Once again I am rewarded for my stubbornness in pursuing my chronological crawl through Russian literature. The other day I finished Tolstoy’s Казаки [The Cossacks], and in my post about it I complained about its length and repetitiveness and concluded “at this point in their careers, I would have to say that Dostoevsky is way ahead of him.” That story was published in January 1863, and the next item on the agenda, published in February, was his Поликушка [Polikushka]; when I finished it, I marveled (as I might have done in 1863) that Tolstoy had suddenly caught up. It contains at least twice the plot in a third the length; whereas The Cossacks feels like a puffed-up short story, Polikushka feels like a full-length novel compressed into fifty pages. More importantly, it is brilliantly told, with the author’s mature manner on full display; it gives the same feeling of “this is real life, not just a story” that is so common a reaction to War and Peace. How did he do it?

It opens in medias res with a long conversation between an estate manager, Egor Mikhailovich, and his boss/owner, the woman who is known only as барыня ‘the lady.’ We gradually learn that they are talking about the dreaded набор рекрутов ‘levy of recruits’ (i.e., army conscripts) that was a constant disruption to village and family life. Conscription was originally (in the 18th century) for life; it was gradually reduced, and by 1855 was for twelve years plus three years in the reserve, but in practice it was considered a death sentence, and the men so chosen rarely returned to their homes. When the recruitment call came, each village had to choose a certain number of men; if the village was part of an estate, the owner had the final say, and in this scene Egor Mikhailovich is trying to suggest that she send a ne’er-do-well named Polikei (I presume a form of Polikarp), nicknamed Polikushka, rather than a member of the Dutlov family, which the manager is trying to protect. But the owner is determined to protect Polikushka, because she is a religious woman who believes she has reformed the notorious drunkard and thief, since the last time he was caught he fell on his knees, wept copiously, and promised never to do it again. Furthermore, she refuses to recognize that she has to pick one or the other; she doesn’t want to hurt the Dutlovs, but she definitely doesn’t want to send Polikushka, and she tells Egor Mikhailovich to go and “делай, как лучше” [do what’s best].

The genius of the scene is that we don’t hear very much of the conversation, because neither party is listening to the other. Tolstoy tells us that for the owner, these regular reporting sessions are an occasion for her to learn what’s going on with the estate and make dispositions for the future, whereas for the manager they are a ritual in which he stands in the corner looking at the divan, ignores the boss’s pointless chatter, and eventually gets her to say “All right, fine” to whatever he wants. In explaining this, the narrator says “Not long ago, I saw Lord Palmerston sit with his hat covering his face while a member of the opposition fulminated against his ministry, then suddenly stand up and in a three-hour speech respond to each of his opponent’s points; I saw it without surprise, because I had seen something similar a thousand times between Egor Mikhailovich and his mistress.” (Who is the narrator, and how has he seen all those conversations, not to mention a debate in the House of Commons? We do not know.) At one point, the narrator mentions that the manager should have pointed out that his mistress could avoid the painful choice by paying a few hundred rubles for a volunteer, but “политика не допускала этого” [politics didn’t permit that]; the possibility is going to be a major plot point. At the end of the conversation, the owner is asked whom she will send to town to collect a large sum of money, and she looks at the steward pointedly and tells him to send Polikei.

We are then introduced to Polikei’s difficult situation, living with his long-suffering wife and five children in one corner of an outbuilding, and told about his past; he is a horse-doctor who learned his trade from a man whose habit of petty thievery he had absorbed, and even though he now had enough income to get by, he couldn’t resist picking up anything that was lying around loose (the Russian expression is плохо лежало): a piece of harness, a padlock, even a wall clock. He had been caught often enough that everyone looked askance at him and nobody trusted him, and he had the meek, unhappy smile the narrator tells us is common to weak men who know themselves to be guilty. It is clear why his fellow peasants would prefer him to be chosen for the draft, but when the steward says that the owner doesn’t want that, they wind up (after a very interesting discussion) choosing Ilya Dutlov, the newly married nephew of the miserly head of the family, who claims he doesn’t have enough money to buy his exemption; eventually he gets drunk and curses his uncle, calling him a villain and a barbarian who is murdering him.

So Ilya and Polikei both go to town, one to enlist and the other to get the money for his owner. Tolstoy has set it up so that we assume Polikei is going to get drunk and betray the trust placed in him, but our expectations are confounded, and things develop in a more complicated way that ends very badly for some and very well for others. I won’t describe the plot any further, but I will point out that every character is given his or her own point of view on whatever is happening; at one point we are even privileged to learn the thoughts of a horse who is unhappy about being turned around just as he was close enough to his barn to smell the hay. The most disturbing aspect of that is the way people not directly involved crowd around when something terrible has happened, enjoying the break in the monotony of peasant life; it’s related to what Auden is talking about in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and to Jean Renoir’s “Ce qui est terrible sur cette terre, c’est que tout le monde a ses raisons.” Taken to the extreme, it suggests that we live alone and die alone.

That, I believe, is one of the themes of the story: the individuality, even incommensurability, of human experience. Another is the intertwining of character and fate; this, of course, will be given a full workout a few years later in War and Peace. What it is not about is what, as far as I can make out, most criticism has focused on: the evils of serfdom and money. Its reputation as some sort of political/social statement is probably one reason it’s so little known, and once more I have occasion to curse the didactic, social-realist character of traditional approaches to Russian literature. Turgenev, however, appreciated it fully (“Мастер, мастер!”), and so, I think, will anyone who approaches it as a work of narrative art rather than a manifesto.


  1. So what is the LH angle on this? This must be the first time we’ve been treated to an interesting post that doesn’t seem to have a linguistic aspect.

  2. Shh! We don’t want to discourage such posts 🙂

  3. I am not getting the analogy between Lord Palmerston and his Honorable opponent on one side and the lady and her manager on the other. Who is who? Or is it the very pointlessness of discussion that makes the similarity work?

  4. So what is the LH angle on this?

    Russian literature is one of the remits of LH, but you can look upon the Polikarp issue as a linguistic hook if you like.

    I am not getting the analogy between Lord Palmerston and his Honorable opponent on one side and the lady and her manager on the other.

    I think it’s just that in both cases the two people concerned know what the other is going to say, more or less, so they don’t have to actually listen.

  5. Makes sense.

  6. Recurring theme of the story is the question why so many soldiers are needed by the Tsar, isn’t enough of them already.

    The year when the book was published tells us why.

    1863 was the year of yet another Polish revolt against the Russian empire which major Western powers supported with threats and ultimatums against St. Petersburg. The prospect of repeat of the Crimean War against Britain and France looked very real for a few months and so in 1863, the Russian government launched two more additional drafts, calling up hundreds of thousands of conscripts in preparation for the coming big war.

    But Lord Palmerston’s speeches in the House of Commons failed, British public had enough of Crimea and there would be no war with Russia this time.

    Recruits called up in 1863 were lucky – both the Polish revolt and the Caucasus War ended in 1864 and there would be no major war until 1877. Military reforms in 1860s further reduced conscription terms, significantly reduced mortality and in 1874 the old system of recruit conscription was abolished altogether.

    Alekha the Recruit probably had a good chance to survive and return to his mother after, maybe, ten years.

  7. The year when the book was published tells us why.

    Actually, it doesn’t (clever analysis, though!): the story was finished in the fall of 1862.

  8. I think that critics got it right. I mean, not because the story is about evils of Russian social order, that evil goes without saying. No one inside the story even remotely thinks that life can be in any way different. The problem is that the novella is overstuffed. Tolstoy is clearly already a master of individual scenes, but has yet to figure out the overall pace and how detailed each person’s individual story line should be.

  9. Well, that’s a matter of taste; I can imagine feeling that way if I’d read the story in another mood, but as it was I thought it was stuffed just right.

  10. Agreed.

  11. in 1863, the Russian government launched two more additional drafts

    The timing of the story seems to be during Crimean war. Tolstoy based it on a real story he overheard from a friend, and it needs to be taken into account that the Russian Imperial government didn’t call up recruits between 1856 and 1862. This was partly to compensate for the excessive draft levels during the Crimean war, when they called up 799,000 recruits (about one out of 15-20 male peasants of all ages). In 1854, there were 3 recruit drafts in quick succession, instead of the usual one per year.

    Of anything, the timing may have worked against Polikushka because serfdom has become a thing of the past between the moment it was concieved and the time it’s been published. So it was too easy to dismiss the story as an expose of bad things which have already improved.

    Thanks for the nudge to read it for the first time, LH. To me it was a piece of raw anthropology, a historical snapshot rather than a work of fiction. All I heard about it before was the fact Polikushka has been made into the first Soviet movie (1922), starring Ivan Moskvin in the title role. The movie has been widely shown abroad, and my ancestors helped with organizing one of these showings, which is the only reason why the title even registered with me.

  12. I’ll have to watch the movie; thanks for the tip!

  13. I was hoping you would comment on the death of the baby, which was a very strange thing to read. I get the impression I misunderstood something, or missed something. Now I know where Trainspotting got the idea from. Great post.

  14. It was indeed a strange scene (in what is often a strange story). I’m glad you liked the post, and now I want to watch Trainspotting again!

  15. You have to read Trainspotting for that; it’s not in the movie.

  16. Ah, then I’ll have to read Trainspotting!

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