Prince Platon Shirinsky-Shikhmatov (1790-1853) served as Nicholas I’s minister of education in 1850-53, during some of the darkest years of that reign. Disturbed by the European revolutions of 1848-9, Nicholas succumbed to a sort of reactionary paranoia that debilitated all the empire’s institutions and came close to destroying university education in Russia. According to Alexander Nikitenko‘s diary (see the entry for March 16, 1850), Shirinsky once told a professor of philosophy that “the benefits of philosophy have not been proven but it’s possible that harm may come of it.” In 1850, the government closed all philosophy departments at the empire’s universities, only making an exception for Dorpat.

Nikitenko cuts Shirinsky a good deal of slack, describing him as a simple, kind and just man unfit for the ministerial role at a time when education was under attack from “champions of the erstwhile, pre-Petrine darkness.”

Sergei M. Soloviev, the historian, was far less forgiving in his acerbic Notes for My Children:

Ancient Russia and the Muscovite state had much suffered from Tatar raids led by his ancestors, the princes of Shirin, the most furious of steppe horsemen, but the memory of those fateful incursions had disappeared – and then, in the first half of the 19th century, a new Tamerlane, Nicholas [I], dispatched a steppe warrior, a worthy descendant of the Shirin princes, against Russian enlightenment… Shirinsky had a reputation for piety and devoutness. Indeed, he was filled with fear of God and His anointed one, filled with fear of bishops, but especially filled with fear of the devil and his ággelos – such great fear that he ordered firewood to be laid around him at night, lest he fall prey to the domovoy.

The domovoy is a relatively harmless domestic deity, similar to the Scottish brownie – grumbly but seldom malevolent. A minister of education trembling before goblins is barely believable but Soloviev was not the type to invent anecdotes from scratch for the thrill of it. Also, the late 1850s – only a few years after Shirinsky’s death – were the heyday of spiritualism in the US, and in 1862, the Ghost Club was founded in London, with Dickens as a member. Against this backdrop, Shirinsky’s antics seem unexceptional.

Looking at this from another angle – there lived in France, from 1765 until 1851, a nobleman who claimed, in his three-volume book, to have been tormented for two decades by creatures no more malicious in popular belief than Russian domovoys. Les farfadets, ou Tous les démons ne sont pas de l’autre monde, is the title. French peasants imagined farfadets as friendly if grumpy pixies or brownies of the fields; then Berbiguier de Terre-Neuve du Thym upgraded them, as it were, to relentless persecuting demons, and so prepared them for future literary use.

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