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Mogilianskii on In the Whirlpool

July 2, 2020

I wasn’t posting much here when I read Pisemskii’s In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871), so I don’t have many related posts to link to, except maybe this one that mentions how much Leskov loved it. By writing more about Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) and Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) I unintentionally followed in the footsteps of nineteenth-century democratic critics, as you can see in Mogilianskii’s section on In the Whirlpool.


Dissatisfaction with some aspects of Men of the Forties leads Pisemskii to quickly write another long novel

The journal Dawn (where Pisemskii had published Men of the Forties in 1869) wasn’t a monolithic hotbed of reaction, but its key figures, including Strakhov and Danilevskii, took a conservative line; Strakhov, who earlier in his career had been a progressive champion of the natural sciences, had turned to anti-Darwinian views (128). This constrained Pisemskii as he wrote Men of the Forties, especially since Kashpirev had high hopes that Pisemskii’s novel would make his journal successful (128). Pisemskii must have been dissatisfied with the lack of ideological clarity that came out of the clash between his vision and these external constraints; he never published Men of the Forties as a separate volume (128–29). What’s more, he almost immediately started writing another novel, which he finished very quickly (for such a large project): In the Whirlpool (129).

Miklakov as an autobiographical character

As he had in Troubled Seas, Pisemskii inserted himself into In the Whirlpool to make clear his (positive) attitude toward socialist ideas (129). Pisemskii used the story of his own conflict with The Contemporary in the early 1860s to underscore that the journalist character Miklakov (whose combativeness made people want to read him but made his colleagues in the world of writing and publishing hate him) was based on him (129). Unlike Troubled SeasIn the Whirlpool has socialist ideas as its central theme (129).

In the Whirlpool as a novel narrowly focused on the conflict between two spheres

In the Whirlpool is the opposite of Men of the Forties and Troubled Seas: where those earlier novels embraced lots of different parts of Russian life, In the Whirlpool was kept narrow, concentrating on a few central characters and themes (129). However, this didn’t make it simpler; it made it more complex (129).

In the Whirlpool focuses on the clash between two opposing moral/intellectual spheres (129). But these aren’t defined by any kind of formal intellectual qualifications; on the contrary, Dr. Illionskii presumably has educational qualifications that Miklakov, Elena Zhiglinskaia, and Prince Grigorov may lack (129–30). Nevertheless, the two groups are incomparable, with those in the latter group, who hold socialist views, infinitely more sympathetic than those in the first group (130). In this way the author gives the moral high ground to socialist ideas; the fact that the novel came out around the time of the Paris Commune makes the theme of the workers especially salient (130). The “high” and “low” worlds are represented by three important characters each (Miklakov, Zhiglinskaia, and Grigorov; Illionskii, Zhiglinskaia’s mother, and Petitskaia), but since each group presumably stands for an arbitrarily large set of people, one more is added to each as the novel progresses (Nikolia Ogloblin and Zhukvich) (130). The members of these two groups are extremely consistent, but there is also an intermediate group that is both “in between” and capable of evolution and change (Countess Anna Iur’evna, Prince Grigorov’s wife, and Baron Minger) (130).

There is no other work by Pisemskii where the principal characters are elevated so far above their environment (and this is where the ideological thrust of the novel can be seen, as they all favor the “new” worldview), but Miklakov, Zhiglinskaia, and Grigorov are portrayed as human beings with flaws, not bloodless idealizations (130). Miklakov constantly gets drunk; Elena is a victim of her own forceful personality (прежде всего жертва своего характера); and Prince Grigorov lacks common sense (130). Yet all of them are entirely honest, unselfish people who live by their convictions (130). Miklakov’s and Grigorov’s actions in support of their principles are in the past (the Prince had taken part in the Polish movement while abroad), and it is only Elena Zhiglinskaia’s activism that unfolds on the pages of the novel (130–31).  Her work toward a Polish renaissance is in vain since she trusts the untrustworthy Zhukvich, but her pedagogical work has real value (131).

Differences among the “good” characters on baptism

Disagreement about specific questions within the “good” camp is possible (131). Elena objects to marriage and baptism on principle and doesn’t want her child by Prince Grigorov to be baptized; Miklakov, on the other hand, is more practical and encourages her to take the interests of the child into account (131). However, when the baptism happens, it is Miklakov who is rude and sarcastic to the priests, while Elena tries to defuse the situation (131). The falsity of religion was important for the revolutionary democrats as it permitted opposition to the tsar, who claimed to be God’s anointed; Pisemskii (especially after his 1856 change in worldview) was and remained a militant atheist, as shown in his writing and his choices as editor of Library for Reading (131). The author’s atheist position was clearer in In the Whirlpool than it had been in Men of the Forties (132).

Elena Zhiglinskaia, Prince Grigorov, the Polish revolutionary movement, and Gertsen

Elena’s revolutionary views and plans are in support of the revolutionary liberation of Poland (132). Polonophobia in the Russian press from 1863 on was intense to the point of raving (132). In anti-nihilist novels like Kliushnikov’s Mirage (Марево, 1864) and Vsevolod Krestovskii’s Panurge’s Herd (Панургово стадо, 1869), Polish activists were portrayed as the most important and dangerous enemies of the Russian people and as having infiltrated the Russian government (132). The worst “nihilists” in these novels amounted to just one of several ways Polish revolutionaries were trying to undermine Russia (132). Elena is Pisemskii’s answer to this madness, and in this Polonophilic move, Pisemskii was working in the best traditions of Gertsen (who had taken the side of the Polish revolutionaries, which made many Russian readers of The Bell abandon him); Lenin explicitly praised Gertsen’s pro-Polish stance (132). In creating Elena, Pisemskii was no doubt inspired by the political journalism of his favorite writer, Gertsen (132). Elena’s weakness reflects the weakness of partitioned and nearly paralyzed Poland (132). Pisemskii made Elena as attractive a character as his realistic methods, to which any absolute idealization was anathema, would allow (132).

Elena, however, is not merely a Pole and a Polish activist; she also actively fights for a new society and the new worldview put forward by Chernyshevskii and Dobroliubov, whom she explicitly praises as great men of the Russian people (132). Elena is so appealing a character that even right-of-center critics like Vasilii Avseenko and Orest Miller praise her, with Miller noting that the existence of characters like her shows that “women’s Oblomovism” (женская обломовщина) is at last coming to an end (132–33).

The rivalry between Princess Grigorova and Elena Zhiglinskaia is central to the novel

The reader is first led to sympathize with Elena’s rival, her lover’s wife Princess Eliza Grigorova, who was raised in a patriarchal German family and is called “of high morals” (высоконравственна) by the narrator several times (133). Elena is, in contrast, blunt and impatient (133). The theme of the rivalry between the two women is further complicated by the fact that Elena’s friend Miklakov falls head-over-heels in love with Princess Grigorova (133). The rivalry between the two women, and by extension the different worldviews they represent, is the heart of the novel (133). This is not to diminish the roles of Miklakov and Prince Grigorov, who share Elena’s ideological views, but Elena is the character who takes the initiative the most and who is set out by the author as the measuring stick for good progressive people (133).

By the end of the novel the reader is entirely on the side of the godless nihilist woman Elena instead of the highly moral Princess Grigorova (133). The Princess, along with her new husband, Baron Minger, has moved into the “bad” camp (133). The ending of the novel combines the tragedy of the unhappy fate of truly progressive people in Russia with a subtle but biting satire against those, like Baron Minger, who find a way to do well in the world of Russian autocracy (133).

Gertsen is important in In the Whirlpool

Gertsen is practically a character in the novel (133). When Prince Grigorov goes abroad, he heads directly to London and becomes close to émigrés there, meaning Gertsen (133). When the Prince’s friend Baron Minger remarks that Gertsen is terribly witty, Prince Grigorov says severely that he is more than merely witty (133). Grigorov was closest to Gertsen in his pro-Polish views, but Gertsen did not idealize radical Polish émigrés or the Polish revolutionary movement (133–34). Gertsen notes that the cause of national independence is more important to many Polish revolutionaries than any social revolution, and the movement is both fractured and unduly dominated by Polish aristocrats and Catholic priests (134). Prince Grigorov in the novel retreats from his involvement with the Polish cause because, though he would be willing to sacrifice himself and undergo whatever political punishment, he would like it to be for a cause he truly cared about, that is, for socialism rather than Polish nationalism (134). This is the issue that leads to the final break between Elena and the Prince, as the Prince refuses to contribute 15,000 rubles to a group of Polish émigrés that Elena wants to support, much as Gertsen had declared he was unwilling to give money to the Polish revolutionaries in exile in My Life and Thoughts (Былое и думы, 1852-68) (134).

Elena, Polish by blood, cannot view the Polish revolutionary question from the same perspective as Prince Grigorov (134). She comes to hate Russia as a place where a free-thinking person can do nothing (134). In her express hatred for Russia and her belief that wars for national independence are justified, Elena’s views in the novel follow Gertsen’s published views (134).

The workers’ question

In In the Whirlpool, Pisemskii puts forward a new approach to the question of the workers (135). It is possible he would have gone even farther on this front but had to cut passages from late in the novel because of increased censorship in response to the Paris Commune, but we don’t have any manuscripts of the novel at all, so it’s hard to say (135). But even what’s in the published text is striking (135).

Miklakov declares that one should sacrifice their life for the cause of the proletariat and contrasted his own views, as a champion of the workers, with the views of apologists of the peasantry and of populist Utopian socialism (135). Miklakov, like Gertsen, use the word rabotnik instead of rabochii to mean worker and also uses Gertsen’s favorite contrast of the new and the old Adam (135). Thus, even though workers weren’t in any way part of the plot of In the Whirlpool, the author makes clear that his views on this subject continue the views he had in 1862–63, but go even further (135).

The novel from an aesthetic point of view

For all the novel’s ideological saturation, Pisemskii did not neglect its artistic design either; no previous work by Pisemskii reveals so much attention to detail and to the interconnections of various aspects of the novel (135).

Contemporary critical reception: silence

Pisemskii was surely curious how his novel would be received by the democratic press, but it was received only by a conspiracy of silence on the part of left-of-center critics, which, of course, itself spoke volumes (135). Readers, however, loved it more than any other work by Pisemskii (135).

See chapter 9, “Романы конца 60-х и начала 70-х годов [The Novels of the Late 1860s and Early 1870s]” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 122–135.

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