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Mogilianskii on A Thousand Souls

June 17, 2020

(Below are my notes on Mogilianskii’s chapter on Pisemskii’s A Thousand Souls [Тысяча душ, 1858], in case they’re useful for any English speakers who want a summary or want to know where in the book to find something specific.)


There are at least three complete and two incomplete published versions of A Thousand Souls (47). The novel was altered by censorship, but there is evidence that people in literary circles knew the uncensored text of the novel in 1858 (47). Articles by Annenkov, Druzhinin, and Edel’son are all hostile to the parts of the novel that were removed by or uncongenial to the censor, but they all show evidence of familiarity with the uncensored text (47).

History and context of the writing of the novel

The late 1850s were the time when the Russian psychological realist novel came into its own (47–48). Before that there was the historical novel (Lazhechnikov) and the novel of everyday life (Grigorovich), but psychological prose had been limited to shorter forms and to a few works that appeared before their time and did not fully satisfy their authors: Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (Герой нашего времени, 1838–40), Gertsen’s Who Is to Blame? (Кто виноват?, 1846), and Goncharov’s An Ordinary Story (Обыкновенная история, 1847) (47–48). A decade later more authors were trying their hand at psychological prose, but works like Turgenev’s Rudin (Рудин, 1856) and Tolstoi’s “Family Happiness” (Семейное счастье, 1859) were more novellas (повести) than novels (романы) (48). Pisemskii was the first to achieve complete success in writing a Russian psychological realist novel (48).

Pisemskii told Panaev the outline of the novel he had planned in fall 1853, and A Thousand Souls was written between November 1853 and May 1858 (48). In a letter of October 1st, 1854, Pisemskii described his novel to Maikov in these terms: people in our age are moved by practical goals of career, comfort, economic security for themselves and their children; these things are in some ways useful, as they lead to a common comfort built out of many private comforts and a strong work ethic; but the problem is that pursuing them requires people to snuff out their own most noble impulses, so that after they achieve what they’d been striving for, they see that their goal had been of no value and they had become bad people in going after it (48).

Pisemskii worked on A Thousand Souls along these lines in 1855, but in 1856 came his great change in worldview, and in 1857 he started working on the staff of Library for Reading (48). His novel about an “amoral careerist” became more complicated and turned into “the story of the making of a socialist” (48). The novel was now both a psychological novel and a social one; the censors tried to strip away the social side of it, removing the main character Kalinovich’s call to smash the decaying machine of a government of serfdom, as well as information about a peasant uprising, but they were not able to fully eliminate the social aspect of the novel (48–49).

Plot summary and interpretation

Part 1 of A Thousand Souls shows the joyless monotony of a district capital in the provinces (49). There is a kind of local intelligentsia, but even they are unappealing, except for the Godnevs, father and daughter, who Kalinovich comes to realize are the only ”living and thinking people” in the town (49). Nasten’ka Godneva is the heroine of the novel, and she belongs to Belinskii’s category of “ideal maidens” even more than the character that inspired the category, Pushkin’s Tat’iana Larina (49–50). The scenes that take place at the Godnevs’ house are marked by an able economy of means and a warmth never again found in the book (50). But even this part of the story doesn’t go smoothly, as “once he feels attracted to Nasten’ka, Kalinovich forcefully pushes to attain his goal, rudely shoving away all obstacles and not wishing to follow the generally accepting path, getting married,” which causes those close to Nasten’ka, especially her uncle, to object to Kalinovich’s behavior (50).

The circle widens in part 2 as Kalinovich meets Prince Ramenskii and goes to his estate (50). After seeing the level of comfort the Prince experiences, Kalinovich’s ambitiousness is inflamed and he’s especially dissatisfied with his own poverty and the prospect of an ordinary life with Nasten’ka (50–51). He has the strength to refuse the Prince’s suggestion that he marry the unattractive but wealthy Polina, daughter of a general’s wife, but he is weak enough to lie and say he has no special attachment to Nasten’ka (50–51). He is also fascinated by the Prince’s daughter (51). He decides to go to St. Petersburg to seek professional advancement (51). Though he owes much to the Godnevs (his position in local society has improved since he has become a promising young writer with Nasten’ka’s father’s help) and has formally promised to marry Nasten’ka, he feels few pangs of conscience as he leaves (51).

Part 3 focuses on Kalinovich’s trials and tribulations in St. Petersburg, where he loses all hopes for either a literary or a civil service career and falls ill (51). The forgiving Nasten’ka comes to find him in St. Petersburg, and for a long time they live together on her money as if they were married (51). But Kalinovich abandons her again, tempted by Prince Ramenskii (51–52). Ramenskii gets Kalinovich to renounce his former principles out loud, which he had refused to do in part 2, chapter 6 (51–52). Kalinovich is morally torn; Polina’s father dies; Kalinovich sees no way out, falls into a fever, and on the day of his wedding to Polina Shevalova (the owner of a thousand souls) he attempts suicide (52). The conservative critic N. D. Akhsharumov criticized the scene where Kalinovich appeared at a fire as “theatrical and false.” but Mogilianskii argues that it is “written sparely, without excessive effects, and is at the same time filled with deep meaning”: the “vulgar lover of comfort in [Kalinovich] really did commit suicide” (52). The world is even wider in part 3 than part 2, which lets Kalinovich see that there is something much higher than the “level of culture” in Prince Ramenskii’s circle (52).

A decade passes between part 3 and part 4, during which Kalinovich manages to become Vice Governor of the province that includes the district capital he lived in in part 1 (52). Now that he’s older, Kalinovich’s internal struggle is over, and he puts all his effort into carrying out his civic duty as he understands it (52). He comes to the realization that his ten years of trying to change the system gradually from within have been useless, and the system must be destroyed and started over; this passage clearly had to be cut by the censor, who happened to be the novelist Goncharov (52–53). In the uncensored text, Kalinovich is referred to as a socialist in connection to his diatribe about tearing the system down (53). After that part was cut by the censor, references to him as a socialist remained and were in a sense strengthened, as “the author now seemed to assert that socialist convictions were de rigueur for every progressive and cultured person” (53). However, between the journal publication and the publication of the novel as a separate book (also 1858), the number of times Kalinovich was referred to as a “socialist” was reduced to one, which further distorted the author’s original idea (53).

Contemporary critical reaction

Dobroliubov knew only the censored text and saw in it an advocacy of “minor, partial reforms and improvements in the rotting building of the feudal monarchy” and therefore attacked the novel, motivated also by his personal distaste for Pisemskii (53). Dobroliubov even wrote a poem parodying the novel and Kalinovich (53–54). However, he later removed all references to A Thousand Souls from the poem, which nevertheless revealed much about his future attitude toward A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859) and the rest of Pisemskii’s works (54).

Pisarev’s more correct appraisal of the novel may have come out of a knowledge of the uncensored text (54). He said the novel was clearly above all other recent works of Russian literature, that Kalinovich was a character of considerable depth and development, and that ten critical articles could be written about A Thousand Souls (54).

Annenkov saw the political implications of (presumably the uncensored text of) A Thousand Souls in the opposite light, seeing the socialist Kalinovich as a nightmare bringing destruction (54). Druzhinin and Edel’son, who were close to Annenkov politically, took a different approach and minimized the political side of the novel (54–55). Edel’son took offense at the negative portrayal of the character Belavin (55).

In the character Zykov, the journalist who “opens Kalinovich’s eyes to the tasks ahead for the truly progressive people of the era,” Pisemskii created a literary version of Belinskii (55). Zykov/Belinskii passionately tells Kalinovich that he should look to the common people and “the life of the middle estate” (жизнь среднего сословия) for literary subjects and not just the strange emotional relationships of aristocrats (55). The Belinskii character is worked to death by a Kraevskii-like character, and a letter from A. N. Pleshcheev to Dostoevskii shows that contemporaries recognized these characters as Belinskii and Kraevskii at the time (55).

“Slavophiles and other representatives of the nobility” took a critical and cautious attitude toward the novel, including M. F. De-Pule in Russian Colloquy (Русская беседа) (55–56). De-Pule follows his arguments to their logical conclusion more than Annenkov does; he finds nothing artistic in Kalinovich and consequently in the entire novel, since he objects to Kalinovich’s desire to purify and smash everything and eliminate the nobility’s privilege of running things (56).

The novel in light of past works of literature

Kalinovich as the first socialist in Russian literature so named is Pisemskii’s own creation, but Kalinovich the “amoral careerist” of the first three parts of the novel has predecessors, such as Germann from Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades” (Пиковая дама, 1833) (56).

French literature is also relevant: the foundation for the figure of Kalinovich was laid by Balzac (Le Père Goriot, 1835; La Peau de chagrin, 1831), Stendhal (Le Rouge et le noir, 1830), and Charles de Bernard (Les Ailes d’Icare, 1839). Balzac’s work was always close to Pisemskii, but especially in A Thousand Souls; it is perhaps no accident that the French were the first to pay attention to the novel outside Russia (56).

When Pisemskii started working on A Thousand Souls in 1853, Elena Vel’tman’s novel Victor (Виктор, 1853) had just come out (56). Her protagonist Viktor Liudvinov didn’t have all that much in common with Kalinovich, but the novel overall combined echoes of Western European novels (Balzac, Dickens) with those of Russian novellas (Pushkin, Gogol), which pointed the way toward A Thousand Souls (56).

The complexity of Kalinovich

Compared to two other characters who were created around the same time, Goncharov’s Oblomov and Turgenev’s Lavretskii, Kalinovich created more difficulties for his author (57). Oblomov’s “crystalline soul” was no less crystalline because of his apathy, and Lavretskii’s inability to overcome difficulties did not stain his honor (57). Kalinovich, however, is called a scoundrel by his former university classmate at the beginning of the novel, and the reader has no reason to disagree; later Kalinovich does much worse things, yet Pisemskii contrives to make him a positive character nonetheless (57). Critics arguing about the novel made their interpretation of Kalinovich as positive or negative central to their argument (57).

Kalinovich is not a positive hero in the sense of a model for how to behave, but a living figure who’s a complicated mix of good and bad (57). Pisemskii’s earlier literary efforts had taught him how to create such a character; cf. Shamilov from A Rich Fiancé (Богатый жених, 1851–52), Batmanov from “M. Batmanov” (M-r Батманов, 1852), and especially Beshmetev from “The Lump” (Тюфяк, 1850) (57–58).

A new kind of realism

The narrator emphasizes that the marriage of Kalinovich and Nasten’ka at the end is far from “happily ever after” in what amounts to a manifesto of Pisemskii’s new kind of realism that avoided literary clichés (58). Pisemskii disapproved of literature with fantastic or supernatural themes, and his ideas about what should be done within a more realistic realism were rather strict (58). Throughout A Thousand Souls the narrative focus is on what is happening now, with little in the way of description, analysis, or flashbacks (59). Annenkov called the novel деловой (businesslike?), a word that was supposed to contain everything that made A Thousand Souls alien to his worldview (59).

Pisemskii held up narrative objectivity as an artistic principle, as seen in his famous programmatic letter to F. I. Buslaev of 1877 and his novel The Masons (Масоны, 1880) (59). However, in A Thousand Souls his democratic views overcame his objective manner, and at times the narrator becomes “something like a Juvenal of his era” (59).

Soviet coda

Lenin called for sweeping away the vestiges of serfdom, and Pisemskii in A Thousand Souls called for equal rights and the elimination of the privileges of the nobility in a way that anticipated Lenin (59–60). Chernyshevskii praised A Thousand Souls and would probably have liked it even more if he had known about the political passages that didn’t get past the censor (60).

See chapter 4, “‘Тысяча душ’ [A Thousand Souls],” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 47–60.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 18, 2020 5:20 pm

    “he finds nothing artistic in Kalinovich and consequently in the entire novel, since he objects to Kalinovich’s desire to purify and smash everything and eliminate the nobility’s privilege of running things”

    The mind boggles at what people like that think they mean by “artistic.”

    I hope you get a chance to read the novel, and Виктор as well; they’re both well worth it.

    • June 18, 2020 9:51 pm

      A more nuanced version of the thought may have been lost somewhere in the chain from De-Pule to Mogilianskii to my summary, but De-Pule isn’t my favorite critic, and I agree with you.

      I haven’t read Виктор yet, but I have read Тысяча душ! I forgot that meant there was at least one thing by Pisemskii we’d both read.

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