The Crocodile: a Preface

Regular readers will know that The Crocodile is one of my favourite works by Dostoevsky, because of its connections to the Crystal Palace as well as its humour. But it was only a couple of weeks ago, while I was preparing a class on the story, that I got round to reading the fake “Editorial Preface” that accompanied its original publication in Dostoevsky’s journal The Epoch. I don’t know why this is not normally published with the story – it’s hidden away at the back of volume 5 of the 30-volume Complete Works (pp. 344-6), and I’ve not seen it included in other editions – but I think it’s brilliant. It’s a rambling masterpiece of pomposity and equivocation, but also, in raising the question of the attribution and veracity of the story, it acts as a hilarious addition to the parody of knowledge that is so central to The Crocodile itself. So I decided to translate it (I admit, this was a displacement activity – I had a set of essays that needed marking), and because I’ve not had time to publish many posts recently, here it is. The translation is somewhat rough and ready, and I’d be grateful for any suggestions for improvements. The original text can be found at the end of this version.

The Crocodile: An Editorial Preface

The editors are surprised to print this almost incredible story only because perhaps somehow all of it really did happen. The story explains that a gentleman of a certain age and a certain appearance was swallowed whole by a crocodile located in the Passazh arcade, and that he not only remained alive, but even lived in the bowels of the crocodile unharmed and, apparently, willingly for two weeks; that he was, during this time, visited by vacuous members of the public inclined to amusements, that he entered into conversation with visitors, fussed about his pension, often changed direction (both physically, i.e., turning from side to side, and morally, in terms of his behaviour) and, towards the very end, from idleness and frustration, became a philosopher. Such dreadful piffle would, of course, be unnatural, if the extremely sincere tone of the author had not inclined the editors in his favour. Besides which, almost all the newspaper articles, even poems and furious polemics, that appeared on account of the swallowed gentleman, were cited in the greatest detail. All this rubbish was delivered to the editors by Mr. Fyodor Dostoevsky, a close associate and member of the editorial board, but the real author of the story remains unknown. One day, while Mr. Dostoevsky was away from home (on business not germane to the reader) some unknown person turned up at his apartment and left on his table a manuscript with a short letter from himself, but without a signature. In this letter he briefly but pompously recommends his work and asks for it to be made public by publishing it in “The Epoch”. Since the story was also not signed by anybody, the editors authorized Fyodor Dostoevsky, for the sake of appearances, to sign it with his name, and at the same time, by way of justice, to invent a decent pseudonym for the unknown author. Thus, the unknown author was named Semyon Strizhov, for some unknown reason. As for Mr. Dostoevsky, he eagerly signed his name, justly arguing that if the public liked the story it would be better for him, because they would think he’d written it, but if the public didn’t like it, he would only have to say he didn’t write it and that would be the end of it.

The editors, however, do not conceal from the public one very important fact, namely, no matter how they tried, how much they sought at least something that might shed some light on the unheard of incident in the Passazh, nothing helped! No-one, absolutely no-one had heard or read a word about anything even remotely similar to it, although it turned out that many people went to see crocodiles in the Passazh. In short, to the great regret and annoyance of the editors, there turned out to be no gentleman whatsoever who had been swallowed alive. The editors tried to find the newspapers issues and articles mentioned by the author, but to their surprise, quickly realized that newspapers with such names do not exist. In such an emergency only one possibility remained: to believe it all and decide, albeit reluctantly, but at the same time in all honesty, that the stranger who had revealed the manuscript could not be lying, and therefore everything reported by him was truthful. This we did, but right here we consider it our duty to declare that if, by chance, it all turns out to be a lie and not the truth, then there has never been a more incredible lie in our literature, except perhaps that famous case when a certain Major Kovalyov’s own nose one morning escaped from his face and later went for a stroll in the Tauride Gardens and down Nevsky in full dress uniform with a feather in his hat. In any case the editors would very much like the public to believe it all, for if they don’t believe it, it means they’re accusing the editors of lying, which would be disagreeable.

And yet, we say sincerely, although not without some embarrassment, there are people, even among the editors, who have opposed us heatedly for deciding to believe such (supposedly) arrant mystification. This minority has furiously accused us, despite us doing everything required of us to vindicate such an incredible occurrence in the eyes of the public. Not sufficiently appreciating our efforts, they screamed, obviously missing the point, that the unknown person’s story is not only contrary to the natural sciences, but even anatomy, that it’s impossible for a crocodile to swallow a person of a certain age, perhaps seven vershoks tall and, most importantly, educated, etc., etc. – you don’t need to read all their clamour, it’s not worth it, especially since the majority vote was in favour of the editors, and it’s already been decided there’s nothing better than the principle of the majority vote for establishing the truth. Nevertheless the editors, to fulfil their duty in all good faith, bent their ears to these interjections. Immediately four permanent members were commissioned from their midst to find the truth in the Passazh. They were all required to enter the crocodile room as a collective, acquaint themselves with the crocodiles and search everything themselves on the spot. On the commission were both secretaries to the editorial board, with and without portfolio, a critic and a novelist. Sparing no expense, the editors gave each of them a quarter-ruble to pay for their entrance to the crocodile room. All the quarter-rubles comprised the inalienable property of the editors and were acquired by them through legal means, without any kind of intervention from any other editors whatsoever.

The members of the commission came back just an hour later in the greatest indignation. Moreover, they did not even want to talk to us, probably from frustration, and all looked in different directions. Finally won over by the strenuously tender attentions of the editors, they agreed to break their silence and announced directly, but quite rudely all the same, that the editors had no business sending them to the Passazh, that the whole absurdity of it was apparent at first glance, that a crocodile could not swallow a person whole, but that, who knows, perhaps it could somehow happen. This sharp and even, one might say, one-sided verdict alarmed the editors in earnest. Nevertheless, it was all very soon definitively settled. In the first place, if “perhaps it could somehow happen”, then that means it really could have happened, and secondly, according to the research of the former commission it turned out to be clear that the unknown person’s story was not talking about those famous crocodiles now being shown in the Passazh at all, but some other, foreign crocodile that was also apparently shown in the Passazh, that lived there for three or four weeks, and, as is clear from the story, was taken back to his homeland in Germany. This latter crocodile could, of course, have been bigger and more capacious than the two crocodiles there now, and, consequently, why shouldn’t he have been able to swallow a gentleman of a certain age, and educated to boot?

Such reasoning finally resolved all the editors’ perplexity. The main thing was that they triumphantly vindicated the story and could print it, although they could have managed quite well without it, already having a sufficient set of articles and exactly the number of pages that had originally been promised to the public for each issue of “The Epoch”. But, not constrained by this promise, the editors added those superfluous pages. If we’ve already let “superfluous men” out into the world, why should it not come to pass that a magazine can also have superfluous pages?


The version does not include the letter that supposedly accompanied the manuscript, but it appears in the Complete Works (p. 346):

Письмо неизвестного сочинителя к Ф. Достоевскому

Милостивый государь, спешу сообщить Вам, как члену редакции журнала “Эпоха”, историю об одном из самых необыкновенных и даже, смею сказать, невероятных событий, которое может обогатить оригинальностью не только одну вашу “Эпоху”, но даже и всю нашу эпоху. Прошу вас немедленно предать его гласности.

Неизвестный сочинитель

Letter from an unknown writer to F. Dostoevsky

Sir, I hasten to inform you, as a member of the editorial board of “The Epoch”, of a story about one of the most extraordinary and even, dare I say, incredible incidents that may enhance the originality not only of your “Epoch”, but even of our entire epoch. I ask you to publish it immediately.

An unknown writer

Women in the Gulag

I always welcome new contributions to the study of the Gulag, particularly (because it is a dimension that remains much less explored than the history) those that focus on personal experiences of the Soviet labour camp system and the writings associated with it, so I was looking forward to reading Paul R. Gregory’s Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives (Hoover Institution Press, 2013). It’s interesting because the book is related to a documentary project and follows the survivors and their children, but the book itself came as something of a surprise and disappointment as so little of it rests upon experience of the labour camp system. Instead, Gregory informs us, ‘the Gulag refers to a state of mind – to the knowledge that anyone and everyone could be shot, jailed or exiled as the victim of mass insanity and hysteria originating from somewhere above.’ (p. viii) In fact, the Gulag per se forms a central part of only one of the five stories. In two other cases it features only in the ‘aftermath’ chapter (just over one page is devoted to Agnessa’s imprisonment for black marketeering, and Adile’s deportation to Kazakhtstan is covered in two pages), while of the other two women included, Evgeniia Ezhova committed suicide before she could be arrested, and Fekla’s family was deported to a special settlement as kulaks – a traumatic experience that affected her subsequent life in many ways, but in a somewhat different way from that of imprisonment. So the Gulag does not actually appear to be the subject of the book at all, and because of the presentation of the lives specifically as stories rather than objects of research, no space is devoted to comparing the different types of experience.

This focus away from the labour camps may in itself be significant, given the tendency of many memoirists to devote far less attention to the years of hard labour than they do to the months of imprisonment (Evgeniia Ginzburg is a case in point), which can be related to Gorianchikov’s reflection in Notes from the House of the Dead that:

Записывать ли всю эту жизнь, все мои годы в остроге? Не думаю. Если писать по порядку, кряду, все, что случилось и что я видел и испытал в эти годы, можно было, разумеется, еще написать втрое, вчетверо больше глав, чем до сих пор написано. Но такое описание поневоле станет наконец слишком однообразно. Все приключения выйдут слишком в одном и том же тоне (pt 2, ch 9)
Am I to describe the whole of that life, all of my years in prison? I think not. If I were to write down in ordered sequence everything that happened, everything I saw and experienced during those years, I would of course end up writing three or four times the number of chapters I have already written. In the end, such a description would become monstrous. All the events could come out sounding the same. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead, trans. D. McDuff (Penguin, 2003), p. 339

But this at least should be a subject for reflection, not an excuse to avoid the main issue.

Equally problematic is the choice of the five women whose stories make up the book, as all five women came into contact with the Gulag or the Terror because of their husbands or families. ‘Family members’ did indeed account for a significant proportion of women arrested and sent to the Gulag or exile in this period, but far from all, and it surely cannot have been impossible to find at least one woman who experienced the repressions as an autonomous individual. Moreover, three of them were married to or related by marriage to high-ranking party officials and NKVD officers. This is a deliberate choice made in order to explore the consequences of the ‘Faustian bargains’ made by such women (p. x), but the domination of this question over others skews the perspective away from more normal experiences of Stalinism, and while I am very interested in Evgeniia Ezhova (Vasiii Grossman’s story about the Ezhov family, ‘Mama’, plays a central role in a forthcoming article in the Journal of European Studies) I would have preferred a wider variety of subjects, including more that could be counted as typical.

I’m slightly mystified by Gregory’s contention that his book is different because of the focus on women. He claims that ‘most belles-lettres on the Gulag, starting with the classic accounts of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, explore primarily the travails of the men’ (p. x). This ignores a vast amount of material by women, starting with the classic account of Evgeniia Ginzburg (well known long before the publication of Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales), and more recently including two important collections of memoirs: Simeon Vilensky, ed., Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag, trans. John Crowfoot (London: Virago, 1999) – a selective translation of Semen Vilenskii, ed., Dodnes’ tiagoteet: Zapiski vashei sovremennitsy (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1989) – and Veronica Shapovalov, ed. and trans., Remembering the Darkness: Women in Soviet Prisons (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), which takes its material from the Memorial archives in St Petersburg. Neither of these books makes it onto Gregory’s bibliography, but they offer a far wider perspective on the Gulag experiences of women and will remain my first recommendations.

Remembering the Darkness contains perhaps the most unusual individual story of life in the Gulag, the memoir of Valentina Grigorievna Ievleva-Pavlenko (pp. 317-53). It’s a text that I love teaching because it confounds all my students’ expectations and makes them confront all sorts of questions that many traditional narratives – particularly by women – tend to sweep under the carpet. Eighteen when she was sentenced to six years in the camps, Valentina’s story is one of love and sex in the Gulag. We follow her through a series of affairs as she moves through the camp system, and read of the men who fall in love with her, the thieves and brigade leaders who try to make her their property, the times when she has to pay for favours with her body, or finds ways to avoid doing so, and the jealousy she encounters from other women. It in no way conforms to the standard, uplifting narrative of mutual support and virtuous conduct that we normally associate with women Gulag survivors, which frequently give the impression that sex is an activity the occurs only amongst the most depraved of female criminals but is entirely absent from the lives of political prisoners. The first time I read Ievleva-Pavlenko’s memoir I felt that because it was the most trivial account of the camps I’d come across, she was in fact filling in some of the missing detail from narratives which – as much as I admire them – present self-images of such purity and respectability that one has to suspect they are not telling the whole story. That may well be because of survivors’ reticence about revealing intimate details, rather than any desire to deceive, but in a sense Ievleva-Pavelenko, because she lacks any such scruples, normalizes the Gulag narrative. Hers is not a tale of moral superiority and the triumph of the human spirit, of extraordinary behaviour in extraordinary circumstances, but of the continuation of her normal life; the camp system here is not a space of exception, but simply an extension of everyday life in the Stalin era.

But Ievleva-Pavelenko’s behaviour is unusual in another way, because we repeatedly see her refusal to cooperate – with the interrogation, with the prison rules, and, most strikingly, in refusing to work unless it suited her, even when that resulted in punishment. And while the latter in particular may have derived from a basically self-centred attitude which is hardly admirable in itself, it still demonstrates a spirit of resistance and a startling rejection of the state’s terms of existence that one seldom encounters in Gulag narratives. In a way she remains more firmly outside the system than any prisoner convicted under Article 58 that I’ve come across, and her position perhaps more closely resembles that of the professional criminals (the ‘thieves in the law’). Given the scarcity of sources by members of that fraternity, Valentina’s perspective on labour camp life may be valuable as a proxy that can reveal something of their mentality. So while her memoir may shock my students, and is certainly neither edifying nor moving, in its author’s failure to stick to the rules – of both camp life and survivors’ narratives – it shows aspects of the Gulag that are otherwise largely inaccessible. Sometimes the trivial and ordinary is exactly what we need.

New article: Knowing Russia’s Convicts

This week has finally seen the publication of my article ‘Knowing Russia’s Convicts: the Other in Narratives of Imprisonment and Exile in the Late Imperial Era’ in Europe-Asia Studies. It’s a special issue based on the Villains and Victims workshop which I wrote about previously, and it contains some great articles that really reflect what an amazing event that was.

My contribution, comparing attitudes to peasant convicts in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island and Kennan’s Siberia and the Exile System, relating particularly to the question of knowledge, represents my first shift backwards from Gulag narratives into pre-revolutionary prison/exile texts, which has subsequently generated a whole new approach to the subject. Some ideas relating to that will appear in an essay in a forthcoming collection based on last year’s workshop on prison experience in Russian culture, and I’m working on a book manuscript that will eventually bring everything together.

For readers who do not have institutional access to Europe-Asia Studies, click here for a free e-print – I have 50 of these to give away and will remove the link once they’ve all gone.

Update (July 2014): thanks to an agreement between UCL and Taylor & Francis, this article is now open access.

“Russians” in Lewes

Last weekend I visited Lewes to give a lecture on Crime and Punishment at the Lewes Little Theatre, ahead of their forthcoming production of the novel, which opens on 12 October. I had a wonderful time, with a very appreciative and knowledgeable audience, and really interesting discussions with the cast and production team, whose perspectives on Crime and Punishment were thought-provoking in all sorts of ways.

Monument to the prisoners of the Crimean War, Lewes

Monument to the prisoners of the Crimean War, Lewes

During our visit, Miles Jenner, the director of the play and head brewer at Harveys (brewer, among other fine products, of the Tsar of all the Beers, Imperial Extra Double Stout), took us into the atmospheric and rather overgrown churchyard next to the Little Theatre to show us the monument erected in 1877, on the order of Tsar Alexander II, to honour twenty-one “Russian” prisoners from the Crimean War who died in captivity in Lewes between 1854 and 1856. The Lewes Naval Prison held around 350 prisoners of war, whilst officers were paroled in the town. Conditions were apparently pretty good for the prisoners, who were allowed to go for walks on the Downs, and took up making wooden toys and puzzles, which they sold to the townsfolk, becoming rather well off – they certainly had enough money to make the Tsar’s easter gift of sixpence each for the prisoners to buy hot cross buns look somewhat insignificant. After the soldiers were repatriated at the end of the war, the Senior Constable of Lewes received a letter thanking the townspeople for their kindness and good treatment of the prisoners.

Plaque on the site of the Lewes Naval Prison

Plaque on the site of the Lewes Naval Prison

It’s an interesting story in itself (and my thanks to Miles for providing the details), but it has another curious aspect, in that the soldiers weren’t Russian at all, but mainly Swedish and Finnish, as the names on the monument attest. Obviously the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, and this article from the Telegraph on the recent refurbishment of the monument explains that the prisoners were captured as part of an attack on the Åland Islands in 1854 that was intended to stop the Russian Empire making use of its Baltic fleet during the Crimean War. So it’s both Russian and not. [updated on 29 September 2013 shortly after initial posting.]

The monument was restored by the Soviet government in 1957, “At the instance of the Friends of Lewes Society,” as one of the panels informs us – the slightly antagonistic tone framing this as a minor intervention in the Cold War. So there’s a story there as well, and it makes me wonder how many places have these curious little Russian connections. Time to turn Russians in London into Russians in Britain?

Photographs by John Levin, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

New publications: the spatial turn

I have a couple of recent publications to announce. The first is on Shalamov: ‘Mapping Space as Factography: Human Traces and Negated Genres in Varlam Shalamov’s Kolymskie rasskazy,’ Slavonica, 19.1 (April 2013), 1-17 ) (£). The second, co-authored with John Levin, is  ‘Mapping Machines: Transformations of the Petersburg Text’, The Spatial Turn in Literary StudiesPrimerjalna književnost (Comparative Literature) 36.2 (2013). The latter is the first publication of research from our Mapping St Petersburg project, and you can read a bit more about this and other developments on the site (including some new maps of Crime and Punishment that we discuss in the article) here.

The two articles relate to very different projects, and for a long time the different strands of my research seemed largely unconnected beyond the significance of Dostoevsky to both, or all of them, and I’ve often worried about my research lacking coherence for that reason. But increasingly I see how recurring themes and ideas are bringing aspects of my work together in rather unexpected ways. One such theme is performance, which was fairly central to my book Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative. In quite a different context, it’s the subject of a forthcoming article comparing the representation of criminals in nineteenth- and twentieth-century prison/hard labour narratives, appearing in a collection of essays based on papers from last year’s conference on Russian prison experience in Uppsala. I’m also currently working on an article about Petersburg narratives that also focuses on motifs of performance, developing a paper I gave at the BASEES conference last year.

That article on Petersburg will also link the question of performance to the spatial dimension, which is another major preoccupation, and central to both new publications. Clearly Mapping St Petersburg is based on ideas about the exploration of space in literary texts, but until recently it hadn’t really registered as a significant aspect of my katorga/Gulag research. That may seem surprising, given the importance of Siberia to the  project, but most of my ideas have in fact dealt with questions of interiority and identity, and geography has generally played a lesser role than I expected.

My Shalamov article changes that somewhat. It addresses two aspects of the spatial dimension of Kolyma Tales that both derive from the loss of the sense of time in the camps: the network created by the non-chronological arrangement of the stories and the connections between tales that are distant from each other in both time and space; and the uses of space as a metaphor for writing, notably in the recurring motif of surveying and mapping the Kolyma region. To develop these questions further (and investigate the connections with my other project in more detail), I’m thinking about network visualizations of the stories, and currently working on a map to interrogate the geography of Shalamov’s stories, However, progress is slow, as some of the camps and places he mentions are proving very elusive (if anyone can provide any information on the location of Chernaia rechka – a camp in Kolyma, not the area in Petersburg where Pushkin had his duel – I’d be enormously grateful).

Two more articles are imminent: one on seeing trauma in Vasily Grossman’s late work, from the Oxford conference marking the BBC’s production of Life and Fate, and a long-awaited one on conceptions of peasant convicts in katorga narratives, from the Villains and Victims conference in Nottingham. More on these when they appear.

Top ten fictional writers in Russian literature

The Guardian’s list of the 10 best writers in novels is so patently rubbish (two each entries for Martin Amis and Stephen King!?) that I feel compelled to respond with my own round-up of fictional writers in Russian literature. The usual rule applies: no more than one work per author. On the basis that he makes it onto the Guardian list, I have excluded Charles Kinbote from Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

10. Elena Gan, The Ideal.  Gan’s 1837 society tale contains a brilliant portrait of a cynical Petersburg poet, Anatoly Borisovich. We see him the eyes of the normally level-headed Olga, as she becomes first infatuated and then disillusioned with him. Gan is one of several female 19th-century Russian writers who deserves to be far better known than she is.

9. Ivan Panaev, The Petersburg Feuilletonist. Included in Nikolai Nekrasov’s famous 1845 almanac The Physiology of Petersburg, Panaev’s sketch is a slightly heavy-handed, but witty depiction of the rise and fall of the most Peterburgian of literary figures. Replete with references to fashionable Petersburg life, it represents the most self-reflexive piece in a collection based on the idea of self-reflection, as the sketch-writer is typified to become the subject of a sketch himself.

8. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago. I have to admit I’m not a great fan of Pasternak’s prose, which rather too often feels like wading through soup, but one cannot deny that his mystically-inclined poet-hero is a classic depiction of a writer in his time.

7. Nikolai Leskov, Cathedral Clergy. Archpriest Tuberozov’s journal takes up a significant proportion of part I of Leskov’s chronicle. It is a wonderful depiction of his struggles against the various opponents he faces (both old believers and free thinkers), as well as giving insight into his character and to his surprisingly tender relationship with his wife.

6. Kharms, Starukha. Possibly the least successful writer on the list, the narrator of Starukha can write only one sentence of his story: ‘The miracle-worker was tall.’ He also loses the ability to understand time and is incapable of managing the task of narrating the story of what is happening to him. | English translation

5. Evgeny Zamyatin, We. D-503 begins his journal, which forms the entire novel, in order to praise the OneState. As much as it charts his flirtation with rebellion, the journal reveals the development of his imagination, and the process of him becoming a writer.

4. Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time. I have in mind Pechorin’s journal, a superb mixture of honesty and cynicism that keeps on playing with our perception of the extent of his self-knowledge. But the novel as a whole is important because of its multiple narrators and chronological shifts, which show remarkable understanding of the potential of the novelistic form before it had properly established in Russian literature. | English translation

3. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. As usual with Dostoevsky, there are multiple possible entries here: the underground man’s endless confession; Raskolnikov’s article; Ippolit in The Idiot; the hilarious chronicler of Demons, or the writer Karmazinov, a vicious caricature of Turgenev, in the same novel; Arkady Dolgoruky in The Adolescent... In the end I felt I had to go for Ivan Karamazov, because his story, The Grand Inquisitor, has taken on a life of its own. Has any other story-within-a-story gained so much currency in its own right? Both that text and Ivan’s article on ecclesiastical courts play central roles in framing the novel’s philosophical debates that perhaps ultimately overshadow their author within the text. | Russian text: part 1 | part 2 | part 3| part 4

2. Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. The Master’s novel about Pilate and Yeshua is itself significantly influenced by Ivan Karamazov’s story, and as in The Brothers Karamazov, the author of the inserted narrative receives little attention in comparison with his work. The Master’s self-effacement means that he is less memorable than many of the other characters in the novel, and that his status as a broken, tragic figure is often undermined.

1. Nikolai Ostrovsky, How the Steel was Tempered. I regularly denounce this book in my early Soviet literature classes as being monumentally badly written and  cliched, and I stand by that. But as a writer-hero, Pavel Korchagin takes some beating: blind and paralysed, but determined to continue to serve the revolution, he dictates his autobiographical novel, only for the sole copy to be lost in the post. So he writes it again. | English translation: part 1 | part 2

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.

Herzen’s Free Russian Press: plaque unveiled on Judd Street

It’s not often in my line of work that research has a concrete, physical and permanent (as far as anything can be) public outcome, so it was with great pleasure yesterday that I attended the unveiling of a new plaque commemorating the work of the Free Russian Press at 61 Judd Street in London.

Plaque marking the site of Herzen's Free Russian Press, 61 Judd Street, Bloomsbury

Plaque marking the site of Herzen’s Free Russian Press, 61 Judd Street, Bloomsbury. Photograph by Sarah J. Young (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I first started researching the Free Russian Press for my Russians in London series, quickly realizing that Alexander Herzen’s twelve years in London were central to the story of many of the other visitors I was tracking down. And his importance as a point of contact was primarily down to the significance of the Free Russian Press and especially the journals The Polar Star and The Bell which, when published from Judd Street in the 1850s (the press moved to a new site across the road after establishing its first independent premises at no. 61, at the time 82 Judd St.), were probably the most influential publications in Russia.

That post led to contact with the Marchmont Association, and further research by myself, Blue Plaque guide Sean Mitchell, Hilary Chapman and Richard Ekins from the Marchmont Association (see the initial discussion thread here) to establish exact locations. I detailed the results in a further post, and today’s plaque is the culmination of the whole process. You can also now find it on Open Plaques.

Unveiling the plaque

Unveiling the plaque. Photograph by John Levin (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What I wasn’t expecting was to be invited to unveil the plaque myself, but here I am, doing the honours (and battling vertigo!) with the Mayor of Camden, Jonathan Simpson. It looks terrific, not least because it’s on a beautiful old terrace, whose 200th anniversary will itself be commemorated next year.

The Marchmont Association plaque scheme is quite new, but growing rapidly. It’s great to see people who are so interested in the history of their local area, and their readiness to mark the work of a figure who, whatever his importance in Russian intellectual and political history, remains quite obscure in this country, is really wonderful. I can only thank them (for being so very friendly and welcoming as well), and hope the plaque will help spark the interest in Herzen that he deserves. I will be doing more research into the Free Russian Press and its journals over the next year, and will keep readers informed about that work. And there remain numerous Russians with London connections to research, when I have time – and who knows where they will lead me…

Crystal Palace (F. C.): Chernyshevsky’s barmy army

Russia at the Great Exhibition, 1851. From Dickinson's Complete Pictures. Author's copy

Russia at the Great Exhibition, 1851. From
Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures. Author’s copy

This piece first appeared on the SSEES Research Blog on 30 May 2013.

When one thinks of Russian connections to English football, it is most likely the owners and shareholders of certain premier league clubs that will to spring to mind, or the small number of Russians who have played for English clubs, including Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin. But as Crystal Palace F. C. reaches the premiership following a tense play-off final against Watford, the status of the club as possibly the only one in the English league to be named after a building – its former nickname the Glaziers emphasizing the connection to the iconic structure, which still features on the club badge – provides a legacy of historical and literary Russian resonances that far outstrip the transient presence of mere players and owners, or indeed football itself.

The Great Exhibition was intended, among other things, to bring together the industry of all nations for the promotion of peace and free trade (whilst, inevitably, demonstrating the superiority of Britain in all regards). The Russian exhibit drew attention owing to its late arrival, and was notable for the malachite products that stood out in a display mainly consisting of raw materials.

Tsar Alexander II at the Crystal Palace, 1874. Author's copy

Tsar Alexander II at the Crystal Palace, 1874. Author’s copy

But in a climate of general xenophobia and fear of foreign revolutionaries who might visit the Exhibition – which took place three years after the 1848 wave of European revolutions – as well as intensifying Russophobia (the Crimean War was only two years away), it is perhaps not surprising that Russians themselves, as much as their manufactures, were seen to be on display. Among the exotic foreigners caricatured in descriptions and cartoons, the fearsome ‘Don Cossack’ always had his place alongside the Chinese mandarin and the African ‘savage’, reminding us how alien and un-European Russians seemed to the British imagination at that time. The notion of the palace as an international space may also have been behind the visit of Tsar Alexander II in 1874. As a later cigarette card commemorating the event indicates, the emphasis on this occasion was reconciliation and sameness – the Russians in the royal entourage pictured here are indistinguishable from the British guests – but the commentary on the reverse reminds us of that ‘other’, alien Russia, ending ominously: ‘The Tsar was assassinated by Nihilists on 13th March 1881.’

But if British views of Russians at the Great Exhibition simply reflected contemporary events and attitudes, within Russian literature the Crystal Palace assumed a particular significance, as it became a touchstone for debates about modernity, westernization and social transformation. Read the full post »

Top ten undead in Russian literature

“The dead are people too.” Andrei Platonov, The Foundation Pit

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the influence on nineteenth-century Russian literature of romantic and gothic sensibilities, and of fantastic writers from ETA Hoffmann to Edgar Allan Poe, the notion of the undead plays a significant role for some of the most prominent Russian writers. Encompassing not only supernatural entities but also out of body experiences (and dreams of these) and other, less fantastic, conceptions of a living death or return from the dead, the theme plays a central role in Russian culture. Apologies for any plot-spoilers, though generally the plot as such is barely the point. Where possible I’ve included links to Russian texts, with the translations of the featured texts that are available online given at the end of the entry.

10. Lev Tolstoy, The Living Corpse (1900) I’m no great fan of Tolstoy’s plays, as the ones I’ve read seem to have a clunkiness he avoids even in his most didactic fiction. The Living Corpse is fairly typical in that respect, but it is interesting in other terms. Not literally a story of the undead, this drama about a debauched man who fakes his suicide to free his wife belongs to the meme of fake deaths in Russian literature, which frequently seem to occur in order to resolve love complications: see also Sukhovo-Kobylin’s Tarelkin’s Death and Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? Tolstoy’s play can be seen as a response to the consequence-free fake suicide of Lopakhin in Chernyshevsky’s novel, but it also acts as a commentary on Anna Karenina and questions of love, adultery and divorce.

9. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (1928-40, published 1967) Satan’s ball, in which murderers and criminals from across the centuries come back to life, is so exuberantly described it is easy to overlook the horrific side of this scene. It is above all aimed at testing Margarita, and considering the grim physical and emotional ordeal she goes through, one has to question whether the reunion it ultimately achieves is worth it. The Master is so badly damaged that his return – another form of resurrection – cannot restore the past. There is no happy ending here. Bulgakov’s preoccupation with the dead is also apparent in is early feuilleton “Adventures of a Dead Man” and in the subtitle to his Theatrical Novel: Notes of a Dead Man.

The undertaker's housewarming party

The undertaker’s housewarming party

8. Alexander Pushkin, The Undertaker (1830) The Tales of Belkin are extraordinary creations, but The Undertaker usually gets much less attention than The Shot, The Stationmaster or The Snowstorm. It probably isn’t quite as perfectly formed as some of the other tales, but its climactic image of the corpses he has interred turning up to Adrian Prokhorov’s housewarming is a wonderful excursion into the fantastic that adds another layer to Pushkin’s parodies and creates a connection with The Queen of Spades. It also alerts us to how frequently the appearance of the undead is related to alcohol in Russian literature (see also Odoevsky’s The Tale of a Dead Body, Belonging to No-One Knows Whom, and Zoshchenko’s vignette The Living Corpse).

7. Yuri Dombrovsky, The Keeper of Antiquities (1964) My former PhD student Katia (now Dr) Shulga had some brilliant insights into the uncanny imagery of dead brides in Dombrovsky’s dilogy The Keeper of Antiquities and The Faculty of Useless Knowledge, but one related reference stays particularly in my mind because of the coincidence of its discovery. Katia was wondering about an obscure reference to Marusya being shot in the civil war and then returning from the dead, when I published a blog post about the anarchist atamansha, Maria Nikiforovna, who was famous for the legends surrounding her death and multiple returns. The inclusion of Marusya – a startling example of the diversity of Dombrovsky’s knowledge – gives an unsettling additional dimension to the theme of dead beauty haunting the living.

6. Daniil Kharms, The Old Woman (1939) There’s an enormous amount of death in Kharms, so it’s not surprising that a little undead-ness creeps in as well. The old woman who inexplicably visits the narrator’s room, only to die, proves very troublesome. When the corpse starts crawling across the floor the story enters a different realm altogether. Or does it? Does this actually signify that she’s not dead at all? The narrator hasn’t checked that carefully, after all, and given his inability to tell a simple story, he hardly seems qualified to understand or report coherently on this aspect of the incident. In which case, does it become murder when he kicks the “corpse”? If so, it makes one rethink a great deal of the story, particularly the religious theme and the closing prayer. | English translation

Image from Georgi Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov's film Viy (1967)

From Georgi Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov’s film Viy (1967)

5. Nikolai Gogol, Viy (1835) From the metaphorical return of the “dead souls” in Gogol’s novel, to the muscular “ghost” of Akaky Akakievich who vengefully steals overcoats from passers by, the undead are a constant presence in Gogol’s work. For me the most memorable occurrence comes in the Mirgorod story Viy, when the philosopher Khoma Brut spends three nights in a church under attack by the beautiful witch he killed, each night more horrifying than the last, and culminating in the appearance of multiple demons and the eponymous monster the Viy, with his all-seeing eyes and iron face. The second cock crow leaves all the demons frozen inside the church, and the image of it abandoned and overgrown with weeds is for me the perfect expression of the clash of pagan and Christian cultures at the heart of Gogol’s Ukrainian stories. | English translation

4. Vladimir Odoevsky, The Live Corpse (1838, published 1844) When Vasily Kuzmich dies, his spirit goes wandering, and discovers that those who ostensibly mourn his passing in fact haven’t got a good word to say about him. As his moral decay and obsession with money in life become ever clearer, he gradually begins to understand that he is in a form of purgatory because he can no longer affect anything, but must merely witness the consequences of his previous greed and corruption, as his sons take his philosophy to its logical conclusion. A remarkably down-to-earth tale of life after death, and not just because of the fairly standard demystifying ending.

3. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Thirteenth Category of Reason (1927) Krzhizhanovsky’s capacity for genius scenarios never ceases to amaze me, and I love this story of a sociable, philosophical corpse who gets so carried away chatting to a gravedigger that he literalizes his ‘lateness’ by missing his own funeral. One chance at being buried is all you get, it seems, and this turns into a more tragic tale of dislocation as the living are unwilling to accept him and the inhuman bureaucracy cannot accommodate him.

2. Dostoevsky, Bobok (1873) For Dostoevsky, the question of death, and life after death, are persistent preoccupations, in terms of how they are experienced and depicted as well as in their philosophical significance. Most of the stories from Diary of a Writer deal with death and the afterlife in one way or another, but Bobok is definitely my favourite despite (or perhaps because of) the much darker picture it paints than The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, with which it is often paired. As the corpses in their graves play cards, abandon all shame, and have no conception of the meaning of their situation, the banality of the afterlife here seems even worse than Svidrigailov’s conception in Crime and Punishment of life after death as a filthy bath house full of spiders. One of my students recently suggested a connection with The Crocodile, in the image of these prone, constricted figures carrying on as though nothing has happened, which certainly gives food for thought. | English translation

1. Intergalactic zombie agriculture! or Nikolai Fedorov’s Philosophy of the Common Task (1906, 1913; published posthumously) I know it’s not literature per se, but Fedorov has to take first place not only because of the sheer brilliance of his idea of reassembling and reanimating the dead, and populating other planets with the resurrected, which influenced the development of rocket science (after my class on Fedorov a couple of weeks ago a student said she was really envious of his imagination, and I feel the same), but also because he epitomizes the extraordinary significance of resurrection in Russian culture, which I hope this list also indicates. For more on his ideas, see my lecture, and some other links, including to the Russian and English texts.