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Righteous men

October 22, 2011

A 2007 audio version of five of Leskov's "righteous men" stories

In the 1870s and 1880s, Hugh McLean writes, Leskov engaged in a “modern revival of the hagiographic genre” in a series of stories about righteous men (352). They were all men, though outside this set he depicted virtuous women. For Leskov a prerequisite for righteousness was renouncing sex, and “some of his saints prefer to repudiate not only sexual activity, but all feminine society” (353). They were usually neither landowners nor peasants who worked the land, but from a social rung in between (354). All are ethnic Russians, though, again, Leskov has positive portrayals of “national minorities or foreigners” elsewhere (354-55). Leskov had “set out in search of those ‘three righteous men’ without whom the Russian city would fall,” and apparently for this purpose only Russians counted (352, 355).

The other thing about Leskov’s righteous men is that they turn up in places his liberal contemporaries would not expect to find them, like the police:

By casting his saints in unholy roles, Leskov makes two anticonventional points. For one thing, he is saying that moral reality is more complex than ready-made ideological formulas admit, and that each case should be judged on its own merits. For another, he is asserting the very opposite of that social determinism professed by “progressive” intellectuals of that day and this. “The individual is a predictable product of his socioeconomic environment,” say the social determinists. “Not at all,” Leskov replies. “The individual human being is uniquely himself.” Saints, like criminals, may crop up anywhere, on the most unpromising social soil. Their sainthood, as Leskov sees it, is not determined by social origin, occupation, or even cumulative experience: it is rather a manifestation of pure individuality, a triumph within the individual soul of the psychic forces of good. (357)

In this view, McLean goes on to say, Leskov was close to Lev Tolstoi, but the two writers handled their saints very differently: one of Tolstoi’s “must grow and develop, winning sainthood—if he does win it—only after severe moral struggles and catastrophic failures,” while Leskov’s saints’ “goodness is in their blood” (357-58). The latter are therefore better suited to short stories than novels, and are not unlike the saints of medieval saints’ lives (358).

Here is a list of the stories McLean lists as part of the pravedniki series, either because they appeared in the 1880 volume Three Righteous Men and One Sheramur (contemporary review in ОЗ) or in volume 2 of Leskov’s 1889 collected works, or because they at some point had a subtitle that involved “righteous men” (I think the list doesn’t include everything from that last category):

“The Enchanted Pilgrim” (“Очарованный странник,” 1873)

“The Pygmy” (“Пигмей,” 1876)

“The Monognome” (“Однодум,” 1879)

“Sheramur” (“Шерамур: Чрева-ради юродивый,” 1879)

“The Cadet Monastery” (“Кадетский монастырь,” 1880)

“Deathless Golovan” (“Несмертельный Голован,” 1880)

“A Russian Democrat in Poland” (“Русский демократ в Польше,” 1880)

The Left-Hander” (“Левша (Сказ о тульском косом левше и о стальной блохе),” 1881)

“The Sentry” (“Человек на часах (1839 г.),” 1887)

“The Unmercenary Engineers” (“Инженеры-бессребреники,” 1887)

“Figura” (“Фигура,” 1889)

See Hugh McLean, Leskov: The Man and His Art, pp. 351-63.

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