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Module Abstract Humanities

1. Chapter
Poet and Nation

"Russia’s emergence on the world stage in literature in the early nineteenth century coincided with the ascendancy of the Romantic ethic and aesthetic in Western Europe, which had a profound influence on the role of the writer and the function of literature in the Russian empire. Under the sway of the Hegelian paradigm that a nation’s “spirit” was instantiated in its verbal art, the Russian writer came to epitomize the political health and power of the nation. Literature was called upon to narrate the story of the nation, and a nation’s ability to produce a great writer became a gauge of its relative status in the world historical community. In Russia no figure exemplified - and continues to exemplify - this association of the writer with the nation better than Alexander Pushkin—heralded even in his lifetime as Russia’s greatest national poet.

At roughly the same historical moment, Russian culture was undergoing a sea change in cultural institutions. The growth of an urban reading public (albeit confined largely to the “capitals,” Moscow and Petersburg) went hand in hand with the rise of journalism, which culminated in the appearance of the “thick” journal. “Thick” journals, which often contained literary works among their featured publications, were distinguished by the range of the materials they included across what we now term the humanities and the social sciences; moreover, each “thick” journal espoused a specific “line” regarding what path best suited Russia’s particular destiny in the world. Related developments included the professionalization of authorship as the old court patronage system, which had dominated Russian literature in the eighteenth century, and the model of the gentleman poet who wrote for an intimate audience of friends, which prevailed in the 1820s, gave way to the model of the writer who supported himself by his writing. By the same token, as a function of censorship, literature took on a greater socio-political role in society, as did literary criticism, since both became forums for addressing the ills of Russian society precisely because they were able to use fiction as “cover” for airing critical views to an extent unthinkable in more overtly political writings. The civic model of the writer and the literary critic as voices of the conscience of society gained ascendancy.

Related processes were taking place in East European countries, which, unlike predominantly Orthodox Russia, had long standing connections to West European culture through institutions like the Catholic and Protestant churches and the Hapsburg Empire. While in broad lines Russia in the nineteenth century saw itself as inventing a new literature, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary had a strong sense of literary history dating back to the Renaissance in Europe, and saw their literatures as connected to the rest of European literature and developing out of the same traditions. At the same time, these East Central European countries, like Russia, were all influenced by Romantic ideas of the nation, and figures like Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), Božena Nemcová (1820-62), Sándor Petőfi (1823-49) emerged as "national" authors in Poland, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, respectively, and were associated with national movements both in culture and in politics.

Mickiewicz, for instance, formed a military legion in 1848 to liberate northern Italy from Austria, and Petőfi was killed fighting the Russians in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. The Czech movement was characterized as a "National Revival" or "return" to Czech-language literature after a period in which German was the predominant language of government and high culture.

From the outset of their careers, both Mickiewicz and Pushkin were moved by the example of the British Romantic poet Lord Byron, whose own engagement in politics cost him his life during the failed rebellion for Greek independence. Both the Russian and the Polish poet were reacting to neoclassicism and sentimentalism in poetry, and both saw the role of the poet as central to the life of the nation. Mickiewicz and Pushkin, moreover, shared a degree of mutual respect and admiration nurtured by their acquaintance during Mickiewicz’s five years in exile in Russia. However, their rival national allegiances led to poetic polemic. In the wake of the Polish Uprising against Russian domination (1830-1831) the great Russian national poet defended Russian imperialism in the poem "To the Slanderers of Russia," while the great Polish national poet found Russian intellectual culture to be rigid in a manner that symbolized a culture of unfreedom as described in his "Military Review," the longest of the six poems in the Digression in Part III of Mickiewicz’s drama, Forefathers Eve. Pushkin’s poetic masterpiece, the poema (narrative poem) The Bronze Horseman is in part a response to Mickiewicz’s work.

Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, however, is far from a simple political statement. In fact, it is an extraordinarily rich and complex literary work, which can therefore serve us as an excellent intial case study in how to read a literary text, especially since the poem lends itself to a multiplicity of readings, no single one of which exhausts its significance.

The Bronze Horseman is built on a series of oppositions, and part of the poem’s power certainly derives from the fact that these oppositions remain without clear resolution at the end. The poem revolves, on the one hand, around the statue from which it takes its name, the monument to Peter the Great - commissioned from the French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet by Catherine the Great and unveiled in Senate Square in Petersburg in 1782 -and, on the other hand, the devastating flood of St. Petersburg which took place in November 1824. In the introduction to the poem, Peter the Great is portrayed as the imposing tsar-creator who, by an act of will and in defiance of nature, brought forth out of a swamp the magnificent city of St. Petersburg. The story of the poem proper takes place a century later. At the center of the plot we find the poor clerk Evgeny, whose fiancée Parasha perishes in the flood. In a fit of madness brought on by his loss, Evgeny confronts Peter the Great in the form of the Bronze Horseman, only to find himself pursued through the streets of Petersburg by the statue come alive (whether in reality or in Evgeny’s deranged mind). The madman perishes, driven beyond the precincts of the city. The poem has most frequently been read as an allegory of the relationship between tsar and subject, between the ruler’s towering vision and the suffering it causes his people. Perhaps less obviously, The Bronze Horseman maybe interpreted as a dramatization of the tension between the power of the state and the power of the poet. The oppositions of man vs. Nature and tsar vs. People are played out against the background of two views of the city of Petersburg itself: on the one hand, the majestic imperial capital, on the other hand, the unhealthy city of petty merchants and clerks, a place of madness, fantastic occurences, and hallucinations. While all of these oppositions have continued to inspire the Russian imagination since the time of Pushkin, the most enduring image in The Bronze Horseman is unquestionably the description of the statue of Peter riding the steed of Russia, poised over the abyss of the future. The line, „whither are you galloping, proud steed,“ remains a potent formulation of Russia’s destiny, a figure of a land of extraordinary power harnessed by the hand of the ruler, yet speeding, perhaps out of control, to an unknown future. Only the poet, giving shape to the paradigmatic tensions of Russia’s destiny in his art, poses a potentional challenge to the ruling autocracy.

In the course of the years since he died in 1837, Pushkin, like the other national poets of the Romantic era, has continued to exert a powerful hold over the imagination of his countrymen. In one of the earliest and most famous instances of extravagant claims made for Pushkin by fellow writers, in 1835, shortly before Pushkin’s death, the prose writer Nikolai Gogol proclaimed: “Pushkin is an extraordinary phenomenon and, perhaps, the only manifestation of the Russian spirit: he is the Russian person in his development, as he, perhaps, will appear in two hundred years.“ In 1880, at the ceremony accompanying the unveiling in the center of Moscow of a statue of the poet financed by a collection of private funds and executed by the sculptor A.M. Opekushin, the writer Fedor Dostoevsky continued in the tradition of Gogol, casting Pushkin as an emblem of Russia’s imperial vocation to act as the most genuinely Christian nation in reconciling East and West. By century’s end, the tsarist government had realized the power of the Pushkin cult as a prop for the legitimacy of the state, and the 1899 centennial celebration of Pushkin’s birth became a lavish affair promoted by the government. The Soviet authorities, most notably the Stalin government during the centenary commemoration of Pushkin’s death in 1937 at the height of the purges, would continue to coopt Pushkin to the power of the state, sponsoring celebrations throughout its territory as a gauge of the Soviet Union’s civilizing mission to bring literacy and modernity to the manifold peoples of the enormous Soviet empire. Pushkin remains even today a powerful rallying point for national sentiment, a mirror into which post-Soviet Russians look to find a reflection of their deepest aspirations, an issue to which we will return at the end of this module."

Catharine Nepomnyashchy and David Goldfarb: Poet and Nation. 1st Chapter of Unit 1 of the Humanities Module. © East European Studies Online; 2010.