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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 daughter. Between the years 1857 and 1860 he worked in estate management for an English firm and travelled in remote regions of Russia. 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, 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.
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. The Russian composer Dmitrii Shostakovich based his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk district (1930-32) and its later revision, 'Katerina Izmailova' (1963) on the story.
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
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 the
church started to arouse the attention of censors. Under the influence
of Leo Tolstoy he wrote several stories dealing with ancient church
legends. During his last years Leskov suffered from breast cancer, and
thoughts of death occupied his mind. Leskov died on March 5, 1895. 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. After
the Revolution his work was viewed with suspicion. 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. Two scholarly monographs on his work appearedin the 1940s . 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.
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); "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)