Nikolai Leskov Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111207197-Leskov.jpg Nikolai Leskov Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Although his reputation has never rivaled those of other great Russian masters from his age, the stories and short novels of Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov (leh-SKOF) 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 insane 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.

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...

(The entire section is 1172 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov was born on February 16, 1831, in Gorokhovo, a village in Oryol Province. His class background was varied and unusual. His father, a priest’s son, had become a government official, receiving technical membership in the hereditary gentry when he attained the required rank. His mother was the daughter of an impoverished gentleman married to a merchant’s daughter. Leskov grew up partly in the country, where his father had bought a tiny estate, and partly in the town of Oryol, where he attended the gymnasium. He did not complete the course, however, dropping out to take a lowly civil service job, first in Oryol and later in Kiev, where an uncle was a university professor. Though in later years by wide and incessant reading he educated himself enough for several university degrees, the lack of a formal one remained a sore point for Leskov. In Kiev, he worked in an army recruiting bureau, a position that obliged him to witness and take part in some of the gross injustices and cruelties of Nicholas I’s regime. In 1857, Leskov took leave from the service and entered private business, working as a factotum for an uncle by marriage, a Russified Scotsman who managed the estates of some wealthy grandees. This work necessitated much travel within Russia, and Leskov drew heavily on these experiences in his later writings, which exhibit a connoisseur’s knowledge of colorful nooks and crannies of Russian provincial life. The success of a few early experiments with writing convinced Leskov to move to St. Petersburg with the intention of becoming a professional journalist.

Leskov obtained a position as editorial writer for a leading newspaper, but in 1862 he fell afoul of the radicals. At issue was an article in which he suggested that a recent series of fires in the capital might actually have been set by revolutionary arsonists, as had been rumored; he urged the...

(The entire section is 777 words.)