Leskov rewrites the What Is to Be Done? sewing co-operative
The main points of J. G. K. Russell’s “Leskov and His Quarrel with the Men of the Sixties” (1970) are now familiar. Russell looks at “The Musk-Ox” (Овцебык, 1863), No Way Out (Некуда, 1864), The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865), “An Enigmatic Man” (Загадочный человек, 1870), At Daggers Drawn (На ножах, 1870-71), and Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-72) as anti-nihilist works and concludes that “the stronger the nihilists, the weaker the novel” (127). These days “The Musk-Ox” and Cathedral Folk are the best remembered of the six, because the positive elements in them overwhelm the negative portrayals of “new men.” It’s a bit like Protopopov’s 1891 argument about Leskov’s “sick talent,” but applied within the early works, instead of contrasting 1863-1872 to Leskov’s later efforts.
Russell also classifies Leskov’s nihilists:
(a) the Nichiporenko type, the immeasurably stupid, unbearably self-confident nullity portrayed in [No Way Out] as Parkhomenko and in ‘An Enigmatic Man’ as the original Nichiporenko,
(b) the type totally lacking in conscience which appears in [No Way Out] in the gang of St. Petersburg nihilists who leach on the hero Rayner, in [Cathedral Folk] as the double-dealing Termosyosov, and in [At Daggers Drawn] as the fine flower of nihilism, the murderous Gordanov, and
(c) the idealist revolutionary, an early version of which we find in [‘The Musk-Ox,’] the continuation of it in Rayner, and, of course, the Benny of [‘An Enigmatic Man’] who died of an insignificant wound in an unimportant and unnecessary battle. (126-27, line breaks added)
What Russell offers that Leskov scholars usually don’t is a detailed reading of The Bypassed:
It might be permissible to regard [The Bypassed] as an attempt by Leskov to repair Chernyshevsky’s clumsy structure or even to knock it down and build it again differently. In both novels the heroines set up a dressmaker’s shop and conduct this as a co-operative in which the seamstresses have as much say as the employers. The essential difference between the two undertakings is that the first is a social experiment and the second an effective apparatus for earning a living. The second version is preferable from the point of view of artistic verisimilitude. From this same point of view Leskov also felt that, in creating an egalitarian atmosphere, it was not sufficient to make a bald statement of the existence of equality between workers and owners but that the existence of this condition should be demonstrated by means of concrete examples. […] The most important difference between Leskov’s novel and its model is that the seamstresses in [The Bypassed] have individual personalities; they are not part of a flat colourless backdrop against which the main characters stand out as the only living beings on the scene. The reproach Leskov seems to be directing at Chernyshevsky is that there can be no equality between three-dimensional heroes and shadows. (120)
Other contrasts: in What Is to Be Done? Lopukhov and Kirsanov (“no flower-child either”) are “men of iron” like in “TV westerns”; they pick people up and put them in the gutter, or fight back physically when underpaid for a job. Leskov’s Dolin’skii, on the other hand, “rescues the small child of one of the seamstresses when the little boy has climbed out onto a window ledge after a pigeon,” and this non-violent bit of heroism, if “no less a cliché,” helps make “the co-operative seem a real place inhabited by living people rather than theorems” (121-22). Finally, Chernyshevskii’s new men “are superior to society, despise it rather, whereas Leskov’s heroes are, as indicated by the title of the novel, beneath the notice of society” (122).
You’d think making the rank-and-file seamstresses into flesh-and-blood characters would make The Bypassed more memorable than Chernyshevskii’s novel, but even Leskov scholars don’t care for it: Lev Anninskii says it was “half-forgotten, and rightly so” by the end of Leskov’s career, and Hugh McLean demolishes it in a couple paragraphs (“In the midst of all this sentimental balderdash […] Leskov injects his inevitable denunciation of the nihilists,” 144-45). There are apparently many reasons for its failure, including that Leskov’s “nihilists’ arguments are made to seem so silly that their opponents have no difficulty in dismissing them with a bon mot or a curt rebuttal […] The nihilists are presented here as buffoons whose every utterance provokes mocking laughter from their listeners” (119).
JGKR was also struck by the same quote about Gordanov from At Daggers Drawn as I was last year, where the narrator contrasts him to earlier models of literary nihilists. See J. G. K. Russell, “Leskov and His Quarrel with the Men of the Sixties,” Canadian Slavonic Papers/Revue canadienne des slavistes 12.2 (1970): 108-27.