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All roads lead to Pisemskii

October 24, 2011

Aleksei Pisemskii is high on the list of writers I should have read but haven’t, but I’m being led to him by my recent interests (Leskov, slavery). He was an almost exact contemporary of Dostoevskii’s (both 1821-1881), who was quite successful in the 1850s, fell out with the nihilists, and moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow, where he kept writing novels but (per Charles A. Moser) was more and more ignored by critics from 1863 to his last effort in 1880.

First, the Leskov connection. Pisemskii acts as a foil, seeing the worst in everyone, when Leskov lays out his own search for righteous Russians:

[…] Leskov contrasts his older colleague’s somber view of human nature with his own benign one. Pisemskii, as Leskov quotes him, saw nothing but “nastiness” in the Russia around him and nothing but “vileness” in his own soul or in Leskov’s. This misanthropic outburst—Pisemskii, Leskov says, was “in the process of dying for the forty-eighth time,” which contributed to his pessimism—enabled Leskov to set up an introductory straw man. (McLean 352, transliteration changed)

How pessimistic was Pisemskii? Here is V. Zelinskii in 1895 describing Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863; here’s how part 1 of 6 looked in The Russian Herald):

Troubled Seas depicts the life of Russia in the 40s, at the time of the emancipation of the peasants [крестьяне], and immediately after it. In the unforgettable age of serfdom, on the “troubled seas,” everything in Russia is nasty and vile: all bureaucrats to a man take bribes; the wealthier gentlemen [крупные баре] are base voluptuaries,* those of more modest means [мелкие] are crude imbeciles and fools deprived of any sense of human dignity, the women are either debauchees or pious hypocrites; the house and field serfs [мужики и дворовые] are oppressed and animal-like slaves [рабы]. A faint, faint light seems to glimmer in the young students of Moscow University; they study something, think and dream about something, but their protests against a vile reality amount only to tossing dead cats at dancers they dislike and disrespecting their parents, and their young strength is dissipated in empty talk and cramming for exams. The last exam is over, and the young people scatter over the vast lands of Russia; the poor ones try to get a position so they can get drunk and steal from the people; and the young landowners go to the country to seduce serf girls [крепостные девушки] or to St. Petersburg to serve where they have connections. The era of reforms is coming; for reforms one needs people to carry them out, and where can one get them? (cxxxvi-cxxxvii)

The play A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859), considered one of Pisemskii’s best works, is described by Moser as

a tragedy of peasant life revolving about a peasant’s discovery that, during his prolonged absence, his wife has given birth to a child by their serf-owner, whom she loves. Enraged, he murders the child, then is captured when he seeks to escape. Ultimately he recognizes the evil he has done and asks forgiveness of all those whom he has offended as he accepts his punishment. The plot possesses a certain dread inevitability which derives both from a husband’s righteous pride and the social structure of Russian serfdom under which some human beings “owned” other human beings. At the time it appeared contemporaries appreciated the stature of A Bitter Fate, and in 1859 it received an official Uvarov prize, along with Ostrovskii’s The Storm. (340, transliteration changed)

And of course serfdom is right in the title of Pisemskii’s most famous novel, One Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858).

* Sorry – I know “base voluptuaries” is the kind of English you could only find in translations of nineteenth-century Russian.

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