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I think one of the most enigmatic figures in all of Russian literature must have been Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889). Even his name seems caught in a swirl of confusion, and that is, by far, the least of it all.
His real name was Saltykov and it was under that name that the civil servant who lived and worked in numerous Russian provincial cities was known. As a writer he took the pseudonym of Shchedrin and reading Russians of the second half of the 19th century knew him as such. Over time we have grown accustomed to a dual name that mixes the real and pseudo – thus in the historical and scholarly literature one more often than not encounters him as Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin.
It was as Saltykov that he lived for awhile in 1845 in this building in St. Petersburg with his brother on what was then known as Kolomenskaya Street. Today the street address is Soyuza Pechatnikov Street 21/8; it stands on the corner of the crossing with Masterskaya Street. At the time Saltykov lived here, he was at the beginning of his adult life, let alone the beginning of his life in letters. He had run into some trouble as a free-thinker in school due to his poetry, and some of that poetry – which he later rejected and is generally considered juvenilia by scholars – had been printed in various publications. His first publications in the famed publication Sovremennik (The Contemporary) came at this time, as well. Good, bad or indifferent, the attitude expressed in his early poetry had earned him the nickname of the “gloomy lycée student” among his peers at school.
In the late 1840s Saltykov, in addition to the publication of his first prose works, ran afoul – again – of the authorities. He was sent in exile to the city of Vyatka in 1848 – freethinking again – where he continued to work as a civil servant, spending some eight valuable years observing Russia and Russians at close distance through his work. By the middle of the next decade, when he was allowed to leave Vyatka, Mikhail Shchedrin was prepared to burst upon the public as a popular writer. From the 1850s until his death, Shchedrin would publish frequently – although with occasional lapses due to his busy schedule as a civil servant who moved around from city to city (Penza, Tula and Ryazan are among the cities where he lived and worked). He was also active as an editor, and, therefore, mentor to many young Russian writers, primarily at the legendary Notes of the Fatherland, although he also worked for The Sovremennik for a time as well.
But let’s get to what I think made him so enigmatic.
Shchedrin was a wickedly satirical writer. Sardonic. Mordant. He emerged in a field of writers that included or soon would include Nikolai Gogol and Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin. Of these three Gogol was the more fully rounded stylist, while Sukhovo-Kobylin and Schedrin were of a much “nastier,” gloves-off type of satire. Sukhovo-Kobylin, who was a fascinating individual in his own right, was a society lion who ran afoul of the law and wrote three bitter plays unmasking corruption and evil. Shchedrin had elements of Gogol’s breadth and depth as a writer, while his wicked satire even outdid Sukhovo-Kobylin’s in its withering, fierce intensity.
I don’t know how much people actually read Shchedrin these days (none of my classes through to a PhD in Russian literature ever touched on Shchedrin) but his winged phrases, to use that lovely Russian expression, still fly high today, maybe even more so than they did during his lifetime. Nowadays his observations sound not only funny or accurate, they sound like prophecy. As you will see if you look below the next block of photos, Shchedrin’s wit was made for the Facebook/Twitter age. I rather suspect many encounter him there for the first time.
I suspect a full list of Shchedrin’s pithy phrases would require a full book-size publication. But here is a selection of my favorites.
1. “If I fall asleep and wake up in a hundred years and someone asks me what is happening in Russia now, I will answer: they are drinking and stealing.”
2. “When has it been that a bureaucrat was not convinced that Russia is a cake which you may approach freely and have a bite of?”
3. “The Russian authorities must keep their people in a state of constant astonishment.”
4. “Reforms are necessary, but no less so than punctuation. In other words: Put reforms in place, then – enough, put a period to that.”
5. “The severity of Russian laws is mitigated by the lack of their binding enforcement.”
6. “No, it’s clear that there are corners in God’s world, where all times are times of transition.”
7. “Any disgrace has its decent side.”
8. “Young ladies ask, am I washing my neck for a high or low décolleté?”
9. “Introduce enlightenment in moderation, if possible avoiding bloodshed.”
10. “You couldn’t quite call Strunnikov stupid in the rude sense of the word, but it’s true he was clever enough, as they say, not to eat wax candles or dry himself with glass.”
11. “Many tend to confuse two concepts: ‘The Fatherland’ and ‘Your Excellency’.”
12. “It is frightening when a person speaks and you do not know why he is speaking, what he is saying, and whether he will ever finish.”
13. “The stubbornness of stupidity is a tremendous power.”
14. “The system is quite simple: never directly allow anything, and never forbid anything directly.”
15. “As you attempt to spread sensible thoughts, it is inevitable that someone will call you a nasty imbecile.”
16. “Everyone in Russia steals. And at the same time, laughing, they add: ‘But when will it all end?'”
17. “What is better – condescension without indulgence, or severity in league with contempt?”
18. “Man is so made that even happiness must be imposed on him.”
19. “There is nothing more dangerous than a man to whom humanity is alien, who is indifferent to the destinies of his native country, to the destinies of his neighbor, and to everything except the fates of the coins he has put into circulation.”
20. “Civic maturity is transitioning from making scandalous jokes to catching the bosses’ eyes more accurately.”
21. “Nothing discourages vice like the awareness that it has been detected and that someone has already had a laugh about it.”
22. “He wanted something: either a constitution, the sturgeon with horseradish, or to haul off and whack someone.”
23. “There are masses of hotheads who have the ‘State’ on their tongues, but a pie filled with state goodies in their thoughts.”
24. “For the sake of science we don’t regret spending someone else’s money.”
25. “In need even the snipe will whistle like a nightingale.”