Authors: Nikolai Leskov

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Russian novelist and short-story writer

February 16, 1831

Gorokhovo, Oryol, Russia

March 5, 1895

St. Petersburg, Russia


Although his reputation has never rivaled those of other great Russian masters from his age, the stories and short novels of Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov have retained their appeal because of the distinctive and almost inimitable blend of social realism, satire, and fantasy that in different measures may be found in his various works. His father, Semyon Dmitriyevich Leskov, was a landowner of modest means who had purchased an estate in Oryol province, south of Moscow; his mother was from the lesser nobility. Leskov was the first of seven children. Although his formal education was rather sketchy—he went to a local Gymnasium for about five years, until 1846, and later attended a few courses at the University of Kiev without receiving a degree—personal impressions of his social milieu, and of differences among religious groups in the provinces, had a measurable effect upon his outlook. Leskov also had a remarkable grasp of regional dialects and other forms of vernacular speech, and during travels in southern Russia he acquired some mastery of Polish and Ukrainian. In many of his later works he was able faithfully to reproduce forms of usage peculiar to certain settings. For a while he worked as a legal clerk, as a treasury assistant, and as an army recruiting agent. In 1853 he married Olga Vasilyevna Smirnova, the daughter of a merchant. They had two children, but she was emotionally unbalanced, and some years after their separation in 1861 she was confined to an asylum. After various kinds of employment, including work for a firm dealing with agricultural supplies, Leskov set out for St. Petersburg to pursue a literary career. His first story was published in 1862, after which he produced several prose works of varying length.

Nikolai Leskov

(Library of Congress)

Among the most effective of his early works was “Ovtsebyk” (“The Musk-Ox”), a somber tale of misplaced idealism in a troubled young man, who hangs himself after his efforts at social improvement can be realized neither through religious devotion nor by revolutionary agitation. Other depictions of rural life seemed to avoid positive typecasting in favor of Leskov’s own vision of grim peasant realities. Seduction, wanton violence, both calculated and random, and drunkenness were shown in all of their sordid manifestations; superstitions and folk legends in quirky and unusual forms were recounted against a gloomy background where education and enlightenment could scarcely be discerned. Leskov frequently adopted a narrative format that resembled that of rural storytellers; on other occasions, however, he found a more detached and ironic stance appropriate. One of his most famous works, “Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda” (“Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”), is a haunting tale of murder and betrayal; to prevent open discovery of her affair, an attractive married woman, with a disconcerting lack of remorse or moral scruples, kills in succession her father-in-law, her husband, and a distant relative; after she and her lover have been sent to Siberia, however, and her lover leaves her for another woman, she succumbs to self-destructive urges once she has eliminated her rival. Another treatment of problematical sexual relationships, “Voitel’nitsa” (“The Amazon”), describes a woman from the provinces who has moved to the capital and becomes involved in a cynical series of transactions that fall somewhere between arranged marriages and prostitution.

Some of Leskov’s novels were more controversial than successful. Nekuda, which contained thinly veiled caricatures of liberal and radical figures, was roundly denounced by those who objected to political polemics in this form; other long fiction tended to be uneven in structure and somewhat maudlin in tone, and Na nozhakh was criticized as contrived and mechanistic in its use of mystery devices, as well as for its political themes. During this time Leskov entered into a common-law marriage with Katerina Stepanovna Bubnova, and they remained together for about eleven years, until 1877; very much later, their son Andrei wrote a lengthy and detailed biography of the writer. In 1872 Leskov published The Cathedral Folk, a chronicle organized around the lives of provincial clergymen. Leskov’s own religious beliefs were not easily categorized. At certain times he felt drawn toward radical Protestantism, though he developed misgivings about English representatives who had appeared in Russia. In 1875 he left the Orthodox church, which he felt had departed from its original mission and had become overly subservient to the government. A treatise, which was produced originally in a limited, privately distributed edition, put forward some telling arguments for tolerance and the reduction, or elimination, of the legal disabilities imposed upon Jews in Russia. In 1887, after meeting with Leo Tolstoy, Leskov noted that they seemed to share similar convictions about the central importance of moral precepts inwardly arrived at in the promotion of genuinely religious attitudes. In some of his later works Leskov depicted selfless and morally upright individuals, and in his fiction he also sought to expose what he maintained were forms of fraud by which religious figures had exploited the credulity of believers.

Throughout his literary career Leskov was particularly adept at suggesting underlying traits of national character, both of Russians and, though sometimes in fanciful or extreme forms, of foreigners. “Ocharovannyi strannik” (“The Enchanted Pilgrim”) sets forth the adventures of a runaway serf who, following his capture by Tatar tribes, is made to undergo some extraordinary tests of physical endurance. On three occasions between 1862 and 1884 Leskov traveled abroad, and European characters sometimes entered his stories, generally to provide contrasts where matters of skill and training were involved. The celebrated work “Levsha (Skaz o tul’skom kosom lefshe i o stal’noy blokhe)” (“Lefty: Being the Tale of the Cross-eyed Lefty of Tula and the Steel Flea”) concerns a humble, somewhat eccentric, but marvelously talented Russian craftsman who, despite the doubts of his countrymen, is able to surpass vaunted British artisans in the design and production of intricate miniature metalwork. Some of Leskov’s later writing showed a critical stance on political matters; “Belyy oryol” (“The White Eagle”), for example, has the appearance of a ghost story but actually has to do with a feigned death which has been staged to block an inquiry into provincial corruption on the part of a well-meaning but overly imaginative civil servant. “Chelovek na chasakh” (“The Sentry”) provides acerbic commentary on the application of rigid and unthinking authoritarianism to military personnel; during the reign of Nicholas I a watchman is punished for breach of discipline when he leaves his post to rescue a drowning man. Other stories pointed to the stultifying effects produced by religious obscurantism, or by the lack of public education; some of Leskov’s works took a dark view of political informants, and indeed, one of his last stories was not published until 1917 because of its grim parody of government measures to forestall revolutionary agitation. Leskov, who had suffered fom angina pectoris for some time, died from the effects of heart disease and pneumonia on March 9, 1895. Although the controversies of his later years had affected his reputation among the reading public, his writings subsequently came to be regarded as among the more important examples of his craft.

Author Works Short Fiction: Povesti, ocherki i rasskazy (Novels, Sketches and Stories), 1867 Rasskazy (Short Stories), 1869 Sbornik melkikh belletristicheskikh proizvedenii, 1873 Tri pravednika i odin Sheramur, 1880 Russkie bogonostsy: Religiozno-bytovye kartiny, 1880 Russkaia rozn’, 1881 Sviatochnye rasskazy, 1886 Rasskazy kstati, 1887 Povesti i rasskazy, 1887 The Sentry, and Other Stories, 1922 The Musk-Ox, and Other Tales, 1944 The Enchanted Pilgrim, and Other Stories, 1946 The Amazon, and Other Stories, 1949 Selected Tales, 1961 Satirical Stories, 1968 The Sealed Angel, and Other Stories, 1984 Long Fiction: Nekuda (No Way Out), 1864 Oboidennye (Neglected People), 1865 Ostrovitiane (The Islanders), 1866 Old Times in Plodomasovo, 1869 Na nozhakh (At Daggers Drawn), 1870-1871 Soboriane, 1872 (The Cathedral Folk, 1924) Zakhudaly rod (A Decayed Family), 1874 Detskie gody (Years of Childhood), 1875 Melochi arkhiereiskoi zhizhni (The Little Things in a Bishop's Life), 1875 Drama: Rastochitel’ (The Spendthrift), pb. 1867 Nonfiction: O raskol'nikakh goroda Rigi, 1863 Velikosvetskii raskol, 1876-1877 (Schism in High Society: Lord Radstock and His Followers, 1995) Evrei v Rossii: Neskol’ko zamechanii po evreis komu, 1884 (The Jews in Russia: Some Notes on the Jewish Question, 1986) Miscellaneous: Sobranie sochinenii (Collected Works), 1889-1896 Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Complete Works), 1902-1903 (36 volumes) Sobranie sochinenii, 1956-1958 (11 volumes) Bibliography Andrews, Larry R. “Hugo’s Gilliatt and Leskov’s Golovan.” Comparative Literature 46 (Winter, 1994): 65-83. Compares the two heroes; suggests that Leskov was influenced by native experience in creating his hero; discusses the hybrid genre that Leskov develops in which his hero represents a specifically Russian virtue. Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflection on the Works of Nikolay Leskov.” In Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968. In this general study of the short story as an oral and written genre, Benjamin discusses Leskov and the technique of skaz by linking it to the oral transmittance of stories either by foreign travelers or by natives familiar with their own oral tradition. Eekman, Thomas A. “The Genesis of Leskov’s Soborjane.” California Slavic Studies 2 (1963): 121-140. Eekman traces the genesis of Soboriane, the first great novel about the life of the Russian clergy, and examines its relationship to some of Leskov’s stories that may have been planned for future volumes of the novel. Howe, Irving. “Justice for Leskov.” The New York Review of Books 34 (April 23, 1987): 32-36. Points out that Leskov has never been widely received outside Russia because he defies the rigid expectations that Westerners impose on Russian literature; argues that in Leskov’s work the faith of the rationalist and the faith of the pietist are parallel, and both faiths are secularized as part of national culture. Lantz, K. A. Nikolay Leskov. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A brief biography and a general study of Leskov’s works. A useful book for quick reference. Lottridge, Stephen S. “Nikolaj Leskov and the Russian Prolog as a Literary Source.” Russian Literature 3 (1972): 16-39. A detailed discussion of Leskov’s Prolog tales of 1886-1891, which he patterned after Russian religious legends from various sources, and how they influenced him in writing these tales and in his overall development. Lottridge also touches upon culture and literature in the second half of nineteenth century Russia. Lottridge, Stephen S. “Solzhenitsyn and Leskov.” Russian Literature TriQuarterly 6 (1973): 478-489. Although Lottridge deals here primarily with Solzhenitsyn, by commenting on Leskov’s short stories he provides valuable insights into Leskov, whom he considers Russia’s greatest pure storyteller. McLean, Hugh. Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977. The standard work in English on Leskov, satisfactory in every respect. McLean presents Leskov in both scholarly and interesting fashion, making Leskov less foreign to the English-speaking reader. The first book on Leskov to be recommended to those interested in him. Sperrle, Irmhild Christina. The Organic Worldview of Nikolai Leskov. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2002. A detailed study of Leskov. Includes bibliography and index.

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