The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants, by Feodor Dostoyevsky

The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants

I’ve seen the term “completist” used to describe a fan who tries to obtain every work of a given artist. For instance, a band might have one or more obscure CDs that were only released in foreign countries or had very low sales, and maybe a rerelease with added bonus tracks that appear nowhere else, as well as a greatest hits compilation to which they added other versions of a couple of their hit songs or whatever. A “completist” would want to have all their songs, and so would need to obtain all these CDs as well as their “main” ones.

I’m pretty much at the “completist” stage with Dostoyevsky. He’s one of my favorite writers of all time, I’ve read a great deal of his work, and now I’m going back and trying to pick up the few items of his that I haven’t yet read. The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants was one I finally recently got to.

Indeed, this is one I don’t remember having ever heard of until I recently researched his bibliography to see what there was I hadn’t yet read.

The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants was published in 1959, during what I suppose could be considered Dostoyevsky’s middle period.

From 1946 to 1949, he had published a number of short stories and novellas that had established him as one of Russia’s most promising young writers. His literary career was interrupted when he was arrested for supposedly subversive political activities and shipped off to a prison camp in Siberia (and also mock executed, just to give him a nice little scare).

Later, from the 1860s to just before his death in 1881, he wrote all the famous novels that have earned him the reputation as one of history’s greatest novelists.

So if we think of his pre-Siberia years as the early period of his career, and the years he wrote all his best known novels as the late period of his career, then the years in between would be the middle period.

This period followed his release from penal hard labor, and then a compulsory stint in the military. He resumed his writing career in 1959 with The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants and the novella Uncle’s Dream.

The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants is short compared to his later novels—the edition I have is 255 pages—but probably too long to be considered a novella, so this work that likely few people outside of diehard Dostoyevsky fans have ever heard of was actually the first novel of his distinguished career.

The story is narrated by Sergey Alexandrovich, a young student who is summoned to the country estate of his uncle Colonel Yegor Ilyich Rostanev in the hopes of getting him to marry the servant girl Nastenka. Actually Rostanev himself is in love with Nastenka, but given their age difference and difference in social class and such, she is not considered an appropriate match for him.

The Colonel is a well-meaning sort, a timid, humble fellow whose desire to live up to his ideals of nobility and his desire to please everyone makes him easily manipulated. He is utterly henpecked by his mother (if “henpecked” can be used in the case of someone other than a spouse), a bitter, domineering, exceedingly unpleasant old bat who thinks she is entitled to lord it over everyone because she is the widow of a general.

But the main villain of the story is Foma Fomich Opiskin, a peasant who has skillfully worked his way into a position of dominance in the household, in part by ingratiating himself with the old lady, and in part due to his extraordinary skills in knowing how to push people’s buttons to get them to do what he wants, especially the Colonel.

It is the repulsive Foma who has decided that the Colonel must not marry Nastenka, but instead marry the simpleton Tatyana Ivanova, who because she has money (though little else) attracts a number of suitors. One of the subplots of the novel is the jockeying about of these various suitors—some reluctant, some eager—and an eventual surprise elopement.

Sergey Alexandrovich is like Mr. Govorov of The Possessed, one of those “voice of reason” Dostoyevskian narrators, a character who is able to see clearly the foolishness, moral depravity, and absurdity that so many of the other characters are unable to see, and who attempts (mostly unsuccessfully) to alert folks that things are fast getting out of hand.

Once he gets a sense of the dynamics of the household, Sergey Alexandrovich’s main goal becomes to break the spell that Foma has over everyone, which proves considerably harder than one might expect.

It’s not clear that Foma is completely self-aware of what a charlatan he is. One gets the impression that he has come to believe a lot of his own bullshit (which only makes him all the more effective). He sees himself as an extraordinary person who is entitled to rule, entitled to have his every whim satisfied.

The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants is primarily a comedy. It is very much the kind of humor one finds in some of Dostoyevsky’s later works. (Think of such comic characters as the buffoonish but lovable Stepan Verkhovensky in The Possessed, or the fawning Poles of The Brothers Karamazov.)

The book also is consistent, for better or worse, with Virginia Woolf’s mocking description of Dostoyevsky’s writing (which I’ve quoted before): “We open the door and find ourselves in a room full of Russian generals, the tutors of Russian generals, their stepdaughters and cousins and crowds of miscellaneous people who are all talking at the tops of their voices about their most private affairs.” Indeed, if anything there’s more of this than usual, since, one, it’s a farce, and, two, Dostoyevsky conceived it as a play and so it is heavy on dialogue and major set-pieces that occur in large rooms and such.

Had I not known in advance when this book was written, I suspect I would have correctly guessed it was from his middle period. It has some, but only some, of the elements of the later Dostoyevsky, and what it has is quite good. The absurd characters and absurd situations are funny and delightful to a comparable degree as in his more famous works.

But those later classics have more. In addition to the humor, and the wild and entertaining social histrionics in parlor rooms, there’s an extraordinary psychological depth, an exploration of moral, spiritual, and political themes, and at times a forbidding darkness. The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants either lacks these things or has them in only more subtle or more rudimentary forms than works like The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, etc. It more closely resembles Uncle’s Dream, another story that’s primarily a comedy, from that same period—indeed, as noted, the same year—of his career.

It goes without saying that a completist should read The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants. I’d also recommend it to someone who is not so fully committed to reading anything and everything Dostoyevsky ever wrote, but that’s a closer call. It’s good, but starting just a few years later there was much better to come.

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