Nicolai Leskov
Nicolai Leskov; drawing by David Levine

Nikolai Semenovich Leskov (1831-1895), somewhat younger than Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Goncharov and a contemporary of Tolstoy, was a minor star in the brilliant constellation of the writers of fiction in nineteenth-century Russia. He published over a hundred stories, as well as several novels and collections of sketches. He won little fame in his lifetime—he confronts us, wrote Chekhov, with a “mixture of virtue, piety, and fornication.” Countess Tolstoy, who detested him, recorded, after reading one of his stories to her husband, that “his filthy soul shows through his supposed humor,” and even the great novelist himself criticized Leskov as “untruthful.”

Leskov was a difficult man whose life was unhappy and disturbed. “Generally speaking,” wrote one contemporary who knew him well, “many of Leskov’s friendships went sour, which was not surprising considering the unquiet biliousness of his temperament, It was much more remarkable that he should in some cases have succeeded in preserving the outward appearances of friendship, by very skillfully, as it were, managing to soothe the wounds caused by his malicious tongue…. Leskov was a man of spontaneous talent, which was raw, clumsy, innocent of taste or moderation, but with a great power of inspiration….” One of his editors, who was also as close a friend as any, described him as a

clever, temperamental old man with piercing black eyes, and with a complex and whimsical soul…. He was full of rebellious passions. His intelligence was powerful, restless, and cavilling. He never knew spiritual or mental comfort. He inveighed against all that was old and was coming to an end and ridiculed the new, without waiting for it to bear fruit….

Truth to tell, there was some element in Leskov of what seems a peculiarly Russian form of buffoonery, or at any rate one familiar in Russian fiction—Gogol’s Nozdrev, Dostoevsky’s Karamazov Senior and Captain Lebiadkin come to mind. This is not the buffoonery of the simple-minded humorist playing the fool, but malevolent and calculated mockery, while putting on an act of sincere feeling. The critic Rozanov perhaps falls into this category, and the right-wing politician Purishkevich, who used at times when in the Duma to sport a red carnation in his fly.

In Leskov it took the form occasionally of irresponsible writing, designed to relieve his feelings against someone or something, or simply to shock or to draw attention to the lack of recognition of his talents. How else is one to explain, for example, the publication of several grossly anti-Semitic stories (two of them of such vulgarity that they would not be out of place in Der Stürmer) by a man of, generally, liberal inclinations, who was capable of writing quite serious and objective articles about Jews? It is impossible to imagine Turgenev or Chekhov indulging the baser side of his nature in this way, and it was, no doubt, of this kind of moral flaw in Leskov’s writing that Tolstoy was thinking when he made his comment.

Leskov had few friends and enjoyed scant success. Very little of his work has been translated into English—he is indeed exceptionally difficult to translate. Compared with the amount of scholarship which has been lavished in the Soviet Union on the great nineteenth-century authors, including a writer as much out of sympathy with everything the Soviet regime stands for as Dostoevsky, Leskov has been little studied. Yet he has his place amid the great explosion of literary genius that the last century witnessed in Russia, and it is a matter for satisfaction that an American scholar, Hugh McLean, who is Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and already known to specialists for his work on Leskov, should have produced a full-scale biographical study of this neglected author.

Leskov was of relatively humble social origin, when compared with aristocrats like Tolstoy or Turgenev. His father was a middle-rank government official, just high enough to earn the title of “hereditary nobleman”—which gave much pleasure to his writer son in later years. Relations between son and parents were fairly strained—whether one should attribute as much importance to this as an influence on Leskov in later life as does Professor McLean is a matter of opinion. Leskov’s education was fairly rudimentary—but he more than made up for this by his penetrating natural intelligence, and by his phenomenal capacity for observation during his extensive travels in Russia and abroad, and while engaged in various minor employments before devoting himself entirely to writing in the early 1860s.

His family life was mainly unhappy. His first marriage was disastrous—the wife went out of her mind. His second “civil” marriage (Russian divorce laws were inflexible) was not very successful either. The son of this union, Andrei, who remained with his father in a fairly turbulent love-hate relationship when his mother left the house, many years later wrote a superb biography of Leskov, which makes up for the indifference of Soviet scholars. There was a short period of relative domestic calm, when Leskov formed an attachment with his maid, but for the most part his life, after his second wife left until his death in 1895—a period of some twenty years, during which he wrote most of his best work—was a time of unhappiness, frustration, and paranoia.


Leskov’s reputation today in Soviet criticism is mainly that of a reactionary. Unfair and inaccurate, this view reflects not only Soviet prejudice but the anathema pronounced against him by the radical prophets of the Sixties and Seventies—including Pisarev. It all started with an article about the fires in St. Petersburg of 1862, which were either accidental or a police provocation, but which were widely attributed to the “nihilists” (Turgenev’s revival of the word in Fathers and Children had gained it immediate currency). Leskov always maintained that his article was no more than a challenge to the police to produce evidence or stop slandering the students; the radicals were unanimous in treating it as a denunciation. Their intemperate, and unjust, attacks plunged Leskov into a period of assaults on the radicals—a novel, No Way Out (Nekuda, 1864), followed in the early Seventies by a semi-fictional life of the revolutionary Benni (with whom he had been on close terms of friendship), and another novel, At Daggers Drawn. The latter is generally acknowledged to be a vicious caricature: its only merit was that it helped Leskov to work his bile against the radicals out of his system, and to return to the nonpolitical, if always polemical, subjects which interested him—the Church and clergy, the nature of Russian sanctity, Russian mores, and sex.

As for No Way Out and the memoir of Benni, any objective reader today would have to acknowledge that, whatever view one takes of their literary merits, there is no question of “caricature” of the radicals. Some of the characters are very sympathetically treated, such as Reiner, who is a portrait of Benni, and Liza Bakhareva. As Leskov said years later, “I knew how to distinguish the genuine radicals from the imitation ones.” So did a much more temperate writer than Leskov—Turgenev, who incurred strictures from the radicals for his vignettes of phony “progressives” in Smoke. The critics either ignored or failed to notice the fact that Turgenev had been equally scathing about the charlatans on the conservative side.

But though very different in literary (and, be it said, moral) stature, both Leskov and Turgenev were victims of the vice of polarization which bedeviled Russian nineteenth-century intellectuals. There were two boxes: one labeled “radical,” or “progressive,” or the like, the other “conservative,” “reactionary,” or something similar. Every writer was expected by each side to fall exclusively into one box or the other—if he was a “radical,” then he had to portray all revolutionaries as flawless (as in Chernyshevsky’s dreadful novel What Is To Be Done?), while the conservative characters had to be shown as monsters—and vice versa. Those like Leskov who refused to take artificial sides soon found themselves pilloried by both factions. “That man is not ours!” was the arch-conservative M.N. Katkov’s comment on Leskov. The comment was occasioned by Katkov’s indignation at the strictures which Leskov had published on the clergy and on bourgeois mores. Turgenev was also assailed by Katkov for similar reasons for his Fathers and Children, and, of course, with equal vehemence by the radicals for caricaturing them in the person of Bazarov. The fair-minded professor-censor Nikitenko suffered a similar fate, for all his genuine liberalism, and there were some other (not, alas, many) examples.

The main, indeed virtually the only, source for Leskov’s life is the biography by his son Andrei Leskov, which is a literary masterpiece in its own right. Andrei was born in 1866 and lived alone with his father from the age of eleven until his entry into military college, before embarking on his career as a professional soldier. Relations between father and son were strained and turbulent, at times violent. The son’s biography was written in old age—even so, the bitterness of his adolescent years still shows in it. But the book is redeemed by the fairness and truthfulness which shine through, and by the picture presented, which the reader feels certain has been neither embellished nor darkened. In fairness to Nikolai Leskov he expected nothing else. Two years before his death he had written down the following injunction: “I request that there be no speeches about me at my funeral. I know that there was a great deal in me that was bad, and that I deserve no expressions either of praise or regret. If anyone wishes to reproach me, he should know that I reproached myself.”


Andrei does not conceal his conflict with his father, and shows some bitterness. As he said in conversation, “I struggled against him when he was alive, and my spirit is still in confusion. I keep on struggling, I can’t be reconciled. My father was indomitable in his rage and arbitrariness, he reordered all the paths of my life—what for? He broke me, and he broke himself.” In these few words Andrei Leskov has vividly expressed the irrational, immoderate, indeed not fully responsible, element in his father’s character.

The Soviet editor of Andrei Leskov’s book reproaches the author for his “untruthfulness” in justifying his father’s position in the face of the radical critics of the article on the fires of 1862 and of No Way Out, Andrei Leskov’s treatment of this subject is in fact one of the best parts of the book, and for a work published at that date showed considerable courage. Andrei Leskov’s book suffered a very remarkable and dramatic fate. It took him twenty years to complete the research and writing, which he began on his retirement from the army (having served in the Imperial Army he joined the Red Army after the revolution) in the Thirties. When he completed the manuscript, Andrei sent it to Gorky, who praised it highly and, in what at this period of Gorky’s life was one of his rare acts of decency, tried to get it published. It happened, says the Soviet editor, V. Desnitsky, with that masterly understatement that Soviet conditions impose, that for a number of years the book could not be published. Then came the war. The manuscript perished in the blockade of Leningrad. Andrei Leskov, then already in his eighties, set about reconstituting the book, working on it until his death in 1953. He did not live to see it published.

Professor McLean has, of course, drawn heavily on Andrei Leskov’s biography. It cannot be said that where he has departed from it he has added much illumination on Nikolai Leskov. For one thing, I would have been quite happy to see omitted the speculations about the psychological effects on Leskov of his very difficult relations with his father and mother. They remain conjectures, they are impossible of proof, and they do not add very much to what an intelligent reader, possessed of the facts, can work out for himself. Truth to tell, Dr. McLean does not go out of his way to spare his readers some degree of natural irritation. His fondness for rare and outlandish words, for example (“aculeate,” “capsulize”), or his repeated references to “feudal” aspects of nineteenth-century Russia (how different the history of that country would have been if there had ever been feudalism in Russia!).

And why was Turgenev’s love for Pauline Viardot, which dominated his entire life and lasted literally until the day of his death, “pseudo-love”? And what is one to make of the following absurdity: “Like ‘The Mocker,’ ‘Iron Will’ [two of Leskov’s stories] was based on the confrontation of two national archetypes, the ‘oral’ Russian and the ‘anal’ European. [Are Russians not Europeans?] In a Russian story on this theme we would expect the national oriflamme (or favorite orifice) to be thoroughly vindicated. Leskov, however…” etc.?

Blemishes like these apart, Professor McLean has written an important, valuable, and scholarly book, which provides the English-speaking reader, whose opportunities for getting to know Leskov are very limited, with a thorough analysis of his work. I stress, in this connection, the work: for this monograph is much more concerned with the writings than with the life, indeed the life is mainly treated incidentally as this or that face of it is reflected and illuminated in the novels and stories.

I have already dealt with Leskov’s anti-radical writing, which came to an end in 1871 with At Daggers Drawn. But before and during his anti-radical phase he had produced stories with quite different themes, concerned with Russian life and customs in all their aspects. These stories published in 1863 were probably among the best of Leskov’s writings—the most widely known to the English-speaking reader being “The Musk-Ox.” This was the nick-name for a rather tragic figure, Bogoslovsky—in Dr. McLean’s words the hero of a “lifelong quest for meaning, both metaphysical and social, ending in defeat and despair.” “The Musk-Ox” comes to grief largely because of his illfated attempts at socialist propaganda. He is contrasted with Sviridov, the practical ex-serf who is shrewd and efficient in a way that the gentry are not. (This is a familiar figure in Russian nineteenth-century fiction—remember Shtol’ts in Goncharov’s Oblomov, or Solomin in Virgin Soil. A couple of years later came “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” a story redolent with the violence inherent in Russian life—a powerful mixture of crime and fornication. Violence is indeed a frequent theme in Leskov, including floggings of both men and women.

The more than a hundred stories and the collection of sketches which succeeded “Lady Macbeth” can be classified, very roughly, into three broad categories. The collection called Cathedral Folk (Soborjane) published between 1873 and 1876 deals with the life of the clergy, often satirizing the mores of the higher dignitaries. This style of writing marked the beginning of Leskov’s disillusionment with the Orthodox Church, though he was to remain a believer all his life. The second very wide range of stories deals with the theme of sanctity in its Russian context. This includes not only legends of specific saints in the accepted sense of the word retold in the superb language perfected by Leskov for stories of this type. It also comprises many instances of the sanctity of the humble and unknown, of simple human beings who by their humility, their resignation, their submissiveness earn their place in Heaven.

Submissiveness and acceptance of suffering are frequent themes in Russian literature. Apart from the obvious masters like Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy, the resignation of the Russian people was extolled by some of the Slavophiles, and, earlier still, the controversial philosopher Chaadaev praised submissiveness to authority as the principal Russian virtue, which should serve as an example to Western Europe. Humility is not the first characteristic that strikes one about Soviet man. Yet, even so, the acceptance of suffering as inevitable by the unhappy mass of the population still persists: it is the quality which has enabled the Russians to accept a succession of vile rulers with only occasional rebellion. Leskov’s analysis of this characteristic is often penetrating and subtle.

The work of Leskov’s last years was much influenced by Tolstoy, whom he met in 1887. His veneration for the master was undoubtedly as sincere as Leskov’s capacity for sincerity allowed: on Tolstoy’s side, as his diary suggests, there were certain reservations about the hero worship. But he acknowledged that Leskov had anticipated many of his ideas. In spite of his veneration for Tolstoy, Leskov did not blindly accept all his doctrines. Leskov was not prepared, for example, to reject all government as evil. He regarded Tolstoy’s revulsion from sex, particularly as expounded in “The Kreutzer Sonata,” as morbid and unnatural: like Tolstoy he rejected much of the hypocrisy of conventional sexual morality, but he believed in normal and balanced relations between the sexes, in which the woman did not suffer the marked disadvantages that society imposed on her. He also tried, though not always with success, to give up meat, wine, and smoking.

Leskov’s writing has qualities which place him very high among Russian nineteenth-century writers of fiction. He has a mastery of language which never ceases to amaze: he adapts his style with facility to the period and above all to the type of person he is depicting. His inventiveness is inexhaustible. He can paint a scene or sketch a character (the wanton woman, for example) with a vividness that leaves a lasting impression. It has often been pointed out that Leskov is, above all, the master of anecdote. Dr. McLean’s method of interweaving the facts of Leskov’s life and experience with analysis of the fiction proves this beyond doubt, because it shows the extent to which his stories are based on actual experience.

Leskov cannot be ranked with giants like Turgenev or Chekhov, but this is much more because of his character than his inadequate talent: he lacks the humanity and charity of these writers, and, be it said, the sincerity. But he is a great writer for all that, and Professor McLean is owed a debt of gratitude for so skillfully revealing this to us.

This Issue

April 20, 1978