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Who hates the Jews in Troubled Seas?

April 2, 2013

Before I move on completely from Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), I want to write down a thought about Emmanuil Zakharovich Galkin, the most important Jewish character in the novel. He is the tax farmer (откупщик, see Woodhouse 498-99) who runs a conspiracy that leads to the murders Baklanov’s committee investigates, and he is also Sophie’s lover for a time. In parts 3-4 the events around his provincial intrigues are the organizing principle as much as Baklanov’s and Sophie’s love affairs and life choices on the one hand, or the intergenerational contrasts between them and their parents and children on the other.

"Susanna Caught Unawares by the Elders," an 1831 painting by G. I. Lapchenko (1801-1876)

“Susanna Caught Unawares by the Elders,” an 1831 painting by G. I. Lapchenko (1801-1876)

Troubled Seas seems to fit the pattern of negatively portrayed Jewish characters becoming more common in the 1860s. The narrator remarks on their non-standard pronunciation of the letter “з” /z/, and this and more is reflected in non-standard spellings whenever they speak, e.g. “Ну, цитай, сто писут!” When Emmanuil Zakharovich first appears, we learn of his expensive clothes, physical imperfections, and that “overall everything about his countenance reminded one of the judges who seduced Susanna” (part 3, chapter 4). It is the narrator who ironically mentions “Biblical countenances” at the town’s private club (3.9) and uses “Israelite” (израильтянин) as well as “Jew” (еврей) in chapter titles (3.4, 4.13, 4.19).

However, the narrator’s position looks less straightforwardly anti-Jewish when it’s compared to 1) the narrator’s attitude toward non-Jews and 2) other characters’ attitudes toward Jews.

Galkin is corrupt, but he is surrounded by Russians who are also corrupt. Galkin looks like the old, rich Jew in an openly anti-Semitic passage of Nekrasov’s “The Ballet” when he uses his money to purchase Sophie’s affection, but in the novel this is not something Jewish men do, but something women like Sophie do: she is already the widow of an old and physically unappealing ethnic Russian whom she married for money.

Baklanov is at his worst when, reacting to then technically untrue gossip about Sophie and Galkin, he gets so outraged that the woman he loves might be sleeping with a Jew that he goes to her house, makes a violent scene, and ultimately marries someone else. In his accusations he calls Galkin “Shylock” and is more forceful than when Sophie is involved with non-Jewish men in other parts of the story. This chapter is called “The Savage Scythian Awakens in My Hero” (3.10), a title as essentializing and ironic as “The Israelites’ Lament” (4.13), and it is a turning point that costs Baklanov a chance at happiness.

Sophie’s brother Viktor Basardin is the least admirable character in Troubled Seas and Galkin’s greatest tormentor. He threatens to throw Emmanuil Zakharovich out a window if he does not give him a thousand rubles on the spot, and is moving to carry out his threat when Baklanov interrupts them (4.15). In one of the funnier twists of the novel, Basardin also becomes an обличитель, a writer who exposes wrongdoing and corruption, for profit rather than idealism. He writes a piece in Aesopian language that pays lip service to disguising Galkin’s conspiracy by changing the setting, which begins:

In China, in the city of Jiang Jin Tsu, lived the great lord Zakhar Emmanuilovich Liang Lin Lu. He owned millions of barrels of genuine rice vodka and millions of rubles of pure gold.

В Китае, в городе Дзянь-дзинь-дзю, жил большой господин Захар Эммануилович Лянь-линь-лю. Владел он миллионами бочек настоящей рисовой водки и миллионами рублей чистого золота. (4.12, “Provincial Glasnost”)

I can’t think of examples in other writers’ works of this pattern of adopting a tone that is moderately anti-Jewish and more severely anti-anti-Jewish prejudice. Nothing I remember in Dostoevskii, Nekrasov, or Leskov, for instance; it’s different from Chekhov’s “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” too.

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