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Весенняя смерть

May 1, 2011

A while ago I stumbled on A Death in Spring (Весенняя смерть, 1861) by Vsevolod Krestovskii, and when his name started coming up in Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art as a friend of Leskov’s, I was moved to read it. Krestovskii (1840-1895), as I. G. Iampol’skii says, abandoned poetry in the mid-1860s and became a reactionary: he wrote antinihilist novels from 1869-75 and a trilogy ominously described on Russian Wikipedia as “depicting the growing influence of Jewry,” and in the corresponding English article as “blatantly anti-Semitic,” from 1888-91. Before that, however, he’d written The Slums of Petersburg (Петербургские трущобы, 1864-66) and had published in The Russian Word (Русское слово), home of the radical critic Dmitrii Pisarev. The Slums of Petersburg, widely read in its day and evidently not reactionary, enjoyed a late- and post-Soviet revival not unlike At Daggers Drawn. Krestovskii’s novel was even made into a tv series in the 1990s.

A Death in Spring is 22 pages long and predates the author’s antinihilist period. After a framing device, it begins with a flashback with familiar details of the absurdities and cruelties suffered by enslaved peasants: a serf, trained as a musician when his master wanted an orchestra, asks permission to marry, but the master refuses, finding the girl, Parasha, attractive. He sleeps with her and in time discards her. Ostracized even though her lack of “chastity” was no fault of hers, she attempts suicide, but her musician would-be husband saves her and begins a long affair with her, still unable to marry against the master’s permission.

This part of the poem is reasonably effective if not novel, but there is a twist.

Однажды в оргии бурливой,
Где князь сатрапом возлежал,
Самодовольный и кичливый,
И каждый гость пред ним дрожал,
И как червяк, и как букашка
То пресмыкался, то лисил, —
Вдруг неожиданно хватил

Его сиятельство кондрашка.

The master dies and… I expected to read that the musician and Parasha became the property of different heirs and were separated forever. Instead, it turns out that the master’s will manumitted all his house serfs. Free to marry at last, the couple moves to St. Petersburg, but with no connections, the husband cannot find work. He plays music in the streets for money while Parasha takes in washing. They live meagerly until their daughter Mania is born, whereupon Parasha dies from overwork and tuberculosis.

A neighbor, herself penniless, steps in to help the musician with Mania, but she dies when the girl is 5, and Mania starts going out with her father, singing and dancing as he plays. We learn much of her psychology growing up in this sad world, with her father, their faithful dog Azorka, and a deep love of nature. The musician begins to drink and is often unkind to his daughter, only to feel ashamed the next day and seek her forgiveness (successfully). Things get worse when Mania gets sick: her father goes hungry so she can eat, and he eventually collapses, so that she must run out in search of food for him. A student gives her an entire ruble, but from that day on she shows symptoms of tuberculosis. Not realizing that she is dying, she rejoices at the coming of spring and asks her father to play for her. While he does, she dies. He manages to get a coffin for her, then plays the same song he last played for her as passersby throw pennies into the coffin, according to an old tradition, to help with the cost of the burial.

The last third or so of the poem is long and sentimental for my tastes, and I tolerate sentimentality better than many; it’s macabre waiting to see if Mania or her father will suffer the death in the title (both are alive in the initial framing device). And there are a fair number of flat lines and uninspired rhymes that may explain Krestovskii’s turning to prose. Little information and few surprises in these seven lines:

А Паша стала мыть белье,
Как нанялась подённо в прачки,
И добывала на житье,
Трудом, свою копейку тоже;
Да надрывалась ночь и день,
Вдруг зá год стала, словно тень,

На человека не похоже!

But I do like the structure of the poema, dated 25 September 1861, seven months after the emancipation. The musician and Parasha are not freed by decree of the tsar, but by their master’s will at some earlier date. Still, at the time it must have seemed significant that the poet spends much longer on their troubles after they are free than on their real and infuriating troubles as serfs.

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