Over the last few days I have been reading a small amount of the great Russian poet, Pushkin. Pushkin has an unique status in Russian literature, and indeed in Russian culture. His memory is still honoured in the art, writing, sculpture and popular memory of Russians. When I last visited Moscow in 2019, the annual history festival was being celebrated, and amidst many historical reenactments in the plazas and parks of Moscow, some amatuer actors thrillingly recreated Pushkin’s duel with the adopted son of a foreign diplomat who was having an affair with Pushkin’s wife. Or so Pushkin believed. He lost the duel and died. Suspicious minds.
All introductory texts to Pushkin emphasise the unique role played in Russian literature. He was the fountainhead. Pushkin was in some ways greater within Russian literature than Shakespeare was within English. He is venerated as the greatest poet. One biographer (Feinstein, 1998) describes his unique blend of qualities as a poet: “the facility of Byron, the sensuous richness of Keats and a bawdy wit reminiscent of Chaucer.” He was also a great dramatist, and breathed eternal life into the great folk tales of Russia and the epic hisorical legends. He was also a trailblazer in multiple forms of prose, including The Captain’s Daughter, an historical novel of the Romantic Age, hot on the heels of Sir Walter Scott. This burst of language also came in the crucial first quarter of the 19th century in Russia, when the Russian aristocracy gave up speaking French, and, in the wake of 1812, learned Russian from their servants and serfs.
Unfortunately, the protestations of the untranslatability of Pushkin tend to put people off trying Pushkin. He is placed on such a high pedestal, with so much mystique, that the unresolved may just try something simpler. This would be a pity. Part of Pushkin’s appeal is his imagination, his sensibility and his capacity to handle very difficult emotional material.
Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, for example, tells the story of Yevgeny, a forgotten hero of Russia, who fights against a flood of the Neva, which the Tsar responds poorly to. The event traumatises Yevgeny and he drifts into madness, poverty and wandering. One night he confronts the statue of Peter the Great: “Miracle Builder! Right! You wait!” But then spectres of madness and malignant authority haunt poor Yevgeny, and the ghost of the Bronzed Horseman pursues him until his death in poverty in a fishing hut on an island in the river. Whenever Yevgeny, the poor madman, passes that great statue of bronzed energy in St Petersburg, Pushkin writes:
Whenever next he chanced to pass
that way, his face was overtaken
by inner turmoil; he would press
his heart as if to ease its aching,
take off his threadbare cap; his gaze
he could not bring himself to raise;
he kept his distance.Pushkin, The Bronze Horseman
The Russians of today show no sign of pulling down the great statue of Peter the Great that overlooks the Neva. Nor do they show any signs of cancelling Pushkin. His bust still stands proudly one of the central streets of Moscow. After all, Russians don’t cancel culture – unlike the chilling cultural ‘war of choice’ the collective West’ wages against Russia.
It was not always so. In the febrile early decades of the Soviet Union, amidst agitprop and Lunacharsky’s ministrations to celebrate workers with futurist art, the political commissars did try to push Pushkin from his pedestal. Some unknown hack, Vladislav Khodasevich, proclaimed in 1921 that a new era was coming when Russians would no longer proclaim Pushkin’s name, but another – Mayakovsky perhaps – would stand for true literature. But these dreams were resisted by honourable Russians. In the 1930s, in the whirlwind of Stalin’s terrors and trials, on her way to the prison camps, the writer Yevgenia Ginzburg recited from memory Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman and Eugene Onegin (both long poems). The guard on the train harassed her, and demanded she hand over the books of this cancelled man of unspeakable times. But Ginzburg had no books. She had absorbed eternal memory, and spoke in an infinite conversation with Pushkin on that train.
Pushkin’s story shows the natality of culture outlasts, outwits and outplays the death instinct of political ideology. The poet gives words to the air and the earth, and allows the seeds to fall in even the smallest reserve of the woods where they will grow into other times. Even in our own times.