Russia's Everlasting Poet
The Death and Life of Pushkin
They used to tell a story in Moscow about a competition to choose the
design of a monument to Pushkin.
Pushkin being the national poet of Russia, this was a matter of some
importance, which called for the attention and judgment of Stalin himself. His
eagle eye passed over the sculptors' projects one by one. There was Pushkin at his
writing table, Pushkin musing in a birch forest, Pushkin dancing with gypsies.
Finally, the winning design appeared: Stalin reading Pushkin.
The point of the story was not so much the familiar megalomania of the
old tyrant. It was rather that there was one part of the Russian heritage that even
Stalin did not dare to challenge. He might rewrite history almost daily, casting old
heroes into the dustbin in accord with shifts in the party line, but he had to leave
the beloved poet alone. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Tolstoy, might have
their ups and downs in official favor; Pushkin remained immovable on his
Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvilli is in the dustbin himself now, but
Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin still stands for everyone in Russia to see.
Everyone has read him, everyone is ready to quote him. There are Pushkin streets,
squares and parks in almost every major city. There is even a city named Pushkin,
the site of the former imperial residence of Tsarskoye Selo, where the poet spent
his school years. There are any number of Pushkin museums, countless Pushkin
His mother's estate of Mikhaylovskoye, near Pskov, where he learned to
love the Russian countryside and the tales of the Russian peasants, is a national
shrine. And Seymon Geichenko, the man who restored it after the Nazis looted it
during World War II, is a national hero. Children come with flowers, and old
women with tears, to the field by the Black River in the St. Petersburg suburbs
where Pushkin was fatally wounded in a duel a century and a three quarters ago.
Pilgrims flock to the apartment in the city where he was brought to die in the
room where the volumes of Wordsworth and Southey which has just been mailed
to him from England lie unopened on his desk. Visitors search out his grave in the
monastery near Mikhaylovskoye, the taverns where he used to get drunk, the
baths where he steamed out his dissipations in Tbilisi.
A few years ago the Soviet government, in need of hard cash, sold at
auction in Moscow a batch of contemporary Soviet art. Almost the first use they
made of the money was to buy, in Switzerland, a bundle of Pushkin's letters to his
This Russian infatuation with Pushkin is unique in the modern world.
Other peoples have a national poet whom they revere and quote, whose tomb they
visit and whose verse they drill into their children. But nowhere will you find the
intensely personal, familial feeling that exists between ordinary Russians and
Pushkin. Italians may be aware that their Dante had a crush on an adolescent girl,
Englishmen may scratch their heads over the will in which Shakespeare left his
wife his second-best bed. There are hardly, however, subjects that will pop up in a
casual dinner conversation and will cause angry shouts and table thumping if they
But go to one of those traditional Russian parties of which the
psychoanalyst Vadim Kondratiev says, "We spend two hours singing, two hours
fighting and two hours crying," and mention the name of the poet's wife, the
beautiful flighty Natalya, and you will set off impassioned debates on both sides.
Was she worthy of him? Was he fair to her? Dd she betray him?
They will debate just as fiercely and possessively about the characters in
Pushkin's works. A few years ago there was a symposium of Soviet and American
scholars in Washington, D. C. "Several American Pushkinists," reported a
participant, "discussing possible feminist approaches to Eugène Onegin were cut
short in the corridor with the curt retort of one Soviet delegate, 'Leave Tatyana
Tatyana Larin is the heroine of the verse novel that is Pushkin's most
ambitious work. It is a matter of faith with Russian readers and critics alike that
she is the embodiment of all that is best in Russian womanhood, all that is noble
and passionately sincere. To the Western reader who knows no more about her
than what is to be found in the novel, she is more apt to seem an engaging goose
of a country girl who lets her heart be broken by the frivolous rake Onegin and
later turns with improbable speed into a poised grande dame of St. Petersburg
Eugene Onegin itself is regarded by Russians as one of the masterworks of
world literature, their counterpart to Shakespeare. Of course they read it in
Russian, and everyone agrees that the language has never been more supple and
more subtle, more close to that "concord of sound, feeling and thoughts," that
was Pushkin's aim.
His rich harmonies, like his sprightly wit, unfortunately tend to disappear
in translation. Russian poetry has distinctive rhythmic patterns which cannot be
reproduced in other languages, notably because of all the polysyllabic words that
go rumbling and rattling on like freight-trains in the night and that, unlike long
words in English, have only one accented syllable apiece.
Deprived of its incomparable rhythms and harmonies, Onegin is still
sparkling and entertaining, but its scope is hardly Shakespearean. It is a
conventional moral tale, rather like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, of a man
who commits an act of gratuitous cruelty (the mariner kills an albatross, Onegin
kills a poet) and is condemned to suffer for it. The verbal decoration, the
landscapes, the flights of fancy, are far more important than the plot.
Yet Russians of every political and cultural stripe will tell you forcibly
that this poem expresses the essence of their national character better than any
other work of literature, and that Pushkin is the most deeply and wholly Russian
of all their writers.
Western readers have not heard Pushkin in their cradles, they generally
come to him after their image of Russia has been fixed by a long line of
intimidating figures, from Gogol through Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to
Solzhenitsyn. They expect great Russian authors to be expansive, hortatory,
mystical, messianic. When they come to Pushkin, they generally find him the
least Russian, the most Western, of them all. His language is clipped, clear, witty,
gay. He has no interest in sin or dark nights of the soul. "Long live the sun! And
down with the night," he wrote in a poem in 1825, and everything he ever wrote
about, brigands and ghosts and fairytale magicians, peasants and gamblers and
society balls, he looked at with a dispassionate clarity.
What he published amounts to an impressive volume of work for a man
who died at 37, and the Russians have every reason to admire and even worship
the man who in effect created their modern literature. What had been written in
Russian before his time was mainly a pale imitation of foreign models. Educated
Russians relied largely on French; as a child Pushkin penned his first poems in
that language, and his heroine Tatyana has to write her love letter to Onegin in
French because she "expressed herself with difficulty in her native tongue."
By the time he died, Pushkin had elevated Russian into a marvelous
instrument for all kinds of literary forms. He created the wellspring of the
Russian novel and the Russian short story. He wrote drama, history, historical
romance, pornography, fairy-tales, realistic tales, narrative poems, love poems,
political poems, all with equal strength and grace.
His moods were unpredictable, and his behavior could be wholly
captivating or wholly offensive. With his :"terrible side whiskers, his tousled hair,
his long nails which looked like claws, his short stature, his mincing manners, the
impudent way in which he stared at women whom he found attractive, and his
natural and unlimited vanity" (the description comes from a girl he considered
marrying, Anna Olenin) he could win unbounded devotion and unbounded
If he had not been a writer, he would have been a typical ne'er-do-well of
the Russian upper classes. He drank heavily, gambled and womanized
compulsively - he had, he said, 113 great loves. He was also a compulsive
duelist, and used to walk about the public gardens swinging an 18-pound cudgel
to strengthen and steady his pistol-firing arm.
He dueled often because he saw affronts to his honor everywhere. He was
in fact a terrible snob, ever insisting on his ancient lineage: the Pushkins had been
active in the maelstrom of Russian politics for 600 years. He was equally proud of
his maternal great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Hannibal, an Abyssinian slave
from whom he inherited his swarthy skin color and, he believed, his highly
charged emotions. Hannibal had been bought from the Turks by Peter the Great,
who named him a godson, educated him and paved his way for a career as general
in his army.
All of Pushkin's glorious ancestors did him little good when it came to
getting on in the world. In the decadent Russia of the early 19th century what
counted was cash, and the Pushkin family had squandered its way down to
poverty. :"Poverty" of course has to be understood in a relative sense at the social
level of the people Pushkin knew. The Larin family's "humble roof" in Eugene
Onegin was big enough to shelter 50 guests for a birthday party.
Pushkin, at a time when the biographers describe him as hopelessly
bankrupt, managed to produce from a family estate 200 human beings, serfs, who
could be mortgaged for 38,000 rubles. This transaction provided enough to pay
off some of his more pressing gambling debts, and to fund a dowry and trousseau
for his bride. The young married couple had to make do with six servants.
Being always short of money forced Pushkin to become Russia's first
professional poet. He knew his own value and bargained hard, pushing up his
rates to a very respectable ten rubles a line. Still, there was never enough, and his
last years were spent in. constant financial embarrassment.
Worse than the lack of money was the lack of freedom. Pushkin, like
every Russian, was at the mercy of a despotic state, and it was only fitting that the
agony of the Russian people be acted out by their greatest poet. It is this, as much
as the poems themselves, that explains their impassioned devotion to Pushkin. He
was every Russian family's prodigal son, the debonair, charming, talented wastrel
who could dash off a deathless stanza or two, then go out in the afternoon to eat
cherries on the dueling field while his opponent was taking aim.
Pushkin was immensely proud of being a Russian. But his great and
glorious land was also an immense prison. For the government in St. Petersburg
had no intention of letting Pushkin fly free and publish whatever he wished.
Emperors and their advisors have little patience with subversive poets. Count
Uvarov, the Minister of Education, was supposed to have said, "Only when
literature ceases to be written will I be able to sleep peacefully."
Czar Alexander I was horrified by Pushkin's poems with titles like "Ode
to Liberty" which clearly mocked the autocracy and the Orthodox faith. He was
tempted to send the poet to Siberia but was persuaded to relent and send him into
internal exile, first in the south and then at Mhkaylovskoye, for five years.
Alexander's brother Nicholas I came to the throne in 1925 and soon
permitted Pushkin to return to the capital. He smiled on the poet, offered him a
government sinecure and told him that he would be his personal censor. Pushkin
took this as a mark of honor and wrote flattering poems about Nicholas, but he
soon learned that he was condemned to a stifling regime of surveillance and
interference. Nicholas and his advisor Count Benckendorf, chief of the secret
police, kept an unrelenting watch on Pushkin. They set spies on him, opened his
mail and crossed out whole stanzas of his manuscripts.
There is a moving allegory of Pushkin's plight in his best-known poem,
"The Bronze Horseman," which he was never allowed to publish in his lifetime.
The horseman is the equestrian statue of Peter the Great which dominates Senate
Square in the city Peter built. A poor government clerk named Eugene stands
before the great looming bronze and cries out his rage against it. He has lost
everything, his beloved and his mind, as a result of a catastrophic flooding of the
Neva which has devastated the city. And you, Eugene cries out to Peter, were
responsible - you who out of sheer pride built your capital on swampland where
floods like this were bound to occur, where thousands of souls would be crushed
by the inhuman achievements of empire. Empires have no time to spare for the
whining of suffering nonentities, and the poem comes to its conclusion with
Eugene madly fleeing down the broad avenues of the city, with the thud of bronze
hoofs following ever closer.
Pushkin must have heard the bronze hoofs ringing behind him every day
of the seven-year tragic farce that only ended with his life. Feeling "in his dotage"
as he was approaching 30, he had decided to marry and settle down. His choice
was Natalya Goncharova, whom he first set eyes on when she was 16, the
loveliest girl in the land. He loved her madly, and she did her best to put up with
the wild-eyed eccentric her parents finally picked for her. But there never could
have been much affinity between them. "Lord," she said once, "how you can bore
me with your poetry, Pushkin."
What Natalya loved most was to lunch at 8 in the evening, then go off to a
ball where she could dance and gossip and flirt and have all the young men
swooning around her. She flirted with the handsome Czar Nicholas, and he
determined to make her a fixture of all his court balls. To hear the Czar's
commands was to obey, and night after night, Russia's greatest poet was required
to appear in full regalia in the imperial ballrooms and spend the night bowing and
smirking among the dancers and the gossipers and the flirters. Interrupted only by
Natalya's pregnancies, things went on like this year after year. She grew ever
more ravishing, he went on pouring out masterpieces, there was never enough
money for the ball gowns and the champagne and the gambling debts.
Then in 1834 a messenger of Fate arrived in the form of a young Frenchman
named Georges d'Anthès. D'Anthès, who had been adopted by Baron van
Heeckeren-Beverwaert, the Ambassador of the Netherlands, spoke not a word of
Russian. But the dashing officer of the Horse Guards had no equal on the dance
floor. He was tall, blond and handsome, and it was not long before he and Natalya
Pushkin had waltzed their way into falling head over heels in love. They would
spend whole evenings snatching moments for whispered conversation behind
marble pillars, while Pushkin could only glare.
One day a flock of anonymous letters went out announcing the election of
Aleksandr Pushkin as "Coadjutant to the Grand Master of the Order of
Cuckolds," and hinting that Natalya was mistress to the Czar. Pushkin leaped to
the conclusion that something so nasty could have been written only by the
abominable Heeckeren. Since protocol forbade dueling with diplomats, he sent a
challenge to the diplomat's adopted son.
D'Anthès was more than willing, but Heeckeren and his friends rushed in
and negotiated a bizarre solution. D'Anthès would state publicly that he courted
Natalya only because he wanted to marry her older sister Katerina, and Pushkin
would state that his honor had not been tainted. The duel was called off, and
everyone waited to see what would happen next.
D'Anthès went ahead and married Katerina, but it was soon clear that his
motive was to give him an excuse for seeing more of his sister-in-law. Pushkin
forbade him to set foot in his house, but there was no way stop him from mooning
over Natalya all evening on and off the dance floor. "Pushkin gnashes his teeth
and assumes his constant impression of a tiger," wrote a friend in a gossipy letter.
"Natalie daubs her eyes and blushes at the long and passionate gaze of her
brother-in-law. [Katerina] directs on both of them a jealous lorgnette."
Finally provoked beyond endurance, Pushkin dashed off to Heeckeren a
letter so crudely insulting ("Like some obscene old harpy, you have been sidling
up to my wife n corners to urge the suit of your bastard,") that a duel was
inevitable. It was fixed for January 27, 1837.
On a sunny late afternoon, Pushkin and d'Anthès rode out to a secluded
spot in the suburbs. There was a law against dueling, but it was not very seriously
observed. So there was no one to interfere when the seconds trampled out a space
in the deep snow where the opponents could stand 20 paces apart, walk 5 paces
forward and fire. A German soothsayer had once foretold that Pushkin would
meet his fate at the hands of a weisser Mensch, a white man. D'Anthès that
morning was wearing the white uniform of the Horse Guards. He was a crack
shot. He fired first, and Pushkin fell with a wound in his lower abdomen. He
propped himself up on his left hand to fire and hit d'Anthès in the chest, but a
button deflected the bullet, and he got no more than two broken ribs.
They brought Pushkin home in a sleigh, and he lay in intense pain for two
days before the died.
No one was prepared for the outpouring of public grief that followed.
Thousands of people, "women, old men, children, students, ordinary people in
sheepskin and some even in rags," said his old friend Princess Meshchersky,
trooped up to the apartment on the Moyra Embankment to bow and cross
themselves and kiss the hand of the dead poet. "You knew Pushkin personally, no
doubt?" one Prince Vyazemsky inquired of a sobbing old man. "No," he said.
"But I am Russian."
The bronze horseman went on galloping after Pushkin even in death. His
body was spirited out of the house at night, and the funeral services were held at a
small church with no public announcement
Again at night, Pushkin's body was slipped out of the church and driven
off to Mikhaylovskoye. A woman who had known the poet happened to be at a
station where the carriage drivers were changing horses amid a display of police
forces. She asked what was going on. "Someone named Pushkin" said a peasant,
"rolled up in a piece of canvas like a dog." Only a handful of old friends were
present when he was buried in frozen ground.
Czar Nicholas, who had always kept Pushkin on a tight financial rein, was
very generous to his widow and children. Natalya, after a period of mourning,
returned to St. Petersburg, back to the balls, to dancing and flirting with the
emperor, and eventually - just like Tatyana in the poem - she married a major
general and lived in quiet comfort with him till she died.
D'Anthès was demoted for having taken part in a duel, and went back
with his wife Katrina to France, where they had a reasonably happy, respectable,
These were only footnotes. What mattered was that the great love affair of
the Russian people with Pushkin had come out into the open. In the death of their
poet they had recognized the pathos of their own lot, eternally ruled by cold and
cruel Nicholases and Benckendorfs. They would cherish his name forever.
"Gorbachev!" exclaimed a formidable old woman at the last Russian party
I attended. "Do you know what Gorbachev will be remembered for long after all
this nonsense is over and forgotten? He will go down in our memory as the man
who went to France and brought home, as a gift to the Russian people, the pistols
which Pushkin used in the fatal duel."
But characteristically for any story involving Pushkin, there was a star-crossed conclusion - French museum officials insisted the pistols be returned six
months later, and so they remain in exile.
©Robert Wernick 1991
Smithsonian Magazine, January 1992