Leonid Maksimovich Leonov’s earliest prose fiction dealt with problems of reality and morals in ways that sometimes bordered on the fantastic; such themes resurfaced in his later crime fiction, though in treatments that were markedly different. One early story, for example, concerns a man in the Arctic who comes on strange, seemingly mythical beings in an archetypal quest; in another work, a lonely man falls in love with the black queen on his chessboard. “Petushikhinsky prolom,” however, depicts the revulsion a frail, good-hearted youth feels when peasants beat a horse thief to death. In “Konets melkogo cheloveka,” a demon challenges a paleontologist’s preoccupation with the study of the past; once he has been tempted by the spirit, the protagonist considers destroying his manuscripts and abandoning his research. Eventually, the scientist succumbs to hunger and privation.
When Leonov explicitly raised questions of criminal activity, it was often in relation to larger questions of the social order. Acts of theft, violence, and rebellion frequently were depicted as the work of groups that, in keeping with their defiant postures, would sanction and encourage such undertakings. In some of his major novels, Leonov succeeded in conveying the outlook and peculiar mores of robber bands without yielding in his conviction that opposing ideals of socialism and cooperation should prevail.
In the novel Barsuki (1924; The Badgers, 1947), turmoil and upheaval in Moscow, where the Soviet government has established its power, are contrasted with the disorders that seem to propel the distant countryside in a different direction. Around Arkhangelsk, far to the north, Soviet authorities must contend with peasant groups who have taken the law into their own hands. Apart from a few backward glances on the part of older men, the previous regime seems to have passed into history with few regrets on any side. Among many peasants, however, recollections of the more recent past remain alive: Some had undergone confinement in a czarist prison or were caught up in revolutionary outbreaks. Grim and bloody battles of World War I, fought in a cause few held dear, appear to have severed any loyalties to the older government. Memories of murderous conflict are reinforced once more by the sight of men who have been left lame or badly disfigured. Some villagers still profess religious beliefs, which are mingled with folk practices. There seems to be no consensus about the proper political course to follow. Among those who have sided with the Bolsheviks, a district committee is formed to put requisitioning measures into effect; the most immediate, though onerous, concerns they must confront are raising taxes and preventing the hoarding of foodstuffs.
Open conflict erupts when a soldier is shot, and then a prominent village leader, Petka Grokhotov, is found dead, slashed through the body with a scythe. It is learned that elsewhere a village chairman has been found murdered from stab wounds. What began as a series of local mysteries begins to take on much wider connotations. Indeed, tracking down culprits must yield to more basic concerns of self-preservation when full-fledged rebellion engulfs the area. Local chieftains are chosen to lead peasant communities; in addition to dispensing justice according to ingrained notions of fairness, they lead their people into battle against a neighboring village that reputedly is more sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. There ensues a protracted campaign in which barns are burned and Soviet convoys are intercepted; wild and seemingly spontaneous outbreaks of violence are punctuated with proceedings in ad hoc courts, imposing the peasants’ conceptions of martial law. The villagers become known as “badgers,” from their practice of digging entrenchments and placing barricades about the territory they control. Eventually, the cycle of bloody confrontations runs its course; the insurgents lack any wider aims or program, and their leader loses heart when his own brother, a commander in the Bolshevik army, convinces him that further resistance would be futile.
Although crime and violence are tied to peasant revolts in The Badgers, Leonov’s second novel, Vor (1927; The Thief, 1931), deals more directly with lawless behavior carried out for personal gain. The urban setting, near Moscow, is marked by a bustling, impersonal air that in some ways befits the complex, interlocking series of subplots that reveal the organization and procedures of the criminal underworld around the capital. At the outset, readers are introduced to two major characters whose lives and destinies for the time being have become intertwined. Mitka Vekshin, a peasant youth who was once caught up in war and revolution, and who still is inwardly affected by his killing of a White officer during the civil war, has applied his skills to some rather dubious enterprises. Although initially he brushes aside the inquiries of Fyodor Fyodorovich Firsov, a minor writer whose work on a novel appears in counterpoint to the main action, in due course the aspiring author is introduced to a number of Mitka’s associates. Along the way, the varied circumstances that have brought them together are laid forth. Among the assorted malefactors are an expert in railway robberies, a receiver of stolen goods, and a man who serves as a scout or decoy. Some of them evidently are hardened criminals, while others have simply found no certain employment; even the latter eventually shrug aside any compunctions they may feel about the expropriation of others’ property. The characteristic manners and...
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