Old Izergil

Last updated
"Old Izergil"
Pam'iatnik <<Danko>> 07.jpg
The Danko monument in Krivoi Rog
Author Maxim Gorky
Original title"Старуха Изергиль"
Country Russia
Language Russian
Published inSamarskaya Gazeta
Publication date12 September 1892

"Old Izergil" (Russian : Старуха Изергиль) is a 1895 short story by Maxim Gorky, written in the autumn of 1894 and first published by Samarskaya Gazeta, issues 80, 86 and 89, on 16, 23 and 27 April respectively. [1]

Russian language East Slavic language

Russian is an East Slavic language, which is an official language in the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as being widely used throughout Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was the de facto language of the Soviet Union until its dissolution on 25 December 1991. Although nearly three decades have passed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian is used in official capacity or in public life in all the post-Soviet nation-states, as well as in Israel and Mongolia.

Maxim Gorky 19th and 20th-century Russian and Soviet writer

Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, primarily known as Maxim Gorky, was a Russian and Soviet writer, a founder of the socialist realism literary method, and a political activist. He was also a five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Around fifteen years before success as a writer, he frequently changed jobs and roamed across the Russian Empire; these experiences would later influence his writing. Gorky's most famous works were The Lower Depths (1902), Twenty-six Men and a Girl (1899), The Song of the Stormy Petrel (1901), My Childhood (1913–1914), Mother (1906), Summerfolk (1904) and Children of the Sun (1905). He had an association with fellow Russian writers Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov; Gorky would later mention them in his memoirs.



Instrumental in getting the story published was Vladimir Korolenko, who would be later credited with 'discovering' Gorky. On 4 October 1894 he informed Mikhail Sablin, a member of the Russkiye Vedomosti stuff: "Some three days ago I sent to [the newspaper] the manuscript by Peshkov (writing under the pseudonym Maxim Gorky), called 'Old Izergil'." [2]

Vladimir Korolenko Russian writer

Vladimir Galaktionovich Korolenko was a Ukrainian-born Russian writer, journalist, human rights activist and humanitarian of Ukrainian and Polish origin. His best-known work include the short novel The Blind Musician (1886), as well as numerous short stories based upon his experience of exile in Siberia. Korolenko was a strong critic of the Tsarist regime and in his final years of the Bolsheviks.

<i>Russkiye Vedomosti</i>

Russkiye Vedomosti was a Russian liberal daily newspaper, published in Moscow from 1863 till 1918.


It's sunset and the narrator rests amidst the Moldovan vineyards, watching men and women returning home from work, singing songs. With him is Izergil, once beautiful, now very old, decrepit woman. She scolds him for being so withdrawn ("You Russians are born already old men!"), then starts telling him stories.

The first one, having to do with the origins of the mysterious moving shadow (which she claims to see, although the narrator doesn't), is the legend of Larra, the son of an eagle and a woman. Larra enters the local community of men full of pride and with no concern or respect for others, knowing just one law, that of his own desires. A young woman thwarts his approaches and gets brutally killed. Outraged, the men try to figure out the proper way to punish the villain. Then the wisest one suggests that they should just let him go, for that would be the worst fate for this evil creature, bound to punish himself. For many years he fights them, then starts longing for death, but such is the curse upon him that he cannot die. He tries to kill himself but fails. Left alone, wandering on his own, after many years he gradually turns into a shadow doomed to wander the world forever.

After informing the narrator that "health is like gold, it is there to be spared", Izergil relates to him the story of her rather turbulent love life. Among the men whom she had, unrepentantly, discarded, were:
— the fisherman from Prut whom she fell in love as a teenager girl, but soon got bored with;
— the red-haired Gutsul outlaw. He was later hanged, along with the fisherman (who'd joined the same gang), after being betrayed by a Romanian landlord; the latter has been punished severely for this, and Izergil apparently had some part in the deed;
— the rich middle-aged Turk whose harem she agreed to join in Bucharest;
— his 16-old son whom she soon eloped with to Bulgaria, where a woman stabbed her ("for either her husband, or fiancé, I don't remember");
— a Polish man, described as 'funny and mean', but also prone to offensive remarks for one of which she threw him into the river and went away;
— a Jew who bought her to make her sell her body;
— the handsome Szlachta man whom she fell in love with, and later (after he'd been imprisoned for taking part in the January Uprising) helped escaping from the Russian prison camp, killing a guardsman.

Prut river in eastern Europe

The Prut is a 953 km (592 mi) long river in Eastern Europe. In part of its course it forms Romania's border with Moldova and Ukraine.

Hutsuls Ethnic group in the Carpathian Mountains

Hutsuls is an ethnic group spanning parts of western Ukraine and Romania. While they often have been officially designated as a subgroup of Ukrainians, Hutsuls mostly regard themselves as a part of a broader Rusyn ethnicity, alongside two other groups from the cross-border region of Transcarpathia: the Boykos and Lemkos.

Harem Womens quarters in the traditional house of a Muslim family

Harem, also known as zenana in the Indian subcontinent, properly refers to domestic spaces that are reserved for the women of the house in a Muslim family. This private space has been traditionally understood as serving the purposes of maintaining the modesty, privilege, and protection of women. A harem may house a man's wife — or wives and concubines, as in royal harems of the past — their pre-pubescent male children, unmarried daughters, female domestic workers, and other unmarried female relatives. In former times some harems were guarded by eunuchs who were allowed inside. The structure of the harem and the extent of monogamy or polygamy has varied depending on the family's personalities, socio-economic status, and local customs. Similar institutions have been common in other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations, especially among royal and upper-class families, and the term is sometimes used in other contexts.

Izergil asks the narrator if he sees the blueish sparks in the field, as the night falls, and when he says he does, tells him the story of their origins.

In the old times and the distant lands, a small community of people, driven out of their homeland by the enemy, enter the dark and dangerous forest. Surrounded by darkness and paralyzed with fear, they still have to go forward, into the unknown, for with them are the old testaments of their forefathers. The moment comes when things become so intolerable that they start talking about turning round and surrendering. But the young man named Danko arises and encourages them to move on, taking up the role of their leader.

For a while they follow him enthusiastically, then the discontent starts to grow again. The great storm breaks out, and, horrified by the rain and lightning, they blame Danko for everything that happened to them. Overcome by rage, but also the desire to help out this ungrateful crowd, he tears his chest up, and rises his flaming heart up, as a lantern. Their way suddenly lightened, the people rush forward, soon reach the end to the path and then suddenly find themselves in the sun, among beautiful fields washed with fresh rain. Everybody forgets about Danko who, left behind and bleeding, falls down and dies. Just one last man, perhaps fearing something, approaches him and tramples down the embers of his heart, sending blue sparks around and away.

Background, influences and interpretations

"Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind" By Heinrich Fueger, 1817 Heinrich fueger 1817 prometheus brings fire to mankind.jpg
"Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind" By Heinrich Fueger, 1817

"Old Izergil" was inspired by the trip to Bessarabia and Romania which Gorky had made four years earlier. [3] The Moldovan writer and folklorist George Bogach traces the origins of the name Izergil to two sources: the Akkerman toponym Iserlia and Kara-Ningil, the character of the Mamin-Sibiryak story "Tears of the Queen". The Gorky biographer V.A. Maksimova notes that phonetically "Izergil" is close to "Iggradzil", the giant ash of the Scandinavian mythology, similar to the Biblical Tree of Knowledge. It is connected to the three worlds, those of the dead, the living and the gods, respectively. [3]

Bessarabia Historical region in present-day Moldova and Ukraine

Bessarabia is a historical region in Eastern Europe, bounded by the Dniester river on the east and the Prut river on the west. About two thirds of Bessarabia lies within modern-day Moldova, with the Ukrainian Budjak region covering the southern coastal region and part of the Ukrainian Chernivtsi Oblast covering a small area in the north.

Romania Sovereign state in Europe

Romania is a country located at the crossroads of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. It borders the Black Sea to the southeast, Bulgaria to the south, Ukraine to the north, Hungary to the west, Serbia to the southwest, and Moldova to the east. It has a predominantly temperate-continental climate. With a total area of 238,397 square kilometers, Romania is the 12th largest country and also the 7th most populous member state of the European Union, having almost 20 million inhabitants. Its capital and largest city is Bucharest, and other major urban areas include Cluj-Napoca, Timișoara, Iași, Constanța, Craiova, and Brașov.

Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi City of regional significance in Odessa Oblast, Ukraine

Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, formerly known as Akkerman, is a city and port situated on the right bank of the Dniester Liman in Odessa Oblast of southwestern Ukraine, in the historical region of Bessarabia. Administratively, Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi is incorporated as a town of oblast significance. It also serves as the administrative center of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi Raion, one of twenty-six districts of Odessa Oblast, though it is not a part of the district. It is a location of a big freight seaport. Population: 50,086 (2015 est.)

The name Danko, according to the critic V.A. Khanov, comes from the Russian "dan" (in the general sense, 'the given thing'). The Slav god of light is Dažbog, which is "the giving god". [4] But George Bogach in his book "Gorky and the Moldavian Folklore" states that the 'Danko' is of the Romani origins, meaning "the youngest son" or "little gypsy boy". [3]

Tribute wealth that one party gives to another as a sign of respect or of submission or allegiance

A tribute (/ˈtrɪbjuːt/) is wealth, often in kind, that a party gives to another as a sign of respect or, as was often the case in historical contexts, of submission or allegiance. Various ancient states exacted tribute from the rulers of land which the state conquered or otherwise threatened to conquer. In case of alliances, lesser parties may pay tribute to more powerful parties as a sign of allegiance and often in order to finance projects that would benefit both parties. To be called "tribute" a recognition by the payer of political submission to the payee is normally required; the large sums, essentially protection money, paid by the later Roman and Byzantine Empires to barbarian peoples to prevent them attacking imperial territory, would not usually be termed "tribute" as the Empire accepted no inferior political position. Payments by a superior political entity to an inferior one, made for various purposes, are described by terms including "subsidy".

Dažbog deity

Dažbog, alternatively Daždźboh, Dazhdbog, Dazhbog, Dajbog, Daybog, Dabog, or Dadzbóg, was one of the major gods of Slavic mythology, most likely a solar deity and possibly a cultural hero. He is one of several authentic Slavic gods, mentioned by a number of medieval manuscripts, and one of the few Slavic gods for which evidence of worship can be found in all Slavic tribes.

Romani people Ethnic group living mostly in Europe and the Americas

The Romani, colloquially known as Roma, are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group, traditionally itinerant, living mostly in Europe and the Americas and originating from the northern Indian subcontinent, from the Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab regions of modern-day India.

Some aspects of the legend of Danko echo the story of the Exodus, but while Moses, a harsh disciplinarian, is inspired by God, Danko is motivated by his "great love for the people" and is closer to the figure of Christ, Khanov argues, noting also that the story's structure may have to do with the notion of the World tree, Larra, Izergil and Danko representing its bottom, middle and top sections, respectively. [4]

The Exodus Founding myth of the Jewish people

The Exodus is the founding myth of the Israelites. Spread over the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it tells the story of the enslavement of the Israelites in ancient Egypt, their liberation through the hand of their tutelary deity Yahweh, the revelations at biblical Mount Sinai, and their wanderings in the wilderness up to the borders of Canaan, the land their god has given them.

Moses Abrahamic prophet said to have led the Israelites out of Egypt

Moses was a prophet according to the teachings of the Abrahamic religions. Scholarly consensus sees Moses as a legendary figure and not a historical person, while retaining the possibility that a Moses-like figure existed.

World tree Common motif appearing in many mythologies and religions

The world tree is a motif present in several religions and mythologies, particularly Indo-European religions, Siberian religions, and Native American religions. The world tree is represented as a colossal tree which supports the heavens, thereby connecting the heavens, the terrestrial world, and, through its roots, the underworld. It may also be strongly connected to the motif of the tree of life, but it is the source of wisdom of the ages.

The Gorky biographer Pavel Basinsky stresses the importance of considering the early Gorky as a Nietzsche follower, something that the Soviet critics have made a point to overlook. [5] Gorky himself in an 1912 article published by the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, cited August Strindberg as an influence and compared him with "the poet Danko". [6] [note 1] Another hero for Gorky was the Bulgarian poet Pencho Slaveykov. One of the latter's poems, "The Heart of Hearts", on the death of the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, might have influenced the young Gorky too. Irina Yeryomina also sees the two images, of Danko who wished his heart to "burn brighter than the Sun" and Shelley, consumed by the storm, as directly linked. [7]

The story of the youth with a flaming heart might have had to do with the image of Prometheus, according to Svetlana Guiss. [8] Khanov agrees, stating that the associations with Jesus and Prometheus could be seen as one for Gorky considered the myth of Prometheus, "as being, in a distorted form, hidden in the story of Christ". [4] Irina Yeryomina, notes that Gorky, as "fire worshipper" himself, knew well Empedocles's On Nature from which he drew some influence too. [7]


  1. The fact that there is no mentioning Danko being a poet in the known version of the text, suggests the possibility that the original concept of the story might have gone through some modifications.

Related Research Articles

Enemies is a 1906 Russian-language play by Maxim Gorky. It was published in 1906 in the collection Znaniye, in Saint Petersburg, at a time when Gorky was actively involved with the Russian revolutionary underground, which served as the impetus for the play. It is a recognized as an early work of socialist realism.

<i>On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco</i> play by Anton Chekhov

On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco is a one-act play by Anton Chekhov. It has one character, Ivan Ivanovich Nyukhin. First published in 1886, the play was revised by Chekhov and is best known from his 1902 version. This was first published in English in The Unknown Chekhov (1954), a collection of writings.

The Dream of Councillor Popov is a satire in verse by Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, first published in 1878 in Berlin, and regarded as one of the best satirical poems in Russian literature, mixing "sharp, poignant satire… and pure delight in cheerful absurdity". According to critic D.S.Mirsky, "it is The Dream… that can be seen as Aleksey Tolstoy's most solid claim for immortality".

The Wood Demon is a comedic play in four acts by Anton Chekhov.

Tatiana Repina is a one-act drama by Anton Chekhov, written in 1889, as a sequel to Alexey Suvorin's play Tatiana Repina, with the dedication to the author. The only printed copy of it has been discovered among Suvorin's papers in 1912, after his death. Chekhov's Tatyana Repina was published for the first time in 1924.

"An Enigmatic Nature" is an 1883 short story by Anton Chekhov.

In the Ravine novella by Anton Chekhov

"In the Ravine" is a 1900 story by Anton Chekhov first published in the No.1, January issue of Zhizn magazine.

"The Complaints Book" is a short story by Anton Chekhov, first published in the No. 10, 10 March [old style] 1884 issue of Oskolki, signed A. Chekhonte. It was included by the author into the Volume 1 of the Adolf Marks-published Chekhov's Collected Works (1899). The story was translated into Bulgarian and Czech languages during Chekhov's lifetime.

Surgery (short story) short story

"Surgery" is a short story by Anton Chekhov, first published in 1884 by Oskolki.

Boys (short story) 1887 short story by Anton Chekhov

""Boys" is an 1887 short story by Anton Chekhov.

"A Story Without a Title" is an 1888 short story by Anton Chekhov.

"Ariadne" is an 1895 short story by Anton Chekhov.

In the Cart short story by Anton Chekhov

"In the Cart" is an 1897 short story by Anton Chekhov, also translated as "The Schoolmistress".

The Fish (short story)

"The Fish", is an 1885 short story by Anton Chekhov.

Shrove Tuesday (short story)

"Shrove Tuesday" is an 1887 short story by Anton Chekhov.

The Privy Councillor short story by Anton Chekhov

"The Privy Councillor" is an 1886 short story by Anton Chekhov.

Evgeny Goslavsky

Evgeny Petrovich Goslavsky was a Russian writer, playwright and poet.

The Last Ones is a 1908 four-act drama by Maxim Gorky.

<i>Makar Chudra</i>

"Makar Chudra" is a 1892 short story by Maxim Gorky, first published by the Tiflis newspaper Kavkaz, in the No. 242, 12 September 1892 issue.

Chelkash book by Maksim Gorki

"Chelkash" is a short story by Maxim Gorky, written in August 1894 and first published by Russkoye Bogatstvo in June 1895. The first of the numerous Gorky stories to appear in this magazine, it made the author well known in Russia and was included in all editions of the Complete Works by Maxim Gorky.


  1. Commentaries to Старуха Изергиль. The Works by M.Gorky in 30 volumes. Vol.1. Khudozhestvennaya Literatura // На базе Собрания сочинений в 30-ти томах. ГИХЛ, 1949-1956.
  2. V. G. Korolenko. Selected Letters. // В.Г.Короленко, Избранные письма, III т., Гослитиздат, 1936, стр. 86.
  3. 1 2 3 Naksimova, V.A. Commentaries / Старуха Изергиль. Примечания // М. Горький. Собрание сочинений в 16 томах. — М.: Правда, 1979. — Т. 1. — С. 413—414.
  4. 1 2 3 Khanov, V. A. Old Izergil. Culturological Aspects. Рассказ Горького "Старуха Изергиль". Культурологические аспекты. 20-3-2008.
  5. Басинский П. В. Горький. — М.: Молодая гвардия, 2005. — ISBN   5-235-02850-3.
  6. Михайловский Б. Стриндберг // Литературная энциклопедия: В 11 томах. — М.: Художественная литература, 1939. — Т. 11. — С. 85—91.
  7. 1 2 Ерёмина И. Ф. М. Горький и П. Славейков. Черты ницшеанства в образах романтических героев // Неизвестный Горький / Барахов В. С.. — М.: Наследие, 1995. — С. 206—214. — ISBN   5-201-13207-3.
  8. Гуйс И. Old Izergil.The New Approach // «Старуха Изергиль» А.М. Горького: новый взгляд // Литература. — 2007. — № 06 (678)