et soviétique 29.3-4 (1988): 399-414.

Leskov rewrites the What Is to Be Done? sewing co-operative

October 7, 2014

The main points of J. G. K. Russell’s “Leskov and His Quarrel with the Men of the Sixties” (1970) are now familiar. Russell looks at “The Musk-Ox” (Овцебык, 1863), No Way Out (Некуда, 1864), The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865), “An Enigmatic Man” (Загадочный человек, 1870), At Daggers Drawn (На ножах, 1870-71), and Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-72) as anti-nihilist works and concludes that “the stronger the nihilists, the weaker the novel” (127). These days “The Musk-Ox” and Cathedral Folk are the best remembered of the six, because the positive elements in them overwhelm the negative portrayals of “new men.” It’s a bit like Protopopov’s 1891 argument about Leskov’s “sick talent,” but applied within the early works, instead of contrasting 1863-1872 to Leskov’s later efforts.

Russell also classifies Leskov’s nihilists:

(a) the Nichiporenko type, the immeasurably stupid, unbearably self-confident nullity portrayed in [No Way Out] as Parkhomenko and in ‘An Enigmatic Man’ as the original Nichiporenko,

(b) the type totally lacking in conscience which appears in [No Way Out] in the gang of St. Petersburg nihilists who leach on the hero Rayner, in [Cathedral Folk] as the double-dealing Termosyosov, and in [At Daggers Drawn] as the fine flower of nihilism, the murderous Gordanov, and

(c) the idealist revolutionary, an early version of which we find in [‘The Musk-Ox,’] the continuation of it in Rayner, and, of course, the Benny of [‘An Enigmatic Man’] who died of an insignificant wound in an unimportant and unnecessary battle. (126-27, line breaks added)

What Russell offers that Leskov scholars usually don’t is a detailed reading of The Bypassed:

It might be permissible to regard [The Bypassed] as an attempt by Leskov to repair Chernyshevsky’s clumsy structure or even to knock it down and build it again differently. In both novels the heroines set up a dressmaker’s shop and conduct this as a co-operative in which the seamstresses have as much say as the employers. The essential difference between the two undertakings is that the first is a social experiment and the second an effective apparatus for earning a living. The second version is preferable from the point of view of artistic verisimilitude. From this same point of view Leskov also felt that, in creating an egalitarian atmosphere, it was not sufficient to make a bald statement of the existence of equality between workers and owners but that the existence of this condition should be demonstrated by means of concrete examples. [...] The most important difference between Leskov’s novel and its model is that the seamstresses in [The Bypassed] have individual personalities; they are not part of a flat colourless backdrop against which the main characters stand out as the only living beings on the scene. The reproach Leskov seems to be directing at Chernyshevsky is that there can be no equality between three-dimensional heroes and shadows. (120)

Other contrasts: in What Is to Be Done? Lopukhov and Kirsanov (“no flower-child either”) are “men of iron” like in “TV westerns”; they pick people up and put them in the gutter, or fight back physically when underpaid for a job. Leskov’s Dolin’skii, on the other hand, “rescues the small child of one of the seamstresses when the little boy has climbed out onto a window ledge after a pigeon,” and this non-violent bit of heroism, if “no less a cliché,” helps make “the co-operative seem a real place inhabited by living people rather than theorems” (121-22). Finally, Chernyshevskii’s new men “are superior to society, despise it rather, whereas Leskov’s heroes are, as indicated by the title of the novel, beneath the notice of society” (122).

You’d think making the rank-and-file seamstresses into flesh-and-blood characters would make The Bypassed more memorable than Chernyshevskii’s novel, but even Leskov scholars don’t care for it: Lev Anninskii says it was “half-forgotten, and rightly so” by the end of Leskov’s career, and Hugh McLean demolishes it in a couple paragraphs (“In the midst of all this sentimental balderdash [...] Leskov injects his inevitable denunciation of the nihilists,” 144-45). There are apparently many reasons for its failure, including that Leskov’s “nihilists’ arguments are made to seem so silly that their opponents have no difficulty in dismissing them with a bon mot or a curt rebuttal [...] The nihilists are presented here as buffoons whose every utterance provokes mocking laughter from their listeners” (119).

JGKR was also struck by the same quote about Gordanov from At Daggers Drawn as I was last year, where the narrator contrasts him to earlier models of literary nihilists. See J. G. K. Russell, “Leskov and His Quarrel with the Men of the Sixties,” Canadian Slavonic Papers/Revue canadienne des slavistes 12.2 (1970): 108-27.

Words new to me: игра в жгуты

October 6, 2014
Le Jeu de la main chaude (c. 1775-80) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Le Jeu de la main chaude (c. 1775-80) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

The игра в жгуты is apparently a game equivalent to the French jeu de la main chaude or the English “hot cockles.” One player bent forward, hands stretched backward; one of the other players hit the first player’s hands with something (a switch, a thin piece of cord; the Russian name of the game comes from жгут ‘braided cord’); and the first player had to guess who it was. Because of the position of the blind player, in France the name of the game was a euphemism for the guillotine.

In Viazemskii’s Old Notebook (Старая записная книжка, this part apparently from 1850 or 1852, but published posthumously in 1884), some Turks play жгуты while others, “disturbed neither by our presence nor by their brothers’ games,” face east for their evening prayer.

The younger guests at Ol’ga Nikanorovna’s country house in Ol’ga N.’s “Two Meetings” (Два свиданья, 1865) played hot cockles, forfeits (фанты), and “most often of all French charades en action” while the older guests played cards (219).

The same pastime, or at least the same word, appears in Vsevolod Krestovskii’s The Slums of Petersburg (Петербургские трущобы, 1864-66), as the last in a long list of prison games in an enormous footnote, but in the prison version one man lies on a cot and others keep hitting him hard on the back with the cord until he guesses right and trades places with the man whose identity he guessed.


Backwards canon

October 3, 2014

I finished What Is to Be Done? about a month ago, and as you see I’ve been slow to post about it. I think it has to do with the order I read things in. I started with Crime and Punishment as a teenager with little life experience and no knowledge of Russian, and I wasn’t much older when I read Anna KareninaFathers and SonsDead Souls, and Resurrection. When I began to read in Russian in college, The GamblerThe Insulted and the Injured, and War and Peace still seemed like a new thing I was experiencing for myself. And now I thoroughly enjoy books like At Daggers Drawn or Troubled Seas that even after graduate school I’ve heard relatively little about.

But in between there were books like Oblomov and What Is to Be Done? that I’d heard discussed so much before I read them that they weren’t half as much fun as they should have been. It wasn’t that the plots had been spoiled. I felt like more than 100 years of critics’ and readers’ attitudes had been distilled and trickled down to me through offhand remarks and conversations with professors. I knew what I was supposed to think, and it didn’t help that I often did think it.

This has me wondering: does anyone ever read through some set of literary works backwards? Could you decide in advance you were committed to reading classical epic poems, start with the most obscure ones that have been preserved, and work your way up to Vergil and Homer?

Here’s one way it could work for nineteenth-century Russian:

  • Year 1: Gnedich, Zagoskin, Butkov, Krestovskii, Avdeev, Mamin-Sibiriak, Ol’ga N., Vovchok, Sleptsov
  • Year 2: Viazemskii, Merzliakov, Del’vig, Ryleev, Ogarev, Mel’nikov-Pecherskii, Sluchevskii, Nadson
  • Year 3: Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, Gan, Druzhinin, Grigorovich, Tur, Mei, Grigor’ev, Panaeva, Shcherbina, Polonskii, Gleb Uspenskii, Korolenko
  • Year 4: Zhukovskii, Baratynskii, Kol’tsov, Griboedov, Odoevskii, Vel’tman, Pavlova, Goncharov, Gertsen, Maikov, Ostrovskii, A. K. Tolstoi, “Koz’ma Prutkov,” Chernyshevskii, Saltykov-Shchedrin
  • Year 5: Batiushkov, Krylov, Lermontov, Tiutchev, Turgenev, Sukhovo-Kobylin, Pisemskii, Fet, Nekrasov, Leskov
  • Year 6: Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevskii, Lev Tolstoi, Chekhov

You could start on year 2 or year 3 if you wanted, but the key would be to read down the list instead of up. It might be hard to find Zagoskin in translation (though it’s easier than I thought) or to learn Russian well without encountering Pushkin along the way. But if it were possible, I bet it would be amazing. The combination of knowing the context better than I used to, but not knowing the book, made Men of the Forties a great joy, and I’ll always wonder what it would be like to read Eugene Onegin or The Idiot that way.


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