Nicholas J. L. Luker
Biography and Literary Beginnings
I Homme de valeur
(*15) IT was Alexander Kuprin's good fortune to become a legend in his own lifetime. A man of Herculean strength and irrepressible vitality, he seemed to those who knew him in his prime a latter-day bogatyr', one of the epic heroes of Russian folklore renowned for their miraculous energy and resourcefulness. His squat, massive frame with its mighty chest and sinewy neck told of exceptional vigor and strength, expressed in his uncompromising face with its narrow eyes. It was the supreme physicality of his tastes that distinguished Kuprin most sharply from his fellow writers. More often than not, the refinement and sophistication of city litterateurs brought out the aggressively defiant animal in him. "How much of the wild beast mere was about him," recalled the writer Ivan Bunin,"- his sense of smell, for instance, which was remarkable - and how much of the Tatar! " 1
As an athlete Kuprin was superb. Had he not become a writer, he could certainly have been a champion boxer or wrestler, sports in which he excelled. Not satisfied with his prowess in these spheres, he threw himself into a host of others - fencing, skating, bicycling, horseriding, and even ballooning and aviation, the latter two in particular helping to satisfy his craving for dangerous risks. His indefatigable nature and love of physical excellence are perhaps best summed up by the laconic epitaph he once jokingly asked to have put on his gravestone: "Here lies a man who never wore glasses." As one who felt truly at home only amid the realities of life, Kuprin flung himself into it with unparalleled zest. His appetite for (*16) new experiences was voracious. Displaying an almost obsessive desire to wrest as much from life as was humanly possible, he tried dozens of occupations: soldier, reporter, stevedore, athlete, circus rider, actor, dental technician, psalm reader, shop assistant, forester, hunter, fisherman, bailiff, pig breeder, tobacco grower, editor, and critic. It was even rumored that he once committed a robbery so as to learn the feelings of a thief at work. Nor was this the sum total of his experiences. Among his occupations were others of a more bizarre kind: pupil in a choir school. student of art and of Esperanto, novice monk, and lavatory pan salesman. Moreover, his gifts as a performer were outstanding. Not only was he a skilled juggler; Anton Chekhov considered him so good an actor that he urged him to join the Moscow Arts Theatre. Kuprin's character was as complex as his experiences. Bunin sums it up: "together with great pride there was unexpected modesty, together with bad temper and insolence - great kindness of heart, lack of malice, a shyness which was often almost pathetic, naivete, simple-heartedness ... and a boyish gaiety.. . "2. An eccentric of great personal charm, when angry Kuprin became a savage, reckless animal. This was especially so when he was drunk: in a rage he would tear off the tablecloth and send crockery and food crashing to the floor.
No doubt the self-repression resulting from the restrictive years spent in institutions in his youth does much to explain the insatiability of Kuprin's physical life. The reaction came after he left the army, when he could at last assert his ego with a vengeance. Experience and diversity became his lifelong watchwords, a credo expressed simply in a lecture he gave to journalists in Petrograd in 1918, when he advised them to "see everything, know everything, do everything, and write about everything." Several of his heroes refer to their own driving, boundless curiosity. One of the most autobiographical is Platonov of the novel Yama (The Pit, 1915), who tells of the varied jobs he has had and adds: "Really and truly, for a few days I'd like to become a horse, a plant, or a fish, or be a woman and experience childbirth: I'd like to live the inner life of everyone I meet and look at the world through their eyes" (VI, 229).
Autobiographical elements abound in Kuprin's writing, based as it so often is on events of his varied life. He was always reluctant to use in his fiction characters or situations with which he was not closely familiar, and he freely admitted the overwhelming importance of his own life for his work. In a letter of 1917 to the literary (*17) historian S.A. Vengerov he wrote: "almost all my works are my autobiography. Sometimes I would invent an external plot, but the canvas on which I wove was all made of pieces of my own life."4 Perhaps his myriad adventures the length and breadth of Russia did most to make Kuprin the very "unliterary" writer he was. Not fond of literary cliques with their petty rivalries, he spoke scornfully of urban literati who spent their lives closeted in a study. He preferred to follow Chekhov's advice and "travel in a third class carriage," face to face with his fellow men. Always more at home among fishermen, laborers, and peasants, and more proud of his talents as a hunter or horticulturalist than of his success as an author, he felt that participation in the simple life of ordinary folk brought greater rewards than the monotonous and often lonely life of a writer at his desk. And yet. somehow, Kuprin managed to combine the two, so that his life, lived with the amazing versatility characteristic of him, became the very stuff of which his fiction was made.
The circumstances of Kuprin's early life were far from auspicious. Born in 1870 into a poor family in the remote South Russian town of Narovchat in Penza Province, he was left fatherless at the age of one. Until his death of cholera at thirty-seven, the boy's father, Ivan Ivanovich Kuprin, was a minor government official. Though his career was undistinguished, he displayed some artistic ability, being a fair violinist and painter in oils. Kuprin's mother, Lyubov Alekseevna, came from a once famous line of Tatar princes, the Kukmchakovs, whose impoverishment by the mid-1800s was so severe that she inherited only a small estate in the province. Throughout her life she remained passionately devoted to her youngest child and only son. An intelligent, perceptive woman with an agile, progressive mind, she was fond of literature and took a keen interest in political events of the time. Kuprin always valued his mother's judgment about his work more than any other. Shortly before her death in 1910, he wrote: "I need you very much now. Not your experience or intelligence, but your instinctive taste, which I trust more than all today's criticism."6 From his mother the boy inherited a profound sensitivity and vivid imagination, together with a fiery impulsiveness that he later called a facet of his "elemental Tatar nature." Kuprin was always inordinately proud of his Tatar stock: he boasted to friends of his descent from (*18) Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, though in fact he had no such illustrious pedigree.
Some two years after Ivan Kuprin's death, the family moved to Moscow, where Lyubov Alekseevna obtained a place in the Widows' Home in Kudrino. Her son spent the next fifteen years in institutions in that city, living first with his mother in the home (a period reflected in his tale "Sviataia lozh" ["A White Lie," 1914]), then in the charitable Razumovsky boarding school, before entering the Second Moscow Military High School (gimnazia) in 1880. So unhappy were these early years that later he said sadly, "I had no childhood." The joylessness of this time finds frequent reflection in his work, notably in the gloomy recollections of his heroes in the tales "Reka zhizni" ("The River of Life," 1906), "Lenochka" (1910), and the strongly autobiographical "Na perelome" ("At the Turning Point," 1900), subtitled "Kadety" ("The Cadets"). In the latter Kuprin emphasizes what he loathed most about his schooling: the regular and accepted use of brute force, be it the vicious bullying of younger boys by their older fellows or the syste- matic heatings inflicted by the staff. Vividly he conveys the humiliation felt by his young hero Bulanin at being flogged for a trifling prank. "Bulanin is myself," he wrote barely a year before his death, "and the memory of the birching in the Cadet Corps remained with me for the rest of my life."7
In the autumn of 1888, Kuprin left the Cadet Corps to enter the Alexander Military Academy in Moscow, an institution that trained officers for infantry service in two years. Like the Cadet Corps, the Academy was a highly conservative establishment. The Junkers, as its inmates were known, were trained to consider themselves a privileged caste being groomed for high responsibility in the tsarist army.
In the summer of 1890, Kuprin graduated from the Academy with the rank of sublieutenant and was posted to the forty-sixth Dnieper Infantry Regiment stationed in the small Ukrainian town of Proskurov (now Khmelnitsky), west of Zhitomir in southwest Russia. Here and in the neighboring settlements of Gusyatin and Volochisk, near the Austrian border, he spent the next four years, the whole of his army service. Life for the yoLing officer in this remote comer of the Russian empire was excruciatingly tedious, devoid of cultural pursuits and totally cut off from events in the world at large. Upon leaving the army in 1894, Kuprin went to Kiev, where he (*19) engaged in journalistic work of many kinds. In September of 1901 he was invited by V. S. Mirolyubov, editor of the popular Petersburg monthly Zhurnal dlia vsekh (Journal for All), to join his staff. In December Kuprin began work in the capital. February of 1902 saw Kuprin's marriage to Maria Karlovna Davydova, the adopted daughter of Alexandra Davydova, widow of the director of the Petersburg Conservatoire. On her husband's death in 1889, Alexandra Davydova had become editor of the liberal Petersburg monthly Mir hozhii (God's World). When she died early in 1902, Maria Karlovna took over God's World, and in February of that year Kuprin left the Journal for All to head the fiction section of his wife's journal.
Kuprin's activity after the publication of Poedinok (The Duel) in 1905 was not confined to the written word. He put himself forward as an elector to the first State Duma for the city of Petersburg, established links with sailors in the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, and even attempted to enlist on the battleship Poiemkin, which mutinied in June 1905. In official eyes he became politically Linreliable, and was put under police surveillance. The outbreak of the First World War saw Kuprin turning his energies to practical account once more. Only two weeks after the declaration of war he opened a military hospital in his Gatchina home, and then visited towns on the western front. Toward the end of 1914 he appealed through the press for money for the wounded, and in December rejected the idea of any celebrations to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of his literary activity. As a reserve officer, he was called up in November 1914, and commanded an infantry company in Finland till May of 1915. when he was discharged on grounds of ill health. For the same reason he could not become a war correspondent, a post he had sought earlier during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.
On October 16, 1919, Gatchina was taken by White forces under General Nikolay Yudenich. For a fortnight Kuprin was obliged to edit Prinevskii krai (Neva Country), a paper published by Yudenich's army headquarters. When in October the Whites retreated westward before the Red Army, Kuprin traveled with them to Yamburg (now Kingisepp). where he joined his wife and daughter. Via Narva, the family reached Revel (now Tallin) in Estonia, and in December left for Finland. After six months in Helsinki, where Kuprin worked on the emigre paper Novaia russkaia zhizn' (New Russian Life), they sailed for France, arriving in Paris in early July (*20) of 1920.
There followed long years of poverty and debt. The income from what writing Kuprin did was extremely small, and his wife's brave attempts to establish a book-binding shop and an emigre library were financial disasters. A return to the Soviet Union offered the only solution to Kuprin's material and psychological difficulties, but it was late 1936 before he made the decision to apply for a visa. Anticipating censure from other emigres, Kuprin and his wife prepared to leave very quickly, keeping their departure secret. On May 29. 1937, seen off only by their daughter, they left the Gare du Nord for Moscow. When on May 31 the Kuprins arrived in Moscow, they were met by representatives of writers' organizations and installed in the Metropole Hotel. In early June they moved to a dacha owned by the Union of Writers at Golitsyno, outside Moscow, where Kuprin received medical attention and rested till the winter. In mid-December he and his wife moved to an apartment in Leningrad.
By early 1938 Kuprin's health was failing rapidly. Though later weeks brought a temporary improvement that encouraged the couple to go to Gatchina for the summer, his condition was clearly hopeless. Already suffering from a kidney disorder and sclerosis, he had now developed cancer of the oesophagus. Surgery did little to help. He died on August 25, 1938, and was buried in the Volkov cemetery in Leningrad two days later.
III Early Verse
Kuprin was ten when, in August 1880, he passed the entrance examination for the Military High School, renamed the Cadet Corps in 1882. In the stifling atmosphere of this military institution, the boy first took a serious interest in literature. Credit for this was largely due to M.I. Tsukhanov, a teacher of Russian literature (in "The Cadets" he appears as Trukhanov). To him Kuprin owed his lifelong love of Russian literature, and in particular of Pushkin.
Fired with enthusiasm by Tsukhanov's teaching, the boy began to write, turning to poetry as the best means of expressing his youthful aspirations. Kuprin was to write poems, epigrams, and aphorisms for the rest of his life, but in his adult years he was always most reluctant to publish them, feeling they were far inferior to his prose. Though he had written his first verse at the age of seven, most of his youthful poems - some thirty in all - date (*21) from the four years from 1883 to 1887, when he was in the Cadet Corps.8 The earliest of them, "Na den' koronatsii" ("On Coronation Day"), written in early 1883, was inspired by the celebrations for the crowning of Alexander III in May of that year. With youthful exuberance and naive delight, Kuprin portrays the jubilation of Muscovites at the festivities, stresses the sanctity of the tsar's person, and expresses the hope that God will preserve the new monarch from harm. Later poems demonstrate in fulsome terms the young man's love for his native land. Such, for example, is "Boets" ("The Warrior") of 1885, a heroic monologue uttered by a soldier dying on the battlefield. His last words summon his fellow warriors to continue the unequal struggle:
Brothers! I perish . .. Take then the banner, And fearlessly face the foe. The people shed tears for you, brothers, Bitter tears and blood.9
More important are several satirical pieces, of which the best is his "Oda Katkovu" ("Ode to Katkov") of 1886. The poem ridicules the notorious obscurantist Mikhail Katkov on his appointment as minister of internal affairs by Alexander III. Using archaisms to comic effect, Kuprin writes with detestation of this arch-reactionary, who spoke haughtily of the Russian people as "peasants and wild animals" and dealt out harsh punishment to troublesome student leaders.
Perhaps the most interesting of Kuprin's early poems is the political piece "Sny" ("Dreams"), written on April 14, 1887, the day before sentence was passed on the terrorists who had plotted to assassinate Alexander III in March of that year. Among those subsequently condemned to death was Alexander Ulyanov, Lenin's brother. That the death sentence would be passed was never in doubt, and Kuprin's vivid imagination produced a lurid picture of the public hanging as he foresaw it: a noisy square filled with an angry crowd; the high, black gallows; the executioner awaiting his victims; and the horrific death throes of the condemned. The poem closes with words of bitter reproach at the tsar's "justice": "A vile, terrible deed is done."10 Despite its artistic imperfections, of all Kuprin's early verse "Dreams" displays the greatest measure of sincere, though unsophisticated, political commitment. (*22)
Not all Kuprin's early verse was patriotic or political. Several poems - for instance "Pesn' skorbi" ("The Song of Sorrow"), "Grezy" ("Day Dreams"), and "Slezy besplodnye... " ("Futile tears.. .") of 1887 - speak of melancholy, hopelessness, and dis- illusionment, common motifs in the pessimistic poetry of the late 1800s. Other poems are love lyrics addressed to the objects of Kuprin's adolescent affections. Among them are "Zaria" ("Dawn"), "Vesna" ("Spring"), and the lyrical "Milye ochi, lazurnye ochi..." ("Dear eyes, azure eyes.. .") of 1887. dedicated to a distant relative of his from Penza. Apart from several poems devoted to revelry and the joys of youthful comradeship such as "Molitva p'iannitsy" ("A Drunkard's Prayer," 1884) and "Proiskhozhdenie kon'iaka" ("The Origin of Brandy," 1885). Kuprin wrote several humorous verses of an indecent kind, like "Masha," to which he later added the caveat: "Not to be read to anyone." Though many poems by the young Kuprin are lacking in artistic merit, they do provide evidence of his growing literary awareness. They contain a surprising range of themes and styles, from the overtly political through the intimately lyrical to the scabrously erotic, a variety that foreshadows the wide spectrum of treatments seen in his prose. What is perhaps most significant about poems like "Ode to Katkov" and "Dreams" is that they reveal in the adolescent a high degree of social conviction, which however formless it was at this early stage, would receive more effective elaboration in such later prose works as Molokh (Moloch, 1896) and The Duel (1905).
IV The First Tale
It was in the Military Academy that Kuprin's writing career began. In 1889 he met Liodor Ivanovich Palmin, a well-known poet of the time who arranged for the publication of Kuprin's first tale, "Poslednii debiut" ("The Last Debut") in the Moscow weekly Russkii satiricheskii listok (The Russian Satirical Leaflet) for December 3. 1889. When Kuprin's authorship came to light (the tale was signed "А. К-rin") he was put under two days' arrest in the guardroom, as Junkers were forbidden to publish without the consent of the Academy authorities. Events surrounding the publication of this first work left a permanent mark on Kuprin. He first recalls the episode in his tale "Pervenets" ("The Firstling," 1897), (*23) altering the name of the journal and rechristening his mentor Ivan Liodorych Venkov. In the later autobiographical work lunkera (The Junkers, 1928- 1932), the affair is treated in more detail, while in the short tale "Tipograficheskaia kraska" ("Printer's Ink," 1929) he returns to the event yet again, this time with undisguised nostalgia.
As the basis of "The Last Debut," Kuprin took a real incident - the suicide by poisoning on stage of the singer E. P. Kadmina in 1881, a tragedy which also inspired Ivan Turgenev's tale "Clara Milich" and Chekhov's one act drama Tatyana Repina. The work tells of the tragic love of the actress Golskaya for the impresario Alexander Petrovich. Drama is both the setting and the substance of the tale. In Golskaya's dressing room between acts three and four, Petrovich breaks with her, urging her to forget all that has occurred between them and promising to provide for the child she is expecting. He then rebukes her for her poor performance in the play so far. Desperate at the loss of the man she loves, yet stung by his criticism of her acting ability, Golskaya goes out on stage, obliged "to entertain an audience of thousands just when she is perhaps close to suicide or madness" (I. 44). By a neat irony, her role on stage is that of a deceived girl, while the impresario plays her seducer. Thus their professional and private roles coincide and interlock. In the final act, playing out her inner pain, Golskaya performs with superb power. Of all those present, only her stage partner fails to understand her, for he cannot discern the woman through the actress.
Kuprin's first tale, with its unfelicitous title, has several defects that he later acknowledged. In particular, the sharp contrast between hero and heroine is a time- honored romantic cliche: he the cynical seducer, she the pure beauty destroyed by her selfless love for him. The contrast is made more blatant by the hackneyed description of their faces. His is typically demonic - "framed by a thick mane of black hair ... it bore the stamp of proud, self-assured strength" (I, 42) - and hers has earned her the name of goddess for its "classical profile and marblelike, translucently dull pallor" (I, 43). The convention is reinforced by the excessively pompous style used by both narrator and characters. Of Golskaya Kuprin writes: "Wringing her hands, she sobbed, she implored him for love, for mercy. She summoned him before the judgment of God and men, and wept once more, madly, desperately..." (I, 46). Moreover, the tale's plot is unashamedly melodramatic. Not (*24) content with his excessively sentimental portrayal of Golskaya in her hour of crisis, Kuprin has her take poison in full view of the audience as the curtain falls.
Despite its stilted language and stereotyped characters, "The Last Debut" has the narrative dynamism typical of the later Kuprin. At the same time, though beset by literary cliches, its treatment of love and the pain it can bring is deeply sensitive, a quality that would be the hallmark of his best works.
V Regimental Service
Kuprin's few years of military service saw the publication of several tales, among them "Psikheia" ("Psyche," 1892), "Lunnoi noch'iu" ("On a Moonlit Night"), "V pot'makh" ("In the Dark," 1893) and "Doznanie" ("The Enquiry," 1894). Only the last is concerned with the army; its predecessors are studies of mysterious or abnormal states of mind. With them belong other tales like "Slavianskaia dusha" ("A Slav Soul"), "Bezumie" ("Madness") and "Zabytyi potselui" ("The Forgotten Kiss"), all published in 1894, works in which Kuprin described himself as "a collector of rare and strange manifestations of the human soul.""
Some three years passed between the appearance of "The Last Debut" and the publication of his second tale, "Psyche," in December of 1892. Like "On a Moonlit Night" which followed it, it shows the aberrations of a deranged mind and investigates the blurred line between fantasy and reality. Subtitled "The Diary of a Sculptor," it describes a recluse who fashions from clay a statue of Psyche he has seen in a dream. His sensuality is so aroused by the beauty of his own making that he becomes convinced that by sheer willpower he can bring his statue to life. Imagining he sees his Psyche breathing, he kisses her and faints. Driven insane by the perverse creativity of his own mind, he is taken off to an asylum.
The diary form of the work, with its dates which drift from actuality into nonsense, and the imperceptible blending of reality and fantasy show similarities with Gogol's story "The Diary of a Madman." But Kuprin's focus on his hero's sick mind, with its extravagant phantasmagoria and fevered sexual fantasies, stems from the Decadent trends of the late 1800s.
"On a Moonlit Night" is similar in theme and mood. Probing the innermost recesses of the mind, Kuprin explores in his protagonist Gamov the Dostoevskian duality fundamental to the (*25) human soul. "You see," Gamov explains to the narrator, "I think there are two wills inherent in man. One is conscious . . . and I am constantly aware of its presence. . . . But the other is unconscious; on some occasions it controls a person completely without his knowledge, sometimes even against his will" (I, 140). When this second will is in chaos, Gamov explains, otherwise unthinkable acts of violence occur, like the brutal murder of his beloved, to which he tacitly confesses. Inflamed with passion for a beautiful girl who is openly scornful of him, he puts a revolver to her temple and demands that she surrender to him. The "unaccountable voluptuousness" (I, 143) he discovers in the situation is disrupted by her mocking laughter as she refuses to submit. Only when he has pulled the trigger does Gamov realize the full horror of what he has done.
The duality of the soul revealed in this "psychological etude," as Kuprin called it,1 is pivotal to his more important work of that same year, "In the Dark," published in the journal Russkoe bogatstvo (Russian Wealth). Some five times longer than "Psyche" and divided into fourteen chapters, it was his most ambitious tale so far, and indeed was subtitled povest', or novelette. Traveling by night train to the provincial town of R. to take up her first appointment as governess, the heroine, Zinaida Pavlovna, is rescued from the attentions of a fellow passenger by a young engineer. Alexander Alarm. Once she is in R., Zinaida's employer, the rich industrialist Kashperov, becomes infatuated with her and determines to possess her. But only when Alarin faces imprisonment after gambling away official funds does Zinaida offer herself to Kashperov for money, so as to repay Alarm's debt. Admiring her selflessness, Kashperov gives her the money without any conditions. However, on seeing Alarm's base greed when she gives him the money, Zinaida is filled with contempt for him. She leaves him, falls ill from nervous shock, and dies. Kashperov kills himself by drinking prussic acid, and Alarin leaves the town a broken man. aged and prematurely grey.
On his own admission, Alarin is a "split personality" (1, 53). Described as "a representative of today's moral vacillation,"13 he is an astonishing amalgam of contradictory traits. Though noble and sensitive, he can also be base and heartless; his energy and decision sometimes yield to weakness and apathy. As the story develops. Kuprin takes pains to show how different Alarin is from Zinaida, however alike they may seem at the outset: his noisy egocentricity and capricious changes of mood14 are worlds away from her soft (*26) sincerity and quietly heroic determination. When Zinaida brings him the money, the negative side of Alarm's dual nature is revealed in all its repulsiveness, that "dark, terrible side" deep in each of us of which Gamov spoke (1, 139). The same "dark side" emerges in Kashperov, too, when his lust for Zinaida reaches fever pitch:
"No. . . . I'll overcome you," he says, "I'll force you! You may be pure, but I'll awaken such instincts in you that you won't know yourself!'" (I, 75). Such fits of somber fury are another manifestation of the demonism already glimpsed in Petrovich of "The Last Debut."
As if mirroring the duality revealed in his characters as the tale progresses, Kuprin's narrative technique oscillates between opposite poles. He is deliberately plain and realistic in describing settings: the opening scene where Alarm's friends see him off from a Moscow station (as Anatoly Volkov notes,15 an episode stamped with terse Chekhovian irony), the drab life of the town of R., and early scenes in the Kashperov household. But when the tale is highly charged with emotion - during Kashperov's assaults on Zinaida's honor, and the final meeting between hero and heroine - Kuprin creates an atmosphere of tragic gloom where fateful passions bind his characters inextricably together. The story's title is a verbal distillation of the circumstances in which the characters find themselves, a life of figurative darkness intensified by the physical twilight that pervades the work.
While Kuprin's first large prose work shares many flaws of "The Last Debut" - melodramatic passages, unnatural situations, and bombastic language - it demonstrates his ability to handle successfully a complex plot with its major and minor characters, varied settings, and dialogues.
"The Enquiry" was Kuprin's first army story and the most important work of his years as a soldier. It was also the first in a long series of tales about the military that culminated ten years later in The Duel. The work was his first publication to arouse critical comment. A critic for a Kiev newspaper grudgingly acknowledged glimpses of talent in the tale, but chastised Kuprin for excessive attention to detail and lack of spontaneous feeling."16 For censorship reasons the manuscript title of the work "Ekzekutsiia" ("Corporal Punishment"), was changed to the less emotive "Iz otdalennogo proshlogo" ("From the Distant Past") at the suggestion of N. K. Mikhailovsky. editor of Russian Wealth where the tale appeared in August of 1894, soon after Kuprin had left the army. (*27) Its final title was chosen in the early 1900s. Apart from his growing dissatisfaction with army life, the imminent publication of "The Enquiry" was probably a major reason for Kuprin's resignation in the summer of 1894. There can be no doubt that the appearance of such a work, written by an officer and signed with his full name, would have had unpleasant consequences for him.
Set in a provincial garrison, the story tells how Kozlovsky, a young lieutenant in his first year of service, is ordered to conduct an enquiry into the theft of a pair of boot tops and thirty-seven kopecks by the Tatar Baiguzin. By appealing to the Tatar's filial feelings, Kozlovsky extracts a confession from him, and as a result BaigLizin is sentenced to a hundred strokes of the birch. As Kuprin revealed many years later in the tale "Rodina" ("Native Land"), the story is based on his own experience as an officer obliged to conduct such investigations.
Despite the distancing device of the title suggested by Mikhailovsky, "The Enquiry" is a direct indictment of conditions in the Russian army in the 1890s. His involvement with Baiguzin shows Kozlovsky the absurdity of a system that punishes a man so harshly for
so trivial an offense. Cruelly indifferent, that system takes no account of the man, here a Tatar, chosen by Kuprin to represent minority nationalities in the tsarist army. Bewildered in an alien environment where his natural instinct is simply to flee, Baiguzin is mocked and persecuted as an oddity. Kozlovsky realizes that to punish him in the prescribed way is senseless. The Tatar not only cannot see why his deed is wrong, but also can barely understand Russian. Far from correcting him, a flogging will only embitter him.
"The Enquiry" is central to Kuprin's development because in Kozlovsky it presents the first in a succession of sensitive young officers at odds with their fellows and painfully aware of the injustice prevalent in the army. That type is continued in figures like Yakhontov of "Pokhod ("The March," 1901), and exemplified by Romashov of The Duel. Impressionable and humane, Kozlovsky is horrified by the flogging of Baiguzin and appalled at his fellow officers' indifference to what he considers a travesty of justice. Because of his role in the investigation, he feels responsible for the punishment inflicted on the Tatar, and as an officer he feels guilty at being part of the army hierarchy that condones such excessive violence. Paradoxically, it is their officially distanced positions as accuser and accused that bring officer and soldier spiritually to-(*28)gether. At the Tatar's mention of his mother far away, Kozlovsky sadly recalls his own mother a thousand versts away and realizes that without her he too is utterly alone in this isolated comer of Russia. His recollection forges a tenuous link: "Between the second lieutenant and the silent Tatar there suddenly sprang up a delicate, tender bond" (I, 152). After the flogging, as both suffer in their different ways, their eyes meet across the barrack square - "and again the lieutenant felt between himself and the soldier a strange, spiritual bond"(l, 157).
Yet despite his sympathy for Baiguzin and his noble intentions to have the sentence reduced, Kozlovsky fails to help him. Inexperienced in the company of his fellow officers, he lacks the confidence that might have enabled him to alleviate the Tatar's lot. Moreover, his inner weakness leaves the conflict between his duty as an officer and his sympathy as a man unresolved. Allowing himself to be deflected from his purpose by the company commander, to whom he turns for advice, Kozlovsky falls victim to the same indifferent system that sentences Baiguzin to the rod. But he is executioner too, for he feels he has tricked the soldier into confessing his crime. For all its impassioned sincerity, his angry retort at the close of the tale to a sadistic fellow officer who declares the flogging insufficiently severe ends only in hysterics: "... suddenly covering his face with his hands, he burst into loud sobs, shuddering with his whole body like a weeping woman and feeling painfully, cruelly ashamed of his tears..." (I, 158).
In many ways "The Enquiry" is a preliminary sketch for The Duel a decade later. Pointers to Kuprin's novel are also to be found in his other army work of 1894, the humorous tale "Kust sireny" ("The Lilac Bush"), whose obtuse officer-protagonist Almazov and his ambitious wife Verochka clearly foreshadow Nikolaev and Shurochka in The Duel. Kuprin's resignation from the army in 1894 was a watershed in his life. The next seven years, till his departure for Petersburg in 1901, were to be a period of immensely rich experience and creativity. They would encompass not only kaleidoscopic journalistic work, many temporary jobs, and extensive travel, but also the publication of two collections of his works and, among others, the tale Moloch, which first brought him fame. (*29)
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