Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our second video for Week 9, and our subject is Alexander Pushkin’s Literary Revolution. Our teaching assistant today is Maggie. I have one announcement for you. Looking ahead to next week, please note that for Wee 10, Day 1, you should read chapter 6 in Saunders’ Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform. You should also read one of the philosophical primary sources—either Kireevskii’s essay or Belinskii’s essay. If you have time to read both, that would be fantastic. But if not, you can read just one of those.
Today we’ll be discussing three short works by Alexander Pushkin, who is often called the “Father of Russian Literature.” In Russia, people think about Pushkin in a similar way to how we think about Shakespeare. He wasn’t the first person to write poetry and prose in Russian, but he was one of Russia’s first significant writers, and certainly the one whose works are most commonly still read today. Pushkin is a revolutionary figure in the sense that the way he wrote revolutionized Russian literary language had a profound impact on the development of Russian literature after his death.
Russia, of course, had a written tradition long before Pushkin. There are epics, folk tales, and church chronicles that go back to the early days of Kievan Rus in the ninth century. But Russian literature in the modern sense, new works created by individual authors for a literate public, really got started under Catherine II. As we’ve learned, Catherine greatly expanded education, particularly among the gentry, and encouraged the development of a civil society that debated social issues through the written word. Thanks to her prompting, Alexander Radishchev, whose epistolary novel A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow we read in Unit II, became one of Russia’s first prose writers. And some of Russia’s first poets and playwrights, people like Alexander Sumarokov and Denis Fonvizin, also began their literary careers under Catherine. Poetry and drama were the dominant genres during her reign, and even Catherine herself wrote plays meant to enlighten her subjects.
The first half of the 19th century, the reigns of Paul, Alexander I and Nicholas I, is considered the Golden Age of Russian literature: a period in which Catherine’s efforts to bring Russia’s cultural life up to par with the rest of Europe bore fruit, and a profusion of poets, playwrights, and novelists burst onto the scene. Nikolai Karamzin wrote the first formal history of Russia in the 1810’s under a commission from Alexander I, and he also pioneered the genre of sentimental literature with his short stories. Several important writers soon followed, including poets, playwrights, and satirists. But while Pushkin built on these founding fathers in his own work, none of them had the lasting influence on Russian literary language that Pushkin did. When we read their poems and plays today, they are still beautiful, but they have a stiff, formal quality that makes them feel more like museum pieces. Pushkin’s works, by contrast, still feel warm and alive. As you read for today, I encourage you to try to identify the stylistic characteristics that make Pushkin’s work so vibrant 200 year after he wrote them.
Pushkin was born in Moscow in 1799, the son of a very privileged old noble family. On his mother’s side, he was descended from a man called Ibrahim Gannibal, an Ethiopian prince who as a child had been captured by the Ottoman Sultan, kidnapped from the Ottoman court by a Russian diplomat, and given as a gift to Peter the Great. This is a pretty racist start to Gannibal’s story. Fortunately, in this case, as always, Peter was more interested in talent than origins. Gannibal was smart and ambitious; Peter provided him with a good education and placed him in the officer corps, where he rose through the ranks to noble status and married into the Russian nobility. Pushkin was fascinated by this remarkable ancestor and wrote a novel about him called The Moor of Peter the Great.
As was typical for the Russian nobility in the 19th century, Pushkin’s first language was French. He attended an elite French-language school established by Alexander I for the sons of the nobility and began writing poetry while still a student. Pushkin’s first poems were in French. But Russian nationalism was on the rise in this era, particularly after the Russian Army defeated Napoleon. As Pushkin began to make his career as an official in St. Petersburg, he soon began writing in Russian.
Pushkin himself was a little too young to have fought in the Napoleonic Wars, but he had friends who were veterans. In particular, he became close with several of the Decembrists. Pushkin sympathized with their politics but didn’t take part in the Decembrist Revolt; he was not in St. Petersburg at the time. After the revolt failed and the Decembrists were sentenced to prison, Pushkin wrote several poems honoring them, which helped to ensure they were remembered as heroes by educated society.
Why wasn’t Pushkin in St. Petersburg in 1825? Because he was in exile. Pushkin was a bit of a prankster. He liked to push the boundaries, especially by espousing liberal ideas in his poems. Alexander I was pretty lenient with him, but in 1820, he decided Pushkin had gone too far and sent him to Ukraine, where he would be out of the way. Pushkin still managed to cause trouble from there, though, so Alexander ordered him confined to his mother’s estate near the provincial city of Pskov. During these years of exile, Pushkin did a lot of traveling, including in the Caucasus, where he gathered material for “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” which he wrote in 1822, and other works.
Up to this point, Pushkin had been writing poetry, plays, and short stories. In 1825, he began pushing beyond these genres. That year, he began one of his most famous works, Evgeny Onegin, which he called a “novel in verse.” And he also began writing some prose novels, a genre he continued to develop for the next ten years.
In 1826, shortly after taking the throne, Nicholas I allowed Pushkin to return to St. Petersburg, on the condition that Nicholas would act as his personal censor. This was restrictive, but it ended up being a very productive period for Pushkin. In these years, he wrote both “The Bronze Horseman” and “The Queen of Spades.” Unfortunately, his flow of long poems and novels was cut short in 1837. Like many noblemen of this period, Pushkin fought a lot of duels. In 1837, his luck ran out, and he was killed in one. He was 37 years old.
Russian society reacted to Pushkin’s death as a tragedy. His legacy was celebrated right up to 1917. As we’ll discuss in couple weeks, the early Soviet state had no interest in the literature of the “old guard.” But in the 1930s, priorities shifted, and Pushkin was remade as a hero of Soviet literature, as well. He remains a significant writer in Russia today.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. I chose these three texts to give you a sense of Pushkin’s style as both a poet and a prose writer. What stylistic elements that stand out to you? In other words, if a friend asked you, “What is Pushkin’s writing like?”, how would you answer? Do you prefer his poetry or his prose, and why? What do you make of his combination of poetry and prose in “Prisoner of the Caucasus”? What characteristics make Pushkin’s writing still enjoyable to read today? Do you think we still read his works because of his merits as a writer, or just because he’s a “classic”?
2. In “The Bronze Horseman,” what sense do we get of St. Petersburg as an imperial city? In the Introduction, what qualities does the narrator praise it for? How does this poem add complexity to the understanding of St. Petersburg we developed in our previous class? How does it help us understand how Russians in the 19th century thought about Peter the Great?
3. Consider the way Pushkin characterizes nature in this poem. How does he characterize the Neva, the river on which the city is built? How does he set up an opposition between nature and human power? What is Pushkin’s message here?
Compare the nature imagery in “The Bronze Horseman” to that in “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” particularly on pp. 136-137. Analyze the similarities and differences? Is this the same “nature” in both pieces or not?
4. The hero of “The Bronze Horseman” is Evgeny, an insignificant but honest person who gets caught in the flood, loses everything, and goes mad. The city returns to normal, but Evgeny doesn’t. How does Pushkin want us to understand this situation? Is Evgeny just a poor fool, or does he have the moral high ground? How does Pushkin use language to shape our understanding? In Evgeny’s encounter with the statue of the Bronze Horseman (Peter the Great), what is Pushkin’s message about autocracy?
5. Hermann, the hero of “The Queen of Spades,” is also an insignificant person. But his character is more complex than Evgeny’s. What do you make of Hermann? Is he a master, a monster, or something in between? What aspects of his personality does Pushkin highlight, and with what valuation? In your analysis, is Pushkin setting Hermann up as a unique case, or as typical of his generation and class? Why do you think Pushkin prefers humble heroes to grander ones? Why does he have them both go mad? How are these things useful literary devices for a writer who is also a social critic?
6. Consider the social scene Pushkin describes in “The Queen of Spades.” Thinking like historians, what can we learn about society in early 19th century Imperial Russia? What are its values? What are its glories? What are its problems? If Peter I or Catherine II were able to observe it, would they see it as a triumph of their policies or not?
7. The heroine of “The Queen of Spades” is Lizaveta Ivanovna, also called Lizanka. How does Pushkin use her to highlight problems in Russian society? What qualities does he praise her for? How does his description of Lizanka in this story compare to his description of the Circassian girl in “Prisoner of the Caucasus”? What is Pushkin’s vision of a “good” woman? Do you agree or disagree with his views?
8. The other strong female presence in “The Queen of Spades” is Countess N. She is clearly not shy. On p.216, she is very vocal in bullying Lizanka. Yet, when Hermann confronts her on pp. 224-225, and demands her secret, she is completely silent. Compare this to the silence of the Bronze Horseman statue on pp.128-129 of the poem. Unpack Pushkin’s understanding of the nature of power based on these passages?
9. The imagery in the first paragraph of “Prisoner of the Caucasus” sets up the two main themes of this text, which Pushkin explores throughout Part One: lushly cinematic nature imagery and an imperialist vision of “noble savages” who thrive on war. Compare this to Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat, which we read a few weeks ago. How does Hadji Murat, which was written 80 years later, help us understand Pushkin’s legacy in Russian literature?
10. “Prisoner of the Caucasus” is an example of “sentimental literature,” a 19th century style that focused on love and tragedy. While Hermann in “The Queen of Spades” is ruled by his greed, the Russian in “Prisoner” is ruled by his emotions (though it’s worth considering that both are motivated by passion!). Can you analyze the love story between the Russian prisoner and the Circassian girl? Is he really not capable of loving again, or is he just too self-absorbed and emo to try? Does she share his understanding of love from the start, or does she learn it from him? If the latter, is he morally responsible for her suicide? Does their love story end in tragedy because they are star-crossed, or because a successful romance between a Russian and a Circassian is unthinkable for Pushkin?