Fyodor Sologub – ‘At Times There Comes a Strange Smell Wafting’


Fyodor Sologub was born Fyodor Kuzmich Teternikov on 1 March, 1863, in Saint Petersburg. Accounts of his father’s life evoke Gogol’s The Overcoat and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, for Kuzma Afanasyevich Teternikov was a shoemaker and tailor, and apparently the illegitimate son of a local landowner. When Kuzma Afanasyevich died in 1867, Fyodor’s mother became a domestic servant, and Fyodor and his sister grew up in the house of their mother’s employer.

After discussing Konstantin Balmont, Valery Bryusov, and Zinaida Gippius in his chapter on Russian Symbolism, D. S. Mirsky writes of Sologub, ‘All the writers hitherto mentioned in this chapter came from civilized upper-middle-class families of one of the two capitals. But the greatest and most refined poet of the first generation of symbolists rose from the lower orders, and his strange genius grew under the most unpropitious circumstances’. Despite his difficult childhood, Sologub graduated from a teachers’ institute in Petersburg in 1882, and spent the next decade as a schoolteacher in small towns across the Novgorod, Pskov and Olonets governorates. His first published work was a poem called ‘The Fox and the Hedgehog’, which appeared under the pseudonym ‘Ternikov’ in a children’s magazine in 1884.

In 1892, Sologub returned to take up a teaching position in Petersburg. Back in the capital, he began associating with the leading literary figures of the day, and started writing for Severny Vestnik (‘The Northern Messenger‘). It was as part of this milieu that, in 1893, upon the suggestion of Nikolai Minsky, Fyodor Kuzmich took the pen name ‘Sologub’. In 1894, he published his first short story in Illustrirovanny Mir (‘The Illustrated World‘), entitled ‘Ninochkina oshibka’ (‘Ninochka’s Mistake’). Then in 1896, he published his first three books: a volume of poetry; a collection of his short stories; and a novel entitled Tyazhelye Sny (‘Bad Dreams‘), which he had been working on since 1883.

His novel Melky Bes – translated variously into English as The Little Demon and The Petty Demon – was finished in 1902, but not published in book form until 1907. Drawn from his years teaching in rural Russia, the novel brought Sologub wide literary acclaim and a small measure of celebrity. At this time his small Petersburg apartment – in which Sologub lived with his sister – served as a regular meeting place for authors and artists including Alexander Blok, Mikhail Kuzmin, Léon Bakst, and Teffi. But in 1907, shortly after the publication of Melky Bes, Sologub’s sister died from tuberculosis. The following year he married Anastasia Chebotarevskaya, a translator by profession, and the couple soon moved into a larger apartment and began throwing lavish receptions.

Sologub continued to publish short stories, plays, essays, and translations, and between 1909-1911, the Petersburg publishing house Shipovnki published a twelve-volume edition of his complete works. This was followed between 1913-1914 by a twenty-volume edition of his works, by the publishing house Sirin. The eighteenth-twentieth volumes of this edition contained The Created Legend, a novel in three parts which had been serialised in periodicals since 1908. The Created Legend received only a muted response. Earlier in 1913, Sologub had given a lecture in Petersburg on ‘The Art of These Days’, which was attended by leading intellectuals and met with such praise that Sologub embarked over the next few years on a lecturing tour across Russia.

In 1914, Sologub briefly published and edited his own literary journal, and the following year he began seeing his stories translated into English, courtesy of the translator John Cournos. Despite supporting revolutionary politics for much of the 1900s and 1910s, he proved ill-disposed to the Bolsheviks. Finding his avenues for publication increasingly limited following the October Revolution of 1917, at the beginning of 1919 Sologub applied for permission to leave Russia. Permission finally came in the autumn of 1921; but Sologub’s wife Anastasia committed suicide, jumping from Tuchkov bridge just days before the couple were scheduled to depart.

Sologub would not leave Petersburg without Anastasia, and he published five volumes of original poetry over the following year, then spent the remainder of his life working on translations. He was elected to several honorary positions; and in 1924 the fortieth anniversary of his literary career was celebrated with toasts at the Alexandrinsky Theatre from Kuzmin, Andrei Bely, and Osip Mandelstam. Sologub died after an illness at the end of 1927, and was buried in Smolensky cemetery.

Mirsky posits Sologub’s body of work between a Manichean idealism – with its typical dichotomy of the beautiful and the good set against the ugly and the evil, and in Sologub’s version God equated with the demiurge-creator – and a perverse sensuality centred around the feet. He writes that ‘A heroine who walks barefoot is like his sign manual in almost every one of Sologub’s novels and short stories’. Formally, he identifies Sologub’s poetry as ‘Victorian’ in its small but precise vocabulary, and refined use of metre; but states also that his language can become ‘cruder and richer and more racy’ in his darker pieces. Mirsky considers Sologub’s ‘idealistic lyrics […] his greatest achievement’, and called these – at the time of his writing in 1926 – the ‘most refined and most delicate of all modern Russian poetry’.

The following poem is from early in Sologub’s career, written in 1898, and first collected in 1904. It captures something of the earthy pessimism, abutting against a mysterious malevolence, which is characteristic of Sologub’s early poetry. As per a previous piece on Alexander Blok, I will provide the poem in the Russian; in my own transliteration for the sake of the sound patterns; and in English translation.

Russian Text

Порой повеет запах странный,-

Его причины не понять,-

Давно померкший, день туманный

Переживается опять.

Как встарь, опять печально всходишь

На обветшалое крыльцо,

Засов скрипучий вновь отводишь,

Вращая ржавое кольцо,-

И видишь тесные покои,

Где половицы чуть скрипят,

Где отсырелые обои

В углах тихонько шелестят,

Где скучный маятник маячит,

Внимая скучным, злым речам,

Где кто-то молится да плачет,

Так долго плачет по ночам.


5 октября 1898

English Transliteration

Poroy puhvyeet zapakh strannuy, –

Yego pricheenuy neh puhnyat, –

Davno puhmyerkshee, den toomannuy

Perezhevaetsyah opyat.

Kak vstar, opyat pechalnuh vskhodish

Na obvyetshaloe kruyltso,

Zasov skripoochee vnov uhtvodish,

Vrashayah rzhavoe kuhltso, –

Ee veedish tyesnuye puhkoi,

Gdyeh puhloveetsuy choot skripyat,

Gdyeh otsuyreluye uhboi

V ooglakh tikhonkuh shileestyat,

Gdyeh skoochnuy mayatnik mayachit,

Vneemayah skoochnuym, zluym recham,

Gdyeh kto-to moleetsyah da plachet,

Tak dolguh plachet po nocham.

English Translation

At times there comes a strange smell wafting;

From whence its source I cannot say.

But I relive what’s been dark often,

A kind of smoldering foggy day.

Like then, once more I climb up sadly

The run-down porch at evening

And once again unlatch the creaking

Bolt turning on the rusty ring.

And see the narrow rooms before me,

Where every floorboard squeaks and purrs,

Where the mildewed, damp wallpaper

In the corners slightly stirs,

The dull pendulum dimly swinging

Listens as evil speeches bite,

And for so long someone’s been praying

And crying hard throughout the night.


Translated by Vladimir Markov and Merrill Sparks

Markov, V. and Sparks, M. Modern Russian Poetry (MacGibbon & Kee, 1966)

Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature (London; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968)