A Study in Russian


by George Piliev


In the official biography of Sherlock Holmes, written by his Boswell and loyal friend Dr Watson, there is only one mention of the great detective’s arrival in Russia. In A Scandal in Bohemia we are told that he visited Odessa in connection with ‘The Case of the Trepoff Murder’. But in the short passage offered to the reader below, light is cast on certain circumstances of another, longer and less well-known trip, which the Baker Street consulting detective undertook to this distant and mysterious but, nonetheless, wonderful country. Paradoxical as it may sound, this journey was simultaneously virtual and real. The information concerning this visit is fragmentary and most of it has vanished in the mists of time. But the circumstances of this visit do excite curiosity, are not without interest and, surely, are worth a few pages and minutes of time. And so….

12 December 1893. Tuesday. St Petersburg. Let us imagine a clear winter’s day. Our boots crunch the white snow, the frost crackles and bites, but the cold air is filled with sunshine and laughter. The streets and boulevards of the city of Peter the Great are filled with happy, merry, passers-by. They are all smiles and full of the joy of life, because the New Year is nigh. The New Year in Russia is a very special festival, joyful and unclouded, because the Russian irrational perhaps is as eternal as the fierce faith in it, the belief in perhaps better times, a magic time of change. Why, it is part of nature! Midnight will chime, a New Year will dawn and happiness and success are on their way. In Russia, the first days of the New Year turn the most convinced sceptic into a romantic who, in the depths of his soul, believes that every cherished dream will be fulfilled. Hark to those midnight chimes!
But that will be on 31 December and this is 12 December, the honeyed eve of the festival, the festive awaiting of the festival, the anticipation of which is, at times, more pleasurable than its actual arrival.

It was on such a day that there occurred an unnoticed but a very important event. Sherlock Holmes arrived in Russia.
The immortal private detective from Baker Street, called to life by the inquisitive mind, rich imagination but, also, material needs of a modest Southsea doctor, Arthur Conan Doyle, first appeared before his readers in November, 1886, on the pages of A Study in Scarlet, which appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887. But the march to immortal fame was to come only five years later. In July, 1891, The Strand Magazine, recently founded by the perspicacious George Newnes, published the first of fifty-six stories (known today as Sherlockiana or The Canon). This was A Scandal in Bohemia. Its success was phenomenal! Humungous! Two or three more months, two or three more stories and the new literary hero had conquered the country, a lasting conquest, perhaps, forever. Two and a half years later his fame reached Russia.

This happened, as you and I now know, on 12 December, 1893. That was the day on which the fortieth issue of a popular magazine, The Star, came out. It was published by Piotr Petrovitch Soikin, a devoted fan of adventure stories. Soikin was the first to introduce Sherlock Holmes to Russia’s reading public and, having done so, this eminent worthy continued to bring Sherlock Holmes’s exploits before the public through his magazines Nature & People, as well as The World of Adventure, which were the first to publish every new exploit. From February to November 1909 Soikin brought out in five thousand pages (twenty volumes) The Complete Works of Conan Doyle and followed this up with two additional volumes.

And so, the Russian reader became acquainted, for the first time, with a Russian-speaking Sherlock Holmes in The Speckled Band, when The Star was published.

The new literary hero must have been received well, because the following year saw the publication in The Star of The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet and The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. In 1876 the baton passed from The Star to the popular Russian publication Niva (The Field), which hospitably opened its pages to the Red-Headed League and (yet again) The Blue Carbuncle. A year later Niva No. 5 of 31 January 1898, published Professor Moriarty, The Adventure of the Final Problem. On 23 February 1898, in Petersburg – hurrah! – the first Sherlock Holmes stories in book form, a 143-page collection entitled Notes from the Famous Detective and consisting of The Adventure of Silver Blaze, The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott’ and The Adventure of the Reigate Squires. In December of the same year, as part of a 12-volume free monthly supplement to the Petersburg newspaper Dawn, A Study in Scarlet was published in Russia for the first time. It was translated from German(!), so it wasn’t entirely surprising that the hero’s surname sounded somewhat Spanish, Golmez, and that he lives on Bakkerstrasse and is referred to as Herr.

Such were the steps the great London detective was to take on Russian soil. It didn’t spell success as yet. Let’s call it a preliminary acquaintanceship, timid, coincidental, but what is coincidence if not a rod thrown at the wheel of fate speeding towards a prepared place in the universe.

And the place made ready in Russia for Conan Doyle’s brilliant creation was no less enviable than the one in his native land. What had started as a coincidence, an accident, grew to become habitual. Sherlock Holmes made a lasting entry into Russian society.

Amongst those who were first to popularize Sherlock Holmes in Russia were the brothers Panteleyeff, who published a remarkable monthly magazine, The Herald of Foreign Literature. Working for this magazine were the best translators of the time, able to select the best new literature abroad and bring it to the attention (and judgement) of the Russian reading public. This is why, in 1901, as a supplement to their magazine, the Panteleyeffs issued, for the first time in Russia (and very probably in the world), a three-volume edition of the works of Conan Doyle, consisting of most of The Canon available at the time, viz, vol. 1, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Notes; vol. 2, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes; and vol. 3, From John Watson’s Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. A large number of the stories in this collection appeared in Russian for the first time, including The Sign of Four. This was, indeed, a unique edition but, in Russia today, there is hardly a library that has a complete set. The translations were the work of M.P. Voloshinova, to whom a very special thank you!

And so, at the start of the twentieth century, as the brilliant era of Queen Victoria was ending, the era of Sherlock Holmes was just getting under way in Russia.

While the 3-volume Panteleyeff edition was coming out in July, F.I. Miturnikoff, a Petersburg publisher, put out a 253-page The Famous Detective’s Notes.

And so, by the end of 1901, this is the Sherlock Holmes picture in Russia: six publications in magazine form, two books and a 3-volume set.

Now this was already something, but the major breakthrough was to come in the spring of 1902 when The Strand Magazine was to complete the publication of, arguably, the most famous of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was the first after an eight-year silence brought about by the ‘death’ of the great detective when he went over the Reichenbach Falls. In a fit of unparalleled enthusiasm and loyalty, fans besieged the English and American editorial offices of The Strand Magazine. The issue flew all around the world at lightning speed, by post or whatever other means presented itself. Of course, it got to Russia. The success abroad was reflected in Russia, where it swept up and down the land. Russian publishers reacted instantaneously. There is a saying to the effect that, while it takes a while to harness horses, the actual ride is swift. This is how it was with this new Sherlock Holmes. The first edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles came out in London on 25 March 1902 and by 10 April the Panteleyeff brothers had already received the necessary official permission from the Russian censor to publish a Russian translation. Less than a month later, the Panteleyeff brothers published, in the May edition, a new, fairly exact translation of it. One thousand copies were set side and sold in book form in June. A third edition of three thousand was published in September by D. Yefimoff’s publishing house in Moscow.

The success of the story (read Sherlock Holmes) amongst Russian readers was breathtaking and saw the start of Sherlockomania. Publishers began to publish anything they could lay their hands on and, during the short period between the summer of 1902 and the end of 1903, a score of books emerged. Incomplete data, just for the five years between 1902 and 1907, shows that no less than twenty publishers issued Sherlock Holmes. As regards the actual texts, one has to admit that, on the whole, the translations were weak, many were garbled, with bits and pieces of their own manufacture thrown in by translators. Few were worthy of the original. Amongst those that were an exception to the general rule, was a four-volume edition from V.I. Gubinsky entitled The Adventures of the Detective Sherlock Holmes, which came out in Petersburg between 1902 and 1905. Every volume had a print run of 3,500, considerable for Russia in those days. This edition went into three further printings in nearly double figures. A particular feature of this edition was that it was the first illustrated edition, showing the canonical ‘portrait’ of Sherlock Holmes by the German painter Richard Gutschmidt. The illustrations were taken from the 3-volume 1902 German edition published in Stuttgart by Robert Lutz Verlag.

In December, 1893, English and American readers were in a state of shock to read, in The Adventure of the Final Solution*, of the premature death of Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls. Russian readers did not register the same sense of loss and shock because they had become acquainted with Sherlock Holmes later. Despite this, when Sherlock Holmes miraculously survived and returned, the interest and affection displayed was no less considerable than elsewhere. His triumphant return was now greeted with no less acclaim in Russia than abroad. The Adventure of the Empty House, which records Holmes’s return, appeared in New York in Colliers Weekly Magazine on 26 September 1903, and already on 13 November of the same year, Soikin, in his magazine Nature & People published a translation.

The ‘resurrection’ of Sherlock Holmes only increased the sensational excitement in connection with him. New publishers, their finger on the public pulse, published Conan Doyle’s stories as soon as they appeared. For example, between January and September, 1904, the Panteleyeff brothers**, in their revamped New Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science and Art, published twelve of the thirteen stories which later became the collection known as The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Except that this time, Russian publishers decided to forestall events. The first edition of this collection of stories came out in New York in February, 1905, but in Russia it was already out in October, 1904 (but without The Adventure of the Second Stain).

The name of the private detective from Baker Street was not just a matter of renown, but it came to be used as a common noun. For three decades, a synonym for the word ‘detective’ had been Monsieur Lecoq, agent of the Criminal Investigation police from the works of Emile Gaboriau, but now it became the eponym (and is still so to this very day), Sherlock Holmes. He cast a spell over the hearts and minds of thousands of Russian fans. He was no longer a creature of his creator, but now belonged to everybody, a supranational phenomenon. Wildly successful plays were staged of his exploits, little boys imitated him, adults tried to imitate his methods, he was parodied, his name graced signboards and goods labels. And everyone read accounts of his adventures, even members of royal families. The diary of the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II, records that he read the following (in the original) to his family, The Valley of Fear, The Hound of the Baskervilles, A Study in Scarlet, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The Emperor read so-called ‘continental’ editions, published in English in Leipzig by the heirs of Baron von Tauchnitz. Today they have become priceless collectors’ pieces, though at one time the ones that got to Russia were sold abroad for pennies by ignorant and uncultivated Bolsheviks. Today they are safeguarded by the library of the University of Minnesota.

Sherlock Holmes became more than a literary hero. He became virtually real, an outstanding contemporary, a great expert in crime detection, a psychologist of great depth and a zealous man of science. There is an unusual brochure by the psychiatrist Michael Mayevsky, Conan Doyle: The Adventures of the Detective Sherlock Holmes, Vilna, 1904. The psychiatrist had made a detailed study of the Sherlock Holmes stories, a detailed analysis of the psychological and professional aspect of the detective’s personality, examined his work methods in detail, and their underlying scientific basis. He pays particular attention to his powers of observation, logic, deductive and inductive thinking, how he comes to make correct conclusions. ‘These stories,’ writes Mayevsky, ‘represent a eulogy in praise of logic, in honour of man’s acute powers of observation, trained by considerable human experience … an example of penetration into a single chosen sphere of knowledge … clearly, precisely and entertainingly set out … a collection of … subtle and witty intellectual conclusions.’ Holmes, says the author of the brochure, might be an amateur in his profession, however ‘by no means a dilettante, but a scholar of depth’.

However, other times were approaching; mass culture had arrived and in 1907, in Russia, a Sherlock Holmes to whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had no connection, was fated to appear.

Roman Kim, a wonderful Russian writer, who also popularized detective fiction, has a story, The Case of the Murder of the Great Detective, (1966). It tells a story which ostensibly took place in April, 1906, on the estate of Conan Doyle. This is the plot. Once, his mother appears without warning, accompanied by an unknown young American lady. His mother explains that the lady is Aurora Killarney, that she teaches algebra in a Philadelphia suburb, and that she is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes. The old lady adds that Aurora persuaded her to introduce her to her son and they both intend to stay with him the whole of the coming week. In the course of that week, a series of mysterious happenings occur and there are a number of conversations the substance of which Conan Doyle cannot comprehend at first. In the end, it transpires that during Conan Doyle’s absence (which was a carefully put-up job), someone had gone through his study, rummaged through all the cupboards and examined all his manuscripts. Conan Doyle is perplexed, but at the end of the story, two days after the uninvited American guest has gone, he gets a letter from her which explains everything. It transpires that Aurora worked for an American publisher. In the wake of the success of ‘Dime novels’ featuring Nick Carter, which is published by their rival, they had decided to publish their own series. But, so as not to have to publicize the name of an unknown detective, they had decided to give him the world famous name of Sherlock Holmes. There was, however, one thing which stood in the way. Sir Arthur was not to kill off Sherlock Holmes as had already happened once. To ensure this, Aurora was despatched across the ocean. Meeting Mrs Doyle, she had charmed her with her incredible knowledge of Sherlockiana and told the old lady the dreadful (untrue) secret, that rumour had it that her son planned to kill off Sherlock Holmes for the second time, and this time for good. Mrs Doyle, who had always been against her son’s intention, got terribly angry and accepted the suggestion made by the American to search the writer’s study and find either the proof or disproof of this dreadful rumour. Mrs Doyle, under an invented pretext, sends her son and his secretary away. She lets in the wily American and stands watch at the door. When Aurora has completed her search, she gives Mrs Doyle the dreaded news: Conan Doyle, in fact, has a story all ready in which the great detective perishes right under the eyes of his friend, Dr Watson. Moreover, he dies a terrible death. Mrs Doyle nearly faints, but now she must carry out the last item in the plan laid by the crafty American. The mother must make Conan Doyle swear under oath never to kill off Sherlock Holmes. This is done. Now the American publisher can be easy in his mind. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will live and, thereafter, their own Sherlock Holmes can flourish.

There is no way of telling whether any of this is true and, if so, is this how it all took place? Was it the plot that worked?
Conan Doyle’s literary agent was the exceptional A.P. Watt. It is unlikely he would have allowed this. But whatever it was that occurred, a False Sherlock Holmes appeared up and down Europe, especially in Germany. Dime novels became all the rage in Germany and, very quickly, this example of mass culture spread like a tidal wave to Russia.

This is described by Kornei Chukovsky, the classic Russian children’s writer. He was a great fan of English literature and Conan Doyle. In 1916, he was in London, where he met Sir Arthur and even strolled along Baker Street in his company. (Much, much later, in the war years and their aftermath, when there was little or no detective literature in Russia, together with the Soviet publishing house Children’s Literature, Chukovsky popularized Conan Doyle. In 1959***, he introduced Sherlock Holmes anew to a fresh generation of readers. He edited and wrote a new introduction to a 623-page collection, Notes About Sherlock Holmes, still in print to this day.)

The success of mass culture was described by Chukovsky in his book, Nat Pinkerton and Contemporary Literature, (St Petersburg, 1908) as a thoroughly unwelcome phenomenon. ‘This invasion, this wave, this flood…. Our intelligentsia suddenly vanished … for the first time in a century our youth had neither “ideas” nor a “programme” … in art, pornography reigns, and in literature, riff-raff have taken over … some primitive has appeared out of nowhere and has swallowed up, in a year or two, our literature and art.’

Chukovsky referred to mass culture as the literature of a multimillion primitives. In 1907, a new deity appeared, namely the Russian equivalent of the American dime novel, which had appeared in 1860 and became particularly popular with the dawn of a new century. These, known as ‘penny novels’ (from the Russian word for grosh, the equivalent of a penny) had come from Germany. They then began their existence in Warsaw (in Polish, Poland being part of the Russian empire) and then, in the autumn of 1907, penetrated the heart of the Russian empire. It all began in September, early October. In that short interval, the first of several detective series appeared: in Petersburg, Pinkerton, Ace Detective, also in Petersburg, a Russian novel in separate parts by an anonymous author, In the Trap of Crime. The Murder of Countess Zaretzkaya; in Warsaw, a long, sensational novel based on the notes of the famous German agent of the CID, Gaston Rene and also in Germany, Sherlock Holmes; His Sojourn in Germany or The Secret of the Red Mask. And, again in Petersburg, a series of forty-eight stories appeared in booklet form under the general title, From the Secret Documents of the Famous Detective Sherlock Holmes.

This new Sherlock Holmes, as Chukovsky so aptly noted, ‘took away from the [original] Sherlock Holmes his violin, threw off his shoulders the last that was left of Childe Harold’s cloak, took away all human emotions and notions, gave him a revolver and said, “Keep on shooting and let there be lots of blood. If you shoot, shoot them dead … you’ll get paid for your heroism. And no need for your Baker Street, get an office.” Kornei Chukovsky’s bitterness was genuine. The False Sherlock Holmes of anonymous writers did not have an iota of the human feelings for which the real Sherlock Holmes was liked so much. But, points out Leonid Borisoff, who wrote Conan Doyle’s biography in Russian, ‘in contradistinction to Nat Pinkerton, the authors of the Holmes stories, sometimes even educated writers, wrote better’.

The success of these penny dreadfuls was phenomenal. For an entire generation of Russian boys, these cheap booklets were the brightest events of their childhood and boyhood. Unsurprisingly, the demand grew to become a phenomenon on a national scale. In 1908, these Russian equivalents of penny dreadfuls increased to unprecedented numbers. Entertainment, the Petersburg publisher, alone issued 3,334,000 copies. It ranked third in the number of publications amongst 140 publishers. In 1908, a book exhibition in St Petersburg maintained that in that year Russia published 12,000,000 of these ‘grosh’ (i.e. penny) booklets. Individual booklets had print runs of 75,000 and even 200,000. And this at a time when the average print run for a book was not above 3,000 copies. Following the first Pinkertons and Sherlock Holmes, there appeared immediately in Russia Nick Carter (the American Sherlock Holmes), Lord Lister (the Police Terror), Jean Lecoq (the first living international detective), Bill Cannon (the famous American Police Inspector), Vidocq (the famous French detective), Harriet Bolton-Wright (woman detective), Treff (Russia’s top detective), Count Stagart (German detective), Ethel King (female Sherlock Holmes), Avno Azeff (anarchist detective), the nameless detective of the Black Hundreds (the notorious anti-Semitic gangs) and many, many others. Their name is legion. Smart publishers and smart writers all used famous detectives and non-detectives, literary heroes and real people, turning them into the heroes of their penny dreadfuls, trying to turn a penny out of a big name. Of course, one of the most popular ‘victims’ of their trade was Sherlock Holmes.

Today, major Russian libraries haven’t a hundredth of all such literature published in Russia. This is why it is impossible to account for the number of Sherlock Holmes series. But from what we know now, of major series (i.e. five or more issues) in 1907–1910 there were more than a score. The most famous, with the greatest number, was N. Alexandroff’s publishing house Entertainment, which was in the vanguard of mass literature and the main supplier of penny dreadfuls. From 5 April 1908 to 3 April 1910, Entertainment published twenty-eight Sherlock Holmes stories, whose combined print run came to 2,261,000 copies.
Some stories were translated or home-made, but whether the authors were Russian or foreign, the action was always abroad. But very soon Russian authors began to display a new method of ‘borrowing’ someone else’s hero. They ‘sent off’ the great Baker Street detective (or was it his ‘double?’) to far-away Russia! What could be simpler! Now Sherlock Holmes speaks Russian fluently and conducts his investigations in different corners of Russia!

It all began on 19 January 1908, when the Petersburg newspaper Stock Exchange News began to publish Sherlock Holmes in Petersburg by an anonymous author. This was followed by three more Holmes’ stories. Their success was to come when they were reprinted as a supplement to Stock Exchange News, being part of the magazine Ogoniok. The first issue (of 23 March) contained Sherlock Holmes in Moscow. The introduction read, in part, ‘The manuscript arrived under somewhat mysterious circumstances. “I am sending Sherlock Holmes in Moscow, a narrative of his Moscow adventures, by registered post”, read the unsigned telegram.’ A later issue carried an indignant letter from Sherlock Holmes to the editorial board of Ogoniok. In it, he demanded that the anonymous author must be stopped. The success of the hoax was palpable. There even arose a case, Sherlock Holmes vs. the Magazine Ogoniok, which many readers accepted as genuine. But S. Propper, the publisher of the magazine, achieved his aim. The popularity of the magazine grew. It also set a precedent. Now it became permissible to ‘transplant’ Sherlock Holmes to Russia and for his services to be commissioned by Russian clients. And so it went on and on…

The poor devil from Baker Street, against his will, covered the length and breadth of Russia! Russian authors ‘despatched’ him to Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa, Baku, Simbirsk, Penza, Novorossiisk, Tomsk, to small provincial towns and even the villages of the vast Russian empire. But, unlike the penny dreadfuls, these nearly always carried the author’s name, sometimes only a pseudonym. And another distinction, now these were not short stories but longer works, novels and even plays. The literary level of these creations was not high, but there were some examples of quality. One example of the latter was Sherlock Holmes in Penza, in the April–May, 1908 issue of Penza News. Another example was From the Memoirs of a Resident of Petersburg, about Sherlock Holmes, containing The Three Emeralds of Countess V.-D., by someone called N. Mihailovitch. This deals with the unknown circumstances following the epic struggle between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, when Holmes disappeared over the waterfall. Mihailovitch tells us, for most of that time, Holmes was in Russia, where he lived as William Mitchell. The plot deals with the mysterious murder which took place in Petersburg. The story was not without a curious addition. It includes the presence of the daughter of Arsene Lupin! This sort of thing did happen frequently enough when the character of one detective novel could become simultaneously Sherlock Holmes and Nat Pinkerton and Nick Carter and Arsene Lupin.

There were many stories of a ‘Russian’ Sherlock Holmes. Presented in this volume are two by P. Orlovetz. From his surname we might surmise that he came from the city or region of Oriol. He was a prolific writer, author of novels and novellas, short stories and children’s stories. Little is known of him.

But the most popular and most prolific was P. Nikitin, whose stories are presented in this volume. His span of literary activity was very short, from 19 July 1908 (the publication of the first collection, The Latest Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Russia. From the Notebooks of the Great Detective), till 30 May 1909 (when the last collection came out, On the Track of Criminals. The Adventures of the Resurrected Sherlock Holmes in Russia). In less than a year altogether, P. Nikitin published four collections. In the intervals between their publication, the entire cycle appeared (on the analogy of penny dreadfuls in separate small booklets but in a much more attractive format) in two series, The Latest Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Russia, and The Resurrected Sherlock Holmes in Russia. All in all, Nikitin published twenty-one stories.

P. Nikitin may have been the most prolific and interesting of the authors of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but, sad to say, we know absolutely nothing about him. Who was he? Where did he spring from?’ What does the initial ‘P’ stand for? Peter, Paul, Policarp? Not one writers’ reference work, not a single encyclopedia, nowhere is his name to be found. We don’t even know whether Nikitin is his real name or a pseudonym.

Time has not preserved either any information about him, or his books. The Russian National Library in St Petersburg, Russia’s major library, has only one set of his stories. How gratifying, therefore, that the name of this deserving but forgotten writer now returns before the reading public, and so much more gratifying that it is to the readers of that country whose great representative he extolled and which he probably never visited. But now, a century later, he returns there by way of his works, returns to invite ‘his’ hero’s fellow countrymen and all English readers everywhere to that distant and mysterious Russia which, once upon a time, took to its heart that great recluse from Baker Street.

George Piliev
George Piliev is an author, editor, bibliographer and historian of the mystery genre.

* The Adventure of the Final Problem

** - Not the Panteleyeff brothers, but F. Bulgakov.

*** - Not in 1959, but in 1956;