McLean on Leskov, slavery, and February 19th
Hugh McLean argues that Leskov in the 1880s wrote about the reign of Nicholas I as 1) a censorship-friendly way of talking about the reign of Alexander III and 2) a means of transforming a historically specific story into a universal story about human nature. He was also keen to fight “the predilection of youth to regard its problems and discoveries as unprecedented in human history” (436).
Leskov’s stories about that era often deal with serfdom as its worst evil. McLean singles out
“The Life of a Peasant Martyress” (Житие одной бабы, 1863)
“The Enchanted Pilgrim” (Очарованный странник, 1873)
“The Wild Beast” (Зверь, 1883)
and especially “The Toupee Artist: A Graveyard Story” (Тупейный художник, 1883).
As we saw earlier with Petr Gorskii, not just the fact of emancipation but its date was significant: “For Leskov the Emancipation Act of 1861 had been the central event of the nineteenth century, and all his life he revered the Tsar Liberator who had issued it,” and he dedicated “The Toupee Artist” to “the sacred memory of that blessed day, February 19, 1861” (438).
See McLean, Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art (Cambridge, MA, 1977).