Leskov, Nikolai Semenovich
Born Feb. 4 (16), 1831, in the village of Gorokhovo, present-day Orel Oblast; died Feb. 21 (Mar. 5), 1895, in St. Petersburg. Russian writer.
The son of a minor official, Leskov attended secondary school in Orel. At the age of 16 he entered the civil service, serving first in Orel and later in Kiev. For several years he was an assistant to the chief steward of several large estates and traveled widely throughout Russia. In 1861 he moved to St. Petersburg, where he began his literary career writing articles and feuilletons. In the 1860’s Leskov wrote a number of remarkable realistic stories and novellas depicting many aspects of Russian life, including “A Dead Case” (1862), “Caustic Person” (1863), “The Life of a Peasant Woman” (1863), “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District” (1865), and “The Amazon” (1866), as well as the play “The Spendthrift” (1867). During this period an article written in 1862 on the great fires in St. Petersburg touched off a long polemic with the revolutionary democrats. The short story “Musk-ox” (1863) and the novels No Way Out (1864; under the pseudonym of M. Stebnitskii) and Neglected People were directed against the “new men.” Attempting to show the futility of the efforts of the revolutionary camp, he caricatured the nihilists in the novella Enigmatic Fellow (1870) and particularly in the satirical novel At Daggers Drawn (1870–71). Leskov did not regard himself as an antinihilist, however, pointing to his idealized portrayal of several nihilists in his works.
In the mid-1870’s a marked change occurred in Leskov’s world view. His novella Laughter and Sorrow (1871) satirized the social realities of tsarist Russia. He created a portrait gallery of righteous men—strong in spirit and talented Russian patriots —in the novel Cathedral Folk (1872) and in the short stories and novellas The Enchanted Wanderer (1873), “The Sealed Angel” (1873), “Deathless Golovan” (1880), “Pechersk Antiques” (1883), and “Odnodum” (1889). Leskov’s righteous men, quintessential men of the people, were not sympathizers but fighters who devoted themselves to serving the people. M. Gorky wrote, “After the vicious novel At Daggers Drawn, Leskov’s literary art becomes a vivid painting or, rather, an icon—he begins to create for Russia an iconostasis of her saints and righteous men. It’s as though he sought to encourage and inspire Russia, tormented by slavery.... Faith and doubt, idealism and skepticism were strangely mingled in the soul of this man” (Sobr. soch., vol. 24, 1953, pp. 231, 233).
Leskov’s belief in the uniqueness of the Russian people as a nation and his faith in their creative powers may be seen in the novella Iron Will (1876) and the story “The Left-handed Smith and the Steel Flea” (1881). The protagonist of the story opposes the world of powerful evil dolls, and although he meets a tragic fate, he achieves a moral victory. The language of the story is extraordinarily original and colorful. The hero comically and satirically distorts the language of a strange milieu, interprets ideas in his own way, and coins neologisms. In the novella The Toupee Artist (1883) the destruction of gifted persons from among the common people in Russia is treated with poignant lyricism. In the 1880’s and 1890’s Leskov moved closer to the democratic camp, intensifying his criticism of the social structure of tsarist Russia and reexamining many of his own views and convictions. He exposed the arbitrary nature of the state bureaucracy and the solidarity of reactionary forces in their struggle against nonconformists in such stories as “The Sentry” (1887), “A Simple Means” (published in 1917), and “Administrative Grace” (published in 1934). A number of stories depict bourgeois morality, notably “Exorcism” (published in 1879 as “Christmas Eve at the House of a Hypochondriac”), “Choice Grain” (1884), “Robbery” (1887), and “Night Owls” (1891). The novellas A Winter Day (1894) and The Lady and the Slut (1894) contain sharp political satire. Leskov’s ideal man, however, is not the revolutionary but the enlightened man who attempts to improve society by moral persuasion and by disseminating evangelical ideals of goodness and justice. His last novella, The March Hare (1891–94; published in 1917), satirizes the political reactionaries of the 1880’s and 1890’s. Employing hyperbole, the grotesque, and satiric fantasy, Leskov created a sinister picture of the activity of policemen who go mad trying to catch the “sitsilists.”
Leskov studied the boundless vitality of popular speech. His narrative style combines folk sayings, slang, barbarisms, neologisms, and a rich lexicon of invented words that satirically distort conventional phrases. The literary and popular languages fuse in his vivid and exuberant skaz narratives, in which characters are portrayed by their speech. Leskov’s tale “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District” was the basis for D. D. Shostakovich’s opera of the same title, composed in 1934 and revived in 1964 as Katerina Izmailova.
WORKSSobr. soch., vols. 1–12. St. Petersburg, 1889–96.
Poln. sobr. soch., 3rd ed., vols. 1–36. St. Petersburg, 1902–03.
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–11. Moscow, 1956–58.
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–6. Moscow, 1973.
REFERENCESFaresov, A. I. Protiv techenii: N. S. Leskov. St. Petersburg, 1904.
Volynskii, A. L. N. S. Leskov, 2nd ed. St. Petersburg, 1923.
Grossman, L. P. N. S. Leskov. Moscow, 1945.
Gebel’, V. A. N. S. Leskov: V tvorcheskoi laboratorii. Moscow, 1945.
Leskov, A. N. Zhizn’ Nikolaia Leskova. Moscow, 1954.
Drugov, B. M. N. S. Leskov, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1961.
Goriachkina, M. S. Satira Leskova. Moscow, 1963.
Pleshchunov, N. S. Romany Leskova Nekuda i Soboriane. Baku, 1963.
Russkie pisateli: Bibliograficheskii slovar’. Moscow, 1971.
M. S. GORIACHKINA