Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for Pushkin’s Literary Revolution (Week 9, Day 2)

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?

7 Replies to “Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for Pushkin’s Literary Revolution (Week 9, Day 2)”

  1. In response to Question 8:

    It is interesting how Pushkin uses a theme of silence among characters of power in moments when they are challenged by characters deemed of a lower class in society. For example, in “The Queen of Spades,” the Countess N. treats her ward, Lizanka, with cruelty, but is silent when confronted by Hermann. Hermann needs her clairvoyant ability to know which cards to play and confronts her. After remaining silent upon his request, Hermann pulled an unloaded gun on her to scare her into giving him her vision. This act shows the Countess’s true colors, “At the sight of the pistol the Countess once more betrayed strong emotion” (Pushkin 225). Pushkin’s use of the word “betrayed” is significant, because earlier in the story when she was bullying Lizanka, the Countess is shown to have strong emotions. The narrator even describes her as “capricious” (217). However, the Countess’s silence is different than the silence of the Bronze Horseman statue. In Pushkin’s poem, Evgeny ends up at the base of the Bronze Horseman statue, upset over his lover’s death from the flood of the Neva. Evgeny’s emotion of rage turns toward the Bronze Horseman, who of course is Peter the Great, and blames him for deciding to place his city next to the Neva, “He knew/ that spot, where floods ran raging through/… implacable as doom,/ had chosen seashore for his city” (Pushkin 128). Instead of being frightened by the challenge of Evgeny’s anger, the Bronze Horseman silent shows that he is unapologetic. In both of these circumstances, Pushkin is making a commentary about power and silence. The heroes (Hermann and Evgeny) who challenge these people of power (The Countess and the Bronze Horseman) are brave and passionate. But the silence of the people in power, whether from being frightened or unapologetic, is cowardly. They have the means to help the people of lower classes, like giving them a prediction of the cards or making protections from a city you chose to build near a river, but choose not to help them, retreating in silence. Overall, I believe Pushkin is making a social critique on power, stating that if people of power have the opportunity to help those in need, but chose to be ignorant with silence, they are cowardly people.

  2. To answer question 8, I believe that Pushkin, in both of these passages, equates silence with power. In “The Queen of Spades” the Countess is a powerful woman, however, Hermann seeks to take away the power she has. So therefore, with little left for “leverage” to give her power, she uses the only thing she has, her voice or lack thereof. By staying silent she keeps knowledge to herself which allows her to gain back some of the power that Hermann forcibly takes from her. Moreover, her silence bothers Hermann. Pushkin writes, “He stopped. trembling in anticipation of her answer” (224). By keeping quiet the Countess is denying Hermann of what he truly wants, thus shifting the power back to her. In a similar way the silence of the Bronze Horseman statue commands the same form of power. Due to its silence the writer wonders and dreams of this forceful, powerful hero. In both of these passages silence of one thing commands the action of another. Thus, silence has the power to create action and discomfort.

  3. In response to question 6, the social scenes in Russia were very westernized after policies from Catherine and peter. We can see that there is a lively nightlife in partying and gambling. The characters stay up until 6 am playing games and talking. There is a lot of social gatherings and interaction between both males and females. We discussed how these gatherings were taboo in traditional Russian society, but after policy changes, they became normal. I found it interesting that even though social gatherings are not the main point in the story, they still play a very important and prominent role in how the story plays out. I also found it very telling about Russian society in the ways Pushkin writes about each of the main characters. He highlights problems of greed and the upper-class society with the countess. He writes, “The Countess N, was of course, not an evil soul, but as the spoiled pet of society, she was capricious; she had grown mean and sunk into a cold egoism, like all of the old people whose fondest memories lay in the past and to whom the present was alien” (217). I really liked this line because it shows that society changed so much in those 80 or so years that many things are foreign, or new, to the aging population. Pushkin uses this line to highlight the many rapid changes that Russian society endured. We can look at this text historically and see that Imperial Russia did have its problems. Money was an important part of many peoples’ lives. The main character, Hermann, is greedy. He goes through the entire story only wanting one thing and that is to win money at a gambling event. We can see that there was a problem with class structures and a wealth gap. We can also see that many of the rich were very into flashy, high-class things. The glories of this societal transformation are more social gatherings, more education spread–Russian novels were being talked about– and more fun was being had. They drank, they played cards, and they talked about many things that the educated elite might talk about. I think both Peter and Catherine would see some of these things as a success of their policies. I think they would see the mingling of males and females a success as well as social gatherings a success. I think they both would also see the transfers of knowledge as a success. I think Peter would see the high life (the aspirations to have money) as a success because he wanted Russia to be able to compete with the rest of Europe. With this influx of money with this capitalist system, Russia was considered a strong, wealthy country. I think that “The Queen of Spades” highlights both the successes of the societal change and the problems, like greed, that came with it.

  4. In response to question three:
    Pushkin characterizes Nature as being powerful. He first mentions Nature as controlling destiny in “here Nature destines us to throw / out over Europe a window.” He characterizes Neva as being powerful, so powerful that “the granite that her quaysides wear.” The Neva is more powerful than the rocks she wears down. Her strength is “ungovernable” which suggests that she is more powerful than human’s ability to control. As Pushkin writes, when Tsar Alexander I saw her might in the midst of the storm, he said “A Tsar is no commander / against God’s elements.” He acknowledges that he may have the most power of the Empire, but he will never have as much strength as God’s Nature. He may be a Tsar, but he is not God.
    In “the Bronze Horseman,” Nature and the Neva are unforgiving to St. Petersburg. They engulf and flood the city unrelentingly in autumn. In “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” Nature seems to shape the people to the landscape. The Circassians mold their culture and lifestyle to the mountains that they call home, while Peter I built a city starkly against the landscape of the Neva. Nature is the same in both pieces, but the choices of the people that are different. The Circassians become adept at horse-riding to adapt to the steppes in their movements. The mansions in St. Petersburg sit against the river waiting to be flooded.

  5. Examining the social scene in we can see, as Chase said, a Westernized example of social gatherings. They were even described as a salon in the French fashion. They were drinking and partying until late in the morning and this seemed to be the norm of all of the social gatherings portrayed in the short story. We can also see aspects of the Decree on “Partying” in “The Queen of Spades”. They are drinking and dancing late into the morning. Through the card game at the end of the story we see the host of that gathering and he is shown and known to others as a generous and welcoming host. Another aspect is when the guests go up to the countess and bow to her. It is shown that she does not really mean anything to the guests other than the fact that it is what they are expected for them to do. I am unsure of what Peter or Catherine would think upon viewing these gatherings. On one hand they are what was expected, a westernized party where everyone was having fun and it is something that if shown to westerners, they would approve. However, on the other hand, these gatherings also show the negative aspects of the court or nobility that both Peter and Catherine sought to remedy. As a critic of the nobility, I am sure Pushkin portrayed things in a manner that went in line with his thoughts and not entirely honest but there is a reason that he wrote in that manner so again I am unsure what to think.

  6. Question 5
    I honestly have little idea of what to make of Hermann. He comes of and is introduced as a gentleman. As in, he is kind, good with his fiances and a romantic. Hermann is most definitely an intelligent man to not gamble at the beginning of the story, because saving his inherited money is a safe and smart play and to only use his salary money on expenses. As with him falling in love with Liza through the window and writing her stalker-like notes, this is a little strange but somehow romantic to her. (Pushkin, “The Queen of Spades”) Overall, I don’t believe he is 100% a monster with accidentally killing the Countess. It was obviously an accident, however, he did threaten her with a gun, even if it wasn’t loaded, that is not a civil thing to do to an 87 year old women around 2:00AM in her own bedroom…
    I believe Pushkin is setting Hermann up as a typical person of his generation and class. The reasoning behind this is that the people of this story’s time, enjoyed gambling and being wealthy. The Countess herself had a wonderful and prosperous life with her husband, but went and gambled a grand amount of money, and lost it. Eventually she gambled it back and beat Chaplitskii. (Pushkin, 212-14) Thus, would give reason to Hermann to gamble and also become wealthy and possibly become part of the higher nobles like the Countess. Needless to say, he was a greedy man to a point and was beaten by Chaplitskii, who already knew the strategy that Hermann was trying.
    Pushkin may prefer humble heroes to grand heroes possibly due to him growing up with Peter I and Catherine I in mind and seeing that they are, or at least act like, humble(ish) heroes. Another possible explanation could have to do with his relative the Ethiopian Prince, and him being more depicted as a humble hero in the eyes of Pushkin. As for why he makes the heroes go mad, I am quite uncertain. The only thing I can think of is that they have to repent for their sins in one way or another. As for Hermann, he was greedy, and that is a sin. Thus, he has to repent or pay for it.

  7. 6. As Chase pointed out, partying amongst men and women was taboo but eventually became normal thing that they did. Because the people valued to party and that was the first thing that was pointed out in the short story. But throughout we read about the finer things that they have in life and how the people are treated. But thats the problem, the countess is only being treated like that because it is expect to happen and that cannot change. Also the fact that there is a difference in society when it comes to who won and who lost and that is described in the beginning. “Those who had won were eating with appetite; the others sat lost in thought before their empty plate.” it shows that the ones winning in life did not care to sit back and think about the other people in society.

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