Nikolai Leskov  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov (16 February 18315 March 1895)) was a Russian journalist, novelist and short story writer, who also wrote under the pseudonym M. Stebnitskiy. By many Russians he is considered "the most Russian of all Russian writers".

Born in Gorokhovo, Oryol, he began his education at the Oryol lyceé. His father's death and the subsequent loss of his inherited property in an 1846 fire forced the young Nikolai to suspend his studies at the age of 15. Leskov served two years as a clerk in Oryol 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 in the fields of 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 travelled 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.

His literary career began in 1861 when he began working for a journal in Saint Petersburg. He published his first prose work, Pogassee Delo, the next year, and his first novel, Nekuda, in 1864.

His main works include The Enchanted Wanderer (1873), Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1865) (which was later made into an opera), The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea (1881), and the novel Cathedral Folk (1872).

As a writer and journalist in the turbulent 1860s, he quickly established a reputation for being anti-nihilist. At the same time he was not clearly a conservative, and this apparent refusal to take sides caused him economic difficulty, since he could find few journals willing to publish his works. 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 caused anger in conservative circles. Leskov served on the Scholarly Committee of the Ministry of Education from 1874. He was dismissed in 1883 due to his too liberal views. After a 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.

By the late 1880s Leskov's growing criticism of the doctrines of the church started to arouse the attention of censors. Under the influence of Lev Tolstoy he wrote several stories dealing with ancient church legends. During his last years Leskov suffered from breast cancer, and thoughts of death occupied his mind. Leskov died on March 5, 1895. He is buried at Literatorskiye Mostki [1] necropolis of the Volkovo Cemetery in Saint Petersburg.

His collected works were published for the first time in 1902-03. After the Revolution his work was viewed with suspicion, although Maxim 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 in some respects his teacher. For decades Leskov did not gain official approval, partly due to his religious themes. In the 1940s two scholarly monographs on his work appeared. 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.

Selected Bibliography

  • Ovcybek (Musk-Ox) (1862)
  • Nekuda (No Way Out) (1864)
  • Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1865)
  • Voitel'nica (Warrior Woman) (1866)
  • Na nozhakh (At Daggers Drawn) (1870)
  • Soboriane (Cathedral Folk) (1872)
  • Ocharovannyi strannik (The Enchanted Wanderer) (1873)
  • Zapechatlennyi angel (The Sealed Angel) (1873)
  • Na kraju sveta (At the Edge of the World) (1875)
  • The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea (1881)
  • Pamphalon the Mountebank (1887)
  • Gora (The Mountain) (1890)
  • Judol (Vale of Tears) (1892)
  • Zayachii remiz (The Rabbit Warren) (1895)




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