Pushkin – The Father of Russian literature

Pushkin – The Father of Russian literature
05 May 2023

Any lover of Russian literature will have undoubtedly come across the likes of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov as it is these ‘fathers of the classics’ that Western readers are most acquainted with (though unfortunately, often in Constance Garnett’s less-than-great translations). Or perhaps you’ve read my article on some of the lesser known 20th century writers, and so you’ve had the joy of reading silver age novelists like Zamyatin or Sologub. Generally, however, the English-speaker’s knowledge of Russian literature fails to extend beyond the great social realists of the late 19th century. There is however a great movement that came before: the Golden age of Russian literature, Romanticism. And at the forefront of that era stands the father of Russian literature. I am talking of course, about Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin.

‘It all leads back to Pushkin’

There were of course, great writers that came before Pushkin (Karamzin for example), but there had been no such author before Pushkin that could engender a sense of ‘national literature’, something which Russia was distinctly lacking. It is for this reason that Pushkin’s life and lyrics are widely recalled by heart among any educated Russian, and why many consider him to be the founder of modern Russian literature. Karamzin’s Бедная Лиза predated Pushkin, but it was Pushkin that lay the groundwork for the Romantic movement and the magnificent works that would characterise it. From Lermontov’s Герой нашего времени to Gogol’s Мертвые Души; it all leads back to Pushkin.

‘A Fated life’

Pushkin was born into nobility in 1799 – a date known by practically every Russian – to Gannibal, a former slave ‘rescued’ from Africa by the venerated founder of the ‘window to Europe’, St Peterburg: Peter the Great. As a writer, Pushkin was prolific and showed great promise in his early days at the Царское село Lycée; in fact, it is widely reported that Karamzin once came across a young Pushkin at a poetry competition in his early years. Clearly the burgeoning literary culture in Russia was deeply interconnected. Pushkin’s life was however, ultimately cut untimely short in 1837 in a manner befitting of any Romantic Byronic hero so frequent in his writing: a duel. Affronted following an exchange of letters between Frenchman d’Anthes and his wife, Pushkin was ultimately fatally wounded in a duel of honour. The contextual circumstances and love triangle that characterised the poet’s death was eerily similar to that of his prototype лишний человек, Onegin. The great poet lived nothing short of a fated life.

Роман в стихах’

Pushkin’s most well-known and ostensibly, greatest произведение was the infamous aforementioned романв стихах: Евгений Онегин. Published serially between 1825 – 1832, the ‘novel in verse’ follows the life of the ‘dandy’ and eponymous protagonist, Onegin, who lives a life of comfortable indolence in the Russian countryside. Onegin’s character is often viewed as a thinly-veiled semi-autobiographical reflection of Pushkin himself,  whose idle lifestyle, confined to the countryside estate ascribed to him, evinces a subtle criticism of his multiple bouts of exile under Tsarist power; first to the Caucasus Mountains of the south (a mandatory influence for and hopeful Romanticist) and later, to the Mikhailovskoye estate. Moreover, should you read all 389 ‘Onegin stanzas’, you will undoubtedly notice several are marked with numbers, but don’t exist on the page beyond a series of ‘x’s. This is perhaps the most overt, tongue-in-cheek of Pushkin’s social criticism through his work: these ‘missing stanzas’ are Pushkin poking fun at Count Benckendorff and Tsar Nikolai I, who acted as his personal censor – a condition of his return to Russian society following exile for seditious behaviour and involvement with the Decembrist uprising in 1825. Evgeniy Onegin’s themes extend beyond just social criticism however, and offer a shrewd insight into the poet’s views on love, relationships, the social position of women and social custom of an inherently masculine society. The text is an serious undertaking, but given its position at the very pinnacle of Russian literary culture – not to mention the fact that it has spawned an opera penned by the esteemed Tchaikovsky himself – a reading of Евгений Онегин is vital for understanding Pushkin as both a poet and a member of early 19th Russian nobility.

Life in lyrics – ‘Autocratic power’

However, to truly get a view into the poet’s thinking, one needs to look no further than his vast series of lyrics poems, penned concurrently throughout the duration of the poet’s short but intensely productive life. The number of lyrics are in fact so great that covering all of them goes far beyond the scope of this article, owing to Pushkin’s intensity in writing, but their correspondence to the events in the poet’s life offer interesting insights into aspects of his life that the ornament of prose precludes. Indeed, reading Pushkin’s lyric poems sculpt a more fleshed-out biographical portrait and often elicits at least some understanding in to his complex social and political views. Notably, his infamous 1817 ‘Вольность Ода’ bespeaks of Pushkin’s then-held belief in the contractual nature of autocratic power and the consequent downfalls of the Tsarist regime under Alexander I. The lyric paints a picture of a young liberal, free thinking creative early in his literary career; it was ultimately a copy of this very lyric being found in the hands of the Decembrists that put the young Pushkin under scrutiny, and earned him his first exile.

Life in lyrics – ‘A gift given in vain’

The social element to Pushkin’s prolific lyricism is unrelenting, and evident again in his 1828 lyric Дар напрасный, Дар случайный, by which point, the poet is firmly under the thumb of the Tsar’s personal censorship, which would be the status quo for the rest of his creative life. The lyric resembles a lament at the restriction of Pushkin’s social conditions and the sense of existential doubt that is engendered from the suppression of his creative freedom. The ‘gift’ to which the title bespeaks, interpreted as the creative ‘gift’ with which he is instilled, or else, the ‘gift of life’ itself, is understandably now one given ‘in vain’, something Pushkin explicitly confronts in the second line of the lyric – жизнь зачем ты мне дана?.  

By the time Pushkin completed Евгений Онегин, the gift given in vain had long plagued him, which is perhaps why he so willingly took on the danger of a duel; frustrated by his creative sequestration. Regardless, Pushkin’s oeuvre is rich in its quality, vast in its quantity, and pioneering in its function: it established a Russian national literature. It is for this, that Pushkin is forever commemorated as one of the finest Russian litterateurs that ever lived.

Patrick, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, Riga.

Image Credit: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/pushkin-the-poet-russia-monument-4298338/

Posted by Patrick Groves

Hi, I'm Patrick. I'm a student at Wadham College, University of Oxford spending most of my time writing essays on Tolstoy or in one of Oxford's many pubs. I'm currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, Riga.

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