Nikolai Leskov, to those who have read him, is part of the pantheon of Russian prose fiction, as great a genius as his contemporaries Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. If he lacks recognition even in Russia, it is because he is ideologically elusive – enamoured of the clergy, tolerant of Jews, gypsies and foreigners, but suspicious of intellectuals and reluctant to adopt any political stance – and because his narrative technique is alarmingly discursive: his tales are often told by his heroes, in extraordinary language, inventive and well observed, mixing dialect, professional jargon, church Slavonic and standard Russian. Leskov himself was unsympathetic and provoked remarkable antagonism: he drove two wives insane, alienated his children and was difficult company, even with colleagues he worshipped (Tolstoy) or patronised (Chekhov). He managed to incur simultaneously the hostility of both radicals and the tsar.
Yet no author is so considerate a storyteller as Leskov. No writer was ever so well informed, either. Before taking up writing Leskov worked at his English uncle’s firm, Scott and Wilkins (the equivalent of Pickford’s), travelling all over Russia, after which he went on to work in provincial law