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The life of a special agent: community theater and enforcing religious orthodoxy

July 11, 2013

I’m not sure if there’s any reason to pay attention to this coincidence, but I’m posting it here in case I want to find it again later.

First, a character in Leskov’s Episcopal Justice (Владычный суд, 1877):

[Andrei Ivanovich Drukart] worked at the time as a special agent [чиновник особых поручений] attached to Prince Vasil’chikov and had quite recently left the office of Vice Governor of Siedlce, in which position he had taken part in the final annihilation of the [church] union.

Apart from his efficiency in service to the state, Drukart was in those years of our lives a superlative dramatic reader and a most talented actor. I have never heard anyone who could read Shakespeare’s Hamlet better than Drukart did, and I’d say he played the part of Gogol’s governor from The Inspector General no worse than the late Iv. Iv. Sosnitskii at the peak of the development of that actor’s abilities.

Thanks to that sort of gift, the late Drukart not only carried out the Prince’s instructions, but had occasional commissions from our all-powerful Princess as well. And just at this moment the Princess happened to need money for some charitable ends of hers, and she entrusted to Drukart the task of putting on a show for the benefit of the poor in the city theater. (chapter 9)

Vikhrov in Pisemskii’s Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) is also a “special agent” for part of the novel, and in this capacity is assigned to destroy Old Believer places of worship. He works for the governor but also plays the part of Hamlet extremely well in a play organized for the “lady of the governor’s heart” (see part 4, chapters 3-4). [Update 4/27/16: Kalinovich in A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858) also becomes a special agent at the end of part 3, chapter 13.]

And Pisemskii himself in Charles A. Moser’s biography of him:

In April 1844 he and several other students organized a presentation of Gogol’s The Marriage, in which Pisemsky played the lead role of Podkolesin, a part that remained one of his favorites. He did so well that some claimed seriously that Pisemsky surpassed the famous actor Mikhail Shchepkin in the role. Although this was surely an exaggeration, Pisemsky always regarded himself as a gifted actor and apparently possessed some talent. (5)


On October 6, 1848, he was appointed a special agent (chinovnik osobykh porucheniy) attached to the military governor of the Kostroma Province, a post he retained until July 4, 1850. In this capacity he was available to be sent on specific missions that gave him an opportunity to gain first-hand acquaintance with the life of the common people instead of sitting in an office shuffling documents. One permanent post he is known to have held was that of secretary to a secret advisory committee on the affairs of the Old Believers, or religious schismatics. In this capacity he personally had to attend to persecutions of the Old Believers, including the destruction of some of their chapels. His heart may not have been in assignments of this sort, but he carried them out, all the while gathering material that would later be useful in his writings. (9-10)

If this is more than a coincidence I’m not sure it would mean more than Leskov drawing on his friend Pisemskii’s works and life to flesh out his character Drukart, but I have to finish Episcopal Justice and think about it more. I love everything about Leskov’s attitude toward Pisemskii, from talking about the time he was “dying for the forty-eighth time” to signing his letters “your servant and student, N. Leskov” to crying out “по нетерпячести своей не могу не крикнуть Вам, что Вы богатырь!” I can’t translate that last phrase, but it’s about the most enthusiastic sentence I’ve heard about a book, in this case Pisemskii’s novel In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871).

As you see, I’m taking “special agent” as a gloss of чиновник особых поручений from Moser. I think he found a pretty good solution, but I’m open to other equivalents if anyone has another suggestion. The existence of that job shows the range of the word чиновник, often translated as “civil servant,” “bureaucrat,” even “clerk.”

[Update: Is there an etymological play on the names Druckart, built on a German root about printing that’s also in use in Polish, and Pisemskii, which on the surface appears connected to the Russian root meaning writing, or is that farfetched?]

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2013 1:43 am

    Farfetched? Not necessarily, for the German root was adopted by Ukrainian and by old Russian (post-1654 Muscovite Russian was strongly influenced by the vocabulary of the educated Ukrainian clergy). “Друкарь” can be found in Dahl, marked “old Southern and Western”. It is also the modern Ukrainian word for “printer.”

  2. July 12, 2013 8:37 am

    Thank you! Good to know. There’s a lot of “Western” language in some of these Leskov stories that I take as regional Russian in the narrator’s speech, but am not sure, when it’s in a character’s direct speech, whether to treat as Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, other, borrowings from one to the other, or deliberately ambiguous. My Polish is much better than my Ukrainian, so I must make lots of wrong connections in this Kiev/Kyiv setting.

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