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by Bamber Gascoigne

Nikolai Semenovich Leskov (1831-1895) - also wrote under the pseudonym of M. Stebnitskii


Russian storyteller, novelist, and journalist, who portrayed in his works a wide variety of characters from meek monks and religious fanatics to mad lovers, and from simple peasant to eccentrics, bureaucrats, and merchants. "Writing," Nikolai Leskov once confessed in a letter, "is to me no liberal art, but a craft." Leskov revived narrative techniques and used colloquial and peasant speech. He was un-doctrinaire and never became agnostic. Altough he criticized the Orthodox Church for its rigidity and was condemned by conservatives, leftist intellectuals, who considered him an outcast, rejected his ideas.

"In the Russian legends Leskov saw allies in his fight against Orthodox bureaucracy. There are a number of his legendary tales whose focus is a righteous man, seldom an ascetic, usually a simple, active man who becomes a saint apparently in the most natural way in the world. Mystical exaltation is not Leskov's forte. Even though he occasionally liked to indulge in the miraculous, even in the piousness he prefers to stick with the sturdy nature. He sees the prototype in the man who finds his way about the world without getting too deeply involved with it." (Walter Benjamin in Illuminations, 1968)

Nikolai Leskov was a slightly younger contemporary of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but as an author he had little in common with these two great novelist. He born in Gorokhovo, Orel province. Leskov's mother came from an educated, noble family. Simon, his father, belonging to the gentry, owned a small estate. He was a man of bad temper. Bit by bit, the family fortunes disintegrated.

In his childhood Leskov became acquainted with the life of peasants and their stories. He was educated privately and at the Orel gymnasium, leaving it at the age of 15. Simon died of cholera in 1848. Leskov's small inherited property was destroyed in a fire. This accident, which ruined the family financially, also prevented him from continuing his education. However, his brother became later a doctor. For a period they lived in Kiev, where their maternal uncle, a professor of medicine, housed them in an attic.

Leskov served two years as a clerk in Orel criminal court and then was transferred to Kiev as assistant clerk in the army recruiting bureau. During this period he read widely in the fields of philosophy and economics, studied Polish and Ukrainian, and joined the liberal-minded circles of the old city. In 1853 he married Olga Smirnova; they had one son and one daughter.

One of the posts Leskov held for a long period was that of a Russian representative of the commercial company Scott and Wilkins, which sold agricultural equipment and transported estates from the central Russia to lands on the Volga and the southern steppes. It was owned by another maternal uncle, an Englisman named Alexander Scott. For the firm, Leskov travelled in remote regions of Russia. These trips advanced his knowledge of the country and the common people. Later Leskov considered these years crucial for his development as a writer. Scott failed in his business. "Machines do not work in Russia," he said, embittered for the rest of his life. "Nothing good works here because the people living here are wild and vicious."

After moving to Moscow he separated from his wife and started to publish articles in magazines. In 1861 he settled in St. Petersburg as a journalist and writer. In 1862-63 he travelled in Eastern Europe and France. He lived with Katerina Bubnova from 1865 until 1877. Their son, Andrei Leskov, became the author's biographer. In his stories, Leskov often employed a literary technique, called skaz, in which the "voice" of the narrator or "teller" is clearly not that of the author but colors the narrative manner.

While staying in Prague he finished his first novel, Nekuda (1864), which depicted the struggle between idealism and reality. Leskov himself was accused of conservatism. His reputation among the progressive intelligentsia became even worse after Na nozhakh (1870) was published. When liberal magazines closed their doors, he started to publish writings in conservative papers, but his criticism of civil servants and Orthodox clerics and laymen also caused anger in conservative circles. Soboriane (1872, The Cathedral Folk), a lively panorama of Russian country life, earned him a reputation of "defender of Orthodoxy" because of the positive role of the clergymen in the novel.  

The novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1865) told a story about a determined woman, Katerina, who kills her father-in-law to save her lover, Sergei. When her husband Zinovii returns from a journey, she together with Sergei kills him, and later Zinovii's young nephew, Fedia. Katerina and Sergei are arrested and condemned to exile. Sergei becomes interested in another prisoner, Sonetka, a 17-year-old blonde. As the prisoners embark on a Volga ferryboat, she takes Sonetka with her into the river, where they both disappear.

Dmitrii Shostakovich (1906-1975) based his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk district (1930-32) and its later revision, 'Katerina Izmailova' (1963) on the story. According to the composer, Leskov's novella was "a most truthful and tragic portrait of a talented, clever and exceptional woman perishing in the nightmarish conditions of prerevolutionary Russia". Shostakovich's musically radical opera had a critical and popular success until Joseph Stalin attended an evening performance in Moscow, at the Bolshoi Theater, and suddenly left at the end of the third of four acts. Two days later Pravda published an anonymous article titled "Muddle Instead of Music," which launched a campaign against "formalism" in all of the arts. 

Leskov served on the Scholarly Committee of the Ministry of Education from 1874. He was dismissed in 1883 due to his too liberal views. After a religious crisis in the mid-1870s he published several stories which questioned Orthodox Christianity. In the summer of 1872 he travelled in Karelia and visited the Valamo monastery in Lake Ladoga. Since the late 1860s, Leskov had been interested in spiritual phenomena, although he published in 1869 articles in which he criticized the creator of the Spiritist Codification Allan Kardec (rea name Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail), and ridiculed French spiritistes in Na nozhakh (1870, At Daggers Drawn). Nevertheless, he believed in visions and omens. In February 1876 he attended with Dostoevsky a séance at the apartment of A.N. Aksakov, in which an English medium, a certain Miss Claire, communicated with the dead and levitated a table. Leskov took the standard tricks very seriously (Ghostly Paradoxes: Modern Spiritualism and Russian Culture in the Age of Realism by Ilya Vinitsky, 2009, pp.31-34) but Dostoyevsky went to Aksakov's with a strong feeling of not wishing to believe in spiritualis.

Many of Leskov's stories explored Orthodox piety. He believed that the Church would "progress out of the stagnation into which she has fallen, crushed by her links with the state." During his later period Leskov made further trips abroad. The Enchanted Wanderer (1873) is a picaresque story inspired by Leskov's travels in Karelia. The protagonist is a Russian Odysseus, Ivan Severianovich Flyagin, a monk, whom a group of Russian passengers meet on a boat. In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), the ship is anchored in the Thames, Leskov's vessel is on the Lake of Ladoga, where Flyagin tells of his life.

Ivan Flyagin is the son of a serf. He accidentally causes the death of a monk, who appears to him in a dream. The monk's prophesy changes Flyagin's life, and he experiences several adventures before be becomes a holy pilgrim, or strannik. Once he is captured by the Tartars. To prevent him from escaping, they cripple him – they cut open the soles of his feet, put horsehair in the open flesh, and then close the wound. Flyagin is full of contradictions – he is cruel, brave, loyal, drunk, self-sacrificing, and a humble scapegoat. Leskov leaves the monk's future open when he continues his journey, and his enchanted listeners don't want to disturb him with their questions.

By the late 1880s, Leskov's growing criticism of the doctrines of the church started to arouse the attention of censors. Moreover, his portrayal of Russians as rapacious, ignorant, oppressive and insensitive was very unpopular. A writer able to transcend many of his own contradictions, Leskov courted during his long career the political Left, as well as the ultra-Right, and penned both anti-Jewish and pro-Jewish texts. Vladimir Solovyov depicted Leskov as "one of Jewry's friends" – in a brochedure Evrei v Rossii (1883, The Jew in Russia), which was commissioned by the Jewish community of St. Petersburg, Leskov came into the conclusion that Jews should be granted full civil rights. In 1886 he published the story 'Skazanie o Fedore-khristianine i o druge ego Abrame-zhidovine' (The Tale of Fedor the Christian and his Friend Abram the Jew). Privately he confessed that he has not conquered his fear of the Jews, which makes him more an advocate of civic equality rather than the Jews. (The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature by Leonid Livak, 2010, p. 218)  Under the influence of Leo Tolstoy, he wrote several stories dealing with ancient church legends, but his personal faith was less radical than the one Tolstoy had. Leskov's articles on Patristic commentaries on Scripture and on hagiography showed a high level of expertise.

During his last years Leskov suffered from breast cancer, and thoughts of death occupied his mind. The short story 'Zimnii den' (1894, A Winter's Day), written in the last year of his life, is considered one of the bleakest works in Russian literature. Leskov died on March 5, 1895, after a bout of angina pectoris. In his 'Posthumous Plea' he stated that "I select no place of burial for myself, as that in my eyes is a matter of indifference, but I request that no one shall ever place on my grave any memento other than a plain, ordinary wooden cross." His collected works were published for the first time in 1902-03.

Anton Chekhov considered Leskov in some respects his teacher but in general the liberal intelligentsia wrongly labeled him  a reactionary. According to contemporaries, he wasn't a likeable person and his friendships were fleeting. The author Viktor Rusakov said that "Leskov always had a lot of enemies and ill-wishers who did not understand him and considered him retrograde, an enemy of progress and youtful impulses and ambitions. . . . " (Rewriting Capitalism: Literature and the Market in Late Tsarist Russia and the Kingdom of Poland by Beth Holmgren, 1998, p. 137) Like in the case of Dostoevsky, Leskov's work was viewed with suspicion after the Revolution. Gorky had defended him earlier, stating that Leskov "is the writer most deeply rooted in the people and is completely untouched by any foreign influences." The formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum discerned in the 1920s Leskov’s influence in the work of such diverse writers as Gorky, Andrei Bely, and Isaac Babel.

For decades Leskov did not gain official approval, partly due to his religious themes and intellectual positions. When the literary scholar Boris Eichenbaum portrayed Leskov as a political mooderate, he was scolded in an article published in Bolshevik. "The duty of a Soviet researcher is to separate what is progressive from what is reactiomnary. . . . " (Boris Eikhenbaum: Voices of a Russian Formalist by Carol Joyce Any, 1994, p. 178) Two scholarly monographs on his work appeared in the 1940s, making Leskov once more an object of admiration and study. With the publication of his collected works in the 1950s and new printings and translations of his stories Leskov has secured his position among the major classic Russian writers of the 19th-century. Walter Benjamin has defined Leskov as a storyteller. "All great storytellers have in common the freedom with which the move up and down the rungs of their experience as on a ladder." ('The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov' by Walter Benjamin, in The Story About the Story II: Great Writers Explore Great Literature,  edited by J.C. Hallman, p. 181, 2013)

For further reading: N.S. Leskov v tvorcheskoi laboratorii by V. Gebel' (1945); N.S. Leskov by L. Grossman (1945); Zhizn Nikolaia Leskova by Andrei Leskov (1954); Nikolai Leskov by Hugh McLean (1977); Nikolai Leskov and the "Spirit of Protestantism" by James Y. Muckle (1978); Nikolay Leskov by K.A. Lanz (1979); 'Nikolay Leskov: Educational Journalist and Imaginative Writer' by James Muckle, in  New Zealand Slavonic Journal (1984); "Le Problème féminin" et les portraits de femmes dans l'oeuvre de Nikolaj Leskov by Inès de Morogues (1991); The Organic Worldview of Nikolai Leskov by Irmhild Christina Sperrle (2001); 'The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov' by Walter Benjamin, in The Story About the Story II: Great Writers Explore Great Literature, edited by J.C. Hallman (2013); Filosofskaia povestʹ N.S. Leskova semidesiatykh godov by V.M. Golovko (2016)

Selected works:

  • Ovtsebyk, 1863
    - The Musk-Ox (translated by R. Norman, in The Musk-Ox and Other Tales, 1944; David McDuff, in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Other Stories, 1987)
  • Iazvitel'nyi, 1863
    - The Stinger (translated by R. Norman, in The Musk-Ox and Other Tales, 1944) / A Spiteful Fewllow (translated by Michael Shotton, in Five Tales, 1984)
  • Nekuda, 1864
  • Ledi Makbet Mtsenkogo uyezda, 1865
    - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (translated by George H. Hanna, in The Enchanted Wanderer, 1965; David McDuff, 1987; Robert Chandler, 2003) / Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (translated by David Magarshack, in Selected Tales, 1961)
    - Mtsenskin kihlakunnan lady Macbeth (suom. Juhani Konkka, 1962)
    - Opera in Four Acts, music by Dmitri Shostakovich, world premiere: Leningrad, Maly Theater, January 22, 1934; U.S. Premiere: Cleveland, Severance Hall, January 31, 1935. - Films: Katerina Izmailova, 1927, prod. Sovkino, dir. by Cheslav Sabinsky; Sibirska ledi Magbet, 1961, prod. Avala Film, dir. by Andrzej Wajda, featuring Olivera Markovic, Ljuba Tadic, Bojan Stupica, Miodrag Lazarevic, Kapitalina Eric; Katerina Izmailova, 1966, prod. Lenfilm Studio, dir. by Mikhail Shapiro; Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda, 1989, prod. Mediactuel, dir. by Roman Balayan; Lady Macbeth von Mzensk, 1992, dir. by Petr Weigl, libretto by Alexander Preis; Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, TV film 2002, dir. Toni Bargalló, starring Nadine Secunde, Christopher Ventris, Francisco Vas, Anatoli Kocherga, Graham Clark; Lady Macbeth, 2016, dir. by William Oldroyd, screenplay by Alice Birch, starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton
  • Voitel'nitsa, 1866
    - The Amazon (translated by David Magarshack, in The Amazon and Other Stories, 1949)
  • Rastochitel', 1867 [The Spendthrift]
  • Na nozhakh, 1870 [At Daggers Drawn]
    - TV mini-series 1998, dir. by Aleksandr Orlov, starring Elena Maiorova, Nikolai Dobrynin, Olga Drozdova, Irina Rozanova
  • Soboriane, 1872
    - The Cathedral Folk (translated by Isabel F. Hapgood, 1924) / The Cathedral Clergy: a Chronicle (translated, with an introduction by Margaret Winchell, 2010)
    - Tuomiokirkon alttaripalvelijat: kronikka (suom. Juhani Konkka, 1969)
  • Zapechatlennyi Angel, 1873
    - The Sealed Angel (translated by Beatrix L. Tollemache, in Russian Sketches, Chiefly of Peasant Life, 1913; K.A. Lantz, in The Sealed Angel and Other Stories, 1984; David McDuff, in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Other Stories, 1987)
  • Ocharovannyi strannik, 1873
    - The Enchanted Pilgrim (translated by David Magarshack, in The Enchanted Pilgrim and Other Stories, 1946) / The Enchanted Wanderer (translated by George H. Hanna, 1965; David Magarshack, 1987; Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 2013)
    - Lumottu vaeltaja (suom. Sulo Haltsonen, 1945; Lea Pyykkö, 1974)
  • Na kraiu sveta, 1875
    - On the Edge of the World (translated by Michael Prokurat, 1992)
  • Levsha, 1881
    - The Steel Flea (translated by Isabel F. Hapgood, 1916; Babette Deutsch and Avram Yarmolinsky, 1943; William B. Edgerton, in Satirical Stories, 1969) / The Left-handed Artificer (translated by David Magarshack, in The Enchanted Pilgrim and Other Stories, 1946) / The Left-Handed Craftsman (translated by David Magarshack, in Selected Tales, 1961)
    - Vasuri (suom. Lyyli Grönlund, 1957)
    - film 1988, prod. Lenfilm Studio, dir. by Sergei Ovcharov, starring Nikolay Stotskiy, Vladimir Gostyukhin and Leonid Kuravlyov  
  • Evrei v Rossii, 1883 [The Jew in Russia]
  • Zimnii den, 1894 [short story]
    -  A Winter's Day (translated by David DacDuff, in  Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Other Stories, 1987)
  • Skazanie o Fedore-khristianine i o druge ego Abrame-zhidovine, 1886 [short story; The Tale of Fedor the Christian and his Friend Abram the Jew]
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1902-03 (36 vols.)
  • The Amazon and Other Stories, 1949 (translated by David Magarshack)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1956-58 (11 vols.)
  • Selected Tales by N. Leskov, 1961 (translated by David Magarshack)
  • The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, 1965
  • Satirical Stories, 1969 (translated by William B. Edgerton)
  • Five Tales, 1984 (translated by Michael Shotton)
  • Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Other Stories, 1987 (translated by David DacDuff)
  • Nikolai Leskov. Povesti i rasskazy, 1990 (edited by O Maiorova)
  • Vale of Tears an "On Quakerenesses", 1991 (translated by James Muckle)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1993 (6 vols.)
  • Izbrannoe, 1996
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1996 (30 vols., edited by K. P. Bogaevskaia, et al.)
  • Skazaniia o bozhʹikh liudiakh, 1997
  • Neizdannyi Leskov, 1997- (edited by K. Bogaevskaia, O. Mairova, and L. Rozenblum)
  • Irodova rabota: russkie kartiny, nabiudeniia, opyty i zametki: istoriko-publitsisticheskie ocherki po Pribaltiĭskomu voprosu, 1882-1885, 2010 (edited by A.P. Dmitrieva)
  • The Enchanted Wanderer: and Other Stories, 2013 (translated by Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)
  • Chertovy kukly, 2015 (izdanie podgotovila A.A. Shelaeva)
  • Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov, 2020 (translated by Robert Chandler and Donald Rayfield and others; introduction by Donald Rayfield)

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