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Informers in “Ancient Psychopaths”

June 4, 2012

The Russian officers subplot in “Ancient Psychopaths” (Старинные психопаты, 1885) has one of several takes on informers in Leskov. Here a true account by two informers is stymied by the threat of a false counter-denunciation by the six guilty parties:

1. The Russian officers drunkenly try their hand at a knife-throwing act. They can’t get anyone to stand against the wall for them to practice on, and so, lacking knives, they throw forks at a portrait on the wall.

2. Two Ukrainian minor bureaucrats (приказные) are imprisoned under the table by the officers after refusing to let them throw forks at them. They see the officers damage the portrait, which is of someone important (the tsar? Jesus?). When the officers leave, forgetting they are under the table, the angry bureaucrats take the portrait with them and make a complaint about the the officers’ treatment of the portrait.

3. The officers decide some of them will ride to see an authority figure in another town, planning to arrive there ahead of the mail with the bureaucrats’ denunciation of them. There they will confess and abandon themselves to his mercy.

4. On the way Vishnevskii convinces the officers not to confess. He instead lures the bureaucrats to his estate (by a stratagem that reminds the reader that the bureaucrats are corrupt, even if their denunciation in this case is true). He tells them the six officers are going to inform on the two bureaucrats, claiming the latter ruined the portrait. Since the officers outnumber them and are noblemen, they will be believed. The bureaucrats are compelled to apologize for destroying the portrait and initially blaming the officers, and furthermore to request in writing that Vishnevskii give them a fatherly flogging.

See chapters 12-13 (pp. 480-86), and for the story of the portrait chapters 10-11 (pp. 474-79).

The story is an indictment of the authorities (of an earlier era) in that it doesn’t matter that the bureaucrats’ original denunciation was true; all sides accept that having more witnesses would let a false account win the day.

It could be said to have a didactic message against informing, since on the one hand things don’t go well for the informers even though they tell the truth, and on the other they are made to seem otherwise unsympathetic (they take bribes and came to Vishnevskii’s estate, believing he was dying, intending to write themselves into his will).

Vishnevskii, however, seems motivated more by caste loyalty than by anger at the bureaucrats for violating the anti-informing taboo. He was not, for all his superficial “хохломанство,” a Ukrainian nationalist, but believed in a kind of cosmopolitan aristocratic solidarity (472-73).

Compare this to other Leskov stories with atypical informers:

“An Enigmatic Man” (Загадочный  человек, 1870): untrue accusations of being an informer hurt the noble and naive Artur Benni

“The Unmercenary Engineers” (Инженеры-бессребреники, 1887): saintlike honesty leads a man to inform to Nicholas I himself

“The Rabbit Carriage” (Заячий ремиз, published posthumously in 1917): mostly narrated by a policeman who inaccurately denounces various people as revolutionaries out of ambition, while a true revolutionary operates under his nose; his conduct appears less horrible than it might because we learn of the pro-informing lessons he has absorbed from several sources

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