Pushkin for president

The critic Apollon Grigoriev proved to be prophetic when he claimed in 1854 that “Pushkin is our everything”. Nowadays, Pushkin’s face stares out from vodka labels and advertising slogans, his monumental figure dominates public squares in Russia’s major cities, his words in millions of copies of endless editions cram libraries, and his name belongs to numerous cities. At the celebrations of the bicentenary of his birth in 1999 no fewer than thirty-four Alexander Sergeeviches marched as a contingent. How all this came about and what it means is the subject of Stephanie Sandler’s authoritative study. Based on a thorough knowledge of the writer and his cultural legacy, Commemorating Pushkin combines literary criticism, history and cultural history as it traces the impact of the phenomenon both on individual writers and Russia’s cultural institutions.

Although his untimely death laid the basis for the influential myth that Russian poets are doomed to be political victims, Pushkin’s popularity and status as a cultural icon began in the late Imperial period. From the 1880s, when Dostoevsky proclaimed the poet a pan-Slavic genius, Pushkin’s standing became inseparable from the state of the nation and its culture. This was particularly true during the Revolutions that began and ended Soviet power. In the post-1917 period, anniversaries of all kinds, including Pushkin’s death, birth and first arrival in Odessa, were seized on as occasions for public ritual. No fewer than five state-sponsored national celebrations mark the chronicle of the Soviet Union, and Sandler’s chapter on these events from the Bolsheviks to Perestroika provides a gripping history.

Pushkin was not an obvious choice as the national writer of the Soviet state.

Immediately after the Revolution he ranked fourth in popularity behind other writers such as Tolstoy. In the transitional period of the 1920s he was deemed to be suspect because of his class origins. Debaters in Vladikavkaz were uncertain whether he was a bourgeois or counter-revolutionary. By the time of the 1937 jubilee such uncertainty had disappeared. Pushkin outranked all other authors put together; one journal reported that every fifth book in a Soviet library was by Pushkin.

The Bolsheviks’ early need for cultural legitimation began with crude assertions like that of Comrade Sosnovsky who observed that Lenin resembled Pushkin, “in his simplicity, optimism, love for nature, and respect for the common people”. The creation of a Soviet Pushkin became a national issue with the celebration of 1924, which officially linked the cult of the poet to the foundation of a new order. Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Education, predicted that Pushkin “will live as an instance of the present and as a great teacher of the new life”. Images as well as words shaped public affection and taste. Early Russian and Soviet cinema were unthinkable without plots drawn from Pushkin’s writings and from his life. In 1937, against the backdrop of the Terror, Stalin and the state-run literary organizations mobilized a huge cultural apparatus for the centennial jubilee of Pushkin’s death. Marked by thousands of lectures and presentations across urban and rural Russia, in schools, factories and farms, the festivals and ritual provided a veneer of optimism and progress under which the traumas inflicted by the Terror occurred.

While the State boasted that unprecedented love for Pushkin was a measure of the widespread literacy achieved in the Soviet period, the cult of the writer was an instrument of ideological conformity. The Central Committee of the Communist Party hailed Pushkin as the creator of virtually everything Russian, and his portrait hung alongside pictures of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and members of the Politburo during the Moscow parades. Busts of Stalin and Pushkin shared an alcove in the vestibule of the poet’s flat in Leningrad.

Official commemoration is only one part of the story. After 1917, numerous writers and scholars in Russia, and among the emigre communities, saw in Pushkin the best of Russian literature and culture that had to be preserved from Soviet contamination. For some of Russia’s greatest poets the elaboration of a private Pushkin as an interlocutor and complex symbol of continuity with the pre-Revolutionary world became an essential part of their creativity. Anna Akhmatova, whose youth was spent in Tsarskoe Selo, where Pushkin went to school, felt an intimate bond with the poet, strengthened by their parallel fates as political victims of the regimes under which they lived. Akhmatova saw in Pushkin’s life a great creative mystery that she explored in a series of scholarly articles. Marina Tsvetaeva, in her stunning essays “My Pushkin” and “Pushkin and Pugachev”, and her cycle “Verses to Pushkin”, created her own myth of an endlessly creative, resolute, playful, profound figure that at times is a mirror to her own self-image. The exquisitely bilious Vladislav Khodasevich, an emigre contemporary of Nabokov and one of his favourite poets, saw the Revolution as a catastrophic rupture; yet he worked to save Pushkin from the new cultural wreckage by producing a refined body of scholarly studies in the formalist manner.

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