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“Amusing eccentricities” or “moral outrages”?

June 1, 2012

In Leskov’s “Ancient Psychopaths” (Старинные психопаты, 1885) a look back at Russian serfdom feels much like a literary look at American slavery.

Stepan Ivanovich Vishnevskii was a Ukrainian landowner and slaveholder. Like his peers, he had people flogged and fathered children by the women he owned, but he did these things more and somehow with more flair. There were more children by more women: “None of the stories I heard about him deal with Vishnevskii being a father and mentor; rather he is remembered for fathering (467). And the mothers were especially young women “or,” the narrator remarks, “it would probably be more precise to say female children” (454). Vishnevskii whipped his slaves, and also any number of people who were not his slaves.

Hugh McLean writes that the author “does not seem to know what attitude to adopt toward Vishnevsky’s antics. Are they to be regarded […] as the amusing eccentricities of a vanished era, or are they moral outrages? Leskov vacillates between these two alternatives, and as a result the image of his ‘psychopaths’ is blurred” (417). As I read it the title of the story is meant to capture this paradox: Vishnevskii is a psychopath avant la lettre, and we in 1885 have to decide whether to understand him in our terms (a psychopath) or those of his “ancient” time and class (a gentleman, something of a character). The second-to-last chapter begins:

Such were the barbaric deeds of this eccentric, which now, in our much-derided age, would be impossible or would probably today be considered psychopathy. (488)

The story attempts to get at the psychological states produced by slavery, especially on the ever-popular topic of masters having sex with female slaves. In “Ancient Psychopaths” we see young peasant girls selected for their beauty coming to the manor house “reluctantly and with tears” (459), but later we are told that “Vishnevskii was loved by many women who had become his lovers against their will” (487). Vishnevskii is so taken with one of these women, Gapka Petrunenko, that he decides his child by her will be free, which “was a rare gift of love on Stepan Ivanovich’s part, because the great multitude of his children were registered as his ‘souls’ and regularly performed seigneurial labor in his fields” (486-87). Gapka, meanwhile, is heartbroken when an outspoken priest predicts that Vishnevskii will soon replace her with a childless girl because “in a gentleman’s barn they don’t hold on to a cow for a second calf” (487). Vishnevskii’s wife Stepanida Vasil’evna not only tolerates her husband’s behavior but enthusiastically helps him find young slaves who suit his taste (459-61). (We are given to understand that after the birth of her last child, she was left unable to have sex; the Russian phrase twice used to explain this is that she had become “навек не человек,” forevermore not a person.)

The story of the German overseer in chapter 8 is an interesting intersection of the overseer and sex-with-slaves themes. We learn that Vishnevskii also hired overseers “from among both Orthodox Christians and Poles” (467).

Even if the uncertainty McLean finds about eccentricities versus outrages is built into the story beginning with its title, his question is worth thinking about. Chapters 10-13 of the story concern a group of Russian officers stationed near Vishnevskii’s estates. They mistreat the local Jews and Ukrainian imperial bureaucrats. The narrator seems to take their acts of cruelty more seriously than Vishnevskii’s, for reasons that aren’t clear. See the passage in style indirect libre where the narrator shows the officers’ point of view as they try to remember what they had done, drunk, the night before:

As long as they hadn’t cut off someone’s nose or ears or something… That’s a bad business: there’s no reattaching what’s been cut off… But God in his mercy had let them get away with worse things and they would get away with this too. What does a bureaucrat need a nose for anyway? If anything, to take snuff and get it all over official documents… And a khabar or bribe isn’t a hot meal, he’ll sniff it out even without a nose… (479)

They hadn’t cut off anyone’s nose, but the casual reference to “worse things” (сходили с рук и не такие дела) is chilling. As far as I can tell there’s no comparable passage that paints Vishnevskii as cruel. He seems innocent and almost childlike even as he seems powerful and cunning.

On this story see pp. 416-17 in McLean, Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art (Cambridge, MA, 1977).

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