Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov (1831 – 1895) is a major work that is often forgotten or ignored. The whole history of this work – and its derivatives – is controversial and shocking. Yet, what else could be expected from a story that showcases violence, love, ennui, sex, revenge, obsession, betrayal, and societal classes? What is at the heart of the story – money? Love? The story is shocking, disturbing, gripping, and wild. I maintain it is one of those stories that a reader either hates or loves, there’s no middle ground, and they never forget it once they read it (for better or worse).
In our parts such characters sometimes turn up that, however many years ago you met them, you can never recall them without an inner trembling. – Chapter 1
This story first appeared in the magazine Epoch in 1865. Epoch was a literary magazine published by Dostoyevsky; it featured chapbooks, articles, and serials in its short two-year span. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District has 15 short chapters and was likely titled to imitate Turgenev’s 1859 Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District.
The story then was the subject of a four-act opera by Dmitri Shostakovich. It was first performed in January of 1934. Here is where the most well-known controversy comes in. The opera was a success until it was attacked by an anonymous article in the Pravda. (Legend has it that the author was Stalin). Nevertheless, the opera was then banned in Russia by the Communist Party for thirty years and Shostakovich suffered the fallout for this condemnation/censorship.
In 1962, the story was made into a Polish film by Andrzej Wajda entitled: Siberian Lady Macbeth. Finally, in 1966, it was made into a Russian film by director Mikhail Shapiro: entitled Katerina Izmailova. It was an entrant (one of twenty-four) into the 1967 Cannes Film Festival.
That is the bare bones history of this piece. The main character is Katerina Lvovna, who is dubbed the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. She was born in the Kursk province and at age 23, married a merchant named Zinovy Borisych Ismailov. Zinovy is an averagely wealthy merchant who runs a mill. He is a widower. His previous marriage lasted twenty years and produced no offspring. At the property also resides Zinovy’s father, Boris Timofeich, and a variety of workers.
Katerina was born and raised in poverty, we are not told much directly, but compared to her new married life we assume she grew up in freedom and simplicity. The contrast here is relevant particularly to the time in which it was written. The existence of a raznochintsy social class (meaning: a variety of middle-class persons) is often overlooked in understanding Russian society. It is one aspect that Leskov, unlike other writers, focused on with great success. The manor in which she now lives is boring. Everything is strict, stark, clean, and business-like. Katerina spends the first five years of her marriage in boredom. She moves from room to room in the manor doing nothing.
Katerina Lvovna would wander and wander about the empty rooms, start yawning with boredom. . . she would doze off for an hour or two, then wake up – again the same Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant’s house… Chapter 1
Zinovy eventually leaves on a business-trip. Katerina ventures out to the storehouses and stables. Here, she interacts with the workers and meets Sergei, a farmhand who has a reputation for being a womanizer. In chapter three, the sly Sergei has had his way with Katerina.
Boris finds out and has Sergei whipped mercilessly and locked up on the property. Katerina kills Boris in Chapter 5. Chapter 5 has a spare four paragraphs, but Leskov manages to show the abrupt change in Katerina. Or is it really a change at all? Perhaps Katerina has always been thus, as if her personality were behind a dam that has now cracked. This is my opinion, because Leskov begins chapter two by telling us:
In the sixth spring of Katerina Lvovna’s marriage, the Izmailov’s mill dam burst. At that time, as if on purpose, a lot of work had been brought to the mill, and the breach proved enormous: water went under the lower sill, and to stop it up slapdash was impossible.
And compare this with the words of chapter 5, right after she poisons Boris and frees Sergei from his imprisonment:
Having settled this matter, Katerina Lvovna let herself go entirely. She had not been a timid one before, but now there was no telling what she would think up for herself; she strutted about, gave orders to everyone in the house, and would not let Sergei leave her side.
The rest of the story details Katerina’s chilling obsession with Sergei. The two lovers kill Zinovy, after he confronts Katerina about her adultery. Unlike so many stories with this theme, Katerina is brazen, daring, and fearless. The most disturbing and chilling part of the story, for me, was how Katerina coldly cleans up the blood from Zinovy’s murder.
Katerina Lvovna took the copper basin and the soapy sponge. – Chapter 8
The story proceeds further to include cruel murder of Katerina’s nephew. Sergei confesses and the two lovers are sentenced to prison. Katerina’s obsession with Sergei continues, though he now finds her repugnant and disturbing. He often savagely taunts and menaces her. He remains a womanizer in the prison convoy, although it is difficult to say if this is because it is in his nature, or if these actions are to spite Katerina. Unlike a lot of Western stories, Katerina does not become melodramatic or overemotional. Instead, Leskov tells us that the result of all of Sergei’s taunts has made Katerina emotionless.
Katerina lvovna, however, was by now offended by nothing. Having wept out her tears, she turned to stone, and with a wooden calm prepared to go to the roll call. – Chapter 15
Katerina’s obsession once again drives her to a murder-suicide. This story is consistently shocking and brutal. The characters are so much more realistic and human than many portrayals of such people. I think this is because Leskov spent much of his life around criminal investigators and criminal court offices. Leskov’s brutal honesty in this story is what makes the story so good – it is upsettingly real and tragic. After reading it, one should go back and re-read chapters and continue to ponder the story. It is really well-done and though it is hardly a tale of good morals, the psychology and the characterizations are outstanding. It will haunt readers.