At the Edge of the World.

I recently read Nikolai Leskov’s 1875-76 novella На краю света [At the edge of the world], a tale told by an elderly archbishop (based on Nil) about how, many years ago in Siberia, his heathen guide had saved him during a snowstorm, teaching him a lesson about tolerance; one of the memorable figures in it is the priest Kiriak, who was once renowned for converting the heathen but by the time the narrator arrived was refusing to do so any more. They have a discussion in chapter 4 in which the narrator is alternately charmed and irritated by his stubborn interlocutor, and finally asks him to teach him the local language (which he, unlike the other priests, has taken the trouble to learn):

Clearly and quickly he revealed to me all the secrets of comprehending that speech, so impoverished and laconic that it can barely be called a language. In any case it is no more than a language of animal life, and not of intellectual life, and mastering it is very hard: the turns of speech, short and aperiodic, make it extremely difficult to translate into it any text composed according to the rules of a developed language with complex periods and subordinate clauses; poetic and figurative expressions can’t be translated into it at all, and the concepts conveyed by them would remain inaccessible to this poor people. How can you tell them the sense of the words “Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” [Matthew 10:16] when they have never seen serpents or doves and cannot even imagine them. They can’t match the words martyr or baptizer or forerunner [John the Baptist is called John the Forerunner in Russian], and if you translate Most Holy Virgin into their words as shochmo Abya, it comes out not as our Mother of God but as some kind of shamanic female divinity — in short, a goddess. It’s even harder to talk about the service of the precious blood or other mysteries of the faith, and to construct for them some sort of theological system or just to say a word about a virgin giving birth without a husband — there’s no point even thinking about it: in the best case they won’t understand a thing, and they may even guffaw right in your face.

Толково и быстро открыл он мне все таинства, как постичь эту молвь, такую бедную и немногословную, что ее едва ли можно и языком назвать. Во всяком разе это не более как язык жизни животной, а не жизни умственной; а между тем усвоить его очень трудно: обороты речи, краткие и непериодические, делают крайне затруднительным переводы на эту молвь всякого текста, изложенного по правилам языка выработанного, со сложными периодами и подчиненными предложениями; а выражения поэтические и фигуральные на него вовсе не переводимы, да и понятия, ими выражаемые, остались бы для этого бедного люда недоступны. Как рассказать им смысл слов: «Будьте хитры, как змии, и незлобивы, как голуби», когда они и ни змеи и ни голубя никогда не видали и даже представить их себе не могут. Нельзя им подобрать слов: ни мученик, ни креститель, ни предтеча, а пресвятую деву если перевести по-ихнему словами шочмо Абя, то выйдет не наша богородица, а какое-то шаманское божество женского пола,— короче сказать — богиня. Про заслуги же святой крови или про другие тайны веры еще труднее говорить, а строить им какую-нибудь богословскую систему или просто слово молвить о рождении без мужа, от девы,— и думать нечего: они или ничего не поймут, и это самое лучшее, а то, пожалуй, еще прямо в глаза расхохочутся.

(I haven’t tried to render the Church Slavonic tinge to his narration, like the archaic word молвь.) I imagine he got the shochmo Abya phrase from Nikolay Ilminsky‘s article Практические замечания о переводах и сочинениях на инородческих языках [Practical remarks on translations and compositions in the languages of national minorities] (1871; available at Google Books), where on p. 182 the same phrase is cited (as Cheremiss, i.e. Mari) with the same explanation. (Ilminsky was an interesting guy who thought “that mother tongue instruction was the key factor in ensuring that nominally orthodox believers could become more committed to these beliefs,” which is the view Leskov has his priest convey.)

There are a couple of passages that strikingly prefigure later, more famous works. This is from chapter 5 (the first speaker is the stubborn and semi-heretical Kiriak):

“Well, you and I are baptized, which is fine; for us it’s like having a ticket to the feast — we go there and know that we’re invited, because we have a ticket.


“Well, now we see that next to us is ambling a little fellow who doesn’t have a ticket. We think “Now, there’s a fool! He’s wasting his time, they won’t let him in! He’ll get there, and the doorkeepers will throw him out.” But when we get there, we see that the doorkeepers want to throw him out, but the host sees him and maybe tells them to let him in, saying “Never mind that he doesn’t have a ticket, I know him anyway: come in anyway,” and he brings him in and honors him more than someone else who came with a ticket.”

— Ну, вот мы с тобою крещены,— ну, это и хорошо; нам этим как билет дан на пир; мы и идем и знаем, что мы званы, потому что у нас и билет есть.

— Ну!

— Ну а теперь видим, что рядом с нами туда же бредет человечек без билета. Мы думаем: «Вот дурачок! напрасно он идет: не пустят его! Придет, а его привратники вон выгонят». А придем и увидим: привратники-то его погонят, что билета нет, а хозяин увидит, да, может быть, и пустить велит,— скажет: «Ничего, что билета нет,— я его и так знаю: пожалуй, входи», да и введет, да еще, гляди, лучше иного, который с билетом пришел, станет чествовать.

That’s remarkably reminiscent of Ivan Karamazov’s famous peroration:

And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.

And Kiriak’s dying words are:

O goodness… O simplicity… O love!.. O my joy!.. Jesus!.. now I run to you, like Nicodemus, at night; hasten to my aid, open the door… let me hear God, walking and speaking!.. Now… Thy garment is already in my hands… crush my thigh… but I will not let Thee go… unless along with me you bless everyone.

— О доброта… о простота… о любовь!.. о радость моя!.. Иисусе!.. вот я бегу к тебе, как Никодим, ночью; вари ко мне, открой дверь… дай мне слышать бога, ходящего и глаголющего!.. Вот… риза твоя уже в руках моих… сокруши стегно мое… но я не отпущу тебя… доколе не благословишь со мной всех.

I can’t fail to think of the end of the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic, where the narrator demands СЧАСТЬЕ ДЛЯ ВСЕХ, ДАРОМ, И ПУСТЬ НИКТО НЕ УЙДЁТ ОБИЖЕННЫЙ! [Happiness for everyone, at no cost, and let no one go away offended!].

Update (Sept. 2019). I learn there is a precursor, and possible source, of both the Leskov and Dostoevsky passages; Joseph Frank, in his biography of Dostoevsky, writes: “When he hands back his ‘entrance ticket’ to the promise of an ultimate eternal harmony of God’s world because the price to be paid for it is too high in human suffering, Ivan repeats the gesture and uses the same terms as the protagonist of Schiller’s poem ‘Resignation.’” Here’s the relevant stanza (the third) from the Schiller poem (written in the 1780s):

Da steh’ ich schon auf deiner finstern Brücke,
    Furchtbare Ewigkeit.
Empfange meinen Vollmachtbrief zum Glücke!
Ich bring’ ihn unerbrochen dir zurücke,
    Ich weiß nichts von Glückseligkeit.

I stand already on your dark bridge,
    frightful eternity.
Take my letter of authorization for happiness!
I bring it back to you unopened;
    I know nothing of bliss.

They aren’t actually the same terms — a Vollmachtbrief is not a ticket — but it’s certainly a similar image, and Dostoevsky loved Schiller and quoted him often, so I think we can plausibly see this as a Schiller reference; I don’t know if the Leskov is as well (it seems considerably more distant from the image in “Resignation”).


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m not seeing much resemblance (at least in English) between the chapter 5 passage and the Karamazov passage other than the word “ticket”? The first is pretty obviously a somewhat loose paraphrase of or allusion to various parables in the Gospels, but whatever Ivan is kvetching about isn’t really in the same parables, I don’t think, or at least not without some radical reinterpretation.

    FWIW your link to the Strugatsky wiki piece gives the last line as “HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND LET NO ONE BE LEFT BEHIND!”. Different translation of the same Russian or a translation of a different but similar line?

  2. Well, yeah, but the word “ticket” is enough all by itself to call up the Karamazov passage — it’s one of the most famous bits of the book.

    Different translation of the same Russian or a translation of a different but similar line?

    Different translation of the same Russian; I didn’t bother looking for an official version, I just translated it myself.

  3. This “ticket” keeps popping up. Another example that I know of (because it is enormously famous) is Marina Tzvetaeva

    Пора — пора — пора
    Творцу вернуть билет

    It’s time – it’s time – it’s time
    Give the ticket back to Creator.

  4. Yeah, but that’s just a straight quote from Dostoevsky. Since the Brothers K, it’s impossible to talk about returning one’s ticket to God without referring to that.

  5. I am not sure that it is so straight. Dostoevsky (and Leskov) talk about a “ticket” as a promise of eternal life after death (for Leskov it is obvious for FM, I think it is the best interpretation), for Tzvetaeva it is more into suicide. Also, some critics bring up Schiller’s Resignation, which I cannot understand in any language, but if there are some commonalities, Tzvetaeva might have taken it from there.

  6. I’m not talking about Deep Meaning, I’m talking about a phrase. “Returning one’s ticket to God” is a Dostoevsky quote, no matter what use you put it to. Unless of course one knows nothing about Dostoevsky or the Karamazovs, but I think it’s safe to say that’s not the case for Tsvetaeva.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Even if all post-Karamazov references to “ticket” in a religious-or-similar context in Russian lit are presumptively understood as echoes/allusions to the Dostoevsky, it seems methodologically suspect to view *prior* uses of the word “ticket” like Leskov’s as somehow foreshadowing the Dostoevsky?

    But speaking of Dostoevsky allusions, I was amused to see the “beauty will save the world” notion popping up in this story about a bizarre Soviet-nostalgia “Miss USSR’ pageant being conducted in the UK:

  8. AJP Crown says

    “It shows a serious lack of taste and historical awareness,” the former British ambassador to Latvia, a Mr Bond, told The Independent.

  9. it seems methodologically suspect to view *prior* uses of the word “ticket” like Leskov’s as somehow foreshadowing the Dostoevsky

    Good heavens, I was doing no such thing, any more than I was saying he was foreshadowing the Strugatskys. I was simply struck by the coincidence. I am not a believer in predestination or mystical links across time.

  10. Beauty will save the world, but we already returned the ticket for a soviet-nostalgia pageant.

    Dost could have taken the “ticket” idea from Leskov, why not. Brother Ivan talks about the ticket as if it was a transparent metaphor, which it might have been because of some prior art.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    The “invitations” to various banquets and wedding feasts referenced in various Gospel parables in e.g. the 22nd chapter of Matthew and the 14th of Luke probably would not, in the first-century context, have involved the issuance of physical “tickets” to embody the invitations from the host, but that seems like an obvious-enough updating for a 19th-century audience that multiple people could have hit upon it separately and independently. But see Curtis Mayfield (1965), who claims that in order to board the metaphorical train heading for some metaphorical promised land across the Jordan, you “Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.”

  12. Good point, and anyone not familiar with “People Get Ready” should get on board.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    Also in Mathew and Luke is the parable of the talents. One servant buried his, the other bought season tickets to the Met.

  14. In other literary and theological traditions, you get turned away without a ticket. Early In Pilgrim’s Progress, when Christian is relieved of his burden he is given a roll to present when he arrives at the the Celestial City. One of his companions, Ignorance, makes it to the gates of the city, but, lacking a certificate, is seized by Angels and taken directly to hell in the final passage of Part One:

    ‘Now while I was gazing upon all these things, I turned my head to look back, and saw Ignorance come up to the river side; but he soon got over, and that without half that difficulty which the other two men met with. For it happened that there was then in that place, one Vain-hope, a ferryman, that with his boat helped him over; so he, as the other I saw, did ascend the hill, to come up to the gate, only he came alone; neither did any man meet him with the least encouragement. When he was come up to the gate, he looked up to the writing that was above, and then began to knock, supposing that entrance should have been quickly administered to him; but he was asked by the men that looked over the top of the gate, Whence came you, and what would you have? He answered, I have eat and drank in the presence of the King, and he has taught in our streets. Then they asked him for his certificate, that they might go in and show it to the King; so he fumbled in his bosom for one, and found none. Then said they, Have you none? But the man answered never a word. So they told the King, but he would not come down to see him, but commanded the two Shining Ones that conducted Christian and Hopeful to the City, to go out and take Ignorance, and bind him hand and foot, and have him away. Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.’

  15. John Cowan says

    A baptismal certificate, I suppose.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    The Christian Country Club. The ignorant must go round the back to the tradesman’s entrance.

  17. For a likely precursor of the “ticket” image, see the Update above.


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