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Nikolai Uspensky

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Nikolai Uspensky

Nikolai Uspensky
Born (1837-05-31)May 31, 1837
Stupino village of Efimovsky region[1] of Tula Governorate, Russian Empire
Died November 2, 1889(1889-11-02) (aged 52)
Moscow, Russian Empire
Occupation teacher, writer
Period 1860s–1880s
Relative(s) Gleb Uspensky

Nikolai Vasilyevich Uspensky (Russian: Никола́й Васи́льевич Успе́нский; May 31 [O.S. 18], 1837 – November 2 [O.S. October 21], 1889) was a Russian writer, and a cousin of fellow writer Gleb Uspensky.[2][3]


Nikolai Uspensky was born in Stupino, a small village in Tula Governorate, one of eight children in a poor family of a local clergyman. Four boys (Nikolai with brothers Ivan, Alexander and Mikhail) and four girls (sisters Anna, Maria, Elizaveta and Seraphima) lived in poverty, and drunken raws in the household were commonplace. Their house stood close to that of their landlord's servants (dvornya), and, according to biographer Korney Chukovsky, it was this morally corrupt crowd prone to every imaginable vice that young Nikolay kept company with. Heavy drinking there was the order of the day and, as one of his relatives later remembered, from his early years Nikolay used to ask his mother for some vodka who never refused, for drunk children there were business as usual.[4] Scenes Nikolai Uspensky witnessed in Stupino later formed the basis of his early stories, but the degrading influence of people around him was obvious and later biographers regarded this experience to be the major reason for his subsequent downfall. There was one thing, though, that set the boy apart from his peers: unlike dvornya children who despised peasants, envisaging themselves a notch higher in the class hierarchy, Nikolai not only spent a lot of time with the latter but laboured with them a lot. "While Me and brother Ivan were aspiring to masters' children's lifestyle, Nikolai was different: he ploughed, sawn, mowed and was often making notchnoye trips ('nightwatch', over grazing horses)", Mikhail Uspensky later remembered.[4]


In 1848 Nikolai Uspensky joined the Tula seminary. What with teachers here taking bribes and treating decently only children of rich parents, he was flogged on a daily basis. As if this wasn't enough, his own father from time to time visited the school to punish the boy by his own hand.[5] According to Korney Chukovsky,
Executions of this sort were the only pedagogical method that’s been known in this school. Flogging, vodka, bribery, cards, the atmosphere of servility and betrayal,[6] outward piety and secret debauchery, - such were the basic elements of Nikolai’s upbringing for more than ten years. One thing he could take refuge in were wild shenanigans which he's acquired taste for in early childhood and in which his brilliant talents, otherwise pent up, could be realized to some extent. For, despite things that were going on around him his mirth was fountain-like, making him perform every minute some kind of trick, practical joke or mystification.[5]

The only person who was taking any interest in Uspensky's fate was his uncle Ivan, a rich man and a state official who lived in Tula and was on friendly terms with the local elite. He provided Nikolai with extra food and called for a doctor when the boy was falling ill, but received little by way of gratitude. Once he sent his nephew his old coat as a present; Nikolai wrote a rude word on it with chalk and sent it back. Ivan Uspensky had a son Gleb (the future writer), whom he forebode to communicate with 'dirty bursaks' (as pupils of seminary [bursa] were known) and who every morning was taken to a gymnasium in a carriage. This in itself provided enough reason for Nikolai to hate his cousin, and Gleb, as it turned out later, reciprocated.[5] "We are brothers with him, in law, of course. Two Lazaruses, he - the rich one, me the poor. He a son to a local government secretary, me a country boy, son of a poor priest. He rolled like cheese in butter in his youth, I gnawed my crust. He left school with all kinds of diplomas, I remained an undergraduate forever," Nikolai Uspensky later was quoted to say.[7]

As his seminary years rolled on, Nikolai was becoming more and more unruly, spending most of his time in local traktirs, playing pool and getting drunk. People who knew him at the time described a haggard loafer going on a downward spiral whose fate was predictable, but it was in those days that the young man started secretly writing and this proved to be his saving grace. In 1856, prior to graduation, Uspensky left the seminary and moved to Saint Petersburg to enroll in the Medical Surgical Academy, as did many young people of the early 'raznochintsy' movement, eager to start new life and get the materialistic kind of education. How exactly did he get to Saint Petersburg remains unclear. Some sources maintained it was uncle Ivan who subsidized him, but the sum apparently was not enough, for the distance from Tula to Moscow he made on foot. Somehow sciences Nikolai seemed eager to embrace have lost to him their appeal. In less than a year Uspensky was expelled from the Academy after a bizarre incident in the medical cabinet when without apparent reasons he vandalized instruments that's been given to him, scattered them about and left. Later (in the original version of the "Country Apothecary" story) he tried to put forward social motivation for what he's done, mentioning "dirt everywhere", paramedics' rudeness and medical instruments being locked away from students, but this looked like a lame rationalization for what's been obviously just one of his many outrageous pranks.[5] Soon after dropping from the Academy Uspensky joined the St. Petersburg University's historical and philological faculty. Again, his stint there was short.[8]


In 1857 Syn otechestva magazine published his first two stories, "Old Woman" and "The Christening", both ignored by critics. His third one, "The Good Existence", Uspensky sent to Otechestvennye zapiski, but the magazine's editor Stepan Dudyshkin rejected the story on the ground of its language, too 'folkish', apparently, being incomprehensible for general readership. In January 1858 the author took it to Sovremennik, thinking little of his chances but, to his amazement was greeted there with great warmth. Nikolai Nekrasov, once he’s read these new stories instantly sent them to print and paid their author a big advance. In several months' time Uspensky signed a contract, making a commitment to publish his work in Sovremennik exclusively. In a parallel move Nekrasov wrote a personal letter to Saint Petersburg University rector Pletnev asking him to provide this student a grant (30 rubles per month) so that the latter would be able to devote himself to literary work without having to think of finding a job. The motives for this were of strategic character. Nekrasov guessed in Uspensky the possible pivotal figure for the magazine whose major contributors, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Grigorovich, felt no affiliation with its new, more radical policy and were beginning to look sideways. Uspensky's prose looked to him a revelation: the eagerly awaited 'new word' pronounced on behalf of a new social movement.[8]

In 1858 Sovremennik published "The Good Existence" and "Piglet" (February issue), "Scenes from a Village Holiday" and "Grushka" (May) and "The Dragon" (August) short stories.[2] In 1859 "The Holy Day’s Eve", "A Village Apothecary", "Bachelor" and "The Road Scenes" appeared, in 1860 - "The Country Newspaper", "The Evening", "Food Train" and autobiographical "Brusilov".[2][9] These attracted the attention of many prominent radicals. In 1860 Nikolai Dobrolyubov recommended several of Uspensky’s short stories for the school reader compiled by Galakhov, alongside the best of Turgenev's works.[8]

For the next couple of years Uspensky contributed to Sovremennik regularly. His writing, often lightly tinged with humor, described the poverty and the misery of the peasants, and the lives of Russian clergymen and raznochintsy intellectuals. Nikolay Chernyshevsky appreciated the solid realism of the work, which was in marked contrast with the usual idealized portrayals of peasant life that were common at the time. In response to these sketches, Chernyshevsky wrote his essay Is This the Beginning of a Change? To a large extent Uspensky's mindset was formed by Chernyshevsky who's had many private talks with him, imposing his own radical ideas upon the young author. The conservative Russian press, when slagging Sovremennik, often mentioned the two in one breath, regarding Uspensky "a loudmouth for Chernyshevsky's ideas".[8]

In Europe

In January 1861, Uspensky went abroad to travel through Italy and Switzerland and spent some time in France. Nekrasov, who felt the new Sovremennik was badly in need of a major novel which would reflect the ideas of the new generation, saw Uspensky as the one who'd be able to do it. He financed his European trip and re-funding himself by publishing Uspensky's first collection of early prose. The project proved fruitless. Uspensky, who knew not a single European language and was ignorant of political, social and cultural issues of the time remained deaf to whatever 'progressive influences' Nekrasov was hoping would rub on him. "Tall and handsome, he bought himself dandy clothes, a wide-brimmed hat and started sauntering Paris boulevards like a rich tourist, as if foreseeing this to be his last bright glimpse of life," biographer Korney Chukovsky wrote. Apparently trying to make up for his misspent youth, he bought himself toys and musical instruments, some of which years later became part of his travelling pauper artiste's arsenal. All the while he firmly believed in the strength of his own gift and his ability to create a masterpiece. "You cannot imagine what a plan I have for a novel, any of Dumas would have made 30 volumes out of it", he wrote to a friend Konstantin Sluchevsky. Nekrasov, sharing this belief, was sending his protege more and more money, waiting for a 'great novel' which never materialised.[8]

On several occasions Uspensky in Paris met Turgenev who was in the process of working upon his Fathers and Sons novel and felt badly in need of a first-hand material. Having only read of 'nihilists' in the Russian press he saw the chance to meet the real one as God-sent. In a letter to Pavel Annenkov, Turgenev wrote: "A misanthrope by the name of Uspensky, Nikolay has been here recently and dined at my place. He saw it as his duty for some reason to slag Pushkin and was assuring me that what the latter was only doing in his poems, was exclaiming incessantly: "Come on, come on, lets go to fight for our saintly Rus!" Something tells me he'll soon go mad". Thinking apparently that this particular 'misanthrope''s view on Pushkin was typical for all of the 'new men', Turgenev used it in his novel, making his character Bazarov pronounce the phrase he quoted.[8]

In Rome Uspensky met Vasily Botkin. The latter, being an expert in Antic culture, tried to share his love for it with his companion but met a resistance. To Uspensky Rome looked 'ugly'. "None of the art masterpieces could shield off from me emaciated faces and hopes in boots of poor people," he later wrote. In 15 years' time he published his travellers' sketches, very naive, superficial and patchy, but full of sympathy for suffering lower class. His intrinsic aversion to higher culture, though, went hand in hand with eagerness to find simpler delights: "Paris is marvelous, I am in love with Paris... The circus there is fantastic... Grissettes’ frock are so fresh... In Paris what one has to do first thing, is to get oneself a pretty girl and that is so easy in Paris... Nowhere in the world you’ll find anything like it," he wrote to Sluchevsky.[8]

Stance on the 1861 land reform

Uspensky's position towards the 1861 reform was not just indifferent, but outright hostile, close to that of Chernyshevsky: both men saw attempts to improve the life of a Russian peasant by gradual reform as vile and treacherous moves aimed at enslaving the latter still further. Again, Vasily Botkin had the misfortune to disagree. In a letter from Paris to Sluchevsky (dated June 24, 1861) Uspensky wrote: "I saw this [reform] coming long ago and felt no interest in the Manifest whatsoever, never even read the Charter. But there are lousy types like Botkin who stand for [tzar] Alexander Nikolaevich... 'My mind falls apart when I hear of horrors in Russia', writes now Hertzen who's also pinned all of his hopes on Tzar Alexander. Indeed, some peoples' brains are apt to decompose and Botkin's is first among them". Such feelings inspired his best known stories of the time: the anti-liberal "Country Apothecary" and "Village Theater", both targeting people posing as 'enlighteners' as vile and dangerous schemers.[8]

When couple of years later, on Andrey Krayevsky's recommendation, the then minister of education A.V.Golovnin commissioned Uspensky to inspect schools in Moscow, Tula and Oryol governorates, and advice upon possible measures of improving the quality of teaching there, the writer's report was, from the minister's point of view, outrageous. Uspensky maintained that educational reform had no sense in rural areas devastated by Alexander II's reforms and what Russian peasant needed first was having enough to eat. "Whom did you send me? Can you imagine, he openly suggests I am a superfluous man for Russia", the disgruntled Golovnin wrote to Kraevsky. Equally averse Uspensky felt towards the Narodnic doctrine which held obschina (a rural community) as their ideal, seeing the latter as just another cunning mechanism for making rich peasants richer and push the poor men further into poverty. "The contemporary Russian peasantry is hopeless, it won’t ever resurrect, the sick one is going to die", wrote Uspensky in one of his latter articles, "Notes of a Country Landlord".[8]

There was one basic difference though between Uspensky's nihilism and the ideology of new Sovremennik. While the latter rejected liberal reforms seeing them as a hindrance for the forthcoming social upheaval they were hoping for, the former had no specific reason for his hatred for all things coming from governmental spheres. "His political consciousness was at so low a level he's never even made an attempt to try and understand the political doctrine behind the magazine that’s been fostering him as the driving force in a peasant revolution... So when Chernyshevsky used his early prose to support his own theory about Russian peasants being ready to riot, Uspensky felt apparently so indifferent to the latter as to leave Sovremennik for the enemy camp right after its publication", wrote Chukovsky.[8]

Position regarding liberals

In the last days of summer of 1861 Nikolai Uspensky returned from his Paris vacation to his remote village in Tula gubernia. There the locals treated him like a foreign maverick, flocking to his place to hear stories about Parisian wonders. Uspensky’s first intention was to stay there for the upcoming winter and possibly embark upon writing a promised novel, but impatience took the better of him and in a month's time he was in the Russian capital where his debut short stories collection Stories by N.V.Uspensky has been just published to a great uproar.[10] "This unexpected success turned his head around", wrote Yakov Polonsky later. Uspensky, who three years ago couldn't believe in his luck when Sovremennik published his stories, has now developed delusion of grandeur. "Thank God, I am not devoid of talent. Don't know about the future, but now for my antagonists I'll stand like a bone in throat, won't let them get a step ahead of me", he was telling journalist P.Martyanov. By 'antagonists' he meant a group of emerging raznotchinsky writers - Levitov, Pomyalovsky, Sleptsov - whom he was supposed to see as allies but now regarded as dangerous competitors and (according to Martyanov again) referred to as 'mite', 'scum' and 'dirt'.[10]

Having spent eight months in Europe on Nekrasov money (all in all, 2,5 thousand rubles, according to Chukovsky), promising to repay his debts by a novel that has never happened, Uspensky all of sudden took it into his head that it was Nekrasov who owed him a huge sum of money, gathered, allegedly, from the publication of his debut collection. "He valued highly his fleeting sketches", wrote Polonsky. The later recalled an incident when Nekrasov during one of Uspensky's unwanted visits went so far as to produce a charged rifle making his guest hastily retreat. In January 1862 Uspensky asked Chernyshevsky to summon a court of arbitration to resolve the financial issue. The latter refused and informed him that should such hearing ever take place, he will be on Nekrasov’s side. After that Uspensky, having seen his last story published in Sovremennik in the early 1862, severed all ties with the magazine and retired to his Tula village, very ill and depressed, according to his relatives' memoirs.[10] This self-imposed exile lasted not for long. Otechestvennye zapiski on the one hand and Tolstoy and Turgenev on the other offered helping hands. The whole liberal camp, seeing one of the major figure in the "Chernyshevsky-Nekrasov party" deserting the radical camp, rejoiced. Besides, Turgenev who at the time himself was openly accusing Nekrasov of financial wrongdoings, accepted Uspensky's version of events wholeheartedly. In 1862 Tolstoy invited Uspensky to teach Russian grammar to his Yasnaya Polyana school. Some years later Tolstoy told one of his guests, Zakharyin: "I rate Nikolai Uspensky much higher than the second one, Gleb, who’s well behind in terms of both realism and artistry".[10]

After a quarrel with Tolstoy, Nikolai Uspensky moved to Spasskoye, Ivan Turgenev's estate where the latter granted him a plot of land. Again, this stay was short. "Being carried away at the time with ideas of agricultural innovations, Nikolai Vasilyevich began cultivating his soil in peculiar manner, fertilizing it with salt and steamed animal's bones... None of this worked of course and he, knowing nothing about agriculture, has left Spasskoye disgruntled", remembered one of his relatives.[11] For several years Uspensky travelled through Russia, teaching in numerous schools and gymnasiums in Tula governorate, Orenburg, Saint Petersburg and back at Yasnaya Polyana again, never staying at one place for long.[2][9][12] Finally, driven by financial difficulties, he returned to Spasskoye so as to sell the land he’s been given. Horrified, Turgenev asked his manager to interfere. "Should this man be so dishonest as to sell this plot to a third party?" hw wondered in a letter.[13] Negotiations proved futile and only after Turgenev agreed to buy back his own land that Uspensky agreed to leave the estate, still accusing the host of "having taken back his own gift". "Nikolai Uspensky is a finished man, we might as well forget about him", Turgenev wrote to Polonsky. Indeed in the matter of several years if somebody ever remembered Uspensky in the Russian press, it was only to refer to him "our forgotten writer".[11]

During the 1860s his work appeared occasionally in Otechestvennye zapisky, Vestnik Evropy, Iskra, The Russian Messenger, Grazhdanin and some other magazines and newspapers, attracting little attention. In 1866 Uspensky's first novelet Fyodor Petrovich came out. In retrospect its been regarded as arguably the first piece of work in Russian literature to show the emergence of capitalism in rural Russia, preceding by 13 years Saltykov-Shchedrin's satires, featuring the Derunov character. Critics reacted with total silence. This obstruction has had a devastating effect upon Uspensky for whom fame was not a by-product of literary career but its ultimate goal. Once he lost it, he felt an outcast.[11]

His next novelet, Old Things In an Old Way (Старое - по-старому, 1870) published by Vestnik Evropy, had as its targets liberal values in general and the institution of zemstvo in particular. Again, it garnered not a single review. His third novelette, a romantic idyll called Yegorka the Shepherd (Vestnik Evropy) where for the first time virtuous characters dominated the plot (even if losing to obschina in the end) came out in 1871 and was ignored too. "That was his last bet. Defeated, he lost his balance and fell into a ditch... He returned to his backwater Tula village to submerge himself into petty problems and, totally discarding his own literary past, started to write small sketches on microscopic themes. Even his language, once rich and colourful, has lost its liveliness and became bland and pompous," Korney Chukovsky wrote.[14] All four of Nikolai Uspensky's short stories collections (published in 1871, 1872, 1875 and 1883) were either ignored or lambasted by the press.[4]


In 1878 42-year-old Nikolai Uspensky married 16-year-old Elizaveta and got herself into trouble with her father, a rich local priest who foresaw apparently that for his daughter this romance was bound to end un tragedy.[15] The girl, though, was truly in love and by way of revenge her father refused her her share of property and financial support. Uspensky responded with a short story about an affluent clergyman who drives his daughter to consumption by plunging her into poverty.[16] This story was only semi-prophetic. Three years later Elizaveta indeed died of tuberculosis but the reason for this was nomadic lifestyle of her husband who was moving from one village to another, dragging his wife and infant daughter behind. All the while he continued to wage the war against his father-in-law, accusing him of financial crimes, write letters to officials and stage public meetings to support his case. "It was painful to see how much talent and pathos has been wasted in those petty quarrels, but the root of the tragedy was that, having once risen from mires of provincial darkness, he - unlike many authors of the same raznochntsy breed (Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov, Pomyalovsky, Eliseev, Levitov) - once the literary world ejected him, returned to where he came from and sank down there", Chukovsky wrote.[17]

Having buried his wife in 1881, Uspensky took with him harmonica, a stuffed crocodile and his 2-year-old daughter Olga and embarked upon the life of a tramp artiste, entertaining drunken traktir audience with literature 'lectures' and self-styled musical shows (featuring Olga dancing, dressed as a boy), looking for a glass of vodka by way of payment. Relatives were trying to kidnap the hapless child but he fought them off with great fervor. From time to time such attempts were successful, and then Uspensky arrived to 'besiege' the house, sitting in a ditch. "For me those were there ther times of many tears. As a young man he was so kind, handsome and intelligent. And there he was now, sitting in a ditch, grey-haired, horrible-looking. I used to send him some bread and cried watching him, eating it in the dirt",[18] remembered Elizaveta Vasilyevna, his sister, the major force behind those 'kidnappings'. At the age of ten Olga once and for all settled at her grandfather's house and her desperate father started flooding his relatives with letters, written in a strange sub-religious argo. For some time the ex-nihilist was assuring his friends (all of them local criminals known by nicknames only) that his intention was to make a holy trip to a monastery (where some 'inner voice' apparently summoned him) but that came to nothing and soon he resumed his 'literary gigs', keeping lives of martyr writers highest on his "price list", at the bottom of which resided Pushkin whom he still thought worthless.[17]

Last years

In his later years Nikolai Uspensky became friends with bohemian author Ivan Kondratyev (known as 'The Poet of Nikolsky market-place') who contributed to a tabloid called Razvlechenye. There Nikolai Uspensky started publish his new sketches of country life, featuring crooked vile peasants and noble, naive masters.[19] Then, goaded by Kondratyev, he started the series of 'revelatory' memoirs - about Lev Tolstoy, Nekrasov, Turgenev and Gleb Uspensky started to appear. For the leftist critics this only went to show that they were right in writing Uspensky odd. Even the conservative journalists like Burenin, though, warned their readership against taking those writings as anything remotely credible. Gleb Uspensky wrote a letter demanding to stop publishing these slanderous pieces, documents emerged showing indeed that what Uspensky wrote about Nekrasov was untrue and the series abruptly stopped.[17]

These publications, though, were taken kindly to by the conservative press and Uspensky was invited to Fyodor Berg's The Russian Messenger. There he published his Sketches from the Estate, praised for being 'true to the Orthodox tradition' by none other than Konstantin Leontyev.[20] All this served little to cheer the author up. People who knew him described Uspensky him "shabbily dressed, skinny and utterly depressed man". In the autumn of 1889 Nikolai Uspensky made his last trip to his village in order to see his beloved daughter but she's got so frightened as to hide away and refused to come out.[17]


In several days' time newspapers published reports of his death. "On October 21, nearby one of the houses of the Smolensky market a body of a dead old man was found with two wounds to his throat... The body lay in two large pools of blood and a dull penknife was found nearby. In his pocket there was the passport of former teacher Nikolai Vasilyevich Uspensky". Apparently the wounds were self-inflicted. As it turned out later, Uspensky approached Kondratyev for a razor, but the latter refused, saying: "Want to kill yourself? A penknife would do". That he did, having bought one at the market-place. 8 kopecks found in his pocket were sent to Olga Uspenskaya, his only ‘heir’. Not a single literary man was present at the funeral. The only official there was Karl Knobloch, the Moscow college inspector who came to pay a tribute to Uspensky as a former teacher.[12][17]

The first obituary was published in Russkye vedomosty where Uspensky was credited only as "the former teacher.[21] "How many of our readers have ever heard, let alone read this author?" asked Novosty[22] and several issues later repeated the stereotypical opinion that "The author ridiculed peasants and his talent was evil and nasty..."[23] More sympathetic was the conservative press. On October 29, in Grazhdanin Prince Meschersky wrote: "The writer as we know belonged to the conservative camp, he was not the servant of the liberal muse and wasn't engaged in pouring out liberal/narodnik lamentations - that is why he died skint and hungry in the country where there is a Literary fund and in a huge city where there a numerous journals and newspapers. The doors of the latter were closed for the late author. He didn’t belong to this liberal clique that’s always there to send along to a cemetery a man whom it just killed."[24]

Critical reception

In 1861 the Stories by Nikolai Uspensky came out in two miniature volumes and caused an uproar. Critics were almost unanimous in their hostility, accusing the author of "spitting onto people’s beliefs and ways of life" and seeing nothing but cold cynicism behind the humour. "He's got a sharp but aimless eye focusing on whatever comes across without obvious reason”, wrote Stepan Dudyshkin in Otechestvennye zapiski. "He picks up every possible detail, totally irrelevant, not even thinking about somehow linking it to the main action", agreed Dostoyevsky, writing in Vremya. "The indifferent nature of humour is essential to Uspensky's gift", Pavel Annenkov remarked several years later. "Intellectual indifference", "lack of care" and "mental hibernation" were typical to the author's prose according to Evgeny Edelson (Biblioteka dlya tchtenya).[25] Critics from the left mostly agreed with their colleagues from the liberal camp. Vsevolod Krestovsky (who at the time was trying to emerge as "the next Pisarev") expressed amazement with how totally devoid of ideas Uspensky's prose was. "He is rather good photographer. But his also is cold, impassive attitude towards the world he photographs in his sketches... He's never able to discern a poor man's cry from a drunkard's scream", Krestovsky wrote.[25]

The only dissenting voice was that of Nikolai Chernyshevsky. In his essay Is This the Beginning of a Change? he hailed Uspensky's early stories as fresh evidence that the revolution in the Russian country was imminent. Rather prone to wishful thinking, the critic attributed to Uspensky some views the latter has never had, maintaining, for example, that the author denounced "darkness common people were plunged into" in order to highlight the reasons which were stopping people from rioting and "show the way progressive raznotchintsy should lead ignorant masses" towards their liberation. The very attitude of the author who, discarding all sympathy, scolded or ridiculed Russian men for the way they lived was, according to the critic, symptomatic of some radical change. In the new reality, he argued, the oppressed ones needed not sentimental sympathy (writers like Turgenev and Grigorovich provided in abundance) but some instigation for real action. Chernyshevsky's essay in a way opened a floodgate for a whole host of similar-minded authors: Sleptsov, Reshetnikov, Levitov, Gleb Uspensky, Pomyalovsky thus making Nikolay Uspensky a pioneer of the Raznochintsy movement in the Russian literature.[25]

After Uspensky's departure from Sovremennik he was warmly welcomed by Otechestvennye zapiski. This magazine's 1863 review maintained that the writer's new stories demonstrated the maturity and he was now approaching the ideal of 'pure artistry' never letting ideology prevail over form. Sovremennik's reply was quick and to the effect that Uspensky indeed has slid down towards the 'arts for arts sake' platform and for that very reason his newest work is worthless. OtZ accused Sovremennik of hypocrisy and cynicism, reminding that the magazine praised Uspenky while he was its author and made a U-turn, once he departed. Later scholars came to the conclusion that both sides were right to some extent. Objectively, Uspensky's new stories were inferior to his earlier ones. On the other hand, what Sovremennik did was totally re-evaluate his first stories too (calling their author "a scribbler with chicken worldview") which looked indeed like a betrayal - not of Uspensky but rather of Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov's ideas. This time none other that Saltykov-Shchedrin (whose unsigned article was called "Ignorance and Greed Go Hand in Hand") emerged as Uspensky’s opponent.[10]

By mid-1870 Nikolai Uspensky was the thing of the past, as far as Russian literary community was concerned. He was referred to as "forgotten writer" even by those (like Mikhailovsky, in 1877) who made attempts to remind the reading public about him. He fell into oblivion that lasted almost half a century, not because of his artistic decline, Chukovsky insisted, but for the change of the general atmosphere in the Russian society and the rapid rise of Narodnitchestvo, a peasant's Socialism doctrine. For narodniks any criticism of a ‘common man’ was blasphemy. The more powerful the narodniks became, the lower sank the reputation of Uspensky who continued to denounce obshchina as conducing to people's lowest instincts and thus corrupting itself from inside. Critic Alexander Skabichevsky, one of the prominent figures in narodnik movement, accused Uspensky in consciously putting Russian people to ridicule.[26] In his History of Modern Russian litearture he wrote of Uspensky: "In his stories common people are presented in an extraordinarily ugly way. Each man is either a thief or a drunkard or a fool that’s never lived on Earth, every woman is an unbelievable idiot... Whatever Uspensky managed to see or hear he used to show how ignorant, uncultured, ridiculous, trodden over Russian man is and how deep he’s sunk into the mire of stupidity, superstition and vulgarity".[27] Rejection and even hatred dogged Uspensky up until his death and continued afterwards, each new generation of critics repeating what’s been said earlier never making attempts to re-evaluate his legacy. The only exception was Georgy Plekhanov who, in the late 1890s, criticizing narodniks, tried to show how unjust they were in treating Uspensky, but he never came to write a comprehensive essay on him as he did on Gleb Uspensky and some minor authors like Karonin and Naumov. It was only in the Soviet times that Nikolai Uspensky has been re-discovered, his major work re-issued.[11]


Nikolai Uspenskys's immediate predecessor in the "simple people lives' tales" niche was Vladimir Dal. For a time being both critics and reading public saw the newcomer as Dalh’s follower. Otechstvennye zapiski and Vedomosty in their reviews of Uspensky's three stories ("Grushka", "Piglet" and "Good Existence") hastened to label the author "an obvious imitator of the well-known Dahl stories".[28] Such a view was short-lived: it was Uspensky who's made Dal with his anecdotal, purplish prose totally irrelevant, according to Chukovsky. Even more devastating was a blow he rendered to the whole school of 1840s-early 1850s literature which tool a maudlin, sentimental attitude towards Russian peasant.[25]

Nikolai Uspensky is credited for being the first prominent raznotchinets writer in the history of Russian literature, the one who, according to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, "having come in the wake of Ostrovsky, Turgenev, Pisemsky and Tolstoy" proved to be the first to "not just present another upperclass view on common people, but express those people's viewpoint", and to "tell the truth about the life of Russian people without imbellishments or flattery" (according to Nikolai Chernyshevsky).[2]

Radical leftist critics of Sovremennik hailed Uspensky as a new force in Russian literature, "the most happy discovery with, of course, nothing happy to write about," as Chernyshevsky put it. Later scholars agreed that Uspensky was the first writer from Russian lower class who came up with stark and cruel pictures of rural life, making no attempt to look for a glimpse of hope. In many ways Uspensky is seen as a precursor for Anton Chekhov's country prose cycle and, to a greater extent, for Ivan Bunin, who spent some time in 1890 to gather facts about Uspensky’s life for future biographers.[2]

English translations

  • Porridge, and The Village Schoolmaster, (stories) from The Humor of Russia, Ethel Voynich/from


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