Korolenko's Stories of Siberia

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  • Korolenko's Stories of SiberiaAuthor(s): Lauren G. LeightonSource: The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 49, No. 115 (Apr., 1971), pp. 200-213Published by: the Modern Humanities Research Association and University College London, School ofSlavonic and East European StudiesStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4206366 .Accessed: 14/06/2014 23:44

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  • Korolenko's Stories of Siberia


    At a time when Russian literature was noted for its pessimistic naturalism, Vladimir Grigorevich Korolenko (i 853-1921) was con?

    spicuous as an optimistic writer whose warmth and humour were

    greatly appreciated by Russian readers of the late 19th century. He

    had a firm faith in the goodness of men, and his essential humanity is

    further emphasised by the fact that he began his literary career while

    suffering administrative exile to Siberia.1 'Try to see things from a

    more expressive point of view,' he advised young Maksim Gor'ky in

    1895, 'much of your work is over-simplified. Life is dreary, but it has

    been even more dreary before, and if it is to become brighter with

    time, then, of course, it will not become so through despondency and

    misanthropy, but through active efforts to do what can be done with it

    as it is.'2 Between 1880 and 1915 Korolenko wrote a cycle of sixteen

    stories of Siberia which were remarkable for their precise balance

    between social message and literary achievement. As the art of

    short story writing was greatly admired in Korolenko's time

    (Chekhov once remarked, 'this is my favourite contemporary

    writer')3 the Siberian cycle is worthy of attention both as an illustra?

    tion of a writer's development of this skill and as the continuation of a

    traditional Russian literary theme.

    The origins of the theme of Siberia in Russian literature must be

    sought in oral legends and songs and later in the 17th-century

    autobiography of Avvakum, whom the Soviet folklorist M. K.

    Azadovsky described as the author of the first Siberian literary

    landscape.4 However, the theme only became popular in the early

    19th century, first in the Siberian images in Ryleyev's civic verses, and later in the writings of the exiled Decembrists, particularly A. A.

    Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, Prince A. I. Odoyevsky, Kyukherbeker and

    Rayevsky. The theme of 'katorzhnaya Sibir" also occurs in the

    memoirs and studies of non-literary Decembrists, and was continued

    during the next half-century by many Russian writers, including the

    historical novelist Kalashnikov, the poet Nekrasov and Dostoyevsky. The theme spread into other East Slavonic literatures, and recurs in

    Lauren G. Leighton is an Assistant Professor of Russian at the University of Virginia. 1 Korolenko first fell foul of the authorities in 1876 for taking part in a student protest, suffered a series of imprisonments and exiles for several years, and was banished to the Yakut province along the Lena River after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. See A. K. Kotov, V. G. Korolenko, Moscow, 1957, pp. 10-18. 2 V. G. Korolenko, Sobraniye sochineniy v desyati tomakh, Moscow, 1953-6, X (cited hereafter as SS), p. 232. 3 A. P. Chekhov, Sobraniye sochineniy v dvenadtsati tomakh, Moscow, 1960-4, XI, p. 182. 4 M. K. Azadovsky, Stat'i ofol'klore, Moscow-Leningrad, i960, p. 503.

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    the poetry of Shevchenko and the Romantic setting of Slowacki's

    Anhelli. These writers, as well as the lesser known authors, Kush-

    chevsky, Naumov, Omulevsky, Shchapov, Yadrintsev and Mel'shin-

    Yakubovich, established Siberia as a literary theme before the time of


    Korolenko's Siberian cycle is usually divided into two groups, one

    containing those stories actually written in Siberia and the other

    those written or revised in the two decades after exile. This division

    is justifiable, but the whole cycle may also be seen as a single group of stories revealing the development of the author's skill. The cycle is

    composed oiChudnaya and Tashka (1880), Ubivets (1882), Son Makara

    (1883), Sokolinets (1885), Soderzhayushchaya and Fyodor Bespriyutnyy

    (1886), Cherkes (1888), Iskusheniye (1891), At-Davan (1892), Marusina

    zaimka (1899), Ogon'ki, Posledniy luck and Gosudarevy Yamshchiki (1900), Moroz (1900-1) and Feodaly (1904).6

    Chekhov greatly admired Korolenko's talent and made some

    perceptive comments about his friend's craftsmanship. 'His colours

    are light and lively', he remarked about the Siberian tales in 1888, 'his language is irreproachable, even if in places it is marred, and his

    images are well-devised.' And in another letter of the same year to

    the author himself, he noted: 'Your Sokolinets seems to me the most

    salient literary work of recent times. It is written like an excellent

    musical composition, in accordance with all the principles revealed

    to an author by his instinct.'7 What Chekhov admired particularly about Korolenko's stories was their structural conformity with

    techniques of composition, intuitively applied, and this assessment is

    born out by close analysis. For each story of the Siberian cycle is an

    elegant, polished, graceful and harmonious composition. Yet, in

    spite of the careful structure of the stories, the use of such devices as

    contrast and parallel, the creation of mood and setting, the fusion of

    contrasting styles and modes of narration, and the use of language in

    characterisation is instinctive.

    The stories of the Siberian cycle are not identical in structure, but

    it is evident that Korolenko preferred the frame story, and he used the

    technique of skaz?particularised narration?in close conjunction with this form. A good example of this is the story mentioned by Chekhov, Sokolinets. The narrator is a perceptive member of the

    intelligentsia, a stylised Korolenko-exile. Alone in his hut in the

    taiga, he is visited by a strange and desperate young man, a neigh? bouring settler. During the long winter night the guest tells a story of his escape from a penal colony on Sakhalin Island. It is the story of

    5 Azadovsky, op. cit., pp. 503-8. 6 Only Son Makara is readily available in several English translations, under the title Makafs Dream.

    7 Chekhov, op. cit., pp. 182, 166.

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    harsh imprisonment, of the escape of twelve convicts, the violent

    murder of a soldier, wanderings through Siberia, and finally the

    secondary narrator's settlement in the lonely taiga. Told in a dignified

    peasant vernacular sprinkled with prison and tramp slang, the story is framed by the main narrator's introduction, which establishes

    mood and setting, and by his conclusion, the story's resolution with

    the desperate visitor's return to the violent, but free life of a tramp.

    Thus, in this simple frame structure there is told a 'brodyazh'ya

    epopeya, poeziya vol'noy volyushki', the story of a man so haunted

    by freedom that he chooses the deprivation of tramp life to the com?

    parative comfort of settlement.

    Sokolinets is especially attractive for the way in which Korolenko

    establishes mood. The story opens with the main narrator lying in

    his hut sunk in apathy. With that instinct admired by Chekhov, Korolenko centres not on the narrator's frame of mind, but on the

    dreary, foreboding Siberian twilight. The fire is unlit, there is

    'silence and gloom', the brief winter day expires in the cold fog,

    light retreats through the windows until the gloom begins creeping from the corners of the hut, the walls seem to lean in menacingly from above. This mood is developed for fully two pages, with de?

    scriptions of fog and frost in the fading twilight, and is then con?

    trasted suddenly with a new, cheery setting appropriate to the

    arrival of a guest. The fire is lit, the hut fills with its chatter and

    crackling, 'something bri