Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin
Celebrating the 200th anniversary
of Russia's best-loved poet
Member, Slavic Research Group at the University
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
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.