Vyacheslav Nemirov
“Our Nets Have Drawn a Dead Man”: Drowned Men in Russian Literature of the Nineteenth Century

V–A–C Sreda online magazine continues its three-month programme dedicated to water and its significance in culture, art, and folklore. This final issue features an essay by the journalist, literary critic, and novelist Vyacheslav Nemirov analysing the phenomenon of drowning in Russian literature of the nineteenth century.

The image of the “literary drowned,” those whose lives were taken by water, remains mysterious and unsolved, as do the circumstances of their demise. Nemirov turns to the works of Nikolai Karamzin, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and other writers to understand the evolution of the image of the drowned in works of Romanticism and Realism, and explores the difference between drowned women, children, and men in Russian literature of the nineteenth century.

I don’t know what came to me with more difficulty: learning to walk or learning to swim. At least because I don’t at all remember how I learned to walk. This said, I do remember the agonising, frightening, and nervously-delighting feeling of the body becoming weightless in water.

I began learning to swim when I was five. My grandfather helped me and held my stomach to provide support, and then, imperceptibly, took away his hands. I, naively thinking he was still protecting me from falling into the mud-smelling depths, imperceptibly learned to hold my body afloat. Then, later, awkwardly, quite childishly, I began to move my arms and legs about like a river-frog, thrown by an otherworldly hand into an unnoticed pond. Sometimes balance, which in water functions utterly differently, would let me down—and I would swallow water. Water went into my nose, burned my eyes, everything became blurry—as if, without my noticing, the universal flood had suddenly befallen the Earth. In those minutes, it seemed that everything on Earth would drown along with me.

Nowadays many of my early childhood memories about learning to swim have not been preserved, they have drowned and dissolved into other, far later and less important impressions. But I remember two—no, three—things with absolute clarity. Two of them are related to feelings. The first is the feeling of freedom given by water. The second is the overwhelming fear that takes hold when legs lose the bottom. The third is not an ephemeral feeling, but a real artefact, which, I think, can still be seen to this day. The fact is I learned to swim in one of the tributaries of the Moskva River, the Nerskaya River, which, I am certain, remembers the pre-Slavic inhabitants of these places (the word “nerskaya” itself sounds too Finno-Ugric). There, from a small beach, the trunk of a tree is visible sticking out of the water. I cannot say of what species it is—after all, all that remains of it is a bare branch of a polished-grey colour.

For some reason, from that very moment, the image of the dead branch awoke vague, quite incomprehensible associations in my fantasy. It resembled the twisted finger of a giant hidden under water, the petrified tentacle of an octopus, some ancient Cyclopean weapon… Far later, by the time I was riding my creaking “Aist (stork)” bicycle to go swimming not with my grandfather, but with a noisy company of boys who had, like me, come to the dacha, as well as some locals, I would hear stories about the gigantic catfish that live in the river and drag away children and women in their toothless mouths. These creatures, the guys told me, drown their victims, but do no eat them right away—they hide them below the dead branch, so that later, when the body has rotten slightly, they can feast with especial pleasure.

This image—a devouring catfish—frightened an impressionable, and, to be frank, domesticated child. All it took was for me to go into the water, and every object to accidentally touch my legs would cause my heart of to freeze over—it was the tail of a hungry fish, observing me with its unblinking eyes.

No catfish or toothy pike ever did drag me away. Arriving back from the river to a warm village house smelling of centuries-old boards, I would settle on a creaking antediluvian ottoman and read—the fresh and green smell of the river, of fish, and of mud would mix with the aroma of the pages of books, and I would drift from page to page…

At that time I had a thing—I loved to repeat one and the same word over for hours, until the meaning was lost completely, leaving only a bare skeleton of sounds. Utoplennik is a terrible word. It has the “u” of the night-cry of a bird; the nasty, champing “topl”—as though you were pushing through a bog with effort, where your legs get stuck in the squelching swill, and, apart from your heavy breathing, there is only an endless “topl-topl” to be heard. Naive childish attempts to decipher the origin of this word without resorting to the help of a dictionary led me to conclude that “utoplennik” is a plennik that has utop.” All this to say that in childhood, drowned people were of vivid interest to me, though they also frightened me.

Even now, this image seems at once terrible and bizarrely attractive. In this essay, I will attempt to delineate its place in Russian literature of the nineteenth century. This is necessary in order to show how varied, terrible, and at the same time rich the “underwater” world of Russian literature is, and how dissimilar from one another the unfortunate drowned souls that inhabit it are.

First opposition, or the Case can differ

To consider any phenomenon is easiest of all through oppositions. Such is the essence of human nature—moving beyond the bounds of dichotomy is impossible. When I think of drowning, the first thing that comes to mind is the verb pair utonut–utopitsya.

Water is an element, a wild, ungovernable material, which means it is possible to perish in an encounter with it from negligence, from simply being unable to cope with nature. The essence of the elements, even without pretensions to simplification, can be reduced to the writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s expression:

The task of the elements is unconscious destruction alongside unconscious creation.

This said, to drown, surrendering to nature’s “unconscious destruction,” can be done intentionally. Dozens of characters in the Russian classics, central and secondary, tragically perish in water, on a whim or as a consequence of a fatal accident. And as it is the opposition of accidental and intentional drowning that first comes to mind, it is entirely logical that the first author whose lines beg for quotation is the poet Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin. In his fabulous poem “The Drowned Man,” published in 1829, we find almost all possible reasons that might lead a person to death in water enumerated:

Badly mangled, ugly, frightening,
Blue and swollen on each side —
Has he fished in storm and lightning
Or committed suicide?
Could this be a careless drunkard
Or a mermaid-seeking monk
Or a trusting merchant, conquered
By some bandits, robbed and sunk?

There are no unimportant, empty details in Pushkin. The poem only gives the impression that its author has carelessly jotted down lines dictated by God. In fact, each word stands in its intended place, and for this reason, there can be no doubt: for Pushkin, the principal cause of a “watery” death is suicide.

The deceptive simplicity of such a step allies with the accessibility of water—finding a river or a lake is not difficult; human settlements alway neighbour water. Any suicide is a soul-rending tragedy, incapable of arousing anything other than rejection and bitterness. And it is all the more terrible that water, a symbol of life, has taken so many people—in all possible realities.

Second opposition, or Karamzin washes away the enchantment

The literary dead, unlike the really dead, do not want to part with the world of the living. Even the drowned find in themselves the strength to surface from the depths that have swallowed them and return to help simple people or make mischief. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the majority of the drowned also proved enchanted, capable of overcoming death, of prevailing over the power of unshakeable elements and returning to the world of the living. Yet by the second half of the nineteenth century, the drowned increasingly remained lifeless bodies, swollen and deformed, the unfortunate victims of unresolved inner conflicts or simply those who had been unlucky.

Water, as is well-known, is contained in everything—the existence of any living system without water is simply impossible. And the same is true of folklore. Water in folk tales, beliefs, and rituals can be life-giving or it can be deathly, in it one can make out the features of the future or of one’s betrothed. Writers of the beginning of the nineteenth century knew and loved the “deeds performed in ages past” too much to turn away from the image of the enchanted drowned.

Bylinas, folkloric legends about man’s encounter with evil spirits, mermaids, and the drowned are bizarrely refracted into independent literary plots.

The syncretic image of the terrible but banally drowned Pannochka from Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’s 1831 tale “May Night, or the Drowned Maiden,” is a representative example of a creature to have migrated from oral folktales into literature. A young girl living in a luxurious house suffers the machinations of her evil stepmother-witch, who succeeds in getting her father to throw her out of the house. This proves the last straw, and the young girl jumps into the river in despair.

Old women say that since then, when the moon shines, all those who have been drowned come out to warm themselves in its rays, and that they are led by the Lieutenant’s daughter.

The mermaid’s primary goal becomes hunting down her evil stepmother, and she is helped in this by the main character of the tale, the daring Levko, who thinks that everything that happens to him is a dream. Awakening from delirium, Levko discovers that Pannochka has found an enchanted solution to what had seemed an impossible task—the strict father allows Levko to marry Hanna, his favourite daughter. The motif of the drowned appearing in dreams also took Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky’s fancy—the writer uses such a device in a number of his novels, but more on this in the “Interlude: Children” chapter.

The fate of Gorpinka, the heroine of Rusalka, an 1829 tale by the writer and literary critic Orest Somov, is quite interesting. A young girl, deceived by a Polish nobleman, goes in despair to a sorcerer, after which she vanishes.

A monastic fisherman said a few days later that he had seen a young girl on the banks of the Dnieper while sailing in his canoe: her face had been scratched by the needles and branches of trees […] he had not dared to swim close to her for fear she was either a possessed demon or the wandering soul of a dead, grave sinner.

The mother of the main character tries all she can to bring back her daughter, and goes so far as to approach the ill-starred sorcerer, who tells her how to carry out a ritual to bring her daughter back from the mermaid world. This simple woman, however, does not have the strength to fight the terrible magic of the “underwater” world on her own—though Gorpinka does return home, far from the water she longs for, she remains nothing more than an enchanted corpse:

A day passes, night comes—Gorpinka sits as before, dead and unmoving. It was terrible for the old woman to pass the night with her awful guest; but, with a heavy heart, she remained. The night also passes—Gorpinka sits as before, days pass, weeks, months—and still she sits unmoving, resting her head on her hands, still her dull and open eyes gaze fixedly at the stove, still her hair is wet.

After a year of such an existence, Gorpinka runs away from home, becoming a terrible mermaid once again. And, after some time, the young girl’s tormentor is found dead—severe folkloric justice triumphs.

Yet such plots, however interesting they may be, are not independent—they derive in many ways from the folktales known to simple people on the banks of the Dnieper since time immemorial.

Pushkin’s drowned man, the antagonist of the poem from a line of which this essay takes its title, is not an independent character, but rather a masterfully executed appliqué on the part of the poet. He is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, fashioned from pieces of the terrible drowned whose glory was preserved in folk memory. Pushkin proposes a number of possible reasons for the drowning of his character—and it is possible that each of these was a variant on a single plot, altering from village to village. It is no accident that the subtitle of the poem is “A simple folktale.”

Stories about a drowned old miller disturb the imagination of the main character of Sergey Aksakov’s 1858 novel Years of Childhood, which creates the aureole of a “horror story” around a banally drowned man:

As soon as the news of this discovery reached us, the house was again deserted for a time: all the household hastened to view the body, and then returned with such horrid particulars that I hardly slept all that night: as I pictured the old miller to myself, I trembled all over and broke out in a cold sweat.

The “enchanted drowned”—that is, those unfortunate souls who meet their deaths in water but remain on the sinful earth due to the weight of unfinished business, from a burning thirst for revenge, or at the whim of unseen forces—these are the main characters of the fantastical prose of the Romanticism of the beginning of the nineteenth century and of its echoes, which would continue to reach readers half a century later.

But even if the tendency for the drowned to be “enchanted” was dominant at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the impetus for its destruction had already been given at the end of eighteenth century, by the work with which, in fact, Russian prose began—and not to pay attention to it here would be impossible, despite the chronological disparity. The work in question is the writer and historian Nikolay Mikhailovich Karamzin’s novella Poor Liza.

This novella, written by Karamzin in 1792 and inspired by the work of that bastion of English Sentimentalism, the writer Laurence Sterne, proved, despite its secondary nature, the number-one event in Russian literature of the time. In 1833, the writer and literary critic Alexander Bestuzhev (also known under the pseudonym Marlinsky), penned the following analysis of the Poor Liza phenomenon:

Karamzin brought back a storehouse of warmth from abroad, and his Poor Liza, his sensitive journey, in which he so unsuccessfully imitates Sterne, went to everyone’s head. Every one sighed themselves into faints; everyone rushed off […] to drown themselves in puddles.

What Karamzin succeeded in explaining in simple language to his contemporaries was this: every living being is deserving of empathy, independent of their social class or gender. Put bluntly, such a thought, for that time, was revolutionary. A simple story about an unfortunate and impressionable young girl touched the habitués of literary salons and, actually, turned drowning into a trend—but more about this in the next chapter.

To conclude this discussion of the second opposition—“enchanted” and “ordinary”—I would like to note in particular that the story of Liza would not have been taken up with such rapture had Karamzin added even a drop of magic to the story. Liza drowned herself, and she did so finally and irreversibly. No force is capable of returning the young girl to life: not in the form of an enchanted drowned girl, not in the form of a mermaid. And this is precisely why it is so sad for the reader—there isn’t the slightest hope.

Third opposition, or the Zero death of Anna Karenina

Karamzin can be titled the “Father of the Drowned of Russian Literature” not just because he set the trend of “unenchanting” those who take their deaths by water but also because it was in his works that suicide by drowning was shown to be the lot of the peasantry and petit bourgeois—in other words, the lot of simple people.

After the publication of Poor Liza in 1792, dozens of literary types took to composing their own versions of Karamzin’s story. Here is a short but highly representative list of the imitations that were published in the nineteenth century: 1801 saw the publication of Poor Masha by Alexander Izmaylov, 1805 the The Story of Poor Maria by Nikolai Brusilov, a year later Emilia, or the Sad Consequences of Reckless Love by Maria Izvekova, and 1810 the publication of a text by an unknown writer titled “Unhappy Liza” in the pages of the Aglaya magazine.

Such retellings almost invariably followed the Karamzin canon: there is an unhappy young girl, she meets a passionate lover, true and burning feelings flare up between them, the lovers, however, are not destined to be together—and the realisation of this fact brings the heroine to her tragic end.

But something in all of these stories seems improbable. It’s as though you’d bought a perfectly created copy, turned it round on all sides, sensing a dirty trick, and, finally, found the detail that gave away the imitation. The heroines of the narratives that imitate Karamzin’s story die giving birth, from nervous overstrain, or live out their days in solitude. But young girls of un-noble birth don’t die that way!

A simple man—a peasant, drawn from the pages of the Franco-Swiss philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau—lives on the earth and in harmony with it, he does not seek to overcome the elements. He uses the gifts of the earth with gratitude and respect, and, in return, water is always ready to take back his unfortunate, lost soul. Suicide may be no way out, but water, with its inherent cunning, is always there to offer the unfortunate the deceptively friendly darkness of its river depths.

A man torn away from the earth also loses his connection to water. Anyone who stands to serve the State sells his soul to a demon that is opposed—especially in the Romantic tradition—to the natural principle. State law challenges the elements, seeks to curb them. This is why water is rarely the last resort for aristocrats in Russian literature—nature does not take back rebels. Noblemen take poison, shoot or hang themselves—as, for example, Nikolai Stavrogin, the hero of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons—but they almost never drown themselves.

Peter the Great in Pushkin’s 1837 poem The Bronze Horseman is a perfect example of a usurper of nature’s powers. The Tsar, standing on a “wave-swept shore, remote, forlorn…,” makes plans to overthrow the dictatorship of the elements, almost ticking items off on his fingers:

From here the Swede is ill-protected:
A city on this site, to thwart
His purposes, shall be erected.

This subordination, however, proves deceptive, and terrible flooding catalyses the plot, taking the life of the beloved of Eugene, the main character of the poem. Seeking to tame the Neva like a beast with his granite embankments, Peter carries away hundreds of innocent lives on a whim.

Traditionally, it is simple people, unburdened by either government affairs or position in society who perish in water. However, the list of the “literary drowned” might well have numbered one aristocratic woman perfectly known to all. Originally, the writer and philosopher Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy supposed that Anna Karenina, the heroine of his eponymous novel, would end her life in the same river that carries away the unhappy Parasha in The Bronze Horseman. What could have compelled Tolstoy to alter Karenina’s fate?

The literary critic Pavel Valerievich Basinsky proposes this not inelegant answer:

…according to the original idea, Anna Karenina was to have drowned herself in the Neva. But life itself suggested to Tolstoy a different outcome for his heroine. And today it would be absurd to imagine Anna banally drowning herself in the river rather than falling under a symbol of “iron” civilisation.

There is, in essence, nothing fundamentally new in Anna Karenina, a person far from nature, choosing a means of suicide associated with a symbol of progress. It is inappropriate for an aristocrat bound hand and foot by the laws of a society tearing forward to turn to the free elements, even when ending their life. A train or a revolver are, in such cases, identically distant from primal nature. Though perhaps everything is much simpler—Lev Nikolaevich simply did not want to imitate Karamzin.

Women in water

When enumerating the literary drowned, it is difficult to uphold the principle of fair gender representation. It just so happened that the majority of characters to meet their deaths in water in Russian literature are women. And in general, women in Russian culture, from folklore to contemporary literature, are far more deeply connected with water than men. “Women’s” work—cooking, washing, the bathing of children—has been associated with water from the earliest times. This is why, for example, there is no adequate masculine synonym for the word “mermaid.”

Oksana Vasyakina—an author whose poetics are inextricably tied up with reflections on the theme of “femininity” on all levels of consciousness, from the everyday to the mythological—has a fairly significant passage in her novel Rose:

I write in jerks. Just as clumsily as I draw air into my lungs when I swim at the pool. At first, I lie for a long time on the sofa and listen as time slowly passes. I lie there and feel that the place where I am is the very bottom of a long, heavy river. And if you plunge to the bottom of a river, you can hear how the water in it moves, how it polishes the cobblestones. I lie on my sofa and listen to time as it polishes me, as it slowly erodes me and the world around me.

The auto-heroine feels herself a “stone at the bottom of a river,” the natural victim of the elements in general and of water in particular, and this is significant. And it is not just Vasyakina who sees women as connected to water, but nineteenth century authors—and it is for this reason that the heroines of classic works so frequently strive to merge with water, to return to their original condition. It is worth understanding that this desire is unconscious, but it is its spontaneity that reveals the “feminine” nature of drowning.

A vivid contrast of “masculine” and “feminine” death through the prism of drowning can be found in an episode from Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment. In the sixth chapter of the second part of the novel, Raskolnikov, standing on a bridge, anxiously reflects on the possibility of suicide, when, suddenly, he sees the petit bourgeois Afrosinyushka:

Suddenly she leaned her right elbow on the railing, raised her right leg and let it flop over the edge, then got her left leg across and threw herself into the Canal. The dirty water sagged, and swallowed up its victim in a trice, but a moment later the drowning woman floated up again, and was carried off slowly downstream, her head and legs in the water, and her back out of it, with her skirt whipped up and ballooning on the surface like a pillow.

This image of female drowning sharply dissuades the hero from ending his life in such a manner. Raskolnikov summarises: “No, that’s vile… the water… it’s not worth it.” In this incoherent muttering one finds the resistance of the hero’s rebellious nature to the elemental calm of water.

If the raging soul of man is not able to find tranquility in water, then for women—for, for example, Katerina in the dramatist Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky’s 1859 play The Storm—water is, if not the natural, then, as it seems to the heroine, the only means of escape. A remark of the literary critic Dmitry Ivanovich Pisarev can serve as further evidence of the opposition between an unhealthy feminine attraction to water and a masculine denial of the elements. In a critical article about Ostrovsky’s play, Pisarev assesses Katerina’s behaviour:

Having committed a number of absurdities, she throws herself into the water, and in doing so commits her last and greatest absurdity.

However caustic and ironic Pisarev’s remark may be, fate jokes far more cruelly—four years later the critic would perish, drowned at the Riga seaside.

From the time of Poor Lisa on, Russian literary heroines drown themselves first of all out of unhappiness in love. This can be criminal love, multiplied to jealously, as in Nikolai Leskov’s 1864 Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The main character, Katerina, out of her mind with passion for her lover Sergey, commits a series of crimes, then drowns herself, taking with her the new passion of her lover—Sonya. Morbid exaltation relates Katerina to the Circassian woman, a character in Pushkin’s poem The Prisoner of the Caucasus, written in 1821.

In Pushkin’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus, the impossibility of being close to the prisoner pushes the strong and Romantically-close to nature Circassian woman to a desperate act—to merge in a single flow with the rushing river. And what about the prisoner? Does he, the classic type of the Romantic hero, throw himself into the river after his beloved? Of course not. When Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov, a diplomat and a friend of Pushkin, asked his comrade in one of his letters why the prisoner does not take his own life, the poet answered with vexation:

… as a man—he acts very prudently, but in the hero of a poem, its is not prudence that is required. — The character of the Prisoner is unsuccessful…

It is difficult to say whether the character really is unsuccessful. Perhaps it would have looked too deliberate for the character to have chosen the “watery” path to death—it is unbefitting for a man to drown themselves, even with their beloved.

What unites all these stories? One immediately wants to say love. But this is really only partially the case. So, for example, the petit bourgeois Afrosinyushka drowns herself in Crime and Punishment not out of unrequited love, but, to all appearances, due to the consequences of a grave depression. In Russian literature, accounts of female suicides by drowning are often accompanied by stories, by detailed accounts of how these women approached the “end of the line” and crossed it. This may seem something to be taken for granted, but if one examines male drownings, one finds that such details rarely appear.

Interlude: Children

Before examining the drowned men in Russian literature, it is worth saying a few words about the most soul-wrenching episodes—about those cases in which, intentionally or unintentionally, the victims of water are children.

Child drowning is very reminiscent of female drowning. Authors, clearly, could neither leave the death of a child unexplained nor leave the background of the event untold due to the unnaturalness of the phenomenon. Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev wrote about a drowned child in an 1852 story, “Bezhin Lea”and it is not by chance that it is in this work that the greatest number of people meet their deaths in water, given that the Sketches from a Hunter’s Album cycle, of which “Bezhin Lea” is a part, is an account of “earthly” folk life, close to all kinds of elements. Accompanying, it would seem, a story terrible in its ordinariness with mystical details, Turgenev softens its tragedy through inclusion of the other-worldly:

What a boy he was! His mother, Feklista, how she loved him, her Vasya! And she seemed to have a foreboding, Feklista did, that harm would come to him from the water. Sometimes, when Vasya went with us boys in the summer to bathe in the river, she used to be trembling all over. The other women did not mind; they passed by with the pails, and went on, but Feklista put her pail down on the ground, and set to calling him, ‘Come back, come back, my little joy; come back, my darling!’ And no one knows how he was drowned. He was playing on the bank, and his mother was there haymaking; suddenly she hears, as though someone was blowing bubbles through the water, and behold! there was only Vasya’s little cap to be seen swimming on the water.

The motif of a drowned child also appears in Dostoyevsky from time to time, where it becomes a function—a peculiar kind of “cricket on the hearth,” the conscience of a villain visiting in a dream. In Crime and Punishment, to a high degree a dream-novel, a vision of a raped, drowned little girl appears to Svidrigailov not long before he decides on departure for America.

One meets a very similar vision in Dostoyevsky’s 1875 novel The Adolescent. The tyrant-merchant Skotoboinikov is visited at night by the boy he tormented, who is unable to stand the horrors in the house of his “benefactor”:

And it came to such a pass that the boy could not hear the sound of his voice without trembling all over. And Maxim Ivanovitch wondered more and more. “He’s neither one thing nor the other; I picked him out of the mud, I dressed him in drap de dames with little boots of good material, he has embroidered shirts like a general’s son, why has he not grown attached to me? Why is he as dumb as a little wolf?” And though people had long given up being surprised at Maxim Ivanovitch, they began to be surprised at him again—the man was beside himself: he pestered the little child and would never let him alone. [...] The boy remembered everything, he screamed, and ran to the water, pressed his little fists against his breast, looked up at the sky (they saw it, they saw it!) and leapt into the water. Well, people cried out, and jumped from the ferry, tried to get him out, but the current carried him away. The river was rapid, and when they got him out, the little thing was dead.

The incessant visits of this ghost force the merchant to repent and wander the earth. The deciding role of dream visions featuring a drowned figure in Dostoyevsky’s work relate it to Gogol’s. Yet, though it is generally thought that “we all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat,” Dostoyevsky owes the fateful role of drowned figures in his poetics to “May Night, or the Drowned Woman,” where the magical Pannochka, who appears in a dream, resolves the central conflict of the narrative.

Men without faces

If women and children are given histories of drowning in Russian literature, then drowned men receive highly lapidary description—as, for example, in the poet and journalist Nikolay Alexeyevich Nekrasov’s 1847 poem “A Moral Man,” in which a tyrannical but foolish nobleman acts as the lyrical hero. The work provides the following assessment of the serf cook’s suicide:

I gave the peasant to the cook:
He succeeded; Happiness is a good cook!
But often he left the yard
In the name of an indecent addiction
He loved to read and reason.
I, tired of threatening and baking,
Fatherly flogged him, the scoundrel
He went and drowned himself: the fool was found!

But even such a limited narrative about life “pre-drowning” is lavish in comparison with the dozens if not hundreds of nameless drowned men whose fates remain absolutely unknown. In Pushkin’s already mentioned poem “The Drowned Man,” the authorial voice does not make any attempt to go into details about the death of the unfortunate, and leaves it to the reader to independently choose the variant that appeals to them.

A drowned man appears quite unexpectedly in The Cathedral Folk, a novel-chronicle written by Nikolai Leskov in 1872. The novel tells of difficult, sometimes poignantly sad, sometimes amusing events in the lives of priests in a city that is as reserved as it is out-of-the-way. Leskov allows one of his characters, Barnabas Prepotensky, a caricature of the nihilist Bazarov, to commit a blasphemous act more befitting of characters in the works of the writer and poet Daniil Ivanovich Kharms:

The mother of Varnavka, a poor baker of communion bread, told me today in tears that the physician and mayor, probably out of malice or in mockery of her son, had given him this drowned man, and that he, Varnavka, in his stupidity, had accepted the gift, and boiled the dead corpse in the cauldron in which she had hitherto peacefully washed her linen, that he had poured the broth under an apple tree, then gathered the bones and transported them to the provincial town, and that for this she feared her precious son would be taken for a murderer with the bones of this man.

It is difficult to imagine a history being given to a drowned man who will, after death, be boiled in a cauldron, in order to then become an anatomical manual in the hands of a half-mad naturalist.

In the works of such realist writers as Dmitry Narkisovich Mamin-Sibiryak, drowned men function more as decorations than as independent narrative elements. The drowned man in the work of a realist writer of the end of the nineteenth century often differed little from a log or branch floating along a river. So in his 1883 “Fighters” essay about spring rafting on the Chusovaya River in the Urals, Mamin-Sibiryak writes:

By Kumysh, we had already met several broken barges. One of them had been cut through by ice. A number of drowned men lay on the shore under matting.

In a word, the drowned man differs significantly from the drowned woman—and it is here that one finds the central opposition in the representation of the drowned in general. There is a mass of stories in which the denouement is the suicide of a main or a secondary heroine in water, but men, when they do take a “watery” death, more often than not do so either by accident, or ridiculously—or the author simply seems not to see any point in explaining to the reader why the drowned man became a drowned man. The drowned man fulfils his purpose in becoming a part of the landscape.

Mumu and Turgenevic neurosis

Probably the second drowned figure in Russian literature after poor Liza is Mumu from Turgenev’s eponymous story, published in 1852.

The ward of the mute serf Gerasim has permanently settled in everyday culture—it is significant that specialists in Moscow topology show “the very” places where Karamzin’s heroine and the animal from Turgenev’s story met their ends. If it is difficult to definitively name the pond in which Liza drowned herself, then the name of the river where Gerasim drowned Mumu is well-known—it is the Moskva River. Today, the Krymsky Bridge rises approximately above that place, and, not far from there, on Ostozhenka, opposite the Moscow State Linguistic University, the wooden manor house where Turgenev’s mother lived—she would become the prototype of the shrew-lady in “Mumu”—still stands to this day.

Before examining Turgenev’s drowned in detail and putting forward a theory about the peculiarities of their genesis in his creative imagination, I would like briefly to return to Nikolai Gogol. In the already mentioned “May Night,” the evil stepmother-witch torments her soon-to-be-drowned stepdaughter, appearing to her at night in the form of an ominous black cat. Even after her suicide, Pannochka cherishes the hope of one day drowning the witch, and she succeeds in this at the end of the tale.

In 1902, the memoirs of the lady-in-waiting Alexandra Smirnova, a close friend of Gogol’s, were published in the magazine Russkaya Starina. In particular, Smirnova recounted, from Gogol’s perspective, a story from the author’s childhood. While still very much a child, the future writer, left at home alone for an evening, was very scared by a black cat:

“Kitty, kitty,” I murmured, and, in the hope of reassuring myself, I jumped off, and, grabbing the cat, which came into my arms easily, I ran into the garden, where I threw it into the pond, and, when it tried to swim out and get ashore, pushed it with a pole several times. I was horrified, I was trembling, but at the same time I felt a kind of satisfaction, revenge perhaps for its having scared me. But when it had drowned and the last circles had scattered on the water, and complete peace and silence had set in, suddenly I felt terribly sorry for the “kitty.” I felt remorse. I felt as though I had drowned a man. I cried terribly and only calmed down once my father, to whom I confessed my deed, had whipped me.

The image of a drowned animal in a literary work might be interpreted as a symbol of a painfully experienced, deep trauma, accompanied by a feeling of shame—and now we must return to Turgenev.

“Mumu” makes a good claim to the title of the saddest story about drowning—I remember perfectly how I was brought to tears in my childhood by the injustice of the story, by the pain that appeared when the reliable and strong attachment was broken.

One meets the drowned far more frequently than victims of other elements or unfortunate events in the pages of Turgenev’s works. This gallery of vivid and eerie images includes Vasenka, who mysteriously drowns before his mother’s eyes, and a nameless drowned character (there is nothing surprising this figure’s namelessness given they are not a child, but a man) on whose grave a talking lamb appears.

It might seem that Turgenev simply reproduces the features and signs of the folk life of his time—drowning, if not an ordinary occurrence, was then clearly not a shocking one. However, certain facts of Turgenev’s biography allow a curious if not entirely convincing theory to be put forward: the writer had a certain neurosis directly related to the theme of water and drowning.

The fact is that in 1838 the then twenty-year-old Turgenev sailed on steamer from Saint Petersburg to Lübeck in Germany, and that this journey proved far from a cloudless cruise for the young writer: the ship caught fire off the German coast, and Turgenev had to evade death. Evidence of Turgenev’s not particularly brave behaviour has been preserved in the memoirs of his contemporaries. The literary historian and critic Pavel Annenkov, for example, recalls the rumours that gossip-lovers spread in the capital’s salons in his memoirs:

It was then said, according to the words of witnesses of the disaster, that he had lost his mind from fear, had been excessively agitated on the steamship, called out to his beloved mother and informed his comrades of his misfortune in being the rich son of a widow—though his mother had two sons—and that he should be saved for her.

Evidently, this kind of behaviour from a young and strong man of great height could not have brought about anything but bewilderment and ridicule from those around him—and the notoriety of Turgenev’s “courage” would persist for many a decade.

In the pages of Dostoyevsky’s Demons, one meets the elderly writer Karmazinov. His physical appearance and manner of speaking, along with his clearly Western-oriented attitude, allow the prototype for Dostoyevsky’s character to be guessed with ease—Ivan Turgenev, with whom, at the moment of writing the novel, Dostoyevsky had far from the warmest of relations. Five years before the publication of Demons, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev had met at a German resort in Baden. Fyodor Mikhailovich, who at the time played roulette with great passion and experienced every loss with great irritation, visited Turgenev. This meeting was the culmination of the writers’ opposition. Dostoyevsky’s wife, Anna Grigoryevna (nee Snitkina) wrote down her recollections the prose writers’ meeting, about which she knew from the words of her husband:

Over tea, Fedya recounted to me his visit to Turgenev. According to him, Turgenev was terribly embittered, terribly bilious, and every minute would begin a conversation about his new novel (most likely the novel Smoke). Fedya never once said anything about it. Turgenev is terribly maddened by the newspaper reviews: he says that he was scolded in Golos, in Otechestvennye Zapiski, and in other magazines […] Fedya, as usual, spoke with him somewhat harshly, suggesting, for example, that he buy himself a telescope in Paris, given he lives far from Russia, and that he point the telescope to see what happens there, as otherwise he would not understand anything in it. […] When Fedya said that he had noticed stupidity in Germans, and, besides this, frequent deceit, Turgenev was terribly offended, and declared that with this Fedya had intimately offended him, because he had made himself a German, and was not a Russian at all, but a German.

At the time of his work on Demons, Dostoyevsky would remember this meeting in Baden, as well as the story about the steamer. The chronicler from whose perspective Demons is narrated gives this characterisation of Karmazinov as a writer and person:

A year before, I had read an article of his in a review, written with an immense affectation of naïve poetry, and psychology too. He described the wreck of some steamer on the English coast, of which he had been the witness, and how he had seen the drowning people saved, and the dead bodies brought ashore. All this rather long and verbose article was written solely with the object of self-display. One seemed to read between the lines: “Concentrate yourselves on me. Behold what I was like at those moments. What are the sea, the storm, the rocks, the splinters of wrecked ships to you? I have described all that sufficiently to you with my mighty pen.

It would not be beside the point to pay attention to the consonance of the names “Karamzin" and “Karmazinov”—the first described drowning earnestly, in an way that was unprecedented for the literature of his time, the second is an imitator with a distorted name who uses terrible tragedy to commit an act of graphomanaical self-affirmation.

The piercing bitterness of “Mumu,” the frequent references to drowned figures in Turgenev’s work, even the oral stories about meetings with kikimora or other water-creatures of dubious authenticity documented by the French novelist Guy de Maupassant, a friend of Turgenev, allow us to speak tentatively of the wrier having had an intense reflexive fear before water, as well as an inescapable feeling of guilt and shame around the accident on the ill-fated steamer.

“And the drowned man knocks on the window and at the gate”

As even an inattentive reader will have guessed, the author of this essay has always been fascinated by the literary dead. I would like now to move a little away from the “water” theme and describe an image that shook me to the depths of my soul, although here too we won’t get by without water. When I was ten or twelve years old, I went with my grandmother to the Yeysk resort. We stayed in a quiet family hotel with a view on the sea, and every evening my grandmother would read me poems. Not some short ones, but real poems—I wonder to this day how someone could have remembered so much. And so I heard Nikolay Nekrasov’s 1865 poem “The Railway” on a balcony on a warm summer evening to the cries of hungry seagulls, and to this day the poem seems to me an excellent horror—especially the scene where crowds of the dead stand lined up along the track:

Chu! menacing exclamations were heard!
Stomp and gnashing of teeth;
A shadow ran across the frosty glass...
What is there? Dead crowd!
They overtake the cast-iron road,
They run by sides.
Do you hear the singing?… “On this moonlit night
Love us to see our work!

In this essay, I have lined up the drowned in a similar spirit, so that they too can now be seen as something whole and independent—if all the water on the planet makes up a single world ocean, then all those who meet their deaths in water should make up a single drowned man.

Like water, which changes its physical state, the drowned take on different, sometimes quite unexpected forms. They can be enchanted and naturalistic-realistic, individual in a feminine way and masculine in an impersonal way, they determine fate, become voices of conscience, remain unmoving parts of the landscape, but, undoubtedly, a space for them, as for water, without which not a single creature can live, is found always and everywhere—including in literature.

The drowned did not disappear from Russian literature in the twentieth century. We might recall Daniil Kharms, the genius of the absurd, in whose work onlookers watch a drowning person with melancholy, occasionally remarking: “He will drown,” or Boris Slutsky’s Horses in the Ocean poem… The question “And was there a boy,” which has already become a phraseological unit, owes its appearance to a drowned man—Boris Varavka, from Maxim Gorky’s epic novel The Life of Klim Samgin… These days, however, the conversation about the drowned must be had entirely differently—times are changing, water flows in the opposite direction, and people drown more often, more terribly, and even more senselessly.

Further in English

Aksakov, Sergei Timofeevich. Years of Childhood. Translated by J. D. Duff. London: Edward Arnold, 1916.

Annenkov, Pavel. The Extraordinary Decade: Literary Memoirs. Edited by Arthur P. Mendel. Translated by Irwin R. Titunik. Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1968.

Dostoevskaya, Anna Grigorievna. Dostoevsky Portrayed by his Wife: The Diary and Reminiscences of Mme. Dostoevsky. Translated by S. S. Koteliansky. London: Routledge, 1926.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich. Crime and Punishment. Translated by David McDuff. London: Penguin, 2003.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich. The Adolescent. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky. London: Random House, 2004.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich. Demons. Translated by Robert A. Maguire. London: Penguin, 2008.

Leskov, Nikolai Semyonovich. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Other Stories. Translated by David McDuff. London: Penguin, 1988.

Pushkin, Alexender Sergeevich. The Letters of Alexander Pushkin : Three Volumes in One. Translated by J. Thomas Shaw. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.

Pushkin, Alexender Sergeevich. Alexander Pushkin: Complete Lyrics. London: Alma, 2019.

Somov, Orest Mikhailovich. The Witches of Kyiv and Other Gothic Tales. Selected Works of Orest Somov. Translated by Svitlana Yakovenko. Sova Books, 2016.

Turgenev, Ivan Sergeyevich. Sketches from a Hunters Album: The Complete Edition. Edited and translated by Richard Freeborn. London: Penguin, 1990.

For further reading in Russian, please see the Russian-language version of this article here.

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