So long as Pushkin followed the beaten path of romanticism, so long as he emulated Byron, Batiushkov, Zhukovsky and the French bards, society, cognizant of his singular talent, appreciative of the music of his new verse, applauded him. But the moment he rose to his feet and spoke out in accents purely Russian and earthy, the moment he introduced folk motifs into literature, depicted life realistically, simply and candidly, society turned against him, adopting a sneering and hostile attitude, sensing in him a relentless judge, a dispassionate observer of Russian banality, ignorance and servility.
It was said of him that he permitted himself to be flogged in order to gain exile to Odessa instead of Siberia. In Odessa, his talent despised, Pushkin was persecuted, and treated like an exiled petty government official; exasperated, he would flaunt his 'rank and democratic pride of intellect, and six centuries of patrician ancestry.'
In his immediate family the poet was regarded with contempt and suspicion: his father once accused him of murder and threatened him with jail.
He was harassed by Bulgarin, persecuted by Benckendorff, mutilated by the censors. His poems "My Pedigree," "The Recovery of Lucullus" and his vitriolic quatrains aroused implacable fury. Unscrupulous people nurtured the general malevolence toward Pushkin; he fell victim to calumny and finally he was shot to death in a duel.
His fate was like that of all great men who by the will of history are forced to live among petty, vulgar, self-seeking people – recall the lives of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Pushkin is to Russian letters what da Vinci is to European art. We must be careful to separate him from all that is fortuitous, all that is due to conditions historical and personal. His inherited qualities – the patrician, the temporal – are not ours, are alien and unnecessary to us.
Only when we cast all this aside, only then there rises before us a great Russian, a people's poet, creator of fables of enchanting beauty and reason, atthor of the first realistic novel, Evgeni Onegin, author of our finest historical drama, Boris Godunov, a poet heretofore unsurpassed both in the charm of his verse and in the power of expressing emotion and thought, the poet-founder of our great Russian literature.
What does Pushkin offer the proletarian reader?
First, on the basis of his creative work, we note that the writer, rich in his knowledge of life – laden with experience, so to speak – breaks through the frame of class psychology in his artistic conceptions (Evgeni Onegin, Count Nulin, Dubrovsky) and transcends the tendencies of his class, presenting this class objectively, from its external aspect, as an unsuccessful and discordant organization of a section of historic experience; and internally, as a self-seeking psychologism, replete with irreconcilable contradictions.
Without doubt, Pushkin was an aristocrat – he himself on occasion flaunted the fact; but it is important for us to know that he sensed in his youth the narrowness and stuffiness of aristocratic traditions, realized the intellectual poverty of his class, its cultural impotence, and pictured the life of the aristocracy, all its vices and weaknesses, with unequivocal veracity.
A strictly class writer endeavors to depict his class as the master and sole possessor of incontrovertible social truths which are mandatory to the mass of the people and constitute dogmas demanding unconditional acceptance; this type of writer presents the ideas, emotions and beliefs of his class as the only correct, complete and truthful reflection of all phases of life, as the sum total of human experience.
In the case of Pushkin we have a writer who, filled to the brim with impressions of life, strove in verse and in prose to reflect these impressions most truthfully, most realistically, and who succeeded in doing so with wonderful deftness. His works – precious testimony of of a mind intelligent, truthful and well informed on the mores, customs and concepts of a certain epoch – constitute invaluable material iilustrative of Russian history.
The class writer, arranging his observations to conform to the interests of his class, tells us: “Here is the truth, derived from my observations of human life – there is no other truth, there can be no other truth!”
This is the transmutation of the tendencies of a class into a dogma, forced upon all others; this is the preaching of the necessity of subjecting the mass of the people to moral and orthodox standards beneficial solely to the powers that be; here art is sacrificed to the interests of militant politics, degraded into a weapon of struggle and it fails to convince us, for we perceive its internal falsity.
“No matter what my lineage,” said Pushkin, “my form of thought would not have been influenced thereby.”
These are the words of a man who felt that for him the interests of the entire nation were above the narrow interests of the aristocracy, and he spoke thus because his personal experience was wider and more profound than the experience of the aristocracy.
Maxim Gorky essay on Pushkin