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It was all a misunderstanding

June 23, 2020

I was excited to get to Mogilianskii’s chapter on Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), one of my favorite novels of the whole nineteenth century and one I posted about here several times. Occasionally what I wrote in 2013 overlaps with what Mogilianskii had written in 1991 but that I read only in 2020 (see links below). It’s too bad that Mogilianskii has to frame everything in terms of disproving a false belief that Pisemskii was a reactionary; we get a lot about a single conversation about socialist ideas, but very little about, say, the role of Kazimira (one of the four women Baklanov makes miserable) in the novel. But I think much of what Mogilianskii has to say is to the point, especially when he talks about how Pisemskii makes Baklanov both a character the reader feels very close to and a character the reader can see is worse than merely flawed. Here’s a summary:

Despite its reputation, Troubled Seas is critical of the nobility, including liberal nobles

Along with the feuilleton by “Nikita Bezrylov,” it is Pisemskii’s novel Troubled Seas that nineteenth-century democrats found most problematic, but their distaste for the novel was founded on a sincere but profound misunderstanding (94).

The hit piece against Pisemskii in The Spark of February 2nd, 1862 (context here) was unprecedented and made third parties who were generally hostile to Pisemskii, such as Semen Vengerov, wonder how “five pages of good-natured mockery” in Pisemskii’s feuilleton led to such invective (94). If you read the original Nikita Bezrylov feuilleton and the piece in The Spark today without prejudice, it turns out there’s nothing that upsetting in either one, though, and we should read Troubled Seas in the same unprejudiced way (94–95).

Read in this way, it becomes clear that Pisemskii’s novel is mainly against the Russia of serfdom and the Russian nobility (95). And not just the pro-serfdom nobility, as seen in the character Iona the Cynic, but also the liberal nobility, as seen in the main character Aleksandr Baklanov (95). This is perhaps why publications run by noblemen didn’t like the novel (95).

Baklanov seduces an enslaved woman who rejects him when he returns after she is free

Beginning in part 1, chapter 2, the novelist “makes readers aware of extraordinary facts that shock their imagination with the scale of the criminality and the profound moral decay of distinguished members of the nobility” (95). He investigates the past, but instead of the usual “good old days” we see that the further we go into the past, the worse everything gets, though even the 1840s, when the first two parts of the novel are set, “are painted in fairly black hues by the author,” and serfdom is central (95). The protagonist, Aleksandr Baklanov, is supposed to be one of the best representatives of the young nobility of the day, but he goes back to his family estate during a university vacation and immediately sets about seducing a peasant girl, Masha, in part 2, chapter 8 [see this 2013 post] (95). Later in part 2 and in part 3, when Baklanov is working in the civil service, he remains a positive character compared to his peers, and we see this to some extent in his conduct during this episode: he tells himself he wants to marry Masha, but his mother learns of the affair and quickly has her married off to someone else (95). After 1861, Baklanov returns to his estate, apparently believing that Masha’s love for him was voluntary and “she will therefore probably not refuse to spent time with him now too,” but, now free, Masha mockingly rejects him in part 5, chapter 19 [see this 2013 post] (95–96). This coda to the “romance” between Baklanov and Masha was Pisemskii’s response to people who claimed that the love affair between Lizaveta and Cheglov-Sokovin in A Bitter Fate was voluntary and not made problematic by the woman’s enslaved status (96). Pisemskii would return to this “classic theme” again, but Troubled Seas is the only place where he “focused the reader’s scorn on his ‘best’ of noblemen”; the narrator does not comment on the scene with Baklanov and the free Masha mentioned above, but in part 4, chapter 26, the narrator remarks, “for all these acts, and probably for all those that came before them, the reader has no doubt already branded my hero an empty and worthless man!” (96).

By using autobiographical material, Pisemskii makes Baklanov simultaneously awful and the character the reader feels closest to

Baklanov’s role grows as the novel goes on: he comes close to transforming himself from a “good landowner/slaveholder” to a liberal journalist and even tries to bring illegal proclamations back to Russia from London (96). The hollowness of his liberalism is more than apparent, but Baklanov does not come across as an ordinary object of satire—Pisemskii gave Baklanov a lot of autobiographical traits, which made him especially convincing as a character and gave the reader a feeling of intimacy with him (97). One can say without exaggeration that, before Baklanov, Russian literature never had a character combine “the functions of harshly exposing immorality and causing the reader to live through events with the character” (97). An example of this kind of episode comes in part 5, chapter 20, when Baklanov vainly pursues his first love Sophie, who has gone abroad, and bursts into tears; this and other aspects of the relationship between Baklanov and Sophie are reminiscent of Manon Lescaut (1731) and certain features of the novel of classical antiquity (97).

The same is true to a lesser extent of Baklanov’s first love, Sophie Leneva

Sophie shows the degradation of noble society even more than Baklanov does—her frivolousness imperceptibly turns into ordinary debauchery, which ends with her incarcerated in a special prison in Paris [I think Mogilianskii means the Clichy debtors’ prison—EM]but she too is supplied with some good traits, including an independent mind (97). [Sophie is representative of the second of Pisemskii’s three formations of women.]

In the middle of the novel, the Sabakeevs (religious sister Evpraksiia and revolutionary brother Valer’ian) become important

Beginning in part 3 the Sabakeev family plays an important role in the novel (97). Baklanov marries Evpraksiia Sabakeev at the end of part 3 [on Baklanov and Evpraksiia see this 2013 post] (97). She and her mother seem superior to all the other noble characters (97). This family also produces Valer’ian Sabakeev (Evpraksiia’s brother), a praiseworthy example of the revolutionary youth of the 1860s (97). As much as Sophie’s brother Viktor Basardin, who joins the revolutionary cause out of self-interest, is vilified in the novel, Valer’ian Sabakeev is raised up [on Basardin see the middle of this 2013 post and the end of this 2013 post] (97). In interpreting the political message of Troubled Seas, much (though not everything—see below for an argument about socialism) depends on one’s interpretation of Valer’ian (97).

In creating Valer’ian, Pisemskii didn’t take the simplest path (98). We first see Valer’ian in part 4, chapter 14, arguing with defenders of landowners’ rights; in this argument, Valer’ian fiercely defends the peasant commune as an ideal, and in this respect “the author considers his views immature and mistaken” (98). But in part 4, chapter 17, Valer’ian has an argument with Baklanov, and the reader is entirely on Valer’ian’s side (98). Pisemskii was trying to create a convincing character, not a spokesperson for his own views, so it isn’t surprising if Valer’ian and the author don’t agree about everything; even Kalinovich from A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858), Pisemskii’s most programmatic creation, didn’t agree with Pisemskii about everything (98). But the narrator of Troubled Seas clearly sympathizes with and even admires Valer’ian (98). Valer’ian is decisive and impatient in his desire for revolution; Pisemskii clearly believed an eventual revolution was necessary (as seen in Troubled Seas itself), but beginning in late 1861, he was skeptical about revolutionary activity being helpful in the short term (unlike the sympathetically drawn Valer’ian) (98). In an artistically unsuccessful and unrealistic scene in part 6, chapter 20, Pisemskii depicts the tsar himself; this episode is meant to show that the toppling of the autocratic government would be premature (98).

In the author’s view, what the peasants need is not pointless sacrifices, but concrete peaceful measures, like appointing “peace arbitrators” (мировые посредники) who were raznochintsy or otherwise not from the nobility, a point of view put forward by the learned Varegin in the novel (98). The scene where a peasant uprising is put down is not meant to be realistic, but is programmatic, intended to show that the issue should be settled without spilling blood (98).

Pisemskii introduces himself as a character to make his pro-socialist point clear

Pisemskii chose an unusual method to show his unchanging personal sympathy for socialist ideas: he enters the text of the novel as a named character in part 5, chapters 3–8; it turns out the novelist Pisemskii is an acquaintance of Baklanov’s, and Baklanov hosts a gathering where Pisemskii reads “An Old Man’s Sin” (Старческий грех, 1861) in the presence of Sophie Leneva, whom he, Pisemskii the character, finds beautiful [on this narrative technique see this 2013 post] (98–99). Just before the appearance of Pisemskii the character, Pisemskii the writer has Baklanov explain his program of opposition to Chernyshevskii’s ideas in part 5, chapter 2 (the character Proskriptskii stands in for Chernyshevskii) (99). Baklanov says Proskriptskii is intelligent but cut off from real life: he doesn’t think breathing is a necessity, doesn’t recognize a single one of the arts, tries to make everything fit a big Idea, wants phalansteries in Russia, and wants everyone in Russia to live and dress in the same way (99). Baklanov’s plan to oppose Proskriptskii is to start a journal based on “aesthetic rather than arbitrary foundations” with the help of his uncle Evsevii Osipovich Livanov (99–100). Is Pisemskii the author on the side of Proskriptskii/Chernyshevskii and his socialist ideals or Baklanov and his aesthetic ideals (100)?

Part 5, chapter 3 is the ideological center of the novel, where Baklanov begins an argument about socialism with Livanov that even the servants standing nearby pay attention to (100–01). Livanov’s side of the argument emphasizes the sides of socialism most important to Pisemskii, as well as the decisive role the proletariat is called to play in the historical process (101). After Livanov leaves, Baklanov says negative things about him, but Pisemskii the character thinks to himself that he liked Livanov, thus resolving the dispute (101). This, according to Mogilianskii, is the whole point of Pisemskii appearing in the novel as a character (101). It is also significant that Pisemskii puts the pro-socialist words in the mouth of an older, educated character who has been exposed to many ideologies instead of, say, the pure but inexperienced Valer’ian Sabakeev (101). Even though the chapters where Pisemskii appears as a character have a programmatic function, they are written in a highly convincing and “realist” manner; Pisemskii even takes the bold step of criticizing Livanov for changing his views over a 17-year period (an unfair criticism, as anyone could change their views as new things happened in the world over that long a time, and the biographical Pisemskii had certainly changed his own), which makes Livanov more convincing as a character (101–02). Baklanov himself admits ideological defeat, and Pisemskii the character reflects that he “started to remake himself before my eyes. He no longer said a word about his aesthetic journal; on the contrary, in his speech there began to appear phrases along the lines that, as long as the poorest of the poor is hungry, nobody rich should sleep soundly” (102). These, then, are the “anti-nihilist,” “reactionary” views that Pisemskii was criticized for for over a century [see this 2013 post on how anti-nihilist Troubled Seas was] (102).

Editorial changes demanded (or covertly imposed) by Katkov lead to textological problems

Pisemskii published Troubled Seas in Katkov’s Russian Herald, and there is evidence that Katkov changed the text without letting the author know. One thing that Katkov apparently removed in the serialized published version was part of Livanov’s speech in part 5, chapter 3: after he says “shed your purple mantle and your treasures, and cast them into the crowd; otherwise they will come and take everything from you by themselves,” the manuscript and the first publication of the novel as a book (1863) have “at their head will be Christ: He is your God!” (102). This text is absent from all other published editions of the novel (102). It is clear that there are textual problems with cuts made by Katkov that can’t be restored because extant manuscripts (including a draft that doesn’t have the end of the novel, and a fair copy of the final chapters only) don’t cover the full text (102–03). The very end of the novel (part 6, chapter 20) changed considerably from the manuscript to the published version, apparently because Katkov compelled Pisemskii to rewrite it, but Pisemskii didn’t simply capitulate to Katkov and in some ways strengthened the text (103–04). [If I am comparing the versions correctly, Pisemskii has Sophie Leneva die in debtors’ prison in Paris in the manuscript, but in the published text she is in prison but not dead—EM.] Mogilianskii reconstructs the editorial process like this: Katkov demands changes; Pisemskii agrees to make some changes, but keeps the ideological vision of the novel intact, albeit more hidden; Katkov isn’t satisfied with this and resorts to making additional changes in the final text without the author’s knowledge (104).

Young revolutionaries are the hope of Russia: Valer’ian Sabakeev, Elena Bazelein

Part 5 focuses on youth and revolution, and the characters Valer’ian Sabakeev and his fiancée Elena Bazelein come to the fore (104). Bazelein seems to be ambiguous, but if you read carefully it is clear she is a positive character just as Sabakeev obviously is; in one place a male character suggests that Bazelein is promiscuous (she allegedly asked a student if he had a couch and a pillow, and when he said yes, went to his place to study), but elsewhere in an argument about religion and sexual morality between Bazelein and the devout Evpraksiia (Baklanov’s wife and Sabakeev’s sister), the narrator takes Bazelein’s side (104–05).

Pisemskii was criticized for his portrayal of Elena Bazelein, and he reacted to the criticism in his next long novel, In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871), where the main female character is named Elena and has views close to Bazelein’s (105). In that novel too a character tells a story about Elena that makes her sound promiscuous (she allegedly met a student on his way to the bathhouse and went there with him), but this time Pisemskii has the narrator intervene to say that the story was false and had been made up on the spot (105).

True revolutionaries are good in the novel. Baklanov’s terrible showing with his mission to bring illegal proclamations back to Russia shows by contrast how praiseworthy Sabakeev’s revolutionary firmness is (105). The young Galkin, a character modeled on Nikolai Utin, who would later head the Russian section of the First International, describes his political program as “destroy social estates; make land entirely free, like the air, so everyone can take as much of it as they need; destroy marriage and the familiy,” and is treated with respect (he was “noble in his goals”) (105). [Here I think Mogilianskii is being disingenuous. The “noble in his goals” language is Baklanov’s thoughts, not the author’s or narrator’s; and Galkin is friends with the reprehensible Viktor Basardin. On Galkin’s father, who is important in the middle of the novel, see this 2013 postEM.] At the end of the novel Pisemskii called raznochintsy and revolutionaries the hope of Russia and reemphasized the anti-nobility character of his novel, but he was not able to get this passage into print; nevertheless, he could reasonably believe that the political message of his novel had remained more intact than that of A Thousand Souls (105–06).

Contemporary critics’ reaction to Troubled Seas

There are some instructive comments in the massive literature about this novel, but no other novel by Pisemskii produced as much spiteful and unfounded critical output, some of which was a continuation of the anti–Nikita Bezrylov discourse (106).

The revolutionary democrat Shelgunov was close to both The Contemporary and The Russian Word (106). His article “Men of the Forties and the Sixties” (in The Cause in 1869) is full of contradictions (106). On Troubled Seas he says that previous commentators saw the novel as “an arrow aimed at the young” and young people themselves took it as criticism of them, but this was a misunderstanding; Pisemskii actually wrote practically a panegyric to the 1860s generation, saving the criticism for his own 1840s generation (106). He even has Baklanov admit his own inferiority to Proskriptskii (106).

Skabichevskii, a critic for Nekrasov’s National Annals who wrote a whole book about Pisemskii, thought that the novel hurt the cause of progress in Russia precisely because it wasn’t just a pack of lies; it accurately and ably focused on the worst parts of the movement without paying the same amount of attention to its best parts (106–07). “The harm caused by such pessimism is exacerbated by the fact that artistically it is the strongest work out of everything written by Pisemskii in its lifelike quality, in the accuracy of the types portrayed, in the complexity of its plot, which shows a wide range of Russian life, in the lively interest with which one reads it, and in the strength of the impression it produces” (107).

These two views don’t agree with each other, but they both go against the conventional wisdom about Troubled Seas (107). Miliukov (of the Petrashevskii circle) can be taken as a typical example of the middle-of-the-road groups of literary critics (107). He sees the first half of the novel as fine, but says that from part 4, chapter 1 on, Pisemskii is consumed by an idée fixe and becomes an “inexorable Juvenal attacking the young generation” (107). [This is D. S. Mirskii’s view of the novel too—EM.] But had Miliukov read the novel carefully (107)? He at least noticed that Pisemskii introduced himself as a character, but he skips over the key argument about socialism (107–08). At the end of the article he remarks that “Pismeskii’s talent has not declined at all in his latest novel,“ and when he compares Troubled Seas to Dead Souls it becomes clear that the whole problem is that he likes what Gogol presents as his ideal, but not what Pisemskii presents as his (108).

The fate of Pisemskii’s novel was largely determined by two articles: Antonovich’s in The Contemporary and Zaitsev’s in The Russian Word (108). Zaitsev’s article “Troubled Novelist” was most famous of all (108). The young critic clearly was entirely prejudiced against Pisemskii, which can be seen from his opening line which identifies Pisemskii with Nikita Bezrylov (108). It is therefore all the more surprising that Zaitsev praises Baklanov as the best literary embodiment of his generation, saying that Oblomov, Rudin, and Lavretskii represented specific types within that generation, but Baklanov was the best representative of the entire society (108). Zaitsev also praised what Varegin said about Evpraksiia (criticizing her religiosity) in the novel (109). Unfortunately, Zaitsev misunderstood Valer’ian Sabakeev and Proskriptskii (though he acknowledges that Pisemskii himself considered Sabakeev “an intelligent and noble person”), and he entirely overlooks the important ideological sides of the novel (109).

Antonovich’s article appeared in 1864 and attacked not only Troubled Seas, but also Zaitsev’s article about Troubled Seas and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, which Zaitsev had held up as a positive example for Pisemskii to follow (109). It is significantly weaker than Zaitsev’s article, analytically speaking (109). Even Antonovich found artistic value in Troubled Seas, and also in earlier works by Pisemskii (109).

Previous Soviet critics on Troubled Seas

Soviet scholars have on several occasions said that it was necessary to change the general perception of Troubled Seas; V. V. Sipovskii considered it Pisemskii’s most significant work (109).

See chapter 7, “‘Взбаламученное море’ [Troubled Seas]” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 94–109.

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