Nikolai Semenovich Leskov (1831-1895)
Russian storyteller, novelist, and journalist, who portaryed 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 merchats. "Writing," Leskov once confessed in a letter, "is to me no liberal art, but a craft." In his stories Leskov renewed narrative techniques and used colloquial and peasant speech. Leskov, who was un-doctrinaire and never became agnostic, criticized the Orthodox Church for its rigidness and was condemned by conservatives, but he was also rejected by leftist intellectuals, who considered him an outcast.
Nikolai Leskov was born in Gorokhovo, Orel province. His mother came from an educated, noble family, and his father, belonging to 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 him 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 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 traveled 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 traveled in Eastern Europe and France. He lived with Katerina Bubnova from 1865 until 1877. Their son, Andrei Leskov, became the author's biographer. Leskov's first stories appeared in magazines. 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 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 angered the 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 kills him with Sergei, and later Zinovii's young nepnep, 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 Scholarly Committee of the Ministry of Education from 1874. He was dismissed in 1883 due to his too liberal views. After 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 Ladoga.
In The Sealed Angel (1873) and The Enchanted Wanderer (1873), a picaresque story inspired by his travels in Karelia, Leskov had 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 to 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 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. One time he is captured by the Tartars. To prevent him from escaping, they cripple him - they cut open his the soles of his feet, put in the open flesh horsehair, and close again 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 arise 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 the cancer of breast and thoughts of death occupied his mind. Leskov died on March 5, 1895. His collected works were published first time in 1902-03. After the Revolution his work was viewed with suspicion, although 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." Anton Chekhov considered Leskov is some respects his teacher. Leskov did not gain official approval for decades, partly due to his religious themes. In the 1940s appeared two scholarly monographs on his work. 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.