From Herzen to Leskov, and back again

Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895)

Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895)

I’ve been re-reading Nikolai Leskov’s Cathedral Clergy (Soboriane) in the excellent recent translation by Margaret Winchell (Slavica, 2010) for a new undergraduate course I’m starting to teach in the Autumn, Identities in nineteenth-century Russian literature. The first part of the course – and in many ways the most interesting for me in terms of preparing new teaching material – is devoted to social estates (sosloviia). The three main texts I’ve chosen are Sergei Aksakov’s Family Chronicle (Semeinaia khronika, also translated as A Russian Gentleman), to focus on the nobility, Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Storm (Groza), on the merchant class, and the aforementioned Leskov text, on the clergy. I think this is going to be quite challenging for the students, as these texts present such an unfamiliar view of Russia, by comparison with the Europeanized space and perspective that tend to dominate in the nineteenth-century works we more usually teach (I would include Tolstoy and Chekhov in that, even when they’re writing about peasants or merchants). But they are terrific and very lively works, and that alone (I hope) should persuade the students that they deserve to be read and studied.

In many ways it is precisely their expression of the tension between “tradition” and “progress,” the past and the future, Russia and Europe that makes these texts so interesting. They’re animated by the same binaries that exercised the Slavophiles (Sergei Aksakov was, of course, very much that way inclined himself, and spawned one of the best known, if least intellectually convincing, of the Slavophiles), but their dramatization brings the issues to life in a way that the rather inconsistent philosophical texts of the Slavophiles seldom manage. So I think this topic will be particularly enlightening for those students taking my Russian Thought course as well (where we’ll be looking at the Slavophiles at roughly the same time), and I’ll be using the two to feed off each other, which I hope will benefit both courses.

A large part of the plot of Leskov’s chronicle revolves around the clash between the clergy and the “free-thinking” school teacher Varnava Prepotensky, a caricature nihilist whose mania for the natural sciences leads to an idiotic tug-of-war with the local priests over a human skeleton he is intent on studying. But, probably because the events I described in my previous post were still fresh in my mind, I was particularly struck by a different aspect of this opposition of the old and new faces of Russia: a couple of references to Herzen’s newspaper The Bell (Kolokol). The novel was published in 1872, but Archpriest Tuberozov’s journal, which takes up a significant chunk of part 1, covers the period from 1831 to 1864 (the present day of the novel, and the year in which – significantly for the skeleton plot – the Russian translation of Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in full). The journal sketches the pre-history of the events that occur in the novel, including their ideological precursors, and includes the following:

Kolokol issue 1

Kolokol issue 1 (1 June 1857)

May 20th [1857]. While visiting the police chief, I read for the first time Mister Iskander’s Russian newspaper the Bell, which is printed abroad. The discourse was lively and highly stylistic, but unaccustomed as I am to boldness, I found it wild. (The Cathedral Clergy: A Chronicle, p. 61)

As the notes to the translation point out, the date given does not correspond with the reality, because Kolokol first appeared on 1 June 1857. Nevertheless, the reference indicates the significance of the newspaper from its earliest editions, while the source of the copy the Archpriest reads – the new chief of police Ignacy Czemernicki – is notable. The latter point is reinforced in the second reference, from an entry dated towards the end of the same year:

December 20th. I am utterly perplexed. The sacristan’s widow unthinkingly sent her son a one-ruble banknote not by registered mail, as required by law but in a plain envelope; at the post office the envelope was unsealed and, after the widow’s crime was uncovered, her missive was confiscated and she was subjected to a fine. It is no news to anyone that letters are opened and read at the post office; but just how is it that they intercept the widow’s banknote but not the Bell, which I get from the police chief? What is this – simplemindedness or theft? (p. 62)

This is interesting for two reasons. The first relates to a question I was asked several times at the unveiling of the plaque commemorating the Free Russian Press: how did Herzen manage to smuggle so many copies of Kolokol into Russia? Given the context we see in Cathedral Clergy, where nihilists and local officials are apparently cut from the same cloth (both representing different facets of Europeanized, modern Russia), and the fact that in reality Kolokol was read in the highest echelons of government, the only possible answer appears to be: with a degree of official complicity that renders the notion of illegality, and even of government and opposition, weirdly compromised. That’s not to imply that the opposition represented by Herzen was anything less than real, or that the banning of publications such as Kolokol was in any way a facade. One is accustomed (and not solely in Russia) to the existence of a gap between the law and what happens in practice, but this does suggest very contradictory behaviour and aims amongst officials at that time. If anyone can advise what best to read on that subject, I’d be very grateful.

The second question is about the boundaries between reality (or history) and literature, and the feeling that such references to a cultural phenomenon in a fiction work paradoxically seem a more significant sign of its importance than discussions in memoirs or even historical studies, precisely because they are mentioned only in passing. They are, of course, a loose part of the same satirical framework that subsequently develops around the emerging generation of radicals, but at the same time the brevity of the references to Kolokol limits the development of the satirical dimension, which in any case is directed here at the town authorities rather than the newspaper. This suggests that the situation described by the Archpriest must have been meaningful to contemporary readers, as it acts as a shorthand for the political context as a whole. And this adds another dimension to the relationship between literature and the real world it reflects (for want of a better phrase) that I seem to keep coming up against in different ways, from the fact/fiction confluence in Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales and its relationship to LEF’s concept of factography (the subject of an article appearing any day now in Slavonica), to the role of real places in Crime and Punishment and other Petersburg texts (see Mapping St Petersburg), and references in The Idiot to criminal cases that happened while Dostoevsky was writing the novel (of significance to my first book)… Somehow I’ve only recently noticed that this is a preoccupation that runs through different areas of my research, but I need to think more about how such elements are incorporated as well.

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  1. Martin barlow

     /  July 10, 2013

    An exceptionally interesting piece, thank you. There is an endless fascination with the extent of the interweaving by novelists of real events and situations into fictional works. Reading Aksakov’s Family Chronicle, I could only think of it as ‘real’ autobiography, even while knowing his grandfather had died when he was a very small child. I was unaware of the Leskov translation and will look forward to reading it.

  2. Jeffry A. House

     /  July 14, 2013

    The new course sounds amazing. Try to blog some of it for those of us unable to make it to class, please?

  3. Thanks – I’ll do my best.

  4. I came across another place where a Leskov character reads The Bell and thought of you. It’s in book 1, chapter 12 of No Way Out. Petr Lukich Glovatskii, a school principal of the older (1840s?) generation, is lamenting his inability to go as far as the 1860s young people, despite his sympathy for their beliefs. Reading The Bell is an example of how far he is willing to go – it seems frightening to him, but younger people take much bigger risks. Here’s the passage in case it’s of any use:

    — Да, разом, — потому что разом я понял, что я человек неспособный делать то, что самым спокойным образом делают другие. Представь себе, Женя: встаю утром, беру принесенные с почты газеты и читаю, что какой-то господин Якушкин имел в Пскове историю с полицейскими, — там заподозрили его, посадили за клин, ну и потом выпустили, — ну велика важность! — Конечно, оно неприятно, да мало ли чиновников за клин сажали. Ну выпустят, и уходи скорей, благо отвязались; а он, как вырвался, и ну все это выписывать. Валяет и полициймейстера, и вице-губернатора, да ведь как! Точно, — я сам знаю, что в Европе существует гласность, и понимаю, что она должна существовать, даже… между нами говоря… (смотритель оглянулся на обе стороны и добавил, понизив голос) я сам несколько раз «Колокол» читал, и не без удовольствия, скажу вам, читал; но у нас-то, на родной-то земле, как же это, думаю? — Что ж это, обо всем, стало быть, люди смеют говорить? — А мы смели об этом подумать? — Подумать, а не то что говорить? — Не смели, да и что толковать о нас! А вот эти господа хохочут, а доктор Розанов говорит: «Я, говорит, сейчас самого себя обличу, что, получая сто сорок девять рублей годового жалованья, из коих половину удерживает инспектор управы, восполняю свой домашний бюджет четырьмя стами шестьюдесятью рублями взяткообразно». — «Ну, а я, говорю, не обличу себя, что по недостатку средств употребляю училищного сторожа, Яковлевича, для собственных услуг. Не могу, говорю, смелости нет, цели не вижу, да и вообще, просто не могу. Я другой школы человек. Я могу переводить Ювенала, да, быть может, вон соберу систематически материалы для истории Абассидов, но этого не могу; я другой школы, нас учили классически; мы литературу не принимали гражданским орудием; мы не приучены действовать, и не по силам нам действовать.

  5. Thank you for this – really interesting. It’s turning into a bit of a theme…

  1. How strict was the ban on The Bell? | XIX век

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