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Justyn Feliksovich “was entirely Russian and did not even consider himself a Pole”

April 17, 2015

Leskov’s No Way Out (Некуда, 1864 — the book Victoria Thorstensson and I are translating) is a bit like a Dickens novel in that the characters don’t all seem to belong in the same world, or perhaps the same genre. A lot of them seem human and have the kind of interesting psychological complexity you expect from a nineteenth-century Russian novel — Liza Bakhareva, Mother Agnia, Doctor Rozanov. But Reiner is an angel, the Marquise de Baral and her entourage are comic figures, and the Poles Raciborski and especially Jaroszyński are cartoonish villains.

Not every Polish character is a caricature, though. Justyn Pomada anticipates Prince Myshkin from The Idiot (Идиот, 1868-69) as an unworldly saint, though women don’t take the childlike Pomada as seriously as Myshkin. He’s as fully drawn as any of the Russian characters but cut off from them, with one foot in the world of idiosyncratic psychology and human weakness, and the other on Reiner’s plane of moral purity.

Aleksandr Kuz’min gives Pomada and No Way Out a whole section (30-34) in his chapter on how Poles are portrayed in Leskov. Despite the presence of Jaroszyński later in the novel, the author’s position when Pomada is introduced seems critical of Russian prejudice against Poles in the wake of the January Uprising of 1863. Pomada’s parents were brought to Russia in the wake of the failed November Uprising of 1830-31, but Russia had no use for them (33). Their son grew up in Russia and was educated in Russian schools; the narrator declares that “he was entirely Russian and did not even consider himself a Pole”; but Russians, asked to describe him, laconically say he’s Polish as if that were all anyone needed to know (32). He fought and died in the 1863 uprising, but his motives, like those of Reiner and a minor character named Kajetan Słobodziński, were a belief in universal human freedom and independence, while the more pragmatic Jaroszyński just wanted political power transferred from certain Russians to certain Poles (33).

At the beginning of the novel, Pomada is employed as a teacher of penmanship in the house of the noblewoman Mereva. He stayed there as her children grew older, ignoring hints to leave, but never thrown out decisively; the episode seemed to me to point out Pomada’s impracticality and lack of ambition. But Kuz’min notes the irony that this supposed foreigner is a teacher of penmanship for children whose ethnic Russian mother’s Russian is bad (32).

Kuz’min gives a list of novels of the period with unsympathetic Polish characters that looks like a list of the most famous anti-nihilist novels (30). I wish he’d had the space to go into more detail on one of them, Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863). I thought the main Polish character from that novel, Panna Kazimiera, was neither negatively portrayed nor a stereotype. Not one I’m familiar with, anyway — most of the “typically Polish” traits I know from Russian writing of the time apply to men, and I may just not know enough about how Russians pictured Polish women c. 1863. However, I think you could argue that of the four women the main character Baklanov hurts — the luxury-loving noblewoman Sonia, the peasant girl Masha, his landlady’s daughter Kazimiera, and the devout and serious Evpraksiia — the Polish woman is the least commonplace.

See A. V. Kuz’min, Инородец в творчестве Н. С. Лескова: Проблема изображения и оценки (St. Petersburg: Filologicheskii fakul’tet SPbGU, 2003).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2015 8:19 pm

    I agree with you about Kazimira. I do not think she is portrayed negatively. I also do not think she was portrayed as a stereotype because I do not think there are enough Polish women characters by that time to speak about stereotypes. I do not remember Kuzmin’s work very well, but did he do an overview of Polish characters in Rus Lit before Leskov? That would be interesting to see.

  2. April 18, 2015 8:51 am

    did he do an overview of Polish characters in Rus Lit before Leskov?

    Unfortunately I don’t think he does – he gives an overview of Polish-Russian relations through history, and an overview of Leskov’s narrative techniques, and then goes into Poles in Leskov (the early travel narratives, No Way Out, and three short stories). He does cite a couple chapters from a book called Поляки и русские в глазах друг друга (Moscow, 2000), as well as an article by M. Kuletskii, “Лях и москаль — заклятые друзья,” Rodina 1-2 (2001): 79-83, and a nineteenth-century piece by Pypin (“Польский вопрос в русской литературе,” Vestnik Evropy 1.2 [1880]).

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