In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling


Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
The History of a Town 
by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, translated by I.P. Foote.
William Meeuws, 192 pp., £9, March 1980, 0 902672 33 9
Show More
Show More

The French improved their lot at the end of the 18th century by chopping off their oppressors’ heads. Not long afterwards, the inhabitants of Glupov in Russia had a sadly different experience. They had enjoyed a period of unparalleled prosperity under a governor whose head was stuffed with truffles, when the marshal of the nobility, an irrepressible gourmand, brought back the bad time by literally swallowing the source of their contentment.

The author of this fable, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-89), was much concerned with heads, with the stuff inside them, and with their relationship to the body; and the discomfiting episode of the truffle-stuffed head reflects a profound and bleak analysis of the relationship of ruler to ruled in Russia. Saltykov – Shchedrin was his pen-name – was Russia’s leading satirist during a crucial period in her history. His literary output coincided roughly with the reign of Alexander II, an era which began with reform – notably, the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 – and ended in a reaction against revolutionary activity which paved the way to the events of 1917. Saltykov saw that a few liberal measures were not curing Russia’s social ills: their roots went too deep into her autocratic history, were part of the structure of the state. A long and successful career in the civil service, bringing him close to the machinery of authority, may have contributed to his angry and pessimistic view of the system. At any rate, he gave it up for literature, and for 16 years edited the radical journal, Notes of the Fatherland.

Censorship meant that a lot of his satire took the form of fables and allegorical sketches, but – partly because of the topicality of this satirical work – he is known outside Russia mainly for his one long novel. The Golovlyov Family. It is commonly described as chronicling the decline of a landowning family – as it were, a sequel to War and Peace; and it has been suggested that it draws on Saltykov’s first-hand experience of that milieu, which would go a long way to explain his gloomy outlook: but to see it as social history or even as realistic novel is to miss the point. It’s certainly not about economic changes. Although Golovlyovs seek their fortune beyond the estate, they can and do retreat to it when the going gets rough. They come to various sticky ends through what might be called lack of character, yet their lack of character in another sense makes their troubles seem curiously unreal, and unaffecting, as would not be the case in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. They may be weak and dissolute, but that’s beside the point: the sense of spiritual malaise makes individual character, as well as concepts of time and place, appear irrelevant.

Life at Golovlyovo is strikingly characterised by its inhabitants’ casual use of verbal violence, yet the atmosphere of the place is one of stifling cosiness. ‘I’ll kill you!’ drops from the lips of the matriarch, Arina Petrovna, and her son is told: ‘She’ll eat you!’ This old dame is hard-hearted and obsessed with money, yet the chumminess with which she fusses round a pregnant servant, keeping the menfolk out of these mysteries, is as much as any dim-witted knocked-up serf girl could wish. Her son Porfiry, who becomes the master, is known in the bosom of the family as Yudushka (little Judas) and, frequently, as ‘bloodsucker’: he lives off the labour of others, but he doesn’t do any ostensible harm, keeping to his nest, drinking nice hot cups of tea, saying his prayers, a little accounting and fornication on the side, while he keeps up an unending homily about Christian morality and the joys of family life.

The boredom of this life and his incessant insistent empty talk drive Yudushka’s family and servants away. Head of the household, at the last he is alone, entirely cut off from the others. When gambling ruins his son’s army career Yudushka refuses to help him, invoking the ‘authorities’ who have decreed that the lad be punished. Even Arina Petrovna has enough at this point, and curses Yudushka. He reacts to this, because he reacts to formulas – a mother’s curse is a bad thing: but has no sympathy for his son’s predicament. Hypocrites pretend what they don’t feel, and in this category Yudushka is Russia’s gold medallist: but the real point is that he is aware of nothing, except superficial forms. His existence is a matter of card games, meal-time rituals and word-patterns.

The sense of that awful divorce from life is unforgettable. Not so much a novel as a nightmare, The Golovlyov Family is not typical of the work that made its author’s reputation in Russia, and we must now thank I.P. Foote for bringing us the first English version of The History of a Town, Saltykov’s satirical masterpiece, and for reproducing so accurately its calculated stylistic effects.

The History of a Town, purportedly a chronicle rediscovered and retold by the narrator, begins with the incompetent tribe of Headbeaters seeking a prince to bring order into their lives. Disdained by several on account of their idiocy and deciding to find a stupid prince whom they would let eat honey cakes and who would not bother them, they end up subject to a clever prince, who dubs them ‘Glupovites’ (Stupid Folk) for wishing this bondage on themselves. The story obviously recalls the legendary invitation made by the Russian tribes to certain Scandinavian princes in the ninth century, and is the first of many historical parallels, most of which led Saltykov’s contemporaries to believe, when the work was published in 1869-70, that it was a send-up of Russia’s more recent history. They could easily see, for instance, in the town-governess Amalya Stockfisch the German-born Catherine II; while a solemn progress across the town common by Governor Ferdyshchenko, ‘former orderly to Prince Potemkin’, would have been understood as casting ridicule on Potemkin and Catherine’s progress through Russia. These and many other allusions are elucidated by I.P. Foote in his editorial matter, but he also points to Saltykov’s own statement of intention: that he was not writing a parody of recent Russian history so much as pointing out the basic evils of the country’s system. If The History of a Town’s relevance were exclusively to the 18th century, and its satirical power depended only on transparent allusions, it would scarcely have been worth translating. Its significance lies in its conception of the relationship between authority and the masses, with implications which would not necessarily be lost on Saltykov’s readers in the Soviet Union, where he is officially approved as having condemned the Czarist autocracy.

The chronicler ends his introduction with a fine rhetorical flourish. Glupov, like Rome, was built on seven hills: ‘The only difference is that ... Rome was infected with turbulence. Glupov – with meekness; in Rome the plebeians ran riot, in Glupov it has been the authorities.’ The Glupovites are ‘dazed’ and childlike. A new governor finds them after a bad patch sucking their fists and ‘covered with hair’: one might mistake them momentarily for cuddly toys, but the activities of the governors which give the story its wild impetus plunge the Glupovites into a macabre, erotic and sinister world reminiscent of the nursery only in the primitiveness of its impulses.

The target of Saltykov’s satire is not just the individual peccadilloes of the governors, but also the communal connivance of the townsfolk, who are so busy pushing each other into the pond and off the bell-tower in the name of ‘authority’ that they scarcely ever question the nature or rights of that authority. They are simply material for bureaucratic processing through ‘measures’. One governor, finding there are not ‘measures’ enough, seeks to promulgate new ‘second-class’ laws, appropriate to Glupov’s status, and, denied permission (it’s not in his superiors’ rule-book), has to settle for regulating the baking of pies.

This type of satire, reminiscent of Chekhov’s juvenilia, was a commonplace of Russian journalism. That Saltykov could do better, and use the grotesque as brilliantly as Gogol, is demonstrated in the story of the governor who, unnervingly, utters only two phrases: ‘I’ll break you!’ and ‘I’ll not have it!’ Then his head is found empty on his desk, ‘like some flamboyant paperweight’: it contained a musical-box mechanism.

But Saltykov’s most powerful pictures of repression for repression’s sake have a grim single-mindedness absent in Gogol. The ideal of the last governor, Ugryum-Burcheev, is to see everybody regimented in military camps: the uniformity of life there and his system of spies – based on the real-life activities of Arakcheev – provide direct inspiration for modern satires on the totalitarian state. Ugryum-Burcheev’s means are not justified by any end: the shadowy figures marching through his mind’s eye (it is an image of extraordinary power) move towards an abyss. Ugryum-Burcheev himself has no suppositions about anything at all, but recently, comments the narrator, ‘the idea of combining the principle of the straight line with the principle of bestowing universal happiness has been developed into an administrative theory of some complexity ... not devoid of certain ideological niceties.’ The ominous implications of these words are now obvious.

Less obvious is Saltykov’s use of disconcerting shifts in style – for example, from deliberate explicitness to a reassuring blandness and back again – in order to convey an impression of insecurity. He handles superbly the literary and official language familiar to his readers. In accomplished parodies he satirises the whole spirit of chronicles, as in the comment, apropos the charging Headbeaters drowning in a bog: ‘Many showed zeal for their native land.’ He also has Gogol’s trick of semantic manipulation, but unlike Gogol can be erotic or crude: two aspiring town-governesses on the rampage ‘ate babies, cut off women’s breasts and ate them too’. At one moment he seems to be writing a fable, at the next a realistic novel, as when the mob corners one governor’s mistress and real fear breaks in, followed immediately by a reversion to the chronicler’s unctuous tones; or when a man is trapped in a burning shed, and the cavorting townsfolk suddenly see a hideous dance of death. Unlike Gogol, Saltykov never gives the impression that he himself scarcely distinguished fantasy from reality, and one result is that his narrative has moments of genuine pathos. Where he was critical of the system, it is possible to discern intense feeling in the dense, allusive prose which the censorship made necessary.

The History of a Town may be read on different levels, but each element is inseparable from the others and the double-think of the style reflects the world it describes. At one point an inhabitant of Glupov decides to investigate the heretical idea that frogs might have souls like men – and they do, he says, ‘but only a small one, and not immortal’. The spirit of this remark – that the essential nature of things is subject to infinite qualifications and bureaucratic adjustments – pervades Saltykov’s world of empty heads and mindless bodies.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.