Alexander Pushkin : Shakespeare of Russia

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Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee

“If I walk the noisy streets, or enter a many thronged church, or sit among the wild young generation, I give way to my thoughts,”

wrote Pushkin who is known in Russia as their Shakespeare. Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin is considered by many as the founder of Russian literature. Till today Pushkin, the creator of the Russian literary language, has stood as the cornerstone of Russian literature, in Maxim Gorky’s words, “the beginning of beginnings.” Pushkin became an inseparable part of the literary world of the Russian people.

Pushkin was hailed as the leading Russian poet of the day and as the leader of the romantic, liberty-loving generation of the 1820s, he himself was not satisfied with it. The cycle of poems he wrote at an earlier stage confirmed the reputation of the author of Ruslan and Ludmila and Pushkin was hailed as the leading Russian poet of the day and as the leader of the romantic, liberty-loving generation of the 1820s, he himself was not satisfied with it.

Pushkin’s father came of an old boyar family; his mother was a grand-daughter of Abram Hannibal, who, according to family tradition, was an Abyssinian princeling bought as a slave at Constantinople (Istanbul) and adopted by Peter the Great, who became his comrade in arms. Pushkin immortalized him in an unfinished historical novel, Arap Ptra Velikogo in 1827 translated as The Negro of Peter the Great. Like many aristocratic families in early 19th-century Russia, Pushkin’s parents adopted French culture, and he and his brother and sister learned to talk and to read in French.

In May 1823 he started to work on his central masterpiece, the  novel  in verse Yevgeny Onegin written in 1833. In it he returned to the idea of presenting a typical figure of his own age but in a wider setting and by means of new artistic methods and techniques. Yevgeny Onegin unfolds a panoramic picture of Russian life. The characters it depicts and immortalizes—Onegin, the disenchanted skeptic; Lensky, the romantic, freedom-loving poet; and Tatyana, the heroine, a profoundly affectionate study of Russian womanhood: a “precious ideal,” in the poet’s own words—are typically Russian and are shown in relationship to the social and environmental forces by which they are moulded. Although formally the work resembles Lord Byron’s Don Juan, Pushkin rejects Byron’s subjective, romanticized treatment in favour of objective description and shows his hero not in exotic surroundings but at the heart of a Russian way of life. For his political poems, Pushkin was banished from St. Petersburg in May 1820 to a remote southern province. Sent first to Yekaterinoslav in  Ukraine, he became ill and, while convalescing, travelled in the northern Caucasus and later to Crimea with General Rayevski, a hero of 1812, and his family. The impressions he gained provided material for his “southern cycle” of romantic narrative poems: Kavkazsky plennik  The Prisoner of the Caucasus), Bratya razboyniki The Robber Brothers), and Bakhchisaraysky fontan  The Fountain of Bakhchisaray.


Pushkin had meanwhile been transferred first to Kishinyov for three years to Chisinau in 1820 and then to Odessa in 1823 for one year . His bitterness at continued exile is expressed in letters to his friends—the first of a collection of correspondence that became an outstanding and enduring monument of Russian prose.  Pushkin, in a letter to a friend intercepted by the police, had stated that he was now taking “lessons in pure atheism.” This finally led to his being again exiled to his mother’s estate of Mikhaylovskoye, near Pskov, at the other end of Russia.

While at the Lyceum he also began his first completed major work, the romantic poem Ruslan i Lyudmila in 1820 translated as Ruslan and Ludmila, written in the style of the narrative poems of Ludovico Ariosto and Voltaire but with an old Russian setting and making use of Russian folklore. Ruslan, modelled on the traditional Russian epic hero, encounters various adventures before rescuing his bride, Ludmila, daughter of Vladimir, grand prince of Kiev, who, on her wedding night, has been kidnapped by the evil magician Chernomor. The poem flouted accepted rules and genres and was violently attacked by both of the established literary schools of the day, Classicism and Sentimentalism. It brought Pushkin fame, however, and Zhukovsky presented his portrait to the poet with the inscription “To the victorious pupil from the defeated master.”

In 1811 Pushkin entered the newly founded Imperial Lyceum at Tsarskoye Selo and while there he began his literary career with the publication in 1814, as Vestnik Evropy, “The Messenger of Europe” of his verse epistle “To My Friend, the Poet.” In his early verse, he followed the style of his older contemporaries, the Romantic poets K.N. Batyuskov and V.A. Zhukovsky, and of the French 17th- and 18th-century poets, especially the Vicomte de Parny.

In 1831 Pushkin married Natalya Nikolayevna Goncharova and settled in St. Petersburg. Once more he took up government service and was commissioned to write a history of Peter the Great. Three years later he received the rank of Kammerjunker(gentleman of the emperor’s bedchamber), partly because the tsar wished Natalya to have the entrée to court functions. The social life at court, which he was now obliged to lead and which his wife enjoyed, was ill-suited to creative work, but he stubbornly continued to write. Without abandoning poetry altogether, he turned increasingly to prose. Alongside the theme of Peter the Great, the motif of a popular peasant rising acquired growing importance in his work, as is shown by the unfinished satirical Istoriya sela Goryukhina in 1837as  The History of the Village of Goryukhino and  the unfinished novel Dubrovsky  written in 1841, Stseny iz rytsarskikh vremen as  Scenes from the Age of Chivalry, and finally, the most important of his prose works, the historical novel of the Pugachov Rebellion,  The Captain’s Daughter), which had been preceded by a historical study of the rebellion,  “A History of Pugachov”.

Pushkin’s use of the Russian language is astonishing in its simplicity and profundity and formed the basis of the style of novelists Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Goncharov, and Leo Tolstoy. His novel in verse, Yevgeny Onegin, was the first Russian work to take contemporary society as its subject and pointed the way to the Russian realistic novel of the mid-19th century. Even during his lifetime Pushkin’s importance as a great national poet had been recognized by Gogol, his successor and pupil, and it was his younger contemporary, the great Russian critic Belinsky, who produced the fullest and deepest critical study of Pushkin’s work, which still retains much of its relevance. To the later classical writers of the 19th century, He also exerted a profound influence on other aspects of Russian culture, most notably in opera.

From Eugene Onegin to Boris Godunov, the works of the great Romantic poet Pushkin remain at the heart of Russian culture. Pushkin’s contemporary, the Russian author Ivan Turgenev, appears to have agreed. Speaking at the opening of a monument to Pushkin in Moscow, he said: “The very essence, all the features of his poetry, chime with the features and essence of our people.”

T J Binyon in his book Pushkin compared with Pushkin’s life with  Shakespeare’s. It is true that as in Shakespeare’s case no one has argued that Pushkin’s works were written by Tsar Alexander I, thought that the legend latter did not really die in 1825 would make him a likelier double for Russia’s national poet than the alternative authors who have been suggested for the plays allegedly not written by “the man of Stratford”. Myth-making, in Pushkin’s case, was of a different order, making this brilliant but troubled writer into a vessel for national supremacy.

Celebration reached its peak at times when Russia’s geopolitical ambitions were strongest – as in the jubilee years of 1899, 1937, and 1949. Inspired by the prevailing hysteria, otherwise reputable scholars made absurd claims for Pushkin’s intellectual, moral, and even social pre-eminence: one Soviet Pushkinist asserted in all seriousness that the writer knew 14 languages, while another believed his African great-grandfather Abram Hannibal to be a direct descendant of the Carthaginian general. But Pushkin’s real greatness lies in his Romantic attitude which he followed throughout his life in Tsar’s mechanical Russia where romanticism was sacrilege. Like Lorca in Franco’s Spain, Pushkin too brought fresh air to literature and life. That made him the poet of the poets in Russia.


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