Skip to content


July 11, 2020


Mogilianskii on The Masons

July 9, 2020

I started reading Mogilianskii’s book to see what he had to say about The Masons (Масоны, 1880), and I’ve finally got to that part. I absolutely agree with his reading of Zverev and Sverstov and Chentsov and I think Marfin too. And I was pleasantly surprised that he considers it Pisemskii’s best novel! If I had to rank them today, I’d put it second, after Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), but ahead of In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871), Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869), and A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858). I still need to read The Bourgeois (Мещане, 1877). But I definitely agree that The Masons wins for “artistic unity.” Here is Mogilianskii:

The Masons is as massive and varied as Men of the Forties, but more unified

It’s obvious at first glance that The Masons is different from Pisemskii’s three previous novels, and further study only strengthens that impression (143). In the Whirlpool and The Bourgeois had both been tightly limited in place and time (143). The Masons is like Men of the Forties in that it covers a massive area, chronologically, spatially, and otherwise (143). But unlike Men of the Forties, the parts of The Masons are held together in a complex unity (143).

A philosophical novel with historical and sociological aspects

The complexity and uniqueness of The Masons aren’t evident at the beginning (144). In the early chapters, physiological (and almost zoological) elements predominate over the ascetic Masonic beliefs of the main character, Marfin (144). Later in the novel the ascetic/Masonic element gets more prominent, but it will both have a dialectical self-negation in itself and it will be defeated on purely philosophical grounds (144).

The Masons is thus a philosophical novel, but this doesn’t prevent Pisemskii from also addressing philosophical/historical questions, and to some extent sociological ones which occasionally take on a political flavor (144). These questions are worked out in the novel through a detective fiction–like element of the plot (144). Pisemskii successfully used the criminal plotline to develop both the Masonic theme and the philosophical/historical and political ones (144).

Important elements: a detective story, Masonic and anti-Masonic views, Marfin’s asceticism, and the appearance of real historical figures as characters

In part 1, chapter 7, new characters are introduced in connection with the murder of the merchant’s agent (kupecheskii prikazchik) Vasilii, who had been transporting a large sum of money to Nizhny Novgorod (144). The most important is Dr. Sergei Nikolaevich Sverstov, who plays a major role in solving the murder and also in resolving the Masonic and anti-Masonic philosophical themes (144).

Another key part of the novel is the development of the contrast between the ascetic Marfin and his Don Juan of a nephew, the spendthrift Chentsov (144). This doesn’t go in the expected direction, and the tragedy of Chentsov’s death is a major component of the part of the novel that could be called “the philosophy of life” (144). Also important in the philosophy-of-life part of the novel is Aggei Nikitich Zverev, who is important for the Masonic theme, and the theme of Marfin’s asceticism, and the solving of the murder (144). Zverev’s unusual and contradictory personality means that he can interact with a wide variety of other characters, from the grasping Miropa Zudchenko the imperturbable Mason Vibel’ (144).

One more element we should include in our enumeration is the fact that The Masons is a historical novel where historical figures appear as characters, including the brilliant and progressive government official Mikhail Speranskii and the reactionary Prince Aleksandr Golitsyn (144–45).

What makes The Masons different from Pisemskii’s other works is the number of different things he is doing at once and the way all the different ingredients are connected to each other (145). This makes Pisemskii’s last finished work particularly important and substantive (145).

Marfin’s asceticism is critiqued by the sympathetic Dr. Sverstov

The historical layer of The Masons is primarily the story of the Masonic movement after it was outlawed (145). For this reason a number of historical figures who had played significant roles in the earlier legal Masonic movement are introduced (145). The main character, Marfin, is based on Fedor Nikolaevich Glinka (145). F. N. Glinka also appeared in The Bourgeois, and as is often the case with Pisemskii, Marfin is based not only on Glinka, but is rather a composite of several figures (145n156). Glinka also appears in The Masons directly, as the author of religious/mystical poems, which were written by Vladimir Solov’ev to be included in the novel (145).

Marfin’s asceticism, including his decision to have a platonic marriage, is central to the semantic structures of The Masons (145). The failure of his first attempt to get married, which ends with the death of Liudmila Ryzhova at the beginning of part 2, did not stop him (145). He pursues Liudmila’s younger sister Susanna, using Speranskii’s suggestions to guide her in her reading (145). Marfin does marry Susanna, and their platonic marriage becomes the focus of the novel (145). Pisemskii traces in detail the married Susanna’s attraction to the young Uglakov, which takes up much of part 4 (145). The attention paid to Susanna and Uglakov fits with the philosophical message of the entire novel, which is against religion, mysticism, and idealism in general (145). It is significant that when Dr. Sverstov (the author’s favorite character) finds out about the mutual attraction between Susanna and Uglakov, he says it’s a law of nature and there’s nothing one can do about it (145). Sverstov had earlier in the novel had an argument with Marfin about asceticism; the doctor called it “egoism personified and practically idiocy”; after Marfin’s death and Susanna’s quick remarriage to Terkhov [Uglakov had also died by this point], Sverstov again says something ironic about Marfin’s platonic marriage, citing the authority of “all physiologists” (146).

Masonic ideas are also critiqued, but not by Sverstov

The author’s sympathy for Sverstov comes out of Sverstov’s democratic leanings: Sverstov wants to spread Masonry to the peasants (146). He has Sverstov criticize Marfin’s asceticism and platonic marriage (146). But he leaves criticism of Masonic ideas to another character: “What does Masonry mean today…? An empty word without any content!” [in the text a non-Mason bishop, whom Marfin is visiting to plead the case of a priest who is a Mason, seems to say those words with a look, while saying something else out loud, and it’s not clear this is the authorial position—EM] (146). Besides this, a character named Batenev (that is, Iurii Nikitich Bartenev, already known to the reader from Troubled Seas) critiques Masonry from a pro–natural sciences position, ending with “Когда Ванька поет, так уж Машка молчи!,” meaning that when Van’ka, who represents the natural sciences that are making major discoveries all the time, is singing, then Mashka, representing “all religions and abstract philosophies” including the Masons’, should be silent (146).

Sverstov solves the murder of Vasia Tuluzov

Thus the novel exposes Masonry to a devastating critique, but the ever objective Pisemskii found positive characters among the Masons too, first among them Sverstov (146). This is why Sverstov is given the most important role in solving the murder of Vasia Tuluzov; Sverstov was the doctor called on by the police to examine the young man’s dead body (146). The beginning of the novel, with talk of Halley’s Comet and rumors of prophets and catastrophes, puts the reader in a mystical frame of mind, independent of Masonic ideas (146–47). Sverstov, impelled by an internal feeling and by the mood generated by this atmosphere of mystery and doom, resolves to catch the murderer who killed Tuluzov (147). This can’t happen until many other events take place: Chentsov commits suicide, and his widow, Catherine Krapchik, is seduced by her estate manager (who had a hand in Chentsov’s separation from Catherine and, indirectly, his death) and marries him (147). Sverstov learns that Catherine’s second husband goes by the name Vasilii Tuluzov and springs into action as a detective (147).

The cases of Tuluzov and Liab’ev show the worthlessness of the pre-reform Russian judicial system

The murder of Tuluzov is immensely important in the novel, and it is contrasted to the case of Liab’ev (based on the composer Aliab’ev), who is wrongly accused of murdering Count Indobskii during a card game (147). Through these two murder cases Pisemskii shows his contempt for the pre-reform Russian judicial system (147). L’iab’ev’s sentence is called barbaric, and the impostor Tuluzov is never sentenced for killing the real Tuluzov at all; this leads to Pisemskii’s refrain that “there is no place for decent people in government service” (147). In this case it is supplemented by “it is getting impossible to live any kind of life,” which anticipates the revolutionary M. K. Tsebrikova’s letters to Alexander III that were published abroad illegally (147). Though Sverstov is a positive character, the narrator remarks on his naivete for thinking he can get justice through the Russian courts (147).

Characters are complicated: even the worst characters can be sympathetic, and even the best ones do bad things

The world of injustice revealed by the cases of Tuluzov and Liab’ev are one of the most important aspects of the novel after its anti-Masonic philosophical thrust (147). But the novel does not deal in absolute Good and Evil: Marfin, who tries to get justice for the murdered Tuluzov, is far from an ideal character, and the pseudo-Tuluzov who uses the dead man’s passport displays ability and intelligence, including in matters that are for the good of the people (narod) (147). But the relativity of ethical categories and the complexity of human behavior are given particular attention in the characters of Valer’ian Chentsov and Aggei Zverev (147).

Valer’ian Chentsov: a cynical and debauched nobleman who kills himself over love for a peasant woman

Chentsov is a variation on familiar themes, and his life could be summarized in a few unflattering words (147–48). Though he is good-natured, his cynicism and immorality are extreme (148). That said, his psychological makeup ends up not being entirely compatible with his lifestyle of constant vice (148). After he marries Catherine Krapchik for money, he has an affair with a married peasant woman, Aksin’ia (148). He is forcibly separated from Aksin’ia by his now ex-wife Catherine and kills himself (148). This is the third variation on the theme of A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859), after Troubled Seas and Former Falcons (Бывые соколы, written 1865, published in part 1868, in full 1886) [what about Implev and Plavin from Men of the Forties? Is it a question of house slaves vs. field slaves?EM?] (148). Like A Bitter Fate but unlike Troubled Seas and Former Falcons, in The Masons the married peasant woman voluntarily has a sexual relationship with a nobleman (148). But Chentsov and Aksin’ia’s relationship is otherwise nothing like the one in A Bitter Fate (148). It seems disgusting to the reader in the beginning: the worst form of slaveholder debauchery, aided by an experienced procuress (148). Malan’ia, the first peasant woman Chentsov found through the procuress, disgusted him with how obviously she wanted money, but the second, Aksin’ia, impressed him by being unusual and disinterestedly attracted to him: she was from a well-to-do peasant household and did not love her husband, whom she hadn’t seen in three years (148). She is nothing like Lizaveta from A Bitter Fate, but then, Chentov isn’t anything like Cheglov-Sokovin either (148).

Captain Aggei Zverev: he represents Russian and real life, but love leads him to commit crimes

Captain Aggei Nikitich Zverev is like no other character in Pisemskii’s works, unlike the superficially banal Chentsov (148). Marfin is formally the main character of The Masons, but Aggei Nikitich is the true main character; his functions in the novel are numerous and complex (148). Zverev has all the features of (Pisemskii’s idea of) a typical Russian nature and of real life in general (148). He is above all a seeker who is driven by a spiritual thirst (148). But he is overcome by an ordinary love that leads him to criminal acts (148). He is overcome by life as such, but this does not turn him into an ordinary, unremarkable person (148). On the contrary, he is quite distinctive, which makes it hard to give a brief description of him (148). In The Masons as a philosophical novel, Aggei Nikitich symbolizes life (148). His character is drawn in an optimistic way, and this gives the whole novel a feeling of optimism (148).

Other characters: a priest who leaves Masonry for science, a highly moral German Mason, and the latter’s Polish wife, who brings another language into the text

What has been said here does not exhaust the complexity and depth of PIsemskii’s last novel (148). We have not even mentioned so important a character as the priest Vasilii, who leaves Masonry and finds his place in science (148–49). Nor have we said anything about the moral grandeur of the German apothecary Vibel’ or his Polish wife, who brings a memorable strain of colloquial Polish into Pisemskii’s multilingual novel (149). S. Khoroshevskii’s memoirs say that Pisemskii put a good deal of thought into the Polish passages as he worked on The Masons: Severnyi krai, 1900, no. 19, p. 3 (149n158).

The Masons as Pisemskii’s best novel, despite the decline in other areas of his life and works in his final years

We can rightfully speak of Pisemskii’s last novel as the peak of his novelistic art (149). On the one hand this seems improbable, as the writer’s physical and moral strength was waning (149). In his dramatic works, he clearly declined after Baal, to the point that he couldn’t even finish A Domestic Pool (Семейный омут, also called Old Accounts or Старые счеты, 1876–80) (149). But we don’t see any similar decline in The Masons: it is his most complex and deep work and at the same time the one that reflects the most varied spheres of life while retaining a great artistic unity (149).

See chapter 10, “Последние романы [The Last Novels]” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 136–149.

Constance Garnett’s family history and alleged prudishness

July 8, 2020

My fellow Constance Garnett fans will want to read Olga Zilberbourg’s post about her over at Punctured Lines. I get what Zilberbourg means when she says Garnett wasn’t a Victorian prude, and I take her point, but I wonder if “strong views about the privacy of sexual matters,” like Garnett’s, are what Victorian prudishness boiled down to anyway. (Looking through past posts about Garnett, I see I once suggested she might have skipped a page of Goncharov out of prudishness, though I’m still not sure what the most likely explanation is.)

Before reading Carolyn Gold Heilbrun (pen name: Amanda Cross), Zilberbourg had had the impression that Garnett “fell to translating from Russian almost randomly.” After reading a piece by Rosamund Bartlett, I’d come to think Garnett got into translating with the help of Russian native speaker friends and lovers. But it turns out that Garnett was also the granddaughter of Peter Black, “Naval Architect to the Tsar, Nicholas I,” who is buried at Kronstadt. Her father, David Black, grew up in Russia. So she has ties to the culture on all sides, which helps explain how she did so much so well without the dictionaries and online tools Russian-to-English translators have today. (Which didn’t save her from being made fun of by literature professors through the second half of the twentieth century!)

Mogilianskii on The Bourgeois

July 7, 2020

Mogilianskii doesn’t have much to say about the critical reception of The Bourgeois (Мещане, 1877), which I initially assumed meant there wasn’t much contemporary reception at all (because of that conspiracy of silence about Pisemskii from democratic critics), but I see that N. K. Mikhailovskii did write about the novel, and I now think Mogilianskii was covertly arguing with him about what kind of positive character Begushev was supposed to be, but didn’t want to make it look like he disagreed with one of the Soviet-approved nineteenth-century critics. (I’m not sure that was so big an issue in 1991, but I also think Mogilianskii must have worked on this book for a long time before finding an opportunity to publish it during perestroika.) This is the only one of Pisemskii’s six long novels that I haven’t read, so I have nothing to add to what Mogilianskii says.

Novels 5 and 6 are a pair of opposites and each is also opposed to novels 3 and 4

Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) and In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871) were contradictory in many ways, and so was the pair of novels that followed them, The Bourgeois and The Masons (Масоны, 1880) (136). Each of the latter two is also neatly opposed to the former two (136). But in all four novels taken together, there is a certain unified plan and clearly overlapping leitmotifs (136).

Commentators misread The Bourgeois, incorrectly taking it as satire and seeing nobles and bourgeois as discrete camps

The novels became more distinctive from one to the next, and The Bourgeois is already so distinctive that it is difficult to categorize (136). It has never yet been adequately analyzed, with even major scholars failing to understand it (136). On the surface it is about a contrast between the rising bourgeoisie and the decaying nobility (136). In this it is like Boborykin’s later novel Kitay-gorod (Китай-город, 1882) [this novel is sometimes referred to as Chinatown in English, but I think that’s misleadingEM]; the two novels are connected (136).

The main mistake commentators have made is to take The Bourgeois as satirical, with the protagonist Begushev as a positive character, idealized by the author, in contrast to the “bourgeois” characters (136). But in the text of the novel, bourgeois and nobles are not actually distinct opposing groups, as the bourgeois group includes noblemen (Iansutskii) and even ones with titles (Count Khvostikov) (136).

The love plot and Pisemskii’s moral and immoral female characters

Pisemskii ties his novel to philosophical, historical, and sociological issues, which means the arguments between Begushev and his friend the high-ranking official Tiumenev are very important (136). The centrality of the arguments is underscored by the relationship between Begushev and Tiumenev over the course of the novel’s plot (136). The love story in the novel is, on the one hand, a spoonful of sugar to help the philosophical and historical medicine go down for the average reader, but it also has its own aesthetic purpose, and Pisemskii had never before reached such heights in this respect (137).

From his earliest works, Pisemskii had always chosen morally pure heroines (нравственно чистые героини) in his longer works: Anna Pavlovna, Lidiia, Vera Enzaeva, Nasten’ka, Evpraksiia Sabakeeva, Marie Eismond, Elena Zhiglinskaia) (137). These female characters were opposed to other female characters cut from the opposite kind of moral cloth (женщины противоположного нравственного склада) (137). In Troubled Seas the bad girl, Sophie Leneva, is a more prominent character than the good girl, Evpraksiia Sabakeeva, but Leneva is nevertheless a decidedly negative character, “for all the author’s objectivity” (137).

There are once again two main female characters in The Bourgeois (137). Domna Olukhova, who is the main representative of the kingdom of the “bourgeois,” is undoubtedly the more prominent of the two (137). But although Elizaveta Merova (Count Khvostikov’s daughter) has a more limited part to play, she is more interesting to the author (137). Merova is like Sophie Leneva from Troubled Seas, and indeed her moral and social fall is even more pronounced than Leneva’s (137). However, unlike Leneva, Merova is not treated as a negative character in the slightest (137). The narrator treats Merova as a speck of dust drifting in the wind, and even at the end of the novel her psychology is characterized by childlike naivete and purity (137).

The male bourgeois characters are not the focus of attention in The Bourgeois, though the plot is driven by events from the bourgeois world

Pisemskii pays less attention to the professionals among the “bourgeois” (1. Khmurin, from Siberia, 2. Ofon’kin, from Berdichev, 3. Colonel Iansutskii, 4. the lawyer Grokhov) (137). The first three of those listed are shown in detail only once, at a dinner at a Moscow hotel on Iansutskii’s name-day (137). Olukhova, Merova, Begushev, and Tiumenev (who had recently arrived from St. Petersburg) are all at the dinner too, and the entrepreneurs all want to be in Tiumenev’s good graces, which gives these chapters the feel of a business deal being closed (137). Olukhova, meanwhile, wants to get Khmurin’s shares at a nominal price (137).

Although we never learn that much about Khmurin or his business, the failure of his company is the central event of the novel and affects many characters (137). In particular it leaves Merova without any means of support, as her lover Iansutskii, who had been paying her expenses, was suddenly poorer and treated her as a luxury he could no longer afford (137). Her father, Count Khvostikov, who had been doing small services for Khmurin and Iansutskii, is also reduced to asking for charity (137–38). Khmurin also affects the plot by telling Domna Olukhova’s father-in-law that Domna is no longer living with Olukhov junior as woman and husband; though Olukhov senior never appears directly in the novel, Khmurin telling him this causes Domna Olukhova to break up with Begushev to reconcile with her husband (who had cheated on her), so that the husband won’t lose his chance at a five-million-ruble inheritance (138). Olukhov the father then dies, and so does young Olukhov, Domna Olukhova’s husband, while on a binge (138). After the collapse of Khmurin’s business, these are the most significant external events in The Bourgeois (138).

The author, however, seems to emphasize the fact that he pays little attention to these “very important” events, describing them in the language of a journalistic summary (138). He does pay a lot of attention to the relationship between Domna Olukhova and Begushev (138). Olukhova’s first husband is merely sketched, but her second husband, the practical Dr. Perekhvatov (who initially appears in the novel separately), is given more attention (138). What interests the novelist most is making sense of the emergent social situation, questions of historical development (138). For this reason he goes off in different directions unrelated to the main thrust of the plot outlined above (138). He also introduces new characters in the middle of the novel (Begushev’s sister, General Trakhov and his wife, Dolgov the journalist) who all have the same purpose: to help the reader understand what Begushev is all about (138).

Begushev as a hybrid of Gertsen and Pisemskii

And the entire point of Aleksandr Ivanovich Begushev is that he stands in for Aleksandr Ivanovich Gertsen (138). Like Gertsen, Begushev was disappointed in the outcome of the revolutions of 1848; he also loved a Natalie who died young; he also had a negative opinion of young Russian émigrés (138). But instead of Gertsen’s activism as a militant political journalist, Begushev only has arguments and conversations (138).

Pisemskii had every reason to fear readers would take Begushev to be an ideal nobleman contrasted to the “bourgeois,” to the Taganka and Iakimanka areas of Moscow (138). This is why he introduces the character of Adelaida Begusheva, a fierce defender of the interests of the nobility as a social estate (138–39). She puts all her effort and a lot of money into supporting economically ruined Russian aristocrats (139). This activity of hers has little direct effect on the major characters of the novel; what is important is the reader’s and her brother Begushev’s attitude toward her charitable work (139). The reader sees a series of “aristocratic monsters honored and practically deified by Adelaida Begusheva” and is delighted to learn that the déclassé Begushev doesn’t share his sister’s sympathy for them (139). Begushev has his own class sympathies, on which more below (139).

Having ensured that readers didn’t see Begushev as an idealized portrayal of a typical Russian nobleman, Pisemskii now had to prevent readers from seeing Begushev as a caricature of Gertsen (139). To this end he creates a caricature of his old university friend Sergei Iur’ev, who had published In the Whirlpool, in the character Dolgov (139). The real Iur’ev was known for translating Lope de Vega and was an expert on world theater; Dolgov spoke Spanish, English, French, Latin, and Greek, and “read Shakespeare in the original” (139). Dolgov has plans to write an article about the theory of drama and the distinctive qualities of Russian drama, but his ideas are so lofty and abstract that Count Khvostikov can’t understand the point he wants to prove (139). Dolgov calls himself a democrat, but his actions are to help members of the nobility (like Khvostikov), includine those who dabble in Slavophilism and spiritism (General Trakhov’s wife) (139). He wants to publish a newspaper with Count Khvostikov whose purpose would be “to raise the spirits of the Russian people, to realize the interrupted historical link between ancient and modern Russia, to remind Russia that it exists!” (139). Dolgov is mocked at several points in the novel for lacking any connection to reality, preferring to flit about between heaven and earth (139–40). Pisemskii was doing three things with this caricature: 1) attacking late Slavophiles associated with Ivan Aksakov, 2) getting even with Iur’ev for the obstacles Iur’ev had put in his way during the publication of In the Whirlpool, and 3) making sure that Begushev wasn’t perceived as a caricature of Gertsen (140).

Through Dolgov (as Iur’ev) we also come to see that Begushev is not exclusively based on Gertsen, but also partly autobiographical (140). Begushev and Dolgov had been friends at the same age as Pisemskii and Iur’ev (140). When Begushev gets in arguments about workers and capitalists (taking the workers’ side), we see not Gertsen, but Pisemskii; in an early draft of The Bourgeois, Begushev refers to the workers’ question as his “favorite question” (140). A sympathetic interest in workers’ welfare had long been a fixed feature of Pisemskii’s worldview, going back to his work as editor of Library for Reading, his novels Troubled Seas and In the Whirlpool, and the writings of his allies (140).

Begushev on workers and capitalists

This position on the workers’ question makes the anti-capitalist zeal of The Bourgeois, as well as the contrast between Begushev and the likes of Khmurin, Iansutskii, and Ofon’kin, especially important, and it reveals a new perspective on the course of future social development (140). This is the main point of connection between In the Whirlpool and The Bourgeois (140). There are also many links between Begushev and two characters from In the Whirlpool, Prince Grigorov and Miklakov (140). Since Miklakov was himself based on Pisemskii, this similarity confirms our belief that Begushev is based on a hybrid of Gertsen and Pisemskii himself (140). In this the semi-autobiographical Begushev is a bit like the semi-autobiographical Pavel Vikhrov of Men of the Forties, who was based on a hybrid of Saltykov-Shchedrin and Pisemskii (140).

More on the romantic plotlines

In this light we should look at the love plot of The Bourgeois differently (140). It is significant that Vikhrov, Miklakov, and Begushev are all confirmed bachelors; this allowed Pisemskii to try all kinds of romantic combinations with these (semi-)autobiographical characters (140–41).

The love affair between Begushev, the opponent of the bourgeois world of Moscow’s “Taganka and Iakimanka,” and Domna Olukhova, the most fully developed representative of that world in the novel, is especially important (141). The aging Begushev’s attraction to Olukhova (who grew up in poverty and now cares a lot about money) is matched only by his contempt for her vulgar bourgeois values; he refers to her as a пошлянка и мещанка and even compares her to a camellia (141). This mixture of love and hate is reminiscent of Baklanov and Sophie Leneva in Troubled Seas or Vikhrov and Kleopatra Fateeva in Men of the Forties (141). But this is the first time the hatred side of the feeling was rooted in social and ideological hostility (141).

The event that causes Olukhova and Begushev to break up is from the bourgeois world; the fear of her husband losing out on a large inheritance is stronger than Olukhova’s feelings for Begushev (141). She tries to get him to compromise: they can have an ordinary adulterous affair, but with her husband living with them under the same roof to protect the money (141). This shows how much she thinks in terms of “Taganka and Iakimanka” and fails to understand her lover’s entire system of values (141). She thinks of everything in terms of return on investment, and therefore, though she lacks nothing, thinks about the gifts Begushev might give her rather than anything related to Begushev’s core interests (141).

The rest of Olukhova’s story is tied to the five-million-ruble inheritance (141). After her young husband’s unexpected death, it would seem that the stage was set for her to reconcile with Begushev, but instead she falls for Dr. Perekhvatov (141). She refuses to marry Iansutskii, making him into her relentless enemy (141). Eventually she succumbs to a psychosis that Perekhvatov, now her second husband, does everything he can to augment (141). Just before her death she reaches out to Begushev for support, but at this moment his thoughts are far from her (141).

Begushev’s final affair with Liza Merova is unexpected for him but not for the reader, who has seen Merova’s attempts to win his heart (142). They had been kept apart by the same force that separated Begushev and Olukhova (142). Begushev was not capable of even considering the former kept woman of someone like Iansutskii as a romantic partner until extraordinary circumstances made him realize he loved the dying Merova (142).

Pisemskii mixes psychological and sociological techniques to create lifelike characters

Pisemskii’s gift and the secret to his success with readers was his way of combining a biological/psychological approach with a sociological one in creating characters like Domna Olukhkova and Lizaveta Merova (142). He wasn’t shy about putting unflattering things in his female characters’ biographies, which made him seem objective and made readers like Merova all the more (142).

The main character’s interest in religion allows the author to criticize the church

As he had in In the Whirlpool, Pisemskii goes after religion in The Bourgeois (142). Begushev’s sudden interest in religion, as the reader eventually realizes, was necessary so Pisemskii could dissect the decaying Orthodox Church (142). The writer also needed this to describe Gertsen’s insufficiently clear worldview and to motivate the love plot (142). In the novel the narrator paraphrases Begushev’s thoughts about religion, which he turns to out of boredom and “to at least partially extinguish the fire that was destroying his soul, in which an ocean of spite and an ocean of love raged at once,” but he soon discovers he can’t pray, as he knows too much about too many religions (142). When Begushev declares his intention to help the poor, a priest and a sexton so obviously try to divert his donations to people close to them that he gives up on the project (142–43).

Ideology and sociology are tightly bound together, as shown in Domna Olukhova’s psychosis

There is no division between the ideological and the sociological in The Bourgeois (143). For example, Olukhova’s psychosis develops in direct proportion to her fear of losing out on the inheritance (143). It is true that Pisemskii did depict Olukhova as psychologically fragile earlier in the novel; as a naturalist, he remained true to the scientific ideas of his time (143).

See chapter 10, “Последние романы [The Last Novels]” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 136–149.

Censorship as co-creation

July 6, 2020

I’ve been enjoying the SRB Podcast so much lately, and I want to share another episode here: Leah Goldman on Soviet classical music. It’s framed like this: what Socialist Realism meant was contested across all branches of culture, but it was especially confusing in music, which (except for narrative forms like opera) seemed too abstract to be ideological. Goldman’s research shows how things played out in practice in the late Stalin years.

Goldman is skeptical of the old-fashioned way of looking at Soviet culture as an oppressive state censoring free artists, where the scholar’s task is to try to reconstruct what the artist would have done in a vacuum. She’s not naive about the degree of artistic freedom in the USSR by any means, but she looks at a more complex picture where between the state and the individual artist are all kinds of agencies and committees, and the musical works that are eventually published and performed have been shaped by so many people (an overlapping group of censors and colleagues besides the original composer) that we can think about Soviet censorship as a process of co-creation. For Goldman this isn’t so different from artists in the West responding to commercial pressures (they don’t even begin to write things they know won’t sell, which is a kind of self-censorship) or from academic peer review. I think the host, Sean Guillory, also compares the censorship-as-co-creation model to the many power centers and points of view that collectively produce a Hollywood movie.

In the nuts and bolts of how Soviet music was created, some things conform to the old Western idea of blunt, ideological, oppressive censorship and others amount to a professional elite’s collective decision to impose a particular conservative aesthetic:

LG: There’s a small number of people who go to Conservatory. And they end up staffing the censorship agencies, working at the Composers’ Union, working in the theaters, being composers, and changing jobs all the time. So sometimes a censor will write music, sometimes a composer will either be hired by a censorship agency or they’ll be called in as a consultant. So saying who’s a censor and who’s a composer is not a very meaningful thing, because everybody is both at some point.

SG: So, OK, then this, of course, then directly goes into the self-censorship, because it seems like it’s all self-censorship. Right? The artistic community is, you know, the main community that’s censoring itself.

LG: Yes, yes, absolutely!

SG: […] from what you said, it seems really hard to disentangle “the state” from the people who actually produce, or participate within the arts.

LG: Yeah, no, it is! And so once you look into these processes, we can find that the state-versus-artist paradigm, which is, like, this big sort of Cold War monolith—it doesn’t work that way, because these are all the same people. And, you know, like, the process I just described with the Committee on Arts Affairs—an equivalent process happens in the Composers’ Union, sometimes simultaneously. There are genre-based consultative sections in the Composers’ Union, so there’s, like, a symphony and chamber music section, there’s a popular song section, there’s an opera and ballet section… there are a couple others—there’s a military music section for quite a long time, even after the war […] it’s effectively mandatory that you should bring your pieces for consultation with your colleagues, because the section will recommend you to the Committee on Arts Affairs, they will recommend you to a performing organization, they will recommend you to a publisher. Without their recommendation… If you don’t have a really famous reputation, this is how you get things done. But yeah, censors sit in on those meetings, sometimes in their role as censors, sometimes just in their role as fellow composers, and that is sort of the place where this conservative aesthetic is collectively imposed.

I don’t want to overstate the case, because the initial Western research on the creative unions was very much pushing the line that these are agencies that censor and repress artists. And Kiril Tomoff has shown that there is a locus of professional agency there, there’s a space there for composers to say “hey, we are the experts, and so we are going to say the details of what Socialist Realism is and what’s acceptable in your piece of music” and whatever. I hope that what I am doing is adding a layer of complexity on to that and saying that, yes, there is this agency, but they are using this agency to keep things very middlebrow and keep composers away from more experimental methods.

Now, you don’t have to do that for everybody. Some people love to write in a nineteenth-century idiom, and that’s fine, but there are those who try to get a bit more experimental or just go in a direction that’s… I mean, I have seen the silliest things in these conversations in the Composer’s Union. You know, they’ll say, like, “oh, well, but this is a cello sonata devoted to Stalin, so you can’t have a sad third movement! Stalin’s not sad, we’re not sad about Stalin!” And it’s not usually that simplistic, but it can be things like that. And so even as they are also doing quality control—this is another kind of revise-and-resubmit process—but they’re also sort of keeping everything at a level that they feel is going to be safe, because you never know when the next scandal is going to blow up, you never know when the Central Committee is going to get upset with you, and when they do, you never know whose head it’s going to fall on. (18:29–22:50)

For me the most convincing proof that the composers as a professional group had power to shape music separate from state political censorship was Goldman’s contrast of two operas Stalin went to in 1936, Ivan Dzerzhinskii‘s The Quiet Don (Тихий Дон, 1935) and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, 1934) (12:37–15:25). The story of Shostakovich’s opera, denounced in Pravda shortly after Stalin walked out, is famous, but the fate of Dzerzhinskii’s opera, which Stalin adored, shows the locus of professional agency at work. The Quiet Don was musically terrible—Goldman describes Dzerzhinskii as “a Conservatory student who is not passing his classes”—so the composers treated it as an opera that Soviet music had moved beyond and could now ignore.

Goldman’s research is mostly about rank-and-file composers—she says it was different if you were Shostakovich or Prokofiev and had networks that let you bypass certain parts of the system—and she discusses in detail (26:11–35:55) the opera The Decembrists (Декабристы, 1925–53 [!]) by Iurii Shaporin (1887–1966). Over successive drafts a lot was cut from the very long opera apparently for musical reasons. But Shaporin also had to add counter-attacks by the rebels against the forces of Nicholas I. These counter-attacks didn’t actually happen but were more historically accurate by Soviet lights because they fit with the big idea of what the Decembrist Uprising really meant for the future revolution. They also made the opera work better on stage, since the Decembrist forces standing around would make for a boring scene.

One of the Socialist Realist formulas was “national in form, socialist in content,” and later in the podcast Goldman lays out what this meant. Non-Russian Soviet composers could make a career for themselves by writing music that sounded “ethnic,” but they were discouraged from writing music that didn’t obviously seem related to their own ethnic group (around 42:00). Ethnically Russian composers were given more freedom, encouraged to draw on Russian folk songs but allowed to do other things too. In 1948, during the anti-formalist campaign, Shostakovich’s friend Mieczysław Weinberg (1919–1996) had some of his pieces blacklisted. For him, at that time, it turned out that the way to rehabilitate himself was to “go ethnic” and write “Jewish” music. At the same time, however, he knew he had to write his opera about the Holocaust “for the drawer” (48:01–56:06).

Listen to the whole thing! Goldman is a magnificent speaker, and they play a lot of the music they discuss.

Words new to me: Владимирка

July 3, 2020

I just looked up Vladimirka and I’m pretty sure I’ve looked it up before, so I thought I’d put it here. This is from Pisemskii’s A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859), where Lizaveta’s husband Anany Yakovlich has returned after a long absence during which Lizaveta had an affair and a child with Lizaveta and Anany’s legal owner, Cheglov:

CHEGLOV (putting his hand on her shoulder): Come, sit down! … What about your scamp of a husband?

LIZAVETA (sits down with her arms drooping): Oh, master, do you know what!

CHEGLOV: Well, what is it?

LIZAVETA: He’s going to torture me [Собирается тиранить]. I’m lost, just clean ruined!

CHEGLOV: Did you put the blame on me—say that it was all my fault?

LIZAVETA: I told him… I tried to lie to him the way you told me: but do you think he believes it?

ZOLOTILOV (to LIZAVETA): How does he mean to torture you? (To CHEGLOV.) Elle est très jolie.

LIZAVETA: I don’t know, sir… but I know it’s something terrible—we haven’t slept for three nights now. He just sits there like a wild beast and stares me straight in the face, as if he were trying to kill me with his look—it’s something terrible!

CHEGLOV: That’s awful, awful!

BAILIFF: He can’t do that! Don’t he know [?]

(Act II, scene 2; translated by Alice Kagan and George Rapall Noyes in Masterpieces of the Russian Drama [New York: D. Appleton, 1933], pp. 425–26)

A super-literal translation of the words replaced by the [?] would be “among us [a/the?] Vladimirka is indicated for all such.” (The line in Russian is “Как же это может он сделать? Владимирка-то у нас указана про всех этаких, — знает то.”) It must be something bad, but what?

It turns out it’s a reference to the road from Moscow to the city of Vladimir, and from there to points east, used metonymically for exile and hard labor in Siberia. As Kagan and Noyes knew: their translation of the line is “He can’t do that! Don’t he know that we send such fellows off to Siberia?”

The peasant and non-peasant characters speak very differently in the original Russian, more than the translators were able to convey (that’s a hard task that I wish I were better at). I imagine 1930s actors could do a lot with “just clean ruined” and “don’t he know” (and on the flip side with “scamp of a husband”), but it doesn’t feel like enough.

Mogilianskii on In the Whirlpool

July 2, 2020

I wasn’t posting much here when I read Pisemskii’s In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871), so I don’t have many related posts to link to, except maybe this one that mentions how much Leskov loved it. By writing more about Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) and Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) I unintentionally followed in the footsteps of nineteenth-century democratic critics, as you can see in Mogilianskii’s section on In the Whirlpool.

Dissatisfaction with some aspects of Men of the Forties leads Pisemskii to quickly write another long novel

The journal Dawn (where Pisemskii had published Men of the Forties in 1869) wasn’t a monolithic hotbed of reaction, but its key figures, including Strakhov and Danilevskii, took a conservative line; Strakhov, who earlier in his career had been a progressive champion of the natural sciences, had turned to anti-Darwinian views (128). This constrained Pisemskii as he wrote Men of the Forties, especially since Kashpirev had high hopes that Pisemskii’s novel would make his journal successful (128). Pisemskii must have been dissatisfied with the lack of ideological clarity that came out of the clash between his vision and these external constraints; he never published Men of the Forties as a separate volume (128–29). What’s more, he almost immediately started writing another novel, which he finished very quickly (for such a large project): In the Whirlpool (129).

Miklakov as an autobiographical character

As he had in Troubled Seas, Pisemskii inserted himself into In the Whirlpool to make clear his (positive) attitude toward socialist ideas (129). Pisemskii used the story of his own conflict with The Contemporary in the early 1860s to underscore that the journalist character Miklakov (whose combativeness made people want to read him but made his colleagues in the world of writing and publishing hate him) was based on him (129). Unlike Troubled SeasIn the Whirlpool has socialist ideas as its central theme (129).

In the Whirlpool as a novel narrowly focused on the conflict between two spheres

In the Whirlpool is the opposite of Men of the Forties and Troubled Seas: where those earlier novels embraced lots of different parts of Russian life, In the Whirlpool was kept narrow, concentrating on a few central characters and themes (129). However, this didn’t make it simpler; it made it more complex (129).

In the Whirlpool focuses on the clash between two opposing moral/intellectual spheres (129). But these aren’t defined by any kind of formal intellectual qualifications; on the contrary, Dr. Illionskii presumably has educational qualifications that Miklakov, Elena Zhiglinskaia, and Prince Grigorov may lack (129–30). Nevertheless, the two groups are incomparable, with those in the latter group, who hold socialist views, infinitely more sympathetic than those in the first group (130). In this way the author gives the moral high ground to socialist ideas; the fact that the novel came out around the time of the Paris Commune makes the theme of the workers especially salient (130). The “high” and “low” worlds are represented by three important characters each (Miklakov, Zhiglinskaia, and Grigorov; Illionskii, Zhiglinskaia’s mother, and Petitskaia), but since each group presumably stands for an arbitrarily large set of people, one more is added to each as the novel progresses (Nikolia Ogloblin and Zhukvich) (130). The members of these two groups are extremely consistent, but there is also an intermediate group that is both “in between” and capable of evolution and change (Countess Anna Iur’evna, Prince Grigorov’s wife, and Baron Minger) (130).

There is no other work by Pisemskii where the principal characters are elevated so far above their environment (and this is where the ideological thrust of the novel can be seen, as they all favor the “new” worldview), but Miklakov, Zhiglinskaia, and Grigorov are portrayed as human beings with flaws, not bloodless idealizations (130). Miklakov constantly gets drunk; Elena is a victim of her own forceful personality (прежде всего жертва своего характера); and Prince Grigorov lacks common sense (130). Yet all of them are entirely honest, unselfish people who live by their convictions (130). Miklakov’s and Grigorov’s actions in support of their principles are in the past (the Prince had taken part in the Polish movement while abroad), and it is only Elena Zhiglinskaia’s activism that unfolds on the pages of the novel (130–31).  Her work toward a Polish renaissance is in vain since she trusts the untrustworthy Zhukvich, but her pedagogical work has real value (131).

Differences among the “good” characters on baptism

Disagreement about specific questions within the “good” camp is possible (131). Elena objects to marriage and baptism on principle and doesn’t want her child by Prince Grigorov to be baptized; Miklakov, on the other hand, is more practical and encourages her to take the interests of the child into account (131). However, when the baptism happens, it is Miklakov who is rude and sarcastic to the priests, while Elena tries to defuse the situation (131). The falsity of religion was important for the revolutionary democrats as it permitted opposition to the tsar, who claimed to be God’s anointed; Pisemskii (especially after his 1856 change in worldview) was and remained a militant atheist, as shown in his writing and his choices as editor of Library for Reading (131). The author’s atheist position was clearer in In the Whirlpool than it had been in Men of the Forties (132).

Elena Zhiglinskaia, Prince Grigorov, the Polish revolutionary movement, and Gertsen

Elena’s revolutionary views and plans are in support of the revolutionary liberation of Poland (132). Polonophobia in the Russian press from 1863 on was intense to the point of raving (132). In anti-nihilist novels like Kliushnikov’s Mirage (Марево, 1864) and Vsevolod Krestovskii’s Panurge’s Herd (Панургово стадо, 1869), Polish activists were portrayed as the most important and dangerous enemies of the Russian people and as having infiltrated the Russian government (132). The worst “nihilists” in these novels amounted to just one of several ways Polish revolutionaries were trying to undermine Russia (132). Elena is Pisemskii’s answer to this madness, and in this Polonophilic move, Pisemskii was working in the best traditions of Gertsen (who had taken the side of the Polish revolutionaries, which made many Russian readers of The Bell abandon him); Lenin explicitly praised Gertsen’s pro-Polish stance (132). In creating Elena, Pisemskii was no doubt inspired by the political journalism of his favorite writer, Gertsen (132). Elena’s weakness reflects the weakness of partitioned and nearly paralyzed Poland (132). Pisemskii made Elena as attractive a character as his realistic methods, to which any absolute idealization was anathema, would allow (132).

Elena, however, is not merely a Pole and a Polish activist; she also actively fights for a new society and the new worldview put forward by Chernyshevskii and Dobroliubov, whom she explicitly praises as great men of the Russian people (132). Elena is so appealing a character that even right-of-center critics like Vasilii Avseenko and Orest Miller praise her, with Miller noting that the existence of characters like her shows that “women’s Oblomovism” (женская обломовщина) is at last coming to an end (132–33).

The rivalry between Princess Grigorova and Elena Zhiglinskaia is central to the novel

The reader is first led to sympathize with Elena’s rival, her lover’s wife Princess Eliza Grigorova, who was raised in a patriarchal German family and is called “of high morals” (высоконравственна) by the narrator several times (133). Elena is, in contrast, blunt and impatient (133). The theme of the rivalry between the two women is further complicated by the fact that Elena’s friend Miklakov falls head-over-heels in love with Princess Grigorova (133). The rivalry between the two women, and by extension the different worldviews they represent, is the heart of the novel (133). This is not to diminish the roles of Miklakov and Prince Grigorov, who share Elena’s ideological views, but Elena is the character who takes the initiative the most and who is set out by the author as the measuring stick for good progressive people (133).

By the end of the novel the reader is entirely on the side of the godless nihilist woman Elena instead of the highly moral Princess Grigorova (133). The Princess, along with her new husband, Baron Minger, has moved into the “bad” camp (133). The ending of the novel combines the tragedy of the unhappy fate of truly progressive people in Russia with a subtle but biting satire against those, like Baron Minger, who find a way to do well in the world of Russian autocracy (133).

Gertsen is important in In the Whirlpool

Gertsen is practically a character in the novel (133). When Prince Grigorov goes abroad, he heads directly to London and becomes close to émigrés there, meaning Gertsen (133). When the Prince’s friend Baron Minger remarks that Gertsen is terribly witty, Prince Grigorov says severely that he is more than merely witty (133). Grigorov was closest to Gertsen in his pro-Polish views, but Gertsen did not idealize radical Polish émigrés or the Polish revolutionary movement (133–34). Gertsen notes that the cause of national independence is more important to many Polish revolutionaries than any social revolution, and the movement is both fractured and unduly dominated by Polish aristocrats and Catholic priests (134). Prince Grigorov in the novel retreats from his involvement with the Polish cause because, though he would be willing to sacrifice himself and undergo whatever political punishment, he would like it to be for a cause he truly cared about, that is, for socialism rather than Polish nationalism (134). This is the issue that leads to the final break between Elena and the Prince, as the Prince refuses to contribute 15,000 rubles to a group of Polish émigrés that Elena wants to support, much as Gertsen had declared he was unwilling to give money to the Polish revolutionaries in exile in My Life and Thoughts (Былое и думы, 1852-68) (134).

Elena, Polish by blood, cannot view the Polish revolutionary question from the same perspective as Prince Grigorov (134). She comes to hate Russia as a place where a free-thinking person can do nothing (134). In her express hatred for Russia and her belief that wars for national independence are justified, Elena’s views in the novel follow Gertsen’s published views (134).

The workers’ question

In In the Whirlpool, Pisemskii puts forward a new approach to the question of the workers (135). It is possible he would have gone even farther on this front but had to cut passages from late in the novel because of increased censorship in response to the Paris Commune, but we don’t have any manuscripts of the novel at all, so it’s hard to say (135). But even what’s in the published text is striking (135).

Miklakov declares that one should sacrifice their life for the cause of the proletariat and contrasted his own views, as a champion of the workers, with the views of apologists of the peasantry and of populist Utopian socialism (135). Miklakov, like Gertsen, use the word rabotnik instead of rabochii to mean worker and also uses Gertsen’s favorite contrast of the new and the old Adam (135). Thus, even though workers weren’t in any way part of the plot of In the Whirlpool, the author makes clear that his views on this subject continue the views he had in 1862–63, but go even further (135).

The novel from an aesthetic point of view

For all the novel’s ideological saturation, Pisemskii did not neglect its artistic design either; no previous work by Pisemskii reveals so much attention to detail and to the interconnections of various aspects of the novel (135).

Contemporary critical reception: silence

Pisemskii was surely curious how his novel would be received by the democratic press, but it was received only by a conspiracy of silence on the part of left-of-center critics, which, of course, itself spoke volumes (135). Readers, however, loved it more than any other work by Pisemskii (135).

See chapter 9, “Романы конца 60-х и начала 70-х годов [The Novels of the Late 1860s and Early 1870s]” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 122–135.

Mogilianskii on Men of the Forties

July 1, 2020

Men of the Forties definitely seemed uneven when I read it (the ending is ideologically problematic for a Soviet critic trying to reclaim Pisemskii, but aesthetically unfortunate for any reader), but it was one of the things I’ve enjoyed reading the most, and I posted about it many times here. Here is a summary of Mogilianskii’s half-chapter on it, with links to some of my old posts.

Pisemskii’s last four long novels are linked to his first two and to each other

Pisemskii’s last four novels don’t show any of the signs of hasty execution that can be found in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) (122). All four are connected to each other, and at the same time they all point back to A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858) and Troubled Seas (122). The late 1860s were Pisemskii’s first chance to plan out a whole series of long novels, which explains the ties among his last four; one thing that links them is their historicism, including the presence of named historical figures as important characters of each (122).

There is a clear link between the main characters of Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) and A Thousand Souls on obvious autobiographical ground (122). Much is said about A Thousand Souls in Men of the Forties, including the formula “one cannot serve honestly in Russia!” (в России нельзя честно служить!), which the censor wouldn’t let Pisemskii make so explicit in A Thousand Souls, and which is important for The Masons (Масоны, 1880) and other works as well (122). Men of the Forties presents government service as the only path available in Russia, which makes its vicious cycle impossible to avoid (122–23). In another part of Men of the Forties it becomes clear that there is a way out: one must cast off that which oppresses (123). Thus Kalinovich’s formula—which Goncharov, acting as censor, removed from A Thousand Souls—found its way into Men of the Forties, albeit in weakened form (123). Men of the Forties has several other lines about how oppressive the Russian government is and how Russian civil servants turn the people (narod) against them through their actions (123).

Pavel Vikhrov as both autobiographical and based on Saltykov-Shchedrin

Men of the Forties, like A Thousand Souls, positively portrayed socialist ideas (123). The main character, Pavel Vikhrov, was partially based on Saltykov-Shchedrin and partially on Pisemskii himself; note the focus on Vikhrov, a writer, being exiled, just as Saltykov-Shchedrin was exiled to Viatka in 1848 (123).

Men of the Forties is the most expansive of Pisemskii’s works, drawing on three decades of material and combining socio-historical, sociological, philosophical, and political-journalistic approaches (123). For all that the reader remains interested in the development of the main character Vikhrov and his philosophy of life; the novel is similar to Tolstoi’s unfinished tetralogy, Boborykin’s On the Road! (В путь-дорогу!, 1862), and similar works all the way to Gor’kii’s The Life of Klim Samgin (Жизнь Клима Самгина, 1927) (123).

Pisemskii’s choice of journal

While working on Men of the Forties, the only journal Pisemskii was connected to was Dr. M. Khan’s World Labor (Всемирный труд), and moreover he couldn’t imagine a journal that would be suitable for his new novel (123–24). The journal Dawn (Заря) of the young historian V. V. Kashpirev seemed relatively tolerable, though he would become disillusioned with it later (124). He did agree to take into account the desires of its editorial staff in 1868 (124). Pisemskii’s discussions and correspondence with N. N. Strakhov (formerly associated with the Dostoevskii brothers’ Time and Epoch), with Kashpirev, and with others associated with Dawn make analyzing the connection between the ideological content of the novel and the limitations imposed on Pisemskii by the circumstances of its publication a difficult task (123–24).

Vikhrov’s father and Pisemskii’s critique of serfdom

We can’t give Men of the Forties the space it deserves, but let’s still try to show its place in the history of the novel and its most distinctive qualities (124).

If we compare Pisemskii’s father as shown in the story “The Father” (Батька, 1862) to the father of Pavel Vikhrov in Men of the Forties, we find that Pisemskii has continued down the road of being merciless in his writing both to himself and to those closest to him (124). The abuses of serfdom are shown largely through Mikhail Polievktovich Vikhrov, who doesn’t give his house or field slaves enough to eat (124). [In my memory of the novel, contra Mogilianskii, the father is presented as kind but misguided, and the serfs themselves seem confused by the son’s efforts to get them more and better food to eat; serfdom is unquestionably treated as awful, but individual slaveholders vary, and Mikhail Vikhrov is at the less objectionable paternalistic end—EM.] Mikhail Vikhrov defends his practices by saying that other landowners treat their serfs worse, but he is accused of other crimes too (124). The treatment of Mikhail Vikhrov is typical of the tone of the novel as a whole, which is free of idealization, quite naturalistic, and in many ways even darker than Troubled Seas (124).

George Sand and free love

Vikhrov’s ideas about free love in a George Sand vein are shown through his relationship with Kleopatra Fateeva, a young married woman [see these 2013 posts: on Vikhrov and Sand and on characters named Cleopatra] (124–25). The ups and downs of their relationship take up the first half of the novel and were clearly a big part of the author’s plan; Fateeva’s shallowness and lack of education are contrasted to her friend Marie, who is even more important (125). Marie is perfect but unattainable, drawing Vikhrov onward like a mirage; Fateeva is so attainable that Vikhrov becomes sated and even disgusted with her (125).

Gertsen once said “negatively and positively, a woman’s entire education (воспитание) remains her sexual education (воспитание половых отношений); all the rest of her life revolves around that” [the immediate context seems to be a critique of the “Christian teaching” where sex is supposed to be an unthinkable sin for a teenage girl that pivots to be the single purpose of her life as soon as she is on the marriage market]; Skabichevskii reports that Pisemskii liked to apply this idea to people in general, not just women, and frequently quoted it (125).

Fateeva is Pisemskii’s only character of this type and is given a detailed, well-founded portrayal (125). Fateeva makes things worse in the novel; Vikhrov’s affair with his maid Grusha “leaves a more optimistic and morally purifying impression in this respect” (125). His affair with Grusha doesn’t stop Vikhrov from considering marrying Iuliia Zakharevskaia, though in the end she is the only female character he has a affair with where they don’t actually have sex (125). The circle of the main character’s erotic meanderings is closed in a brothel (125). [I’m positive Vikhrov gets together with Marie at the end, and she stops having sex with her husband out of loyalty to Vikhrov, though?—EM.]

Old Believers and other peasants

In his travels Vikhrov meets a wide variety of people, including Old Believers (125). Gertsen praised the Old Believers for their unyielding opposition to the regime, and Pisemskii’s novel puts Gertsen’s ideas into artistic form (125). A key scene takes up two chapters in part 4: Vikhrov, as part of his government service, supervises the dismantling of an Old Believer church, an incident that N. N. Vinogradov proved was autobiographical (125–26). Vikhrov dismantles the church, and the narrator remarks on his similarity to his father, but he also writes about it to Marie, saying that he finds the Old Belief “something very much of the people” (126). Pisemskii’s views on Old Believers are closest to Gertsen’s in the part of Men of the Forties where the Schism is viewed as a form of social and anti-government protest [note the conversation between Vikhrov and his Ukrainian math teacherEM], including armed resistance by Old Believers against military units sent to crush them (126). N. N. Skatov found evidence in a Kostroma archive of a real such uprising in 1830 [the year Pisemskii turned 9—EM] and asserted that Pisemskii’s story corresponded to historical fact (126).

The people (narod) are shown in the novel not just through the Old Believers, but also through the story of a peasant woman who, in order to escape from a forced marriage, tries to get exiled to Siberia with a band of male robbers for a crime she didn’t commit (126). This peasant woman makes a better impression on the reader than Kleopatra Fateeva does (126). [See this 2013 post on the peasant woman, Fateeva, and the critic Mariia Tsebrikova’s interpretation of both in 1870.]

A reactionary ending can’t obscure the rest of the novel

For reasons including censorship and an effort to please Kashpirev, Strakhov, Danilevskii, and the other members of the editorial board of Dawn, Pisesmkii gave Men of the Forties an artificial ending and made the whole novel seem superficially well-behaved in a political sense (127). But as shown above, the actual content of the novel is not nearly so well-behaved, and the ending can’t hide the novel’s enormous sociohistorical importance (127). [See this 2013 post on the ending of the novel, which also draws on Mogilianskii.]

Contemporary critical reaction (Shelgunov, Tsebrikova)

Democratic critics were comparatively favorably disposed to Men of the Forties, but the hangover from the Nikita Bezrylov affair kept them from understanding it correctly (127).

N. V. Shelgunov tried hard to take a historical approach and give the novel its due in his very long article “Men of the Forties and the Sixties,” and he managed to say much that was correct and important for understanding Pisemskii, but on the whole the article was uncommonly contradictory and inconsistent (127). Shelgunov’s remarks on Pisemskii’s brand of realism and its connection to Gogol are interesting: he says Pisemskii “seems to want to kill every humane feeling in the reader and to say ‘is it worth considering these beasts as human and loving them?’” and Pisemskii’s realism is “a kind of heartless, merciless, inquisitionist force that repels the reader so much that the reader feels a complete absence of any social or personal connection to the author from the first lines of any of his works”; previous critics had incorrectly said Pisemskii and Gogol belonged to the same school, but Gogol’s humor is, in Shelgunov’s opinion, much more humane (127). Mogilianskii says that Shelgunov’s description is harsh but hard to argue with and agrees there is no connection between Gogol’s humor and Pisemskii, though he warns that Gogol should not be reduced to mere humor, and characters like Gogol’s Pliushkin are drawn with a bit of an inquisitionist approach too (127). Shelgunov approves of Pisemskii’s depictions of peasants and doesn’t feel that Pisemskii slandered the young generation in Troubled Seas, but Shelgunov nevertheless lumps Pisemskii in with Turgenev and Goncharov as “the deceased,” a phenomenon whose time has passed (127).

Tsebrikova’s article “A Humanitarian Champion of Women’s Rights (On Mr. Pisemskii’s Novel Men of the Forties)” (1870) is, like Shelgunov’s, contradictory and unclear (128). She takes as her point of departure the idea that an author is responsible “for every word and action of a character of his,” and so Pisemskii is already to blame for the fact that Fateeva is a “tramp” (гулящая бабенка) (128). Given that Tsebrikova considers Dostoevskii’s The Idiot “a delirious novel” and calls Boborykin a Russian Ponson du Terrail, her opinion of Pisemskii is relatively positive (128). [Here, again, is that 2013 post on Tsebrikova’s article.]

Representative of right-wing thought is Orest Miller, who was close to the Slavophiles, and he is considerably more hostile to Pisemskii (128). In his lectures that were given in 1872 and published in 1874, he calls Men of the Forties Pisemskii’s weakest novel (128). This is similar to the hostility that even the mention of Pisemskii’s name brought out in Strakhov after Pisemskii published Men of the Forties in Dawn (128).

See chapter 9, “Романы конца 60-х и начала 70-х годов [The Novels of the Late 1860s and Early 1870s]” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 122–135.

Pisemskii’s plays after A Bitter Fate, part 5: An Enlightened Time, The Financial Genius, and A Domestic Pool

June 30, 2020

Here is what Mogilianskii has to say about Pisemskii’s last plays:

An Enlightened Time

An Enlightened Time (Просвещенное время, 1875) was darker than Baal (Ваал, 1873), lacking any characters analogous to Mirovich or Kleopatra Burgmeier or even Burgmeier (119). Unlike them, everything in An Enlightened Time is lowered as much as possible (119). And against this background the heroine of the play, Sof’ia Mikhailovna Dar’ialova, who is unremarkable and frivolous, comes to seem special and significant (119). The swindler-capitalists in An Enlightened Time, including Sof’ia Mikhailovna’s husband Dar’ialov, aren’t worth our attention (119). When the audience first sees Sof’ia Mikhailovna, she is already the lover of Amaturov but still lives with her husband and isn’t dependent on her free-spending lover; after the collapse of Dar’ialov’s fraudulent company, he goes into hiding, and she is forced to rely on Amaturov (119). For her character act 3, when she has an unexpected epiphany and breaks up with Amaturov, is pivotal (119–20). But the most intense part of the play is act 4, when all the characters are on stage at once for the first time (120). Manifestations of abnormal psychology, public scandal, and growing tension anticipate Russian and European drama of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (120).

Goncharov wrote about Dar’ialova’s love for Amaturov that she had no right to call him a sensualist, as the entire play was filled with her own outpourings of jealous carnal love (120). In 1875 audiences called for the author of the play starting after act 2 (120). Amaturov was played by S. V. Shumskii and Dar’ialova by N. A. Nikulina (120).

The Financial Genius

Just as Pisemskii was wrong to call An Enlightened Time a tragedy, he was wrong to call The Financial Genius (Финансовый гений, 1876) a comedy (120). It is a new kind of play in which the boundaries between comedy and drama have been erased (120). In Pisemskii’s last play, as in An Enlightened Time, much is exaggerated and crude, but several characters are drawn as seriously and painstakingly as in his previous plays (120).

The Financial Genius anticipates Tolstoi’s The Fruits of Enlightenment (Плоды просвещения, 1889–90) in attacking spiritism, a movement that in the mid-1870s was taken seriously by the likes of D. I. Mendeleev (120). Other Russian scientists, like the chemist A. M. Butlerov and the zoologist N. P. Vagner, were against spiritism, as was the often conservative critic N. N. Strakhov (120). Pisemskii’s play was topical, as it was published in January 1876 in the middle of this controversy; its first performance was January 30, 1876, with M. N. Ermolova in the leading role (120–21).

The main male character, Sosipatov (the “financial genius”), goes mad from a combination of overwork and interest in spiritism (121). His wife tries to save him (121). A group of professional swindlers surrounds him and tries to get their hands on his capital (121). After the Senate finds that Sosipatov is mentally unfit, a committee is formed to dispose of his property, but the investigating authorities have the leaders of the committee arrested (121).

Another financier, Kergof, was previously involved in Sosipatov’s financial dealings, but Kergof’s reputation doesn’t suffer from Sosipatov’s bankruptcy (121). The theme of love for a woman is shown only through Kergof, who has long been in love with the charming but unavailable Sosipatova (121).

The theme of the corruptibility of the press is a major one in The Financial Genius, along with spiritism (121).

A Domestic Pool (a.k.a. Old Accounts)

Pisemskii worked on A Domestic Pool (Семейный омут, also called Old Accounts or Старые счеты) from 1876 to late 1880, but was prevented from finishing it by his ultimately fatal illness (121). The first two acts and a significant portion of act 3 were published in 1886 (121). On January 31st, 1882, at a meeting of the Society of Lovers of Russian Literature, N. I. Storozhenko read acts 1 and 3, declaring that “in Pisemskii’s last work the still unflagging strength of the late realist’s talent is still palpable” and “the artist’s powerful brush grew no weaker to the end of his days” (121).

The plot centers on a romantic competition between a mother and daughter who are both in love with the shady dealer (аферист) Zertsalov (121). Earlier Zertsalov had forged the will of his previous lover’s husband, making it appear that he had left everything to his widow (121). Now Zertsalov convinces the mother to agree to let him marry the daughter and give them an enormous dowry (121). The brother of the man who had died before, General Potasov, became suspicious when he learned of “this unnatural marriage and the mother’s strange generosity,” and he successfully exposes the forging of the will (121). The figure of Potasov, with his impatience with the institutions of the Russian Empire, is interesting in itself (121). A Domestic Pool brings new motifs into Pisemskii’s drama, enriching our idea of the possibilities of his dramatic technique (121).

See chapter 8, “Драматургия Писемского после ‘Горькой судьбины’ [Pisemskii’s Plays after A Bitter Fate]” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 110–121.

Who? The lake.

June 29, 2020

Viktor (left) and Pavel (right)

There are a lot of features of Russian phonology that, after studying Russian this long, I can recognize, even if I can’t produce them without an accent. But there are some subtle differences that I don’t hear, though at least some native speakers seem to. One of them is the difference between the unstressed feminine and neuter nominative singular adjective endings -ая and -ое. I’ve played recordings of different forms of one word from in language classes, and frequently heritage speakers can correctly identify which is which, but non-native speakers like me can’t.

It doesn’t come up all that often that mishearing the ending could lead to a misunderstanding, but I found an example from a 2020 TV show where that happens. A mysterious man named Pavel has saved Viktor’s wife Elena from drowning by diving after her into a deep and remote lake; at first Viktor seems grateful, but when Pavel keeps showing up at the hospital where Elena is recovering, Viktor gets suspicious. Here’s the relevant dialogue:

Pavel: I wish your (formal) wife a speedy recovery. Goodbye.

Viktor: What were you (familiar) doing there? How did you (familiar) happen to be by the lake?

Pavel: [It’s/she’s] beautiful.

Viktor: Who is?

Pavel: The lake is. I looked in my guidebook, and it says it’s one of the local sights. (2:13:00–2:13:22)


Павел: Желаю вашей супруге скорейшего выздоровления. Всего хорошего.

Виктор: Что ты там делал? Как ты у озера оказался?

Павел: Красивое.

Виктор: Кто?

Павел: Озеро. Я в путеводителе посмотрел, там написано — местная достопримечательность.

This is from the serial The Broken Mirror (Разбитое зеркало, 2020). The word for “lake” is neuter, so Pavel uses the neuter adjective красивое ‘beautiful’ in his one-word reply. But Viktor hears it as the feminine adjective красивая and asks not what, but who is beautiful, apparently thinking Pavel means Elena.

Is this a situation like Mary/marry/merry in English where some speakers pronounce words as similar to each other, and others pronounce them as identical? Pavel’s Russian sounds quite standard to me.