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Two underground railroads

June 11, 2012

Leskov’s “The Toupee Artist: A Graveyard Story” (Тупейный художник, 1883), which is dedicated to “the sacred memory of that blessed day, February 19, 1861,” lives up to its reputation as a story that makes slavery look especially horrifying. The evil Count Kamenskii tortures his slaves physically and psychologically, and rapes female slaves in a theatrical ceremony in which they are dressed as the chaste St. Cecilia. He also keeps an elaborate theater with slave actors, supported by slave stagehands and a “toupee artist” who elevates doing hair and makeup for the company to an art.

The toupee artist, Arkadii Il’ich, and his beloved, Liubov’ Onisimovna, try to escape from the Count’s cruelty to turetskii Khrushchuk, a slightly garbled version of Rushchuk (in Turkish, Rusçuk) the old name of modern-day Ruse, Bulgaria (ch. 11), enlisting the help of a nearby Orthodox priest who has a reputation for marrying fugitive slaves and helping them escape, but who takes all the money they offer and more only to immediately betray them to the Count’s men (ch. 12-13). The priest’s conduct (another informer in Leskov) reveals his character, but it also shows how much everyone had to fear from Count Kamenskii; that slaveholders felt free to beat and terrorize nearly all their social inferiors, not just their slaves, is something of a theme in Leskov. Cf. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Eliza and George try to escape to Canada and are helped by Quakers whose virtue is selfless and absolute, if a bit unemotional and impersonal.

This video isn’t a dramatization of the story, but Natal’ia Gundareva reading the text with light musical accompaniment:

On “The Toupee Artist” see also Hugh McLean, Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art (Cambridge, MA, 1977), pp. 438-41. He justly draws attention to the painfully apt malapropism plakon for flakon, which introduces the Russian root meaning “to cry” into the word used in the story for a container of alcohol, on which Liubov’ Onisimovna has come to rely. Boris Bukhshtab’s commentary is also available online.

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