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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Grzegorz Danowski


Opiskin and Tartuffe: Tyranny and Freedom in Dostoevsky’s The Village of Stepanchikovo


Published in 1859, The Village of Stepanchikovo was the first major work with which Dostoevsky hoped to begin reestablishing himself on the Russian literary scene after his Siberian exile.  Although Dostoevsky himself admitted that his novel had certain flaws, he was nevertheless convinced that it also had its strengths.  Here is what he has to say about it in one of his August 1859 letters to his brother Mikhail: “I’m certain that there are lots of revolting and weak things in my novel.  But I’m certain—I’d stake my life on it!—that there are wonderful things, too.  They poured out of my soul.  There are scenes of high comedy that Gogol would immediately have put his name to.  The whole novel is extremely drawn out; I know that.  The story is uninterrupted and, therefore, perhaps is tiresome  (Letters: 1832-1859 373).

Judging by the history of the novel’s publication, at least two of the prospective publishers unfortunately appear not to have been particularly impressed by what Dostoevsky saw as his work’s strong points.  Mikhail Katkov, founder of The Russian Messenger, who had previously provisionally accepted the novel for publication and agreed to send Dostoevsky an advance payment of 500 rubles, ultimately decided to return the manuscript to him and asked that the money be sent back.  Nikolai Nekrasov, publisher of The Contemporary, offered Dostoevsky the humiliatingly low and, therefore, unacceptable sum of 1000 rubles for the novel.  Finally, it was sold for 1500 rubles to the entrepreneur Andrei Kraevsky, who published it in his journal Notes of the Fatherland.  Yet Kraevsky too was somewhat disappointed with the novel’s strong comic thrust.  “The strength of Fyodor Mikhailovich […] lies in feeling, in pathos, here perhaps he had no equals, and so it’s a pity that he neglects this gift,”[1]  Kraevsky tells Dostoevsky’s brother after stating that Dostoevsky  “surrender[s] [himself] sometimes to the influence of humor and wish[es] to arouse laughter.”[2]  This view speaks volumes of the expectations Dostoevsky created in his audience with his earlier works, and in particular with Poor Folk.  A decade after his death, Belinsky’s curse is still upon Dostoevsky.  Pigeonholed as a socially conscious writer, he is still seen as refusing to capitalize on what others see as his “real” talent. 

It is hardly surprising that Soviet criticism never praised Stepanchikovo either.  Leonid Grossman points out that “[t]he numerous hunger riots that swept Russia during the reign of Nicholas I have not touched the village of Stepanchikovo” and that “[t]he real geographical places where desperate uprisings of the poor were suppressed by armed force have nothing in common with the ideal province where Colonel Rostanev’s estate is located” (213).  Thus, Grossman goes on to conclude that the novel’s failure to attract publishers and readers is “no doubt due to its refusal to treat the problems of the day and its wrongly chosen form.”  “It was not possible,” Grossman says, to treat the festering and urgent theme of the Russian village in a comic way in the late 1850s.  It was also wrong to have used manorial life as a background for a merry story of entertaining adventure at a time when the serf owners were making their last desperate stand to preserve their shaky title to the peasants’ (sic) person and labour (216).

Granted: the Russian countryside in which the novel is set may rightly be called “idealized” or “bucolic.”  However, considering that the peasant’s existence is not Dostoevsky’s real focus in the novel, approaches inspired by Marxist criticism inevitably fail to produce illuminating insights into this complex work.  Yet even Joseph Frank very strongly stresses Dostoevsky’s “unjustified” idealism in the context of Stepanchikovo in the second volume of his influential biography of Dostoevsky.  The Village of Stepanchikovo,” says Frank, “depicted life on a country estate in which idyllic relations prevailed between the peasants and their warmhearted landowner; the only conflicts that existed were caused by the excessive good nature of this exemplary proprietor and gave rise to comic situations.  Dostoevsky’s socially conscious readers, preoccupied as never before with the abuses and injustice of serfdom, could hardly take such a portrayal except as a deliberate slap in the face.  As L. P. Grossman has noted, to treat life on a country estate at that time in the form of a comic novel was simply to court disaster” (267).  But courting disaster was certainly the last thing Dostoevsky wanted in 1859.  Open criticism of the social status quo from an ex-convict, who at that time was considered potentially too dangerous to be allowed to live either in Moscow or St. Petersburg, would have brought a real disaster upon Dostoevsky’s head.  If the readers of Russian journals expected statements condemning serfdom from Dostoevsky in 1859, they surely picked the wrong writer.

As has already been mentioned, The Village of Stepanchikovo is anything but a detailed depiction of the relationship between the landowner and his serfs.  Thus, since a literary representation of this relationship is of merely marginal interest to Dostoevsky in the novel, it is really irrelevant whether or not it is historically accurate.  As elsewhere in his work, also here he is interested in exploring the psychological tension born out of a clash between two radically different personalities.  Having served as reader, and later also fool, to the late General Krakhotkin, Foma Fomich Opiskin joins the General’s widow when, followed by a large group of hangers-on, she moves into her son’s home in Stepanchikovo.  The son, the good-natured Colonel Egor Il’ich Rostanev, soon finds himself captivated by the mixture of Opiskin’s Christian piety and what he sees as Foma’s great learning.  A relationship develops which, at least to some degree, resembles that between Orgon and Tartuffe in Molière’s now classic comedy Tartuffe (first staged in 1664).  However, unlike Tartuffe—a crook wearing the mask of a saint—Foma has no intention of cheating his host out of his property.  In fact, at one point he even refuses the 15,000 rubles that Rostanev offers him in exchange for leaving his household and settling down in the nearby town.  Opiskin’s ultimate aim is to exercise despotic power over everybody who lives under Rostanev’s roof, including, of course, Rostanev himself.  Foma is a combination of a tyrant and a parasite in a true sense.  In contrast to Tartuffe, who is defeated just when he thinks that he has deprived Orgon of his property and freedom, Foma manages to stay in the Colonel’s household and eventually dies there.  Interestingly enough, after his physical death Foma still lives as a thoroughly positive image in the memory of Rostanev and his young wife.  Dostoevsky’s narrator, the Colonel’s nephew Sergei Aleksandrovich, tells us that “[e]very now and then, whilst out walking, Uncle and Nastenka will turn into the churchyard to pay homage to Foma Fomich.  To this day they cannot speak of him except in tones of deep feeling, lovingly recalling his every word, his favourite meals, his likes and dislikes.  His personal belongings are preserved and treasured” (193). 

As can be seen, the main target of Foma’s tyranny, Rostanev, can never bring himself to admit that Foma has treated him unfairly or badly.  Only once does he lose his patience with Foma.  In response to Foma’s accusation that he has seduced Nasten’ka (then his children’s governess) the Colonel physically throws Foma out of his house and “give[s] him two minutes to clear out of Stepanchikovo” (162).  Soon afterwards, however, Rostanev rushes off to bring him back and, when Foma apologizes and publicly expresses his approval for the Colonel’s innocent love for Nasten’ka as well as the suggestion that they marry each other, his old status is immediately reinstated.  He reassumes his role of the ultimate intellectual and moral authority in Stepanchikovo, and the Colonel thoroughly embraces Foma’s view of him as  a base, selfish, lascivious brute” (187). 

It appears, then, that the inhabitants of Stepanchikovo cannot live without Foma Fomich.  Although they may find his tyranny oppressive at times, they are incapable of taking initiative to shape their lives in accordance with their own preferences and convictions, and instead rely on him to tell them what they should think and do.  Life outside the bondage of Foma’s psychological domination is inconceivable in Stepanchikovo.  Very much like the whole human race viewed from the perspective of the Grand Inquisitor, who will later make a brief but memorable appearance in The Brothers Karamazov, the inhabitants of Dostoevsky’s village cannot stand freedom.  They crave it when they are denied it, but as soon as it comes, following Foma’s departure, they find it unbearable and immediately take steps to bring Opiskin back, and with him the previous state of their enslavement to his domineering personality.   

In this respect, Dostoevsky’s analysis of the domination of a strong personality over a group of week ones is far more penetrating than Molière’s.  After all, Orgon and his mother, Mme. Pernelle, are the only two persons fooled by Tartuffe’s false saintliness.  As soon as all Tartuffe’s machinations have been exposed, however, they too cannot help forming a negative view of him.  Opiskin, on the other hand, holds most of the novel’s characters in his thrall throughout.  The only notable exceptions are the narrator, Rostanev’s daughter Alexandra, and his distant relative Mizinchikov.  These never express their direct approval of Foma’s behaviour.  The Colonel’s friend Stepan Bakhcheev is initially outraged by Foma’s excesses (some of which include his desire that “a Thursday was going to be Wednesday” (25) and his wish that Rostanev address Opiskin as “Your Excellency”).  Although his turbulent acquaintance with Foma has many twists and turns, by the end of the novel Bakhcheev “once again began to follow Foma about like a dog, repeating after his every word ‘You’re a wise man, Foma! You’re a learned man, Foma!’” (193).  Bakhcheev’s and the Colonel’s inability, and perhaps even unwillingness, to break free from Foma’s influence is the best indication of the strength of this influence.   

Once the villain in him has been unmasked, Tartuffe is simply whisked off to jail.  The matter is much more complicated with Foma.  First, his offenses against the inhabitants of Stepanchikovo hardly qualify as crimes, for he never goes beyond browbeating and humiliating them in his desire to assert his personality against that of everybody else’s.  Second, Foma’s power is more insidious than Tartuffe’s.  His psychological tyranny has put its roots too deep into the individual personalities of Dostoevsky’s heroes to be removed without causing harm to the hosts in which it is thriving.  Despite all his cunning, deep at bottom Tartuffe is a straightforward man of simple tastes.  In his world, an attempt to enter into a sexual relationship with his benefactor’s wife, followed by an at least temporary success in estranging Orgon from his son and taking over his property, is the absolute height which his cleverness is capable of reaching.  In the irrational world of Stepanchikovo, things are considerably more complicated.  Opiskin does not have two separate identities, one of which is false and the other true.  He has no need for hiding his “true” nature.  Like Tartuffe, he too is a hypocrite.  But to him hypocrisy is not simply a means of achieving other ends: it is his personal philosophy of life.  Tartuffe is a depraved villain, but there is no doubt that he has a self-awareness that allows him to distinguish the two facets of his personality from each other.  Indeed, during the dangerous game he is playing with Orgon and his household, it is absolutely crucial that he be able to do so.  Opiskin’s problem consists in his inability to identify his hypocrisy as negative.  He seems to perceive himself in a holistic fashion.  If he ever was capable of an honest self-evaluation, he has long extinguished this ability in himself.  Years of humiliation at the hands of General Krakhotkin, followed by a long period during which he has imposed his own injured ego upon others by making them subject to humiliation, annihilated Foma’s own sense of right and wrong.  “Right” is whatever he can justify to others as such.  Thus he is able to convince the Colonel that he should bring himself to address Foma as “Your Excellency” for the sake of being “spiritually uplifted as though an angel had been sent to calm [the Colonel’s] heart” (98).  Foma is a tyrant, but he is no longer able to see the harmful effects of his tyranny on others.  He feels they need to be tyrannized for their own good, and perhaps he is right. 

Tartuffe is acutely aware of the external world and carefully positions his two selves in relation to it.  He knows that one has to be hidden in order for the other to operate to his advantage.  To Foma, the external world only exists insofar as he constitutes its centre.  He has only one self, and he no longer cares that some see it as a fusion of contradictions.  His satisfaction is drawn almost entirely from the fact that he has managed to enslave most of Stepanchikovo’s inhabitants with what an outside observer sees as a curious mixture of home-spun rhetoric, highly doubtful devoutness, and a claim to intellectual superiority, which is hardly justifiable.  In his own mind and heart, Foma unfortunately probably believes himself to be a great religious, moral, and intellectual authority.   

Although morally warped, Tartuffe is mentally sound.  And neither is there any indication that his would-be victims are insane.  The respect and admiration which Orgon and his mother initially show to Tartuffe are more than reasonable, but they are withheld immediately after he demonstrates his hidden persona.  Bringing a comic conclusion to this particular farce is thus relatively easy.  Having evicted Orgon, Tartuffe brings the police to arrest him for the treasonable offense of storing dangerous documents.  The police, however, have been secretly instructed by the king to pardon Orgon, to let him know that his property has been restored, and to bring Tartuffe to justice.  In this way, an external intervention restores order in Molière’s play by rewarding Orgon for his righteousness and punishing Tartuffe for his wickedness.  Stepanchikovo, however, cannot have a purely comic resolution.  Things have gone much too far here to allow for a reversal with the help of an external force.  Despite all his efforts to convince the Colonel that Foma is a selfish hypocrite drawing sadistic pleasure from his despotic rule in Stepanchikovo, Rostanev’s nephew fails to convey his external perspective on Opiskin to the latter’s victims.  Sergei believes that they should rebel against Foma’s oppression, but it seems that they have long since ceased to see Foma’s power as oppressive.  Nothing can be done for Stepanchikovo.  The malady that first hatched in Foma’s tormented brain has been passed on to his victims.  Most of them got too addicted to the humiliation which he so generously dispenses to them to be able to do without it.  Foma does not see anything wrong in his behaviour toward others, and they too live to accept him as a sine qua non of Stepanchikovo.  The sadomasochistic relationship seems to be working really well, and this is perhaps the greatest tragedy depicted by Dostoevsky in this novel.   

Even a cursory glance at the criticism of Stepanchikovo convinces one that it is neither particularly copious nor extremely varied.  Most commentators limit themselves to summarizing the novel’s plot, admitting that, on the whole, it is not one of Dostoevsky’s best works, and substantiating the novel’s first publisher’s view that “[…] [Foma] reminded [Kraevsky] of N. V. Gogol in the sorrowful period of his life”.[3]  Few, if any, try to make useful links between the form of the novel and what Ignat Avsey calls Dostoevsky’s “undoubted need for circumspection before the censor” (Avsey xii).  In his letter dated July 1, 1859, Dostoevsky tells his brother Mikhail that “the censor won’t strike out even two words [from the Village of Stepanchikovo].  I vouch for that.”[4] 

The care Dostoevsky took not to provoke the censor (who, interestingly enough, was none other than the author of Oblomov—Ivan Goncharov)[5] is quite visible in his portrayal of the Russian countryside as relatively free from poverty.  This strategy appears to fall into the category of what I. P. Foote calls “the inclusion of ‘sop’ passages” (“Counter-Censorship” 70).  Thus, the authorities, who associated Dostoevsky with socialist ideas and the literature of social protest, must have been comforted to find that the former member of the Petrashevsky Circle prefers to refrain from criticizing serfdom in The Village of Stepanchikovo.  Even before publishing the novel Dostoevsky tries to establish himself as a staunch supporter of the monarchy by producing three loyalist poems: “On the Events in Europe in 1854,” “On July 1, 1855,” and “On the Coronation and Conclusion of Peace.”[6] These fit perfectly into the rubric of a “preliminary ‘sop’” i.e., to use Foote’s definition, “an innocuous work presented to the censors in advance of another, more risqué in character, by the same author in order to establish him in the censors’ view as an inoffensive writer” (“Counter-Censorship” 71). 

But it might perhaps be argued that, aside from these conspicuous steps taken by Dostoevsky to ensure unhindered publication of The Village of Stepanchikovo, also the way in which he treats his subject shows substantial consideration for the censor.  The complicated persona of Opiskin is, to a large extent, the product of a strategy whereby Russian authors “develop[ed] […] whole system[s] of oblique reference, intelligible to the initiated (censors included), but not formally objectionable according to the standard rules of censorship” (“Counter-Censorship” 69).  If—as some Dostoevsky scholars would have us believe—Opiskin is a literary parody of Gogol’, given the indirect form in which this parody is expressed in Stepanchikovo, it certainly could not incriminate Dostoevsky as much as his readings of Belinsky’s “Letter to Gogol.”   

Since it has been suggested that not all scholars agree that Dostoevsky had Gogol in mind when creating the very original portrait of Opiskin in Stepanchikovo, it is too tempting not to mention that Stanisław Mackiewicz very convincingly argues that Opiskin is, in fact, not Gogol but Belinsky.[7]  Mackiewicz’s rather unorthodox approach to Stepanchikovo deserves to be discussed here (if ever so briefly) both because it appears to be quite enlightening and because, oddly enough, Mackiewicz’s work is rarely taken into account in Dostoevsky criticism.  Mackiewicz suggests that, while Dostoevsky had no grudge against Gogol (with whom he was not even personally acquainted), he certainly felt deeply hurt by Belinsky’s hostile attitude to the prose that followed Poor Folk.  Mackiewicz points out that “[f]or no very ascertainable reason, all his contemporaries listened to Belinskii.  Many people actually put themselves in a position of slavery to him of their own free will.  He would capriciously change his judgments and views, and all would follow him slavishly.  Numbers of wealthy people exerted themselves to keep this poor man supplied with the comforts of life, and Belinskii accepted everything as his rightful tribute” (77-78). 

If indeed Dostoevsky created the monstrous picture of Opiskin in order to take revenge on the then dead Belinskii, it would definitely not have been safe for him to make a direct link between Opiskin and Belinskii in the novel.  Even if Mackiewicz’s alternative interpretation of the main character of Stepanchikovo does not satisfy every reader of the novel, it still provides an excellent illustration of one of the techniques used by Dostoevsky to make allusions to persons and ideas that were responsible for the dark decade in his life to a greater extent than the actual views that he held as a member of the Petrashevsky Circle.   

This analysis of The Village of Stepanchikovo has focussed on its central theme—the issue of individual and collective freedom—and has shown that in his novel Dostoevsky managed to construct a world in which freedom has no place.  The situation in which a tyrant sees himself as preaching virtue, and his victims are not only no longer able to free themselves from his oppression, but—even more importantly—cannot live without it, is as comic as it is tragic in all its absurdity.  Since, while composing Stepanchikovo, Dostoevsky himself was still actively engaged in the long and painful process of regaining the personal and artistic freedom that he lost in 1849, it is only natural that the novel should bear the traces of this process.  We may never be able accurately to pinpoint all of them in The Village of Stepanchikovo, but each new step in this direction brings us closer to the realization that it seems to be more interesting and profitable to explore the novel’s strengths rather than its weaknesses. 


Works Consulted

Avsey, Ignat.  Introduction.  The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants.  By Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Trans.  Ignat Avsey. London: Penguin, 1995.

 Dostoevsky, Fyodor.  The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants.  Trans.  Ignat Avsey. London: Penguin, 1995.

——.  F. М. Dostоеvskii .  Polnoе sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh. vols. 2 and 3. Lеningrad: Nauka, 1972.

——.  Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Complete Letters.  Trans.  David Lowe and Ronald Meyer.  5 vols. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1988.

Foote, I. P.  “Counter-Censorship: Authors v. Censors in Nineteenth-Century Russia.”  Oxford Slavonic Papers.  27 (1994): 62-105.

——.  “Firing a Censor: The Case of N. V. Elagin, 1957.” Oxford Slavonic Papers.  19 (1986): 116-131.

——.  “The St. Petersburg Censorship Committee, 1828-1905.” Oxford Slavonic Papers.  24 (1991): 60-120.   

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal 1850-1859.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

Grossman, Leonid.  Dostoevsky: A Biography.  Trans. Mary Mackler.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975.

Hingley, Ronald.  The Undiscovered Dostoyevsky.  London: Hamish, 1962.

Leatherbarrow, W. J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevsky.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Mackiewicz, Stanisław.  Dostoyevsky.  London: Orbis, 1947.

Mochulsky, Konstantin.  Dostoevsky: His Life and Work.  Trans. Michael A. Minihan. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967.

Molière.  Tartuffe.  Trans. Richard Wilbur.  New York: Harcourt, 1997.



1.  Quoted in Frank, p. 265.

2.   Quoted in Frank, p. 265.

3.  Quoted in Frank, p. 265.

4.   Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Complete Letters. Vol. 1, p. 368.

5.   Please see footnote #3 on p. 368 of Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Complete Letters.  Vol. 1.

6.   Please see pp. 403-410 in F. M. Dоstоеvskii. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh, t.2

7.   Please see pp. 73-79 in Mackiewicz’s Dostoyevsky.

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