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“…that promised land of the Great Russian serf”

October 19, 2014

Near the beginning of The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865), Leskov writes a chapter exposing the horrors of now-abolished slavery. This isn’t unique for early Leskov — slaves are made to fight in a story told in Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-72) — but the story of Prince Aggei Lukich Surskii in The Bypassed is as intense as the much later “Toupee Artist” (Тупейный художник, 1883) and “Ancient Psychopaths” (Старинные психопаты, 1885).* Surskii, a polished and ambitious aging aristocrat whose fingernails are often mentioned, suffers a reversal of fortune and has to retire to his estate, where he becomes a tyrant.

Leskov’s rhetoric escalates: horrors become more detailed, less expected, and closer to home for non-peasant readers. First we hear Surskii gave out lash-strokes to his slaves by the hundreds, and we’re appalled, but hardly surprised. Slaves are driven to suicide because they can’t stand the physical pain. A woman landowner brings her coachman so Surskii, as a locally renowned disciplinarian, can beat him as an example to her other slaves. Surskii has him whipped. Then he has her, the landowner, whipped. He has a French governess whipped, though she holds a knife to her throat. He tries to have an “American Yankee” overseer beaten, but the American escapes brandishing two loaded pistols. This enrages Surskii so much that, while having everyone who let the American escape whipped, he has a “fatal attack of apoplexy.” (See part 1, chapter 2, especially pp. 11-16.) Surskii is like Vishnevskii in “Ancient Psychopaths”: besides their slaves, both get away with having people beaten over whom they have no legal power. Both have at least one biological child among their slaves.

But that isn’t why I started this post. Surskii considers no one worthy to be his son’s godfather, but even the terrified and paid-off local priest won’t let him be godfather to his own son, so he forces a random peasant to be godfather, then gives him money and freedom papers and sends his family away:

The prince’s orders were executed with precision. The family of the newborn princelet’s accidental sponsor — wailing quietly and sorrowfully lamenting, and mourned by their relatives by blood and marriage — left their native village a day later on shaggy horses they had raised themselves. Pursued by a terrible apparition of the fearsome prince, they started off from their native trans-Volga steppes far, far away to flourishing trans-Dnieper Ukraine, that promised land of the Great Russian serf [крепостной] fleeing his sad, sad life. (12)

The “promised land” image makes me think of how the Pharaoh-Moses-out of Egypt-mountaintop-promised land allegory has been used about American slavery and its aftermath. But what kind of promised land was trans-Dnieper Ukraine for Leskov’s narrator or “the Great Russian serf”? I don’t think it meant acquiring a new legal status by leaving the Russian Empire for the Habsburg Empire — as far as I can tell, “trans-Dnieper Ukraine” meant Russian-controlled central Ukraine, not modern-day western Ukraine around Lviv (then Lemberg).

I’m still getting my bearings in the novel, but I think Surskii moves to his estate after either 1796 or 1801. Maybe at this time Russian peasants remembered a partially historical, partially legendary chaotic borderland of Cossack freedom. At the same time, maybe there’s supposed to be dramatic irony, with the narrator (and, he assumes, the reader) believing that the serfs were incorrect about their promised land, and that landowners from the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were even more tyrannical than Russian ones (cf. Leskov’s brutal Vishnevskii or Nekrasov’s Pan Glukhovskii from “On Two Great Sinners” [О двух великих грешниках]). I’m honestly not sure, and I’m probably overthinking it. Do any of you know exactly what made trans-Dnieper Ukraine a promised land for serfs in the eyes of an 1865 reading public or the serfs of several decades earlier?

* I’m reading a 1902 edition of The Bypassed, and I hereby make a note to myself to check if the Prince Surskii story was the same in 1865 or was revised near the time of those 1880s stories.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2014 8:19 am

    I don’t think you’re overthinking it at all — it’s an interesting question, and important for understanding this scene. I just wish I knew the answer!

  2. vikathoria permalink
    October 19, 2014 8:45 pm

    “Подавляющее большинство казаков являлось потомками беглых крестьян, уходивших на окраинные, вольные, но полные опасности земли. Не каждый беглый, стремившийся на Дон, в Запорожскую Сечь, на Яик или Терек, достигал этих обетованных в его представлении земель, не каждый становился казаком. Для этого нужна была решительность, смелость, отвага, здоровье, сила и удача. Но когда беглый становился казаком, он, казалось, достигал своего идеала: вольный человек на вольной земле. Но проходило время, и он понимал, что жестоко ошибался. Из Петербурга на Дон и Яик, на Волгу и Терек надвигалось «регулярство» с его постоянной и трудной службой, ограничениями и притеснениями, постепенной ликвидацией старинных, добытых кровью и саблей казацких прав.”

    Try searching in Russian, I am sure there are more sources. I’ve heard about this before–so it must have been a common thing.

  3. October 20, 2014 1:49 am

    Geographically, “central Ukraine” describes the location of “Заднепровские места” pretty well – in the 18th century, the term referred to the sparsely populated right-bank areas in Ukraine in today’s Kirovohrad and Cherkassy oblasts. Also see Чигирин and Новая Сербия. But “central” sounds deceptive: it was a frontier area for centuries, vulnerable to nomad raids and unsafe for settlement until the mid-18th century, when Russia pushed the Ottomans and their Crimean vassals far enough from that area.

    In the bigger picture, the settlement of Заднепровские места was an early stage of a huge demographic shift that shaped Ukraine and southern Russia from the late 18th to the early 20th century, the settlement of Новороссия.

    Recall Chichikov and his alleged plans to remove his dead souls to the Kherson governorate, which included today’s Kherson, Mykolaiv, Odessa and Kirovohrad oblasts. On the right bank, the northernmost уезд of Kherson governorate was Александрийский, now in Kirovohrad. That was once part of the Sich and the original Заднепровские места. The famous Cossack fortress Chigirin is a little farther up the Dnieper in the Cherkassy oblast, formerly the Kiev governorate. By 1865, these areas were probably full, and colonization moved further south, towards the Black and especially the Azov sea. Danilevsky’s popular Fugitives in Novorossiya, largely based on his experience from the 1850s, focuses on the Mariupol-Taganrog-Rostov area.

  4. October 21, 2014 10:37 am

    Thank you for these comments and links!

    As I understand it, a lot of the autonomy granted to Cossacks in the eighteenth-century trans-Dnieper borderlands was taken away early in Catherine II’s reign, in connection with this pushing back of the frontier and colonization of previously sparse areas. By the early nineteenth century, was the trans-Dnieper “promised land” an outdated and exaggerated story that peasants clung to?

    (I’m reminded of the way a serf uses 1812 to talk about the just begun Crimean War in an Olga N. story: “Пророчество Спиридоныча приводило в ужас старого и малого. Француз, говорил он, не минует Политина, когда пойдет жечь Москву; при чем пускался в рассказы о 12-ом годе, но такие неслыханные, страшные рассказы, что волос становился дыбом у слушателей.” Maybe c. 1750 is as real for Leskov’s early 1800s peasants as 1812 is for Olga N.’s Spiridonych in 1855.)

    Later in the nineteenth century, Leskov’s toupee artist tries to flee not to trans-Dnieper Ukraine but farther southwest to “Turkish Khrushchuk”. And this predates serfdom as it existed in the nineteenth century, but the Ukrainian math teacher in Pisemskii has people fleeing Muscovy to seek relative freedom in Ukraine in a much earlier period.

    • October 23, 2014 2:16 am

      “By the early nineteenth century, was the trans-Dnieper “promised land” an outdated and exaggerated story that peasants clung to?” I cannot be sure because I have not yet read a comprehensive study of the colonization of Ukrainian and Southern Russian steppes. I’m planning to read Bagaley (Ukr. Багалій), a student of Kluchevsky, and Kabuzan, a Soviet historian who mostly focused on the demographics of the Russian empire.

      I didn’t know that Rushchuk was Elias Canetti’s home town. The Bulgarian spelling is Русчук (Bulgarians pronounce щ as шт) in case you might Google it.

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