Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

“Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: A Sketch”

"Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk"
Nikolai Leskov

PLOT SUMMARY: “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” follows Katerina Lvovna Izmailova, the young wife of the wealthy merchant Zinovy Borisovich Izmailov. The marriage is one of convenience rather than choice; as the narrator, an inhabitant of the Mtsensk District, notes early on in the novella, “[Katerina] did not, however, love him or feel any attraction towards him - it was simply that he asked for her hand and she, being poor, could not afford to be choosy” (3). Blamed for her husband’s impotence by her father-in-law, Boris Timofeyevich Izmailov, her barren state renders her both invisible and powerless in the household. Day after day, Katerina struggles to endure the fierce boredom of her isolation as Zinovy and Boris attend to their business. Her restlessness leads her to take advantage of her husband’s absence and flirt with the newly-hired clerk Sergei. He visits her room soon after, and the two begin a love affair until Boris catches Sergei leaving Katerina’s quarters. Although Sergei is quickly punished by Boris, beating him unconscious and promising to imprison him, Katerina poisons and kills her father-in-law the next day. When her husband returns home, she kills him too.

Several months after murdering Zinovy, Katerina discovers that she is pregnant. In view of this potential heir and the unexplained disappearance of her husband, she petitions to have the family business transferred to her own name. This plan quickly fails with the arrival of Fedya, Zinovy’s young nephew and heir to the estate. With the help of Sergei, she murders the young boy, suffocating him to death. Unbeknownst to Katerina and her lover, a group of townspeople witness the murder. They besiege the house, and the two are promptly arrested and sentenced to exile. While he holds Katerina responsible for his fate and resists her advances, Katerina remains infatuated with Sergei. It is only until Katerina catches Sergei with Sonetka, another convict, that her love for him begins to wane. By the end of the novella, a now reserved and withdrawn Katerina throws herself and Sonetka overboard as the prisoners cross the Volga.

ANALYSIS: In “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” the domestic sphere is depicted as a site of female economic and sexual subordination in which Katerina’s “fiery and exuberant” nature is stifled by bourgeois notions of marriage and family. Women in nineteenth-century European society were expected to assume an obedient, passive manner, tend to matters of the house, and, most importantly, birth and rear children. Because Katerina fails to produce an heir for Zinovy, she is rendered useless. With no real means for mobility, either economic or social, Katerina is confined to the oppressive sphere of domesticity. The Izmailov household quite literally is a representation of this: the merchant’s house is notably “barred and bolted” and circumscribed by a “high fence and unchained watchdogs” (4). Domesticity, then, becomes a form of imprisonment for Katerina.

The oppression of the domestic sphere is quickly replaced by the cruelties of exile. Before heading north to Siberia with a group of convicts, Sergei and Katerina are branded, flogged, and shackled. Katerina faces the abuse of Sergei and Sonetka; the two relentlessly taunt her, and when Katerina retaliates, spitting in Sergei’s eyes, he promises revenge. Sergei and another convict break into her cell, lashing her back. Katerina, then, is ultimately punished for stepping out of the prescribed gender boundaries dictated by patriarchal hegemony. The novella’s ending is further evidence of the ways in which the patriarchal constraints of the nineteenth century can oppress and crush women, so much so that they are driven to suicide. Such forces continue to haunt her until her death, as she pictures the dead bodies of Boris, Zinovy, and Fedya floating on the surface of the Volga river.


“First, there was the boredom of life in a barred and bolted merchant’s house with a high fence and unchained watchdogs running about the yard, an unrelieved boredom that more than once reduced the young woman to a state of depression bordering on stupor…” (4)

“’Like that, is it? I’m well and truly grateful. I was waiting for something like that,’ Katerina Lvovna cried out. ‘Only now, my dear friend, I’m the one who’s in charge here’” (31)

“Katerina Lvovna tried to remember a prayer; she moved her lips, but all they could whisper was ‘What good times we had together, and how we delighted in the long autumn nights. And how, through terrible death, we robbed people of the light of day’” (62)

BIOGRAPHY: Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) was a novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and journalist. He began his literary career in the early 1860s; Leskov, a controversial journalist, attacked corrupt police, doctors, and distilleries. He settled in St. Petersburg, writing under the name Stebnitsky — a decidedly provocative Polish pseudonym, given the anti-Polish sentiment in Russia. Leskov evaded his critics for a year by touring western Russia and Europe. However, undeterred by hostility, Leskov would return to St. Petersburg, publishing an anti-revolutionary novel, No Exit, as well as Daggers Drawn, a political satire criticizing nihilist communes six years later. Such novels made him hateful to the new generation and suspect to the older one. Leskov was condemned as a “vicious libel”; popular journals boycotted him, harming his career.

In 1864, Leskov spent the autumn as his brother’s guest at Kiev University. He locked himself in the student punishment cells, hoping to work his nerves into the necessary state of frenzy to write “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.” Leskov reportedly said years later, “While I was writing my ‘Lady Macbeth,’ the effect of overstrained nerves and isolation almost drove me to delirium. At times the horror became unbearable; my hair stood on end” (Emerson 60). The novella was published a year later in Dostoevsky’s Epoch magazine. Although it was ignored by contemporary critics, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” was later hailed for its depiction of an uncompromising, dominant woman, a theme he would continue to explore in other works such as “The Amazon” and “The Life of a Peasant Woman.” Leskov died in St. Petersburg on March 5, 1895, but his work, especially “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” would retain its popularity — and gain new notoriety for its overt eroticism — when Soviet-era Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich adapted the novella for the operatic stage.


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Nikolay Semyonovich Leskov”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Mar. 2021,

Emerson, Caryl. “Back to the Future: Shostakovich's Revision of Leskov's 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District'.” Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 1989, pp. 59–78. JSTOR,

Rayfield, Donald. “Introduction.” Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov, edited by Donald Rayfield, translated by Robert Chandler, New York Review of Books, New York, NY, 2020, pp. vii-xviii.


Aizlewood, Robin. “Leskov's ‘Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo Uezda’: Composition and Symbolic Framework.” The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 85, no. 3, 2007, pp. 401–440. JSTOR,
Robin Aizlewood analyzes the way in which Leskov constructs recurring and overlapping details in “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” Aizlewood begins her essay by examining the novella’s three focal motifs: water and its symbolic connection to life and death; the Izmailov house as a site of domestic imprisonment; and the garden as an emblem of sexual pleasure.

Wells, Elizabeth A. “‘The New Woman’: Lady Macbeth and Sexual Politics in the Stalinist Era.” Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 13, no. 2, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 163–89,
Although the focus of “‘The New Woman’” is primarily concerned with Shostakovich’s adaptation of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” Elizabeth Wells explores how the novella’s depiction of female sexuality was translated into a libretto for modern opera. She discusses the ways in which Shostakovich transforms Katerina from insatiable sexual and criminal aggressor to sexually liberated but tragically betrayed heroine. Wells argues that Shostakovich’s re-characterization and depiction of Katerina mirror the social tensions of the 1920s-30s sexual revolution in Russia.

Wigzell, Faith. “Russian Dream Books and Lady Macbeth's Cat.” The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 66, no. 4, 1988, pp. 625–630. JSTOR, Accessed 9 Dec. 2021.
Faith Wigzell examines Leskov’s use of dream sequences in “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” specifically highlighting the way in which the friendly cat that reappears in Katerina’s dreams is a symbol of her sensuality. Wigzell discusses Leskov’s approach to writing these scenes, which she argues is not rooted in psychology but rather informed by traditional narrative techniques of the European novel.


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