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||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," Leskov once confessed in a letter, "is to me no liberal art, but a craft." In his stories Leskov revived narrative techniques and used colloquial and peasant speech. Leskov, who was un-doctrinaire and never became agnostic, criticized the Orthodox Church for its rigidity and was condemned by conservatives, but he was also rejected by leftist intellectuals, who considered him an outcast.
"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, and his father, belonging to the gentry, owned a small estate. 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. When his father died he inherited, but the small property was destroyed in a fire. This accident, which ruined the family financially, also prevented him from continuing his education.
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. There he lived at the house of his uncle, who was a professor
of medicine. 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 of the posts Leskov held for a long period was that of a Russian representative of a big English firm. For the firm, he 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.
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,
in which the "voice" of the narrator or "teller" is clearly not that of the author but colors the
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.
In The Sealed Angel (1873) and The Enchanted Wanderer (1873), a picaresque story inspired by his travels in Karelia, Leskov explored Orthodox piety, but still believed that the Church would "progress out of the stagnation into which she has fallen, crushed by her links with the state." During this later period he also made further trips abroad. The protagonist of The Enchanted Wanderer is a Russian Odysseus, Ivan Sever'ianovich Fliagin, a monk, whom a group of Russian passengers meet on a boat. Fliagin tells his story, which is occasionally interrupted by his listeners. Ivan 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 Ivan'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. Ivan is full of contradictions – he is cruel, brave, loyal, drunk, self-sacrificing, and a humble scapegoat. Leskov leaves Ivan's future open when the monk 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
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)