Nikolai Leskov Appreciation at the Quarterly Conversation

I finally had a chance to read this excellent review of Nikolai Leskov’s work at the Quarterly Conversation, someone who I’d never heard of before, although since I’m not up on my Russians it shouldn’t be too surprising. On the other hand, the review is called the Forgotten 19th-Century Great so I shouldn’t beat myself up too much. The descriptions of his work sound fascinating, entertaining, and somewhat genre bending. I’m going to put him on my list to read.

Abstract morality disappears almost entirely from The Enchanted Wanderer (1874). This brilliant novella, the greatest piece by Leskov I have read, confounds every moral generalization that could be placed on it. Passengers on a boat listen to a long tale from a simple monk, Ivan, though he is less a fool and also less holy than Akhilla. There are no longueurs as there were in The Cathedral Folk. Everything is subordinated to the story, which careens through one adventure after another, frequently taking hairpin turns over the course of a few sentences. Ivan is a young serf, a simple, large man who is now a deacon and recounts his journey to the clergy. He is still a man of raw passions, however, always engaged with the matter at hand, making him the opposite of the refined, reserved Pechorin of Lermontov’sA Hero of Our Time. Pechorin says, “My whole life has been merely a succession of miserable and unsuccessful denials of feelings or reason.” Ivan does not try to deny anything for even a second. The possibility does not even occur to him.


  • Ivan becomes the nursemaid for a landowner’s wife and child. The wife’s lover prevails on him to let the wife and child run away with him. Ivan initially wants to beat up the lover, but decides instead that they deserve to be together. He helps them get away and then runs off from his job.
  • Ivan flees from the law to the Tartar Steppe, where the Tartars imprison him by sewing painful bristles into his heels. He spends ten years there, with several wives and children, before he is able to escape.
  • Ivan is cured of his alcoholism by a mysterious magnetizer who leads him through a sequence of surreal nightmares.
  • A later master purchases a gypsy girl and imprisons her in a cottage. She escapes and begs Ivan to kill her, which he does, though he feels tremendously guilty about it and attempts (and fails) to get himself killed in military combat as a result.

And so on and on, for 150 pages. The whole tale has the quality of a fever dream, though when the strangeness ratchets up, as in the magnetizer sequence, Leskov’s imaginative powers appear to be without limit. There is a dreamlike quality to the pacing as well, since Ivan narrates his tale based on the rate of interesting things that happened, so the ten years on the steppe fly by while the single night with the magnetizer seems to last forever. The narrative breaks into a question and answer format periodically so that the older Ivan can answer the queries of the passengers of the boat he is on, and he always answers with total frankness and deep though simple feeling. The pace increases toward the end, and as the stories pile up it seems that there is less and less sense to be made out of what had initially been presented as a tale of sin and redemption. Ivan doesn’t say he has learned


The Admiral – A Review

Picking a movie because it was the most expensive Russian film ever made may not be the best way to go. While the Admiral is full of epic battles, the mixing of the love story which seemed wooden and more foreordained than an element of discovery made the movie an epic cliché.

The Admiral is about Admiral Alexander Kolchak who was a Russian Admiral during World War I and after the revolution the supreme leader of the White army. Kolchak is a brave man and an expert naval officer whose prowess leads him to command the Baltic Fleet in the last days of World War I. He is a tough religious man who doesn’t hesitate to put himself in harm’s way. He is also a ladies man and the movie also follows his love affair with the wife of one of his junior officers. The mercurial romance is interspersed throughout the battle scenes and in time they can’t live without each other and she follows him to his eventual execution in 1920.

While the combat scenes were put together well and the opening naval battle is impressive, the film is more concerned with the epic than the characters. It seemed as if the film makers had a series of known historical moments they needed to show but didn’t understand how to create characters to make those moments flow together. History didn’t move the characters against a back drop of action; instead, history moved action against a backdrop of characters. If there were less battles and more scenes between the characters, the story might have held together better. Considering how much time the film makers spent following a Cossack army that was going to save the Admiral, it is obvious that the epic was more important. It is even more obvious when they had his lover read letters out loud while showing combat scenes, making a perverse and clichéd mix of love and war.

Looking at the film as a product of Russia and not just an epic, it becomes obvious that there is a certain amount of hagiography at work in the film. Kolchak is a fervent nationalist and a man who believes in a strong hand on government. When offered the command of navy from Kerensky he says only if he can have strict discipline. In combat he fearlessly leads his men putting himself where he could be killed and leading them in prayer before each battle. He is the perfect mix of the ideal non Soviet Russian: brave, religious, and strict. What is even more interesting is what is missing from the movie: his insistence on exterminating rebellious groups; his execution of 25,000 Russians who rebelled against him; his inability to keep his allies, the Checs and the Poles on his side. Instead of a complicated picture of yet another Russian dictator, the film makers have created a hero of the lost cause. In Putin’s Russia, perhaps this is the model of the new Russian hero.

While the Admiral is steeped in clichés, it is certainly put together well and is an interesting look into what Russia thinks of its past.