Dostoevsky’s Stepanchikovo.

I would guess that among English-speaking readers, Selo Stepanchikovo i ego obitateli [translated as The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants] is the least-known of Dostoevsky’s novels — certainly far less known than his works of the 1860s, but also less so than his early novellas, Poor Folk and The Double and so on. (It seems to be well known among Russians, judging from the number of dramatizations available on YouTube.) In a way, this is understandable, since it’s unquestionably a slighter work than the ones to follow, but Dostoevsky was very pleased with it, considering it the best thing he’d done up till then (“I put into it my soul, my flesh and blood”), and I found it well worth reading. It is, though, a very odd novel, and I kept changing my mind about it as I read.

At first, it seems to be structured like a mystery. The narrator, Sergei, an orphan fresh out of college, is urgently invited by his kindly uncle Egor Rostanev to his country estate at Stepanchikovo, where he is told he is to marry a wonderful young woman. He puts off the visit for a while, but finally grits his teeth and goes; on the way, he meets an irascible fellow, Bakhcheev, who has just come from Stepanchikovo and tells him a former hanger-on and fool, Foma Fomich Opiskin, has taken despotic control of the entire family — he himself has quarreled with Opiskin and left in a huff, though he admits he’ll probably be back the next day.

So we are immediately faced with two enigmas: why has Rostanev summoned him to marry some woman he’s never met, and why is he putting up with this Opiskin fellow? When Sergei gets there he tries to investigate, but his uncle keeps telling him “I’ll explain it all later” and running off on one pretext or another. Eventually we learn that his mother and Opiskin are trying to force the poor but beautiful young governess Nastenka out of the house because they’re afraid Rostanev will marry her, so he’s decided if Sergei marries her instead she’ll be able to stay. None of this makes any sense, of course, but it’s told in a highly comic way, through young Sergei’s disillusioned eyes (he sees through Opiskin as soon as he meets him), and it’s a lot of fun to read.

The problem is that Opiskin is too strong a character for the book he finds himself in. He’s a magnificent creation, proud and tortured and humiliating everyone else to make up for the humiliations he’s suffered; to some extent he’s based on Gogol in his late crazed-moralizer phase, and he serves as an exorcism of both Gogol — who had been a strong influence on Dostoevsky, as on all Russian writers of the 1840s — and the high-minded intelligentsia of which Dostoevsky had been a part before he was sent to prison and Siberia. I suspect he is based on people Dostoevsky knew during that time, fellow prisoners who took out their sufferings on those weaker than themselves. He’s unforgettable, but the other characters seem pale next to him, and he’s so vicious it was hard for me to stay in the requisite comic mood. (This may be in part because I’m not Russian.) It’s fine for him to humiliate Rostanev and various fools and hangers-on, but when he is brutal to the faithful old servant Gavrila and the beautiful and somewhat simple-minded boy Falalei, this reader’s smile freezes. Opiskin gets a very satisfying comeuppance, but it doesn’t last long, and he winds up staying on as the evil deity of the household.

Frankly, I found it unbelievable that Rostanev, a former hussar, would put up with endless humiliations from this nasty fellow and continue to regard him as wise and benevolent; in fact, once the plot settled in I didn’t actually believe anything that happened — it has the air of a Moliere play in which you’re supposed to accept all the silliness and laugh at the folly of humanity. But this is Dostoevsky, not Moliere, and he’s thinking not of folly but of good and evil. Before long he’ll figure out how to create plots worthy of his characters and obsessions, but it’s very interesting to watch him working it out as he goes. If you have any interest in Dostoevsky, I recommend giving this book a try; just don’t expect Crime and Punishment.


  1. I’ve just finished watching the 1989 two-parter directed by Lev Tsutsulkovsky, with Aleksandr Lazarev as Rostanev and the remarkable Lev Durov as Opiskin, and I can recommend it to anyone who wants a straight dramatization of the novel, with no fancy artistic frills: Part 1, Part 2.

  2. Stepanchikovo is an allegory about Good and Evil, God and the Devil. Rostanev is man in the likeness ofGod and Elijah, while Opiskin is man in the likeness of the devil. His ejection during an Elijah’s Day storm is associated with divine Retribution. But God and Elijah are benevolent. See Dostoevsky: What They Don’t Teach You in School, available on Amazon Kindle. Also see Tainyi kod Dostoevskogo (1992) if you are seriously interested in this writer. Approaching Dostoevsky’s writing as straight realism is missing an entire dimension in his thinking.

  3. That’s as may be, but interpretations of a literary work as “an allegory about Good and Evil, God and the Devil” hold little interest for me; if a novel doesn’t work as a novel, I don’t care about higher dimensions.

  4. Indeed. Here’s Dante interpreting his Comedy to Can Grande della Scala, the autocrat of Verona and Dante’s patron (section 7):

    7. To elucidate, then, what we have to say, be it known that the sense of this work [the Comedy] is not simple, but on the contrary it may be called polysemous, that is to say, “of more senses than one”; for it is one sense which we get through the letter, and another which we get through the thing the letter signifies; and the first is called literal, but the second allegorical or mystic. And this mode of treatment, for its better manifestation, may be considered in this verse:

    “When lsrael came out of Egypt, and the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, Judaea became his sanctification, Israel his power.” [Ps. 114; Dante quotes from the Vulgate]

    For if we inspect the letter alone the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses is presented to us; if the allegory, our redemption wrought by Christ; if the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to the state of grace is presented to us; if the anagogical [referring to the afterlife], the departure of the holy soul from the slavery of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory is presented to us.

    And although these mystic senses have each their special denominations, they may all in general be called allegorical, since they differ from the literal and historical; for allegory is derived from alleon, in Greek, which means the same as the Latin alienum or diversum.

    Frye on polysemous meaning as an established fact.

    WP says that Can Grande is a nickname meaning ‘big dog’, and after his time the later Scaliger lords used a dog on their helmets, tombstones, and other places. But I wonder if perhaps it was really meant to mean ‘Great Khan’. Polysemous meaning indeed!

  5. Just ran across this in Bunin’s diary for 1917 (Oct. 8):

    Понемножку читал эти дни “Село Степанчиково”. Чудовищно! Уже пятьдесят страниц – и ни на йоту, все долбит одно и то же! Пошлейшая болтовня, лубочная в своей литературности! <...> Всю жизнь об одном, “о подленьком, о гаденьком”!

    I’ve been reading The Village of Stepanchikovo a bit these days. It’s monstrous! Already fifty pages, and not one iota, always repeating the same thing over and over! The vulgarest chatter, tasteless in its literaryness! <...> All his life going on about one thing, “the vile, the nasty”!

    Gave me a chuckle.

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