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...
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 JOHN WOODSWORTH
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Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin
(1799-1837)
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PUSHKIN ARTICLE SUBMITTED TO
THE OTTAWA CITIZEN'S WEEKLY
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(page updated 6 July 2002)
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..
 

Pushkin is often described not only as Russia's best-loved poet, but as the 'father' of the Russian literary language itself.

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PLEASE NOTE:

The following article on Pushkin was submitted to The Ottawa Citizen's Weekly, and published (in condensed form) in the Weekly of 6 June 1999, the actual date of the poet's bicentenary, together with translations of three of Pushkin's poems and of Lermontov's subsequent poetic eulogy to his mentor entitled Death of a poet.  The above portrait accompanied the article.

Click here for an audio-recording of JW's conference paper of February 2002 entitled "Meaning & musicality: striking a balance in poetry translation".

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Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin
(1799-1837)
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Celebrating the 200th anniversary
of Russia's best-loved poet

John Woodsworth
Member, Slavic Research Group at the University of Ottawa








At one o'clock this afternoon, Sunday, 6 June 1999, Ottawa's Russian-speaking community will be gathering at the Pushkin Cultural Centre near the Protection of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church for a special celebration.

They will be joining millions of other Russians in the former Soviet Union and around the world to mark the bicentenary of the birth of the man who has been called the father of modern Russian literature (Russia's answer to Shakespeare, one might say), yet who is not nearly as well known to the outside world as the great novelists and dramatists that subsequently followed in his footsteps, such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Chekhov.

And yet these, along with almost every other Russian author of both the past century and ours, owe a debt of gratitude to this young genius of a poet.  For, more than anyone else, Pushkin (pronounced POOSH-keen) was responsible for transforming the Russian literary language into a powerful tool of expression for the innermost thoughts and feelings of many a great wordsmith to come, both in prose and verse.

Perhaps it is because he was first and foremost a poet, rather than a novelist or a dramatist, and hence more challenging to translate so as to convey the power and passion of the original, that his works are not more widely read and appreciated in the English-speaking world, where poetry has not yet reached the heights of popularity it has long enjoyed in Russia.  It is hoped that these new translations, designed to come as close as possible to the original sense, metre and rhymescheme, will give some inkling of that power and passion, and Pushkin's inspiring influence on his many literary successors.

*          *          *

Alekasndr Sergeevich Pushkin was born in Moscow on 6 June 1799 (26 May by the old Julian calendar in use at the time) to a middle-class Russian family.  His father was an officer in the Tsarist Guard.  On his mother's side we discover his African heritage: Pushkin's great-grandfather was an Ethiopian prince named Abram Hannibal, who joined the inner circle of Tsar Peter the Great's entourage as a military engineer and became not only his chamberlain but a close personal friend.

In 1811 the young Aleksandr went off to St-Petersburg, capital of the old Russian Empire, and spent the next five years studying at the Lycée in Tsarskoe Selo, a village just south of the capital (in 1937 it was renamed Pushkin in his honour).  It was here that he made friends with many of the young officers that in 1825 were to take part in the unsuccessful 'December Insurrection' against the Tsar's authority.  Pushkin himself was twice exiled from the capital for his radical political views.

Pushkin launched his career as a writer in 1820 with the epic poem Ruslan and Liudmila.  This was followed (among others) by Prisoner of the Caucasus (a poetic narrative, 1921), Eugene Onegin (a novel in verse, written over a period of eight years between 1823 and 1831), and the play Boris Godunov (written in 1824-25, but not published until 1831).

A remarkable short story, Queen of Spades, was completed in 1833.  Half a century later Piotr Tchaikovsky would turn it into an opera, and subsequently did the same with Eugene Onegin.  Another composer, Modest Mussorgsky, composed his opera Boris Godunov based on Pushkin's play of the same name, which its author had first presented in 1826 to a select gathering at the Moscow home of fellow-poet Dmitri Venevitinov.  Pushkin later joined forces with Venevitinov to create a new journal, Moskovsky Vestnik [Moscow Herald], devoted to European Romanticist literature.

In 1831 Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin married Natalia Nikolaevna Goncharova, the daughter of a prominent Moscow industrialist.  Soon afterward, the couple moved to Petersburg, where the beautiful Natalia quickly caught the eye of Tsar Nicholas I.  She thrived on the frequent invitations to palace balls, which her poet-husband barely managed to tolerate.

In 1833 Pushkin published his epic poem The Bronze Horseman (named after the imposing statue of Peter the Great overlooking the Nevá River in St-Petersburg) -- a vivid, fanciful depiction of the flood which had invaded the capital in 1824.  The poem was republished three years later in a brand new literary journal, Sovremennik [The Contemporary], founded by the poet himself.  Its first issues also included a serialised version of Pushkin's historical novel The Captain's Daughter.

Alas, Pushkin's brief but glorious career came to a tragic end less than a year after the launch of Sovremennik.  On 8 February 1837 he was mortally wounded in a duel with Baron Georges Charles D'Anthès, a French nobleman who had taken refuge in Russia from Napoleon's régime.  He died two days later.

The great writer's demise was lamented by millions of his readers, but nowhere more passionately than in a poetic tribute (also reproduced in a new translation on this page) by a young but brilliant poet named Mikhail Jur'evich Lermontov, more than twelve years Pushkin's junior.  The tribute, circulated in thousands of manuscript copies, boldly blamed Pushkin's death not only on D'Anthès, but also on Russian officialdom as a whole.  The latter then responded by arresting its author and banishing him to the Caucasus.  Ironically, Lermontov, the descendant of a Scottish immigrant to Russia by the name of Learmont, was himself killed in a duel only a few short years later, in 1841.

While Pushkin's days as a writer were all too brief, his literary legacy to Russia -- indeed to all countries -- is immortal.  Even today many of his works are learnt by heart by countless Russian schoolchildren, and even many adults can still quote them from memory.  Every year his poetry is the subject of a multitude of scholarly articles in the world's literary journals.  His works of acknowledged genius merit the serious attention of poetry lovers in Canada and everywhere.

© John Woodsworth, 1999.
 

Poster announcing a Pushkin evening at the National Library of Canada, 6 June 1999 (the bicentenary of  the poet's birth) -- co-sponsored by the Slavic Research Group at the University of Ottawa and the Sasquatch Writers Performance Series, co-hosted by John Woodsworth and Jan Topper (click on image to enlarge)

The programme included:
Readings of Pushkin's poetry in Russian and English
A video on Pushkin's life
Remarks on Pushkin's African heritage
Excerpts from Tchaikovsky's opera on Pushkin's novel in verse Eugene Onegin
Appropriate contributions (readings, comments) from those attending


 
 

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...
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"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you... 
Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."

-- John 14:27
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E-mail : <jw[at ]kanadacha.ca>
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