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Gleb Uspensky was born in Tula in 1840 and this home, which looks fairly modest these days, is where he spent his childhood years from the 1840s into the 1850s. It is an old-style wooden home, of which there are still several in Tula. Plenty of the neighboring homes are newer structures, which allows us to assume that this particular building survived because of the famous writer who once resided here.
Uspensky is one of those that most everyone interested in Russian literature knows by name, but not many read any more. He was a leftist who was generally interested in the fate of the powerless, the poor, the down and out. In his early years as a writer he wrote about people he knew, urban commoners and petty clerks. Later in his life, his focus shifted relatively subtly to the same poor people, but now his heroes tended to be village dwellers. An adherent of the People’s Will movement, in the mid-1870s he even moved to a village near Novgorod to be “closer to the people,” while taking an administrative job on the local railroad.
Uspensky is still a good place to go to get a feeling for a Russia that is long gone, the same Russia, more or less, that appears in the admittedly much more accomplished novels of Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Ivan Turgenev. Knowing well the people he was writing about, Uspensky provides us with trustworthy, lively pictures of Russia and Russians in the 19th century.
The future writer grew up in a home that fed his rich imagination. His father was a government official, to whom people of all sorts came asking for help or favors. Uspensky’s cousin Nikolai, a writer in his own right, left us a brief, though colorful essay describing what it all might have looked like to the young Gleb:
“The yard at the house belonging to Ivan Yakovlevich (Gleb Ivanovich’s father), was rushed daily by hordes of people, among which one might meet a gypsy selling a horse, and a village elder hung with medals and holding a vast tub filled with live carp and a fabulous number of burbot, as well as numerous clergymen, sextons, seminarians, and even drunken former seminary professors, teachers of ‘hermeneutics and accusatory theology,’ stumbling and tripping through the flower beds in the lovely garden…”
Although the family fell on hard times when Gleb’s father died, at least in the eyes of Nikolai (1837 – 1889), his relative lived a privileged childhood.
“I was a humble seminarian,” wrote Nikolai, ” raised ‘on copper money’ and held “tightly in check,” while he [Gleb] took a gymnasium course and enjoyed all the earthly benefits of the table of ‘rich Lazarus’ – his father, who held the position of secretary in the state property chamber and had the opportunity not only to live the high life, but also to aid his ‘kin’ (of which there was a whole legion), marrying female relative to rural teachers, deacons, or ‘chamber’ officials, and supplying with money and advice to the occasional dubious, impoverished sexton, who presented himself as a former neighbor, a fellow villager, or fellow seminarian...”
Since Nikolai was there and I was not, I think it is worth turning over this short tale to his memoirs again, in order to achieve a fuller picture of Gleb’s early years in this house.
“The predominant contingent of Gleb Ivanovich’s father’s visitors were impoverished peasants standing in line in regards to their ‘serving military service’ … each of which was stocked with the expected offering. Most were crowded in a continuous mass in a long, spacious corridor that resembled a railway station …
“Our talented contemporary writer Gleb Ivanovich Uspensky spent his childhood and adolescence in this environment. It can’t be said this did not favor the development of his creative powers. From a young age he was familiar with certain types, the rural elder or headman, a rural Orthodox clerk, or some sadly dying man...”
Uspensky had a great desire to study law and he tried twice, failing both times. He first entered the law department of St. Petersburg University in 1861, but was compelled to drop out shortly thereafter for lack of funds. That was repeated in 1862, only this time at Moscow University. Following this second humiliating failure Uspensky turned to literature in order to make enough money to live on. His first publication (1862) was under the pseudonym of G. Bryzgin in Lev Tolstoy’s pedagogical Yasnaya Polyana magazine. His first popular works were The Mores of Rasteryaeva Street (1866) and Impoverishment (1869). Two trips abroad in the first half of the 1870s brought him together with revolutionary-minded Russians in Germany, France and England, and brought him closer to the People’s Will Party. From 1868 to 1884 he published exclusively in the famed and prestigious “thick journal,” Notes of the Fatherland. According to a biography on dic.academic.ru, the “honesty and independence of Uspensky’s beliefs, along with his ardent warm-heartedness and tireless search for truth, make him one of the most remarkable and attractive writers of his generation and time.”
In 1889 Uspensky’s health took a turn for the worse. Increasingly suffering from split-personality and paralysis, he died in a sanatorium in 1902.
The house pictured here stands at 57 Turgenev St. in Tula. Uspensky left here in 1856 to study at the gymnasium in Chernigov.