In 1880, shortly before he died, Dostoevsky gave his famous Pushkin speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin monument in Moscow. Dostoevsky delivered his speech on the last of the three days of celebration. Turgeniev had spoken on the previous evening, and in spite of his eminence had been coolly received. His assessment of Pushkin had been too detached for the taste of his emotional audience. Dostoevsky, in contrast, gripped everybody from the start with his fervour.
A SPEECH DELIVERED ON JUNE 8, 1880 AT THE MEETING OF THE SOCIETY OF LOVERS OF RUSSIAN LITERATURE
PUSHKIN is an extraordinary phenomenon, and, perhaps, the unique phenomenon of the Russian spirit, said Gogol. I will add, ‘and a prophetic phenomenon.’ Yes, in his appearing there is contained for all us Russians, something incontestably prophetic. Pushkin arrives exactly at the beginning of our true selfconsciousness, which had only just begun to exist a whole century after Peter’s reforms, and Pushkin’s coming mightily aids us in our dark way by a new guiding light. In this sense Pushkin is a presage and a prophecy.
I divide the activity of our great poet into three periods. I speak now not as a literary critic. I dwell on Pushkin’s creative activity only to elucidate my conception of his prophetic significance to us, and the meaning I give the word prophecy. I would, however, observe in passing that the periods of Pushkin’s activity do not seem to me to be marked off from each other by firm boundaries. The beginning of Eugene Onyegin, for instance, in my opinion belongs still to the first period, while Onyegin ends in the second period, when Pushkin had already found his ideals in his native land, had taken them to his heart and cherished them in his loving and clairvoyant soul. It is said that in his first period Pushkin imitated European poets, Parny and André Chénier, and above all, Byron. Without doubt the poets of Europe had a great influence upon the development of his genius, and they maintained their influence all through his life. Nevertheless, even the very earliest poems of Pusbkin were not mere imitations, and in them the extraordinary independence of his genius was expressed. In an imitation there never appears such individual suffering and such depths of self- consciousness as Pushkin displayed, for instance, in The Gipsies, a poem which I ascribe in its entirety to his first period; not to mention the creative force and impetuosity which would never have been so evident had his work been only imitation. Already, in the character of Aleko, the hero of The Gipsies, is exhibited a powerful, profound, and purely Russian idea, later to be expressed in harmonious perfection in Onyegin, where almost the same Aleko appears not in a fantastic light, but as tangible, real and comprehensible. In Aleko Pushkin had already discovered, and portrayed with genius, the unhappy wanderer in his native land, the Russian sufferer of history, whose appearance in our society, uprooted from among the people, was a historic necessity. The type is true and perfectly rendered, it is an eternal type, long since settled in our Russian land. These homeless Russian wanderers are wandering still, and the time will be long before they disappear. If they in our day no longer go to gipsy camps to seek their universal ideals in the wild life of the gipsies and their consolation away from the confused and pointless life of our Russian intellectuals, in the bosom of nature, they launch into Socialism, which did not exist in Aleko’s day, they march with a new faith into another field, and there work zealously, believing, like Aleko, that they will by their fantastic occupations obtain their aims and happiness, not for themselves alone, but for all mankind. For the Russian wanderer can find his own peace only in the happiness of all men; he will not be more cheaply satisfied, at least while it is still a matter of theory. It is the same Russian man who appears at a different time. This man, I repeat, was born just at the beginning of the second century after Peter’s great reforms, in an intellectual society, uprooted from among the people. Oh, the vast majority of intellectual Russians in Pushkin’s time were serving then as they are serving now, as civil servants, in government appointments, in railways or in banks, or earning money in whatever way, or engaged in the sciences, delivering lectures—all this in a regular, leisurely, peaceful manner, receiving salaries, playing whist, without any longing to escape into gipsy camps or other places more in accordance with our modern times. They go only so far as to play the liberal, ‘with a tinge of European Socialism’, to which Socialism is given a certain benign Russian character—but it is only a matter of time: What if one has not yet begun to be disturbed, while another has already come up against a bolted door and violently beaten his head against it? The same fate awaits all men in their turn unless they walk in the saving road of humble communion with the people. But suppose that this fate does not await them all: let ‘the chosen’ suffice, let only a tenth part be disturbed lest the vast majority remaining should find no rest through them. Aleko, of course, is still unable to express his anguish rightly: with him everything is still somehow abstract; he has only a yearning after nature, a grudge against high society, aspirations for all men, lamentations for the truth, which someone has somewhere lost, and he can by no means find. Wherein is this truth, where and in what she could appear, and when exactly she was lost, he, of course, cannot say, but he suffers sincerely. In the meantime a fantastic and impatient person seeks for salvation above all in external phenomena; and so it should be. Truth is as it were somewhere outside himself, perhaps in some other European land, with their firm and historical political organizations and their established social and civil life. And he will never understand that the truth is first of all within himself. How could he understand this? For a whole century he has not been himself in his own land. He has forgotten how to work, he has no culture, he has grown up like a convent schoolgirl within closed walls, he has fulfilled strange and unaccountable duties according as he belonged to one or another of the fourteen classes into which educated Russian society is divided. For the time being he is only a blade of grass torn from the roots and blown through the air. And he feels it, and suffers for it, suffers often acutely! Well, what if, perhaps belonging by birth to the nobility and probably possessing serfs, he allowed himself a nobleman’s liberty, the pleasant fancy of being charmed by men who live ‘without laws’, and began to lead a performing bear in a gipsy camp? Of course a woman, ‘a wild woman’, as a certain poet says, would be most likely to give him hope of a way out of his anguish, and with an easy-going, but passionate belief, he throws himself into the arms of Zemphira. ‘Here is my way of escape; here I can find happiness, here in the bosom of nature far from the world, here with people who have neither civilization nor law.’ And what happens? He cannot endure his first collision with the conditions of this wild nature, and his hands are stained with blood. The wretched dreamer was not only unfitted for universal harmony, but even for gipsies, and they drive him away—without vengeance, without malice, with simple dignity.
Leave us, proud man,
We are wild and without law,
We torture not, neither do we punish.
This is, of course, all fantastic, but the proud man is real, his image sharply caught. Pushkin was the first to seize the type, and we should remember this. Should anything happen in the least degree not to his liking, he is ready to torment cruelly and punish for the wrong done to him, or, more comfortable still, he will remember that he belongs to one of the fourteen classes, and will himself call upon—this has happened often—the torturing and punishing law, if only his private wrong may be revenged. No, this poem of genius is not an imitation! Here already is whispered the Russian solution of the question, ‘the accursed question’, in accordance with the faith and justice of the people. ‘Humble yourself, proud man, and first of all break down your pride. Humble yourself, idle man, and first of all labour on your native land’—that is the solution according to the wisdom and justice of the people. ‘Truth is not outside thee, but in thyself. Find thyself in thyself, subdue thyself to thyself, be master of thyself and thou wilt see the truth. Not in things is this truth, not outside thee or abroad, but first of all in thine own labour upon thyself. If thou conquer and subdue thyself, then thou wilt be freer than thou hast ever dreamed, and thou wilt begin a great work and make others free, and thou wilt see happiness, for thy life will be fulfilled and thou wilt at the last understand thy people and its sacred truth. Not with the Gipsies nor elsewhere is universal harmony, if thou thyself art first unworthy of her, malicious and proud, and thou dost demand life as a gift, not even thinking, that man must pay for her.’ This solution of the question is strongly foreshadowed in Pushkin’s poem. Still more dearly is it expressed in Eugene Onyegin, which is not a fantastic, but a tangible and realistic poem, in which the real Russian life is embodied with a creative power and a perfection such as had not been before Pushkin and perhaps never after him. ...