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 bright, lively, quick and restlessly garrulous burst into the hut', the corners and crannies light up, and the burning wood cracks forth like pistol shots.8 The contrast of mood and setting is both startling and natural, and the way is prepared for the lusty

    sub-story. A frame story which employs skaz to perfection is Chudnaya, the

    first story of the cycle and the first of Korolenko's literary efforts.

    Like Sokolinets, this story is introduced by the stylised Korolenko, this time as he journeys to Siberia in the company of a guard, the

    simple and kindly peasant Gavrilov. The story itself?Gavrilov's account of a disillusioned and dying young woman, obviously a

    populist?is told and resolved by Gavrilov, and his conclusion is

    elaborated upon by the main narrator to complete the frame and

    restate the significance of the story in more educated terms. More

    important than the structure of the work, however, is the use of skaz

    narration, the establishment, from the onset, of Gavrilov's speech mannerisms. Gavrilov is a barely educated former peasant, accus?

    tomed to an earthy environment, but kind in his actions and dignified in his behaviour. His speech is thus sprinkled with -to and -ka en?

    clitics and he uses such peasant expressions as moi, choy, ekh, etak. 8 SS, I, pp. 131-3-

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  • korolenko's stories of siberia 203

    Having served as a soldier, he has acquired a vocabulary of such

    words as instruktsiya, v komandirovkakh and v paradkuda, while from his

    duties as a Siberian convoy guard he has learned such words and

    phrases as politichka and sdelala kakoye-nibud' kachestvo po etoy, po

    politicheskoy chasti. He has been 'trained in grammar,' and his speech is by no means that of an illiterate. At the same time he has a modest

    self-respect and does not resort to verbal affectation. His narration

    thus strikes a dignified mean with such expressive means as votya vam,

    gospodin, ezheli ne poskuchayete, sluchay odin rasskazhu or nu, govorit, v

    sleduyushchiy raz naznachu tebya v podruchnyye. In syntax and vocabulary, as well as his present-tense narration, Gavrilov's character is ex?

    tensively developed through such speech mannerisms.

    Another story which demonstrates Korolenko's use of skaz and

    frame structure is Moroz* In this story the secondary narrator,

    Sokol'sky, is an educated government official who, if not as cultured

    as the main narrator, is equally perceptive. He is a contrast to

    Gavrilov, and this is also shown by his speech level. His story is the

    dramatisation of the fate of a Polish exile, Ignatovich, a disillusioned

    romantic who has developed a materialist's contempt for people, but

    ultimately redeems himself by attempting to rescue a man abandoned

    to the murderous frost. The story is ironic in that the impractical

    Ignatovich goes in the wrong direction to the rescue and himself

    freezes to death. The story's resolution is stated in Sokol'sky's observation that 'the romantic in him executed the materialist'.

    Moroz is of particular value for its intuitive use of parallels between

    the two narratives, This is most evident in the contrast between the

    stylised Korolenko's comfortable use of educated speech and

    Sokol'sky's less assured narration. Although Sokol'sky speaks a quite refined Russian, with no departures from grammatical norms, he

    reveals his less secure status by resorting to such affected caiques as

    ekstaticheskiy. The narratives of both men portray events on journeys down the Lena River post road. The stylised Korolenko is as con?

    cerned with developing Sokol'sky's character as Sokol'sky is with

    developing Ignatovich's. Both narrators make use of descriptions of

    frost and thaw, both comment on coaches and way-stations. The

    stylised Korolenko first develops a rapport with Sokol'sky when the

    two men witness the escape of two mountain goats across the breaking ice of the Lena, and this prompts its parallel?Sokol'sky's anecdote

    about Ignatovich's rescue of two wild ducks in a similar situation.

    Particularised speech is used by still another secondary narrator, the hero of Ubivets who narrates one of the story's several short

    chapters. Neither as educated as Sokol'sky nor as simple as Gavrilov, 'Killer' Mikhaylov falls somewhere between the two in social status

    and speech level. If he employs a few of the same sort of peasantisms

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    as Gavrilov?the -to and -te enclitics, for example?his vocabulary is

    more sophisticated and his syntax more refined. Thus, in his descrip? tion of prison life, he uses such expressions as kakoy-to legche, glupost'

    odna, na skvernoye slovo and samyy skoryy narod. Like Gavrilov, he

    narrates in the present tense, but has a higher opinion of himself, as

    indicated by his determined use of the familiar form of address and

    the absence of nets, das except in ways calculated to assert his

    independence through irony. Ubivets also shows that Korolenko was not exclusively dependent

    on the frame story. Mikhaylov is a coach driver who, having become

    involved with a band of robbers, redeems himself by killing its

    leader in defence of a woman and her children. Thanks to the

    stupidity of the Tsarist bureaucracy, however, Killer cannot leave

    the province until his trial, and he must earn his living by driving a c...