“…that promised land of the Great Russian serf”
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.