January 01, 2021

Shoeing a Flea

Shoeing a Flea
A portrait of Leskov Valentin Serov (1889)

Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov holds a somewhat odd place in Russian literature. On one hand, he is a famous writer, a recognized classic. On the other, he has not won the same honors granted to the “first tier” writers, most consequential among those honors being inclusion in school curricula. In other words, generation after generation of millions of Russian schoolchildren have not had to – like it or not – read his books (or at least familiarize themselves with their plots).

As a result, Leskov has more or less disappeared from Russia’s collective consciousness. Of course, he’s still studied by literary scholars, and true lovers of Russian literature read him, but he’s nevertheless far from a “household name” in Russia. Why is that?

There seem to be several reasons for Leskov’s being swept under Russia’s cultural rug. First of all, several of his novels offer rather unflattering depictions of “nihilists” – the revolutionarily inclined young people of the 1860s and ’70s. This was enough to dispose a large proportion of his contemporaries against him and certainly to taint him in the eyes of Soviet publishers.

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