Alexander Pushkin was mortally wounded in a duel on the afternoon of January 27, 1837, at Chernaya Rechka, just outside Petersburg. “It is thus that the figure of Pushkin remains in our memory—with a pistol,” Andrei Sinyavsky wrote in Strolls with Pushkin.* “Little Pushkin with a big pistol. A civilian, but louder than a soldier. A general. An ace. Pushkin! Crude, but just. The first poet with his own biography—how else would you have him up and die, this first poet, who inscribed himself with blood and powder in the history of art?”
Pushkin was just thirty-seven when he died, but he had already been acknowledged as Russia’s greatest poet, a title that has since been defined and redefined but never disputed. In the decade before his death, however, he had also become the true originator of Russian prose. Sinyavsky is right to say that Pushkin lives in Russian memory as more than a writer, more than a poet—as “Pushkin!” In a speech delivered at a commemoration in revolutionary Petrograd in February 1921, the poet Alexander Blok said: “From early childhood our memory keeps the cheerful name: Pushkin. This name, this sound fills many days of our life. The grim names of emperors, generals, inventors of the tools of murder, the tormented and the tormentors of life. And beside them—this light name: Pushkin.” Yet his personal presence is in marked contrast with the essential impersonality of Pushkin’s art. It is not that he celebrated himself and sang himself: he never did. In a letter to his friend Nikolai Raevsky, written in July 1825, Pushkin criticized Byron (whom he generally admired) for the constant intrusion of his personality: “Byron . . . has parceled out among his characters such-and-such a trait of his own character; his pride to one, his hate to another, his melancholy to a third, etc.”* And he contrasts Byron’s practice with the multifarious receptivity he had come to admire in Shakespeare—his “negative capability,” as Keats called it. Sinyavsky intensifies Keats’s paradox: “Emptiness is Pushkin’s content. Without it he would not be full, he would not be, just as there is no fire without air, no breathing in without breathing out.” Impersonality, openness, and lightness are the essential qualities of his prose.
Our collection includes Pushkin’s few finished and published works of fiction—The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin, The Queen of Spades, Kirdjali, The Captain’s Daughter
—each different and all masterpieces. It also includes his experiments in various forms, borrowing from and parodying well-known European models, consciously trying out the possibilities of Russian prose. The closest he came to a self-portrait is perhaps the character of Charsky in the fragmentary Egyptian Nights;
otherwise he appears in person only in the nonfictional Journey to Arzrum,
where, as D. S. Mirsky wrote, “he reached the limits of noble and bare terseness.”
Pushkin’s family on his father’s side belonged to the old military-feudal aristocracy, the Russian boyars, dating back some six centuries to the founding of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. He proudly refers to their “six-hundred-year standing” more than once in his letters. He was also proud of the rebelliousness of some of his ancestors, o†ne of whom was executed by Peter the Great for opposing his political reforms, another of whom (his grandfather) was imprisoned for protesting against the “usurpation” of the throne by the Prussian-born Catherine the Great. The new gentry that arose in the eighteenth century as a result of Peter’s reforms more or less eclipsed the old boyars, and Pushkin’s father was left with relatively modest means.
On his mother’s side, Pushkin’s ancestors bore the name of Gannibal, from his great-grandfather Ibrahim Gannibal. It was long thought (by Pushkin among others) that Ibrahim was the son of a minor Ethiopian prince, though recently it has been argued that he came from the sultanate of Logone-Birni in Cameroon. In any case at around the age of five he was sent as a hostage or slave to the court of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, and a year later was either ransomed or stolen by Sava Vladislavich-Raguzinsky, advisor to the Russian ambassador, and brought to Petersburg, where he was presented to Peter the Great. Peter was very taken with the boy, stood as godfather at his baptism, gave him the patronymic Petrovich from his own name, and had him educated in the best European fashion. Ibrahim rose to the rank of general, was granted nobility, and had a long military and political career in the reigns of Peter and his daughter Elizabeth. While serving in the French army in his youth he adopted the surname Gannibal, or Hannibal, after the great Carthaginian general.
Pushkin prized his African ancestry, and his African ancestor, highly, and when he decided, in 1827, to try his hand at a historical novel along the lines of Walter Scott’s immensely popular Waverley
(published in 1814), he chose the life of Ibrahim as his subject. The result was The Moor of Peter the Great.
In an article published three years later, he observed: “In our time, by the term novel we mean an historical epoch developed in a fictional narrative.”* And indeed, while the two protagonists, Ibrahim and Peter the Great, are fully historical, his portrayal of their interactions is almost entirely invented. We first meet Ibrahim during his military service in the decadent Paris of Philippe d’Orléans’s regency (1715–1723), and hear mainly about the complications of his love life, both in France and on his return to Russia. Peter, meanwhile, is busy building his new capital in the north, “a vast factory,” as it appears to Ibrahim, and though the emperor is referred to at one point as “the hero of Poltava, the powerful and terrible reformer of Russia,” we see him mainly as the “gentle and hospitable host” of his godson. More historical and personal complexity is suggested in later chapters, in Peter’s relations with the old boyar aristocrats and with the entrance of Ibrahim’s rival Valerian, but Pushkin abandoned the novel just at that point and never went back to the Waverley
That was in 1828. A year or two later, one of Pushkin’s literary enemies, Faddei Bulgarin (Pushkin liked to call him “Figlyarin,” from figlyar,
“buffoon”), wrote a scurrilous article about a certain unnamed poet whose grandfather was not a Negro prince, as he boasted, but had been bought by a sea captain for a bottle of rum. Pushkin replied in a post scriptum
to his poem “My Genealogy”: “That skipper was the glorious skipper / Who started our land moving, / Who forcefully took the helm of our native ship / And set it on a majestic course.” Pushkin’s awareness of himself as a descendant both of old boyar stock and of the reformer’s black godson nourished his meditations on state power in all its contradictions. In the same year that he abandoned his first novel, he wrote the long poem Poltava,
about Peter’s decisive victory in 1709 over the Swedish forces of Charles XII, which led to the emergence of Russia as the predominant nation of northern Europe. The “terrible reformer,” grown more ambiguous and demonic in the grim figure of his statue, is also the subject of Pushkin’s last long poem, The Bronze Horseman,
written in 1833. D. S. Mirsky has called it “the greatest work ever penned in Russian verse.”
Pushkin’s own confrontation with imperial power had begun many years earlier. After the defeat of Napoleon, Russian troops occupied Paris and camped along the Champs-Élysées. The victorious coalition restored the French monarchy, but the young Russian officers picked up French revolutionary thinking in the process and came home with new notions of political liberty. French culture had been the dominant influence in Russia since the time of Catherine the Great, who reigned from 1762 until her death in 1796. The aristocracy spoke French, which was Pushkin’s first language. In 1811, the emperor Alexander I founded a school which he called by the French name of lycée
in Russian) in the imperial village of Tsarskoe Selo, some eighteen miles south of Petersburg, to give the sons of the aristocracy a European education, after which they were to take up important posts in government service. Pushkin was in the first class of thirty, and his years at the lycée remained central to his life. There he began to write poetry, first in French, then in Russian, and by the age of fourteen he had already seen his work published and praised. On graduating in 1817, he moved to Petersburg, where he held a nominal post in the service, which did not keep him from living a rather wild life, gambling, womanizing, dueling. In Petersburg he also got to know some of the young officers who had come back from Paris. He shared their thoughts and hopes, and in that spirit wrote a number of poems which were not very pleasing to the authorities. One of them, the ode “Liberty,” written as early as 1817, praises “the exalted son of Gaul” who sang of Liberty and denounced “enthroned vice” with its scourges, irons, and serfdom. Against “lawless Authority” it invokes “the trustworthy shelter of the Law.” This, along with some biting epigrams on various government officials, was finally too much even for the rather liberal Alexander. Pushkin was relieved of his post in Petersburg and “exiled” to the south, to serve in Ekaterinoslav, Kishinev, and finally Odessa.
Pushkin was absent from Petersburg from 1820 to 1826. During those years he wrote a great deal of poetry, some of it based on his travels to the Caucasus and the Crimea with General Nikolai Raevsky, a retired hero of the Napoleonic Wars, and his sons Alexander and Nikolai, who became his close friends. He detested life in backward Kishinev, which had been ceded to Russia by the Turks in 1812, managed to get transferred to Odessa, but caused himself trouble there as well, particularly with the beautiful young wife of the governor-general, Prince Mikhail Vorontsov. He wrote a notorious epigram about the governor-general:
Half milord, half merchant,
Half wise man, half ignoramus,
Half scoundrel, but there’s hope
He’ll finally become a full one.
The post office routinely opened Pushkin’s mail, and in one letter found him sympathizing with the atheistic arguments of a local philosopher (a certain “deaf Englishman”). This was enough to allow Vorontsov to petition for Pushkin’s removal from Odessa. By imperial order he was expelled from the service and confined to his mother’s small estate at Mikhailovskoe, near Pskov, where he was to be kept under surveillance by his father and the local authorities.
In a way the two years of this “house arrest” were Pushkin’s salvation. He was left free to read and to write, and he produced more than he had in the previous four years. Along with many of his finest lyric poems, which went into the collection he was gathering then and published in 1826, he finished his long poem The Gypsies,
begun in Kishinev, wrote two more long poems, The Bridegroom
and the comic parody Count Nulin,
completed three chapters of his novel in verse Evgeny Onegin,
and wrote his first and longest play, the historical tragedy Boris Godunov.
And he worked on yet another narrative poem, Cleopatra,
parts of which eventually found their way into the prose/verse fragment Egyptian Nights,
included in our collection.
In a letter to his brother in November 1824, he describes his typical day: “I write memoirs until dinner; I dine late. After dinner I ride on horseback. In the evening I listen to fairy tales, and thereby I am compensating for the insufficiencies of my accursed upbringing. How charming these fairy tales are!” The storyteller was his former nanny, the house serf Arina Rodionovna, who at first was his only company on the estate. Pushkin was deeply struck by her tales, kept notes on them, and a few years later turned them into some of his finest poems: Tsar Saltan, The Golden Cockerel,
and The Dead Princess and the Seven Mighty Men.
He also collected her sayings and expressions, a trove of Russian speech that was part of the compensation for his “accursed upbringing.”
But his confinement to Mikhailovskoe saved him in a more literal sense as well. The young officers who had come back from France began to organize a movement for political reform and in 1816 founded a secret society called the Union of Salvation, based in Petersburg with branches in other cities. The Union later divided into the Northern Society in Petersburg and the Southern Society in the Ukraine. Their aims included the abolition of serfdom, the election of a legislative assembly, and the drafting of a constitution limiting the powers of the monarchy. The Southern Society, led by Colonel Pavel Pestel, went further, advocating universal suffrage and the abolition of the monarchy. Both foresaw the inevitability of an armed uprising.
Their chance came in December 1825. The emperor Alexander died suddenly on December 1, at the age of forty-eight, leaving no direct heir. The elder of his two brothers, Constantine, had married a Polish woman and Roman Catholic, and had renounced his right of succession, but only Alexander knew of it. There was uncertainty for several weeks before the younger brother, Nicholas, was prevailed upon to accept the throne. The secret societies decided to take the opportunity of his coronation on December 26 to stage their uprising, earning themselves the name of Decembrists. Some three thousand soldiers, led by the young officers of the Northern Society, appeared in Senate Square in Petersburg, calling for the formation of a provisional government. A few days later the Southern Society incited a mutiny among the troops in the Ukraine. But the revolts were poorly organized and, after the initial shock, were quickly suppressed. The instigators were arrested; five of them, including Colonel Pestel and the poet Kondraty Ryleev, were executed, and another 120 were sent into permanent exile in Siberia.
Pushkin, like many of his young friends, shared the liberal ideas of the Decembrists. The Raevsky brothers had joined the Southern Society, though they pulled out of it some time before the uprising. He had made the acquaintance of Pestel during his time in Kishinev and had been struck by his forceful personality. Later, as he records in Journey to Arzrum,
Pushkin ran into many former Decembrists who had been sent to serve in the Caucasus as “punishment” for their radical views. In September 1826, during a private meeting in Moscow, the new emperor asked him where he would have been on December 26. Pushkin replied candidly: “On Senate Square with the rebels.”
That conversation took place soon after Nicholas decided to end Pushkin’s exile. A messenger brought the news to Mikhailovskoe. Pushkin left the same day and on September 8 arrived in Moscow. The emperor met with him at once and explained his new situation. His work would no longer be subject to official censorship; instead it would be submitted for approval to the emperor himself. Pushkin, charmed by Nicholas’s apparent benevolence during their meeting, took that as an honor, not realizing that the real censor would be Count Benckendorf, head of the Third Section, his majesty’s new secret police. He soon began to feel the burden of that blessing, but for some time he was reluctant to blame it on Nicholas himself. Nevertheless, it weighed on him for the rest of his life.
In 1827 he was allowed to move to Petersburg. There he lived more or less as he had before his banishment, and was able to enjoy the company of some of his oldest literary friends. In 1829 he met and fell in love with a beautiful young woman of seventeen, Natalya Goncharova. He proposed to her almost at once, but was refused. He also wanted very much to travel abroad, but that, too, was denied him. Suddenly the capital felt stifling to him, and he took off without permission to join the army in the Caucasus, where the Raevskys were serving. This was during one of the Russo-Turkish Wars. He recounts his experiences in Journey to Arzrum,
published six years later. Some of his finest poems also came from events he encountered along the way.
On his return, Pushkin went to Moscow, where he continued his courtship of Natalya Goncharova. In April 1830 he proposed to her a second time and was accepted. His father, with whom he had always had strained relations, was pleased at this sign of maturity and respectability and settled on him the small estate of Boldino in the region of Nizhny Novgorod, some 385 miles east of Moscow. In late summer, prior to the wedding, Pushkin went to look over the property, intending to stay a few weeks at most, but a cholera epidemic broke out, quarantines closed the roads, and he ended up staying for three months. This period of suspension, the most fruitful in his creative life, came to be known as the “Boldino Autumn.” During it he wrote some thirty lyric poems, the last two chapters of Evgeny Onegin,
the comic narrative poem The Little House in Kolomna,
and the four superb short plays he referred to as “Little Tragedies”: The Miserly Knight, Mozart and Salieri, The Stone Guest,
and A Feast in a Time of Plague.
And it was during those months that he also wrote his first finished work of fiction, the five Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin,
with their companion piece, The History of the Village of Goryukhino.
The tales are epitomes of Pushkin’s fiction. “Inspiration finds the poet,” he says in the preface to Arzrum,
but prose he worked at very consciously. His aim was to make the tales as unpoetic, as purely narrative, as possible. They have no commentary, no psychology, no ideas, no flights of rhetoric or authorial digressions. They are cast as local anecdotes, and are told so simply and artlessly that at first one barely notices the subtlety of their composition, the shifts in time and point of view, the reversals of expectation, the elements of parody, the ambiguity of their resolutions. Pushkin attributed them to the naïve country squire Ivan Petrovich Belkin, who in turn claimed to have collected them from various local sources. Belkin’s life is briefly sketched in a prefatory letter from one of his neighbors. Pushkin himself appears only as “the publisher” over the initials A. P.
Belkin seems to have occurred to Pushkin after the tales were written, in connection with their publication. For one thing, the disguise enabled him to elude Benckendorf’s censorship. Mirsky suggests that he may also have wanted an alias because the tales were experimental and he was not sure how they would be received. If so, his uncertainty proved justified. “The stories met with no success,” Mirsky continues. “When they appeared without Pushkin’s name the critics paid no attention to them, and when his authorship was divulged, like good critics, they declared that the stories were not worthy of their author and that they marked a grievous decline in his talent.” Their artistic perfection went unnoticed, as did their originality in the development of Russian fiction.
Once Belkin appeared, however, he took on his own life in Pushkin’s imagination, resulting in The History of the Village of Goryukhino.
It consists of two parts. The first is a superbly comic rendering of Belkin’s (and Pushkin’s) development as a writer, from his initial poetic ambitions to his eventual decision to “descend into prose,” as he puts it himself. The unfinished second part is the history of Goryukhino proper—an equally comic parody of historiography and, behind that, a biting satire on rural life and the evils of serfdom.
Pushkin’s own “descent into prose” continued throughout his last years. The unfinished works, fragments, and sketches we have included in this collection show not only the breadth of his literary culture but also his conscious experimentation with different formal possibilities: the society novel; the epistolary novel; a Russian variation on Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s best-selling novel Pelham,
published in 1828; a tale set in Roman times; the blending of prose and poetry in Egyptian Nights.
There is the finished story Kirdjali,
a briskly narrated and completely unromantic account of the doings of a Bulgarian bandit during the Greek war of independence in 1821. And in contrast to it there is the unfinished Roslavlev,
narrated by a woman, saturated with literary references and polemics, portraying the French culture of the Russian aristocracy as it was confronted with Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, a social satire which suddenly takes a dark turn just as it breaks off . . . (Tolstoy was to play on some of the same ironies thirty years later in War and Peace.
) Pushkin wrote Roslavlev
in response to the historical novel of the same name published in 1831 by Mikhail Zagoskin. Zagoskin’s first novel, Yuri Miloslavsky,
published in 1829, was widely acclaimed and made of him the Russian Walter Scott that Pushkin might have become a year earlier if he had not abandoned The Moor of Peter the Great.
In his Roslavlev,
Zagoskin made some obvious allusions to Evgeny Onegin,
borrowing certain names from Pushkin’s novel in verse and playing variations on the characters’ fates. Pushkin’s narrator, who is Roslavlev’s sister, sets out to correct Zagoskin’s factual and sentimental misrepresentations.Dubrovsky,
the longest of Pushkin’s unfinished works, is an adventure novel with an honest gentleman robber as hero. As such it is often compared to Scott’s Rob Roy
or the tales of Robin Hood. But its portrayal of rural life in eighteenth-century Russia, the relations of landowners and peasants, the connivance of government officials with the rich, has nothing romantic about it, and the quickness and terseness of its prose is the opposite of Scott’s leisurely narration. It is an example of the inclusiveness of Pushkin’s manner, by turns comic, parodic, melodramatic, grimly realistic, and warmly human—what John Bayley has nicely termed his “power of polyphonic suggestion.”
Pushkin’s two most important works of fiction, The Queen of Spades
(1834) and The Captain’s Daughter
(1836), form a final artistic contrast—the one tense, minimal in detail, impersonal, plot-driven; the other, his only finished novel, a more leisurely memoir, moved by seeming chance, told in the first person. The Queen of Spades
is a city story, a Petersburg story; The Captain’s Daughter
takes us back to the provinces and as far as the military outposts in the southern Ural region of Orenburg. The two also contrast sharply in their play on fate and chance, darkness and light.
On the surface The Queen of Spades
is an elaborate anecdote about the passion for gambling, of which Pushkin had great personal experience. But it goes far beyond mere gambling in its brush with the supernatural, or madness, in the fate of its protagonist, the rootless, ambitious army engineer Hermann. The essential ambiguity of the tale is prefigured in the person of the Comte de Saint-Germain, who appears in a flashback early on. Both a typical eighteenth-century aristocrat and the subject of strange legends and mysterious rumors, he is portrayed with considerable sympathy and humor. The same is true of the three main characters—Hermann, the old countess, and her young ward Lizaveta—whose vulnerable humanity tempers the melodrama of the events they are caught up in. Pushkin wisely leaves the central mystery of the tale unresolved, and it lingers darkly in the reader’s mind after the summary conclusion.
“The thought of abandoning trivial and dubious anecdotes for the recounting of true and great events had long stirred my imagination.” So wrote Ivan Petrovich Belkin in his preface to The History of the Village of Goryukhino,
anticipating what would be the final stage in Pushkin’s own development as a prose writer. One of the few real benefits Pushkin derived from being under the emperor’s personal supervision was permission to work in the state archives, granted him in 1832. He made good use of it. His first impulse was to write a history of Peter the Great, which he began that same year but laid aside almost at once. Instead he took up the more recent events of the Cossack rebellion of 1773–1774, the largest peasant revolt of the eighteenth century, led by Emelyan Pugachev, who claimed to be the emperor Peter III. The result was the masterful two-volume History of the Pugachev Rebellion,
based on over a thousand pages of notes and transcriptions he took from the archives. In the late summer of 1833, during his work on the History,
he also traveled to the Orenburg region, where the rebellion broke out, and visited the various towns and fortresses connected with it. All of this research nourished his last and longest work of fiction, The Captain’s Daughter.
In the novel Pushkin deals with the same historical events as in the history, but in an indirect, incidental, almost happenstance way, as the personal experiences of the young officer Pyotr Andreevich Grinyov. What concerns Pushkin is not historical forces, causes and effects, but the working out of destiny through a series of apparent coincidences. Destiny seems like mere chance, but here, as Sinyavsky writes, chance has a formative function. It reveals “the wittiness of life . . . the good sense behind its riddles and mishaps.” It depends, as in Shakespeare, not on ineluctable fate, but on the response of the characters to what befalls them.
Pushkin has space in the novel to develop his characters more fully than in his earlier fiction. They are unusual because they are quite ordinary. Grinyov himself is a naïve, impressionable young man. Grinyov’s superior at the fortress, Captain Mironov, his wife, and his daughter Masha are simple and good people, portrayed with fine humor, as is Grinyov’s tutor, Savelyich. They show a modest but genuine heroism in the face of catastrophe. Grinyov, too, for all his youthful naïveté and impulsiveness, is both steadfast and intelligent. There is no romantic glamour about any of them. They are masterfully drawn, but with such understatement that we hardly notice how it is done. In Gravity and Grace,
Simone Weil wrote:Imaginary evil is romantic, varied; real evil is dreary, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. Hence the “literature of imagination” is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of the two). It can only escape this alternative by passing over somehow, by dint of art, to the side of reality—which genius alone can do.
The characters in The Captain’s Daughter
are on the side of reality. The only exception is Shvabrin, the melodramatic villain of the piece, whose villainy, like Iago’s in Othello,
is never explained.
Reality is not banality, as Pushkin constantly shows us. There is nothing documentary about The Captain’s Daughter;
on the contrary, it has elements of the folktale about it—mysterious appearances, interventions, coincidences. It is composed of two intertwining stories: the love story of Grinyov and Masha, and the story of Grinyov’s complex relations with the rebel Pugachev (their private conversations are some of the most extraordinary moments in the book). Grinyov’s fate is determined, not by some all-ruling historical inevitability, nor by his personal will, but by two chance meetings: his own with the wayfarer at the beginning, and Masha’s with a little white dog and its owner at the end.
“Pushkin is the golden section of Russian literature,” wrote Sinyavsky. “Having thrust it forcefully into the future, he himself fell back and now plays in it the role of an eternally flowering past to which it returns to be rejuvenated.” Tolstoy gave an example of that rejuvenation in a letter describing the beginning of his work on Anna Karenina.
His wife, he says, had taken down a volume of Pushkin’s prose from the shelf to show to their son and had left it on the table.The other day, after my work, I picked up this volume of Pushkin and as always (for the seventh time, I think) read it from cover to cover, unable to tear myself away, as if I were reading it for the first time. More than that, it was as if it dispelled all my doubts. Never have I admired Pushkin so much, nor anyone else for that matter. The Shot, Egyptian Nights, The Captain’s Daughter!!! There was also the fragment, “The guests were arriving at the dacha.” Despite myself, not knowing where or what it would lead to, I imagined characters and events, which I developed, then naturally modified, and suddenly it all came together so well, so solidly, that it turned into a novel . . .
Reading Pushkin’s prose will not make great novelists of us all, but we can certainly share Tolstoy’s enthusiasm for the incomparable works, both finished and fragmentary, collected in this book.
Copyright © 2016 by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.