Mikhail Evgrafovich Saltykov (pen name “Shchedrin”) was a prominent figure in the literary world of Russia from the 1850s to the 1880s. In his widely read satirical writings he maintained a consistent criticism of the political establishment and society of his time.
His work was published mainly in the journals Sovremennik (The contemporary) and Otechestvennye Zapiski (Fatherland notes)—of the latter he was an editor from 1868 to 1884. All that he wrote related to some aspect of contemporary social or political life and was of a radical tendency, in keeping with the tone of the journals to which he contributed. He had an unusually broad experience of Russian conditions, gained partly from his many years’ service as a provincial official, and he was an authoritative commentator on officialdom, the state of society of all classes in town and country, and the political attitudes of the government and of the conservative, liberal, and radical intelligentsia. Critical of most things, he promoted no particular ideology or faction: in his works he was simply concerned, he said, with depicting “those features which make Russian life not altogether comfortable.”
Saltykov wrote principally in two modes: the discursive essay and the illustrative narrative sketch; both modes were often employed in the same piece. He made use of various other forms—the diary (Dnevnik provintsiala v Peterburge [1872.; Diary of a provincial in Petersburg]), letters (Pis’ma o provintsii [1868–70; Letters on the provinces]; Pis’ma k teten’ke [1881–82; Letters to Auntie]), the mock historical chronicle (Istoriia odnogo goroda [1869–70; The History of a Town]), and fables in prose (Skazki [1869–86; Fables]), as well as parodic documents and dramatic interludes. In some works he adopts the persona of a character who is the object of his satire, and writes in the first person (Ubezhishche Monrepo [1878–79; The haven of Mon Repos]; Sovremennaia idilliia [1877–83; A contemporary idyll]). His discursive essays are written in the heavyweight manner favored in 19th-century Russian journalism and generally require close reading to follow the laboriously developed argument. In contrast, the narrative sketches, which were his forte, are pointed and lively; here, in particular, his robust humor and pungent irony come to the fore. Saltykov had the gift of encapsulating in a single character or brief narrative episode some fundamental aspect of the conduct or psychology of a social group; this ability is exemplified in his fables, each of a few pages, which together provide a convenient summary of the principal themes which he treats in the score or so of his sketch-cycles.
Saltykov’s numerous journal contributions can only loosely be termed “essays.” Few of them give a complete, one-off treatment of a topic. His general practice was to develop a subject in a succession of pieces published over a period of months (the journals for which he wrote appeared monthly) or, in some cases, considerably longer. Each item would make a point, explore a facet of a theme; between one piece and the next there might, or might not, be a sequential link. When the cycle was completed, it was published separately under the title designated at the outset. Some cycles are of variegated content and individual items can be read separately, but in others it is necessary for full comprehension to read each part in the context of the whole.
Saltykov used a wide range of styles and had an impressive command of the different registers of the Russian language. In his discursive articles the style is dense and often ponderous, with long periods, complex syntax, and weighty formal vocabulary; he employs the various rhetorical devices commonly found in publicistic writing (e.g. questions to introduce declarative statements, inversions, anaphora). This manner is not infrequently lightened by an overt or underlying irony, and the tone is occasionally broken by some unexpected linguistic incongruity. The narrative sketches are distinguished by the lively variety of the characters’ speech modes—Saltykov could reproduce precisely the speech of bureaucrats, gentry, merchants, peasants, lawyers, journalists, priests, men-about-town; he was also an accomplished parodist, as he demonstrates with his imitations of ancient chronicles, official documents, academic dissertations, and the discourses of conservative and liberal publicists. Fantasy and the grotesque play a part in some of his brightest works. As well as the Russian of his day, he makes use of Church Slavonic in biblical phrases, French (particularly as a social marker in his sketches), and school Latin tags.
A feature of Saltykov’s writing was his employment of aesopic language. This was necessitated by the stringent censorship that operated in his time. For an “oppositionist” writer, as Saltykov was, it required much ingenuity to convey his views in such a way as to avoid infringing the censorship regulations. This aesopic language involved the use of circumlocution, oblique reference, and a variety of allusive denominators: e.g. serdtseved
(“sounder of hearts”) for a police officer assessing political reliability, or vnezapnosti (“suddennesses”) for acts of administrative repression. Such terms of reference became conventional in Saltykov’s writings and were readily understood by the initiated reader.
The relatively subversive content of much that Saltykov wrote, presented in this encoded form, created a kind of conspiratorial bond between the author and his readers which he valued highly. Unfortunately, the tactical obfuscation practiced by him creates for the modern reader a formidable barrier, additional to that presented by most readers’ unfamiliarity with the historical context in which he wrote. English translations of Saltykov’s works, except for his novel Gospoda Golovlevy (1875–80; The Golovlevs), are understandably few.
Mikhail Evgrafovich Saltykov. Born 27 January 1826 in Spas-Ugol, Tver province.
Studied at the Moscow Pension for the Nobility; the Tsarskoe Selo lycee (the Aleksandr Lycée, from 1844), St. Petersburg, graduated 1844. Civil servant, War Ministry, from 1844. Exiled to Viatka for “subversive” writing, 1848–55, though he continued to be employed as a government official. Married Elizaveta Apollonovna Boltina, 1856: one daughter and one son. Worked for the Ministry of the Interior, St. Petersburg, 1856–58;
vice-governor, Riazan, 1858–60, and Tver, 1860–62 Left government service to pursue journalism full-time, 1862, publishing mainly in Sovremennik, 1862–64. Rejoined government service, 1864, working at Penza, 1865–66, Tula, 1866–67, and Riazan, 1867–68. Coeditor, Otechestvennye Zapiski, 1868–84; also contributor to various other journals. Died in St. Petersburg, 10 May 1889.
Cycles of Sketches and Related Prose (published in cycles mainly in Sovremennik and Otechestvennye zapiski)
Gubernskie ocherki, 1856–57; part as Tchinovnicks, translated by Frederic Aston, 1861
Satiry v proze (Satires in prose), 1859–62
Priznaki vremeni (Signs of the times), 1863–71
Pompadury i pompadurshi (Pompadours and pompadouresses), 1863–74; as The Pompadours: A Satire on the Art of Government, translated by David Magarshack, 1985
Pis’ma o provintsii, 1868–70
Gospoda Tashkenttsy (Gentlemen of Tashkent), 1869–72.
Blagonamerennye rechi (Well-intentioned speeches), 1872–76
V srede umerennosti i akkuratnosti (In the world of moderation and precision), 1874–77
Ubezhishche Monrepo, 1878–79
Za rubezhom (In foreign parts), 1880–81
Pis’ma k teten’ke, 1881–82
Pestrye pis’ma (Variegated letters), 1884–86
Selected Satirical Writings (in Russian), edited by I.P.Foote, 1977
Other writings: the novels Gospoda Golovlevy (1875–80; The Golovlevs), and
Sovremennaia idilliia (1877–83), the novel/diary Dnevnik provintsiala v Peterburge
(1872), the mock historical chronicle Istoriia odnogo goroda (1869–70; The History of a Town), Skazki (1869–86; Fables), and the fictionalized autobiography Poshekhonskaya starina (1887–89; Old times in Poshekhonie).
Collected works edition: Sobranie sochinenii, edited by S.A. Makashin and others, 20 vols., 1965–77.
Baskakov, B.N., Bibliografiia literatura o M.E.SaltykoveShchedrine, 1918–1965, Moscow and Leningrad: Nauka, 1966
Baskakov, B.N., in Saltykov-Shchedrin, 1826–1876: Stat’i, materialy, bibliografiia, Leningrad: Nauka, 1976:391–428
Dobrovol’skii, L.M., Bibliografiia literatury o M.E. SaltykoveShchedrine, 1848–1917, Moscow: Izd-vo Akademii Nauk SSR, 1961
Foote, I.P., “M.E.Saltykov-Shchedrin in English: A Bibliography,” Oxford Slavonic Papers 22 (1989):89–114
Blankoff, Jean, La Societe russe de la seconde moitie du XIXe siècle: Trois témoignages littéraires: M.E.Saltykov-Ščedrin, Gleb Uspenskij, A.F.Pisemskij, Brussels: Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1972
Draitser, E.A., Techniques of Satire: The Case of SaltykovShchedrin, Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1994
Foote, I.P., “Quintessential Saltykov: Ubezhishche Monrepo,” Oxford Slavonic Papers 12 (1979):84–103
Sanine, Kyra, Saltykov-Chtchedrine: Sa vie et ses ceuvres, Paris: Université de Paris Institut d’Études Slaves, 1955
Strelsky, N., Saltykov and the Russian Squire, New York: AMS Press, 1966 (original edition, 1940)
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