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At Daggers Drawn (novel)

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Original title  На ножах
Language  Russian
Originally published  1871
Preceded by  Old Years in Plodomasovo
Country  Russia
Publication date  1871
Author  Nikolai Leskov
Followed by  The Cathedral Clergy
At Daggers Drawn (novel) httpsuploadwikimediaorgwikipediacommonsthu
Media type  Print (Paperback & Hardback)
Similar  Works by Nikolai Leskov, Classical Studies books

At Daggers Drawn (Russian: На ножах) is an anti-nihilist novel by Nikolai Leskov, first published in 1870 (issues 10-12) and 1871 (issues 1-8, 10) by The Russian Messenger. In November 1871 the novel was released as a separate book. The novel's original text has been severely edited by the magazine's staff.



On October 14, 1871, Leskov informed Pyotr Schebalsky that he found the final part of it being missing from the final version and confessed to being "totally crashed by this novel." "What devastates me is that I am absolutely unaware as to the reason for cuts that's been made in my novel, cuts having nothing to do with normal mode of editing and which are highly detrimental to the novel. Thus, speeches that's been put down in order to show the development of characters and their goals (like that of Forova's intention to lead her husband to God). The specifics of language has been filed down cruelly with most trivial words... the portraits of characters have been much weakened." In April 1871 Leskov wrote to Schebalsky that he was "finishing the novel in haste, just to fulfill my obligations."

As for the quality of the novel, Leskov himself has never had any illusions. "Of all my weaker works, this, I think, is the most happy-go-lucky one," he conceded in 1885. Bound by obligations Leskov was finishing the novel in the most haphazardous manner, quickly and illogically knotting the plot's loose ends in the least probable ways, doing this so hastily, E.S.Ivanova, a family friend, who took it upon herself to make a clean copy of it. On November 18, 1870, Leskov wrote in a letter to The Russian Messenger that much as he respected the journal, "should the latter weaken its [editing] zeal" he'll have to leave it. This and many other fragments of his correspondence, showed that in no was the novel could be said to have been written "according to Katkov-written receipts," as some critics asserted. Leskov asked Shebalsky, a respected literary critic, close to The Russian Messenger to exert his influence and protect him from "Lyubimov's tortures", calling the latter "the horrible man, Atilla, the killer of literature." In other letters to Schebalsky and Alexey Suvorin Leskov explained that what the editor was doing was not editing but for some reason was preventing the author from giving his characters qualities he felt were necessary, major Forov having "suffered most from compromises" he had to take. Another reason for Leskov's haste was the fact that in those days he was completing The Cathedral Clergy (1866–1872) and Grief And Laughter (1871), two major works which presented him as a fully fledged author.


The question of the novel's characters' real life prototypes, rather poignant for Leskov, who liked to "paint things live" has never been discussed in his times. After the scandal with No Way Out critics tried to avoid seeking out real life parallels in this one. But 'photographic' quality of Leskov's prose was too strong. Andrey Leskov alleged Alexandra Ivanovna Syntyanina's prototype had been his father's aunt Natalia Petrovna Strakhova, who's had to "enjoy the privilege of becoming wife to a madman from very early years."

Journalist and playwright Sergey Turbin appeared to be the man behind major Forov's character. Turbin was an eccentric man and an atheist thinker, very critical of The Gospel. In the novel Leskov makes his character "see the light" and become friends with a village clergyman Evangel, a thinker of quite a different kind.

Another real life man of letters, Vsevolod Krestovsky, might have been the prototype of the Vyslenyov character, at least Krestovsky, who remained on friendly terms with Leskov for years, himself felt so. Krestovsky wrote Leskov a letter in which he accused him of portraying him negatively. The latter denied that but the former remained apparently unconvinced, although later scholars were baffled as to which episodes of Krestovsky's life might have formed the basis for Vislenyov figure. Some pointed at a curious detail having to do with Krestovsky, being there in the novel. The relations between old man Bodrostin and Princess Vakhterminskaya were very similar to those between Schadursky and Baroness von Dering in Krestovsky's The Slums of Saint Petersburg 1864 novel.


Despite some parts of the novel being obviously politicised, many characters undeveloped and attempts to add mysticism to 'freshen up' the dour anti-nihilistic fabula looking naive, the novel was very popular and in this respect competed with Leskov’s most impeccable pieces of prose. "According to 'Flying Library' accounts, my novel is being read with avidness which exceeds all expectations," Leskov wrote.

Contemporaries saw the novel as split in its structure, one, oppressive and dark part, dealing with 'nihilistic' Petersburgh, another portraying life in more healthy province and containing the novel's best episodes. Some critics advised Leskov to stick to it and, according to correspondence, he heeded such advice. Even otherwise skeptical Soviet scholar B.Drugov had to admit there were brilliant scenes of domestic live in the novel. Dostoyevsky expressed his delight with the Evangel figure and praised Leskov as a master of portraying small clergy. However, Dostoevsky's overall opinion of the novel was negative, dismissing it as fanciful nonsense.


The novel, labeled "anti-revolutionary", has never been published in the Soviet times. Up until the late 1950s it hasn't even been properly analyzed, only briefly mentioned in the same breath as No Way Out (1864) and The Passed-By (1865), as being "spiteful and full of vengeance" (according to Maxim Gorky), portraying real revolutionary democratic leaders of the 1860s in Russia in a caricature manner and occasionally 'polemizing' with Chernychevsky's What Is to Be Done?" The novel was not included into the 11 volume Khudozhestvennaya Literatura collection.

In the 1930s Andrei Leskov complained in a letter to Gorky: "Old criticism of No Way Out and At Daggers Drawn make it impossible for critics of the 1930s to see objectively the results of [Nikolai] Leskov's last twenty years of life. But things in that respect only worsened. In fault-finding business the mid-20th century Soviet authors went even further: they accused Leskov of ridiculing in this novel the women's emancipation movement, ideas of agrarian revolution in Russia and even branded him an anti-Semite, on the basis of there being a minor Jewish character named Tikhon Kushevsky, a crook who makes his living by lending money, writing articles for papers of every possible direction and buying and selling the live souls he's enslaved in the pre-Reform times.

In the late 1950s critic B.M.Drugov published a comprehensive study of Leskov legacy and chose a slightly different approach to Daggers. The novel, according to Drugov, has been made "totally by receipts written by Katkov". Bearing in mind Vladimir Lenin's devastating remarks upon Katkov and his publications, this could mean only one thing: Leskov in this novel proved to be one of "thoroughly reactionary, regime-guarding authors." Drugov quoted Ieronim Yasinsky: "When for the first time I entered the circle of Vasily Stepanovich Kurochkin in 1870, the name of Leskov was on everybody's lips: people spoke of him with scorn and revolt, as of a 3rd Department man." Yasinsky's memoirs have been often criticized for containing false accusations. Modern scholar A.Shelayeva directly calls the aforementioned quotation as "slanderous". Boris Bukhstab who wrote a preface for the 1973 six volumes Leskov collection, described the novel as 'bad' and 'weak' (quoting Leskov's own remarks to prove his point), promoting the same idea of the novel being purely a Katkov-directed literary vehicle, where "every character was either a blackmailer, a thief or a murderer," as Gorky argued earlier.

The Vanskok character

Dostoyevsky, who criticized the novel for 'caricaturizing nihilists' still wrote: "But Vanskok - what a piece of work. Gogol himself never produced anything more typical and truer to life. I felt like I knew this woman personally, heard her voice. Extraordinary face! Should ever nihilism of the 60s die out, this figure will remain: it is a work of genius".

Decades later, in 1920s Maxim Gorky too remembered Leskov's heroine, Anna Skokova, a "funny-looking revolutionary girl," who was always in a haste - to such an extent that she even introduced herself briefly, in one word, as Vanskok. "This was a type taken out of life by the hand of a true artist. Portrayed artfully and so true to life it seemed impossible, for such Vanskoks revolutionary movement spawned by dozens. A somewhat intellectually limited, even silly creature, Vanskok is tireless and reckless, ready to commit whatever act people who she (a saint herself) regards as saints would tell her to do... This person is an instrument, but she is a saint still, ridiculous but beautiful, like a fairy out of a fairytale, burning with indistinguishable love for human beings, sacred kind of love, the latter, though, often reminding doggy affection," Gorky wrote. Polemizing with Gorky, A.Shelayeva argued that Leskov was the kind of writer who foresaw the tragic consequences of female emancipation in its most vulgarized form. He wrote many articles aimed directly at the so-called "women's cause specialists" who eulogized "half-wits" (as Leskov called them) from the novels by V.P.Avenarius and V.A.Sleptsov. He warned against militant emancipation, "something that decades later would bring the Russian family to the point of collapse and turn a woman into an instrument for tyrannical state, who'd exploit them without any regard for he femininity and intrinsic nature."


Arguably the first ever dissenting voice was that of Irina Stolyarova who in 1978 in Leningrad published an essay called "Searching for an Ideal". She suggested that the novel was not so much a "revenge" as an "investigation", driven by the author's "intrinsic desire to provide instant responses to the hottest issues, to cast newly emerging character types, reveal new mindsets and new relations that were starting to take shape in the Russian life of the time." While satirical tendencies in the novel were obvious, it was not (according to Shelayeva) aimed at all nihilists, only at what the author saw as "the foam of the movement." Such a view is corroborated by Nikolai Leskov's own words he wrote in a letter to Alexey Suvorin: "I do not think that crookedness "has come directly from nihilism," there is no such idea in my novel and won't ever be. I am convinced that crookedness had leached upon nihilism exactly in the same way it's been leeching upon idealism, theology or patriotism... What I am proposed to do is one thing: prosecuting this faul desire [in certain people] to adhere to ideas which they have no affiliation to in their souls, people who compromise whatever they touch. Nihilism has just came in handy..."

It was only in the late 20th century that the Russian critics started to spot characters that somehow never fitted into the Gorky-induced formula of "blackmailers, thieves and murderers." There were lots of "great little people he loved so" who, according to Shelayeva, can by rights find their place in "iconostas of Virtuous ones" Leskov created later - husband and wife Forovs, general's wife Syntinina, village clergyman Evangel and particularly Andrey Podozyorov, whom many critics associated with the author himself and whose observation (about everybody's being at knives drawn with everybody else in Russia) gave the novel its title. Leskov has seen Podozerov as "both a symbol and consciousness" of the "next Russia, where knives-drawn passions would be forgotten and a new era of creativity will start." Many have found autobiographical features in Podozyorov character, the one "in whom in a strange way merged self-assuredness and self-doubt, idealism and scepticism", according to Gorky.

Shelayeva sees as self-explanatory Podozyorov's letter where he writes to a friend how "abhorrent" for him seemed to be the "need to belong to a certain political camp in Russia". "For me it's ugly and I used to avoid it by all means possible, and through this 'viciousness' of mine has got myself many an enemy who used to ascribed to be all kinds of wrong intentions, who proved all wrong in their conclusions about me, got angered by this and finally came to hate me simply for the reason of their being unable to fit me into any of their schemes; so they cannot say who I am and which plans do I conceal in my treacherous soul," the character was writing. Those were exactly Leskov's feelings towards contemporary critics' attempts to fit him in the Katkov-led conservative camp, Shelayeva argued.

The film

In 1998 in Moscow the TV series of the same title was filmed at the Maxim Gorky's Studio by director Alexander Orlov who also wrote the script.


At Daggers Drawn (novel) Wikipedia

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