A Moscow cab driver once told me that Alexander Pushkin was the summit of Russian literature. Russians love a hierarchy, and this cabbie was no exception: he proceeded to give me his own ranking ofRussia’s literary giants. Pushkin was not really at the top, he explained, but above it altogether, a genius levitating somewhere above the other luminaries. My cabbie was by no means unusual: most Russians have strong opinions about Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837). Although he was followed by an astonishing string of literary geniuses—Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov—few people would presume to nominate anyone else for the title of Father of Russian Literature.
In 1999 Russia celebrated the poet’s bicentennial. Candy boxes, vodka bottles, T-shirts, cigarette lighters, and perfume boxes were all imprinted with Pushkin’s image. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, rival capitals for nearly three hundred years, officials hung banners bearing the poet’s celebrations of their respective cities. A massive fireworks display in Red Square concluded the festivities, confirming Pushkin as the geographic and cultural epicenter of Russianness. The celebration was as exuberant (and as tacky) as the one that took place a hundred years earlier: in 1899 the centennial commemorations included bicycle races and board games based on the duel that ended Pushkin’s life.
Pushkin is seen by his countrymen as the quintessential Russian, the embodiment of an ineffable quality that foreigners will never understand (and Russians can never quite explain). The state no longer controls the book trade in Russia, so the days when commuters read classics on the subway are over; Tolstoy now competes with Danielle Steel and astrology manuals. But everybody still reads Pushkin—or says they do. Even those who have only read him in school wax eloquent when his name comes up. To talk about Pushkin is to pledge allegiance to the nation and its culture. [End Page 42]
It’s easy to see why. By 1799, the year of Pushkin’s birth, Russians had begun to feel a need for an authentically national literature—not that anyone knew quite what that literature should look like. A few eighteenth-century writers, adhering to neoclassical models imported from western Europe, had applied themselves to the task of making respectable literature in Russian, but the works they had managed to produce were for the most part stodgily derivative. (For modern Russians, casual reading in eighteenth-century literature is not an appealing prospect: anyone for Lomonosov’s “Ode on the Ascension of the Empress Elizaveta Petrovna,” or perhaps the “Epistle on the Usefulness of Glass”?) Russia’s small reading public subsisted largely on French novels, some in translation and some in the original. Members of the upper gentry often spoke French far better than they did Russian, which they used to communicate with their peasants, most of whom were illiterate. Church services and ecclesiastical books were in Church Slavonic (strictly a liturgical language) and the state bureaucracy had its own specialized and graceless vocabulary. One simply didn’t speak Russian in polite conversation.
Pushkin was the first writer to put all [End Page 44] the resources of the Russian language to use: as Gogol put it in 1835, two years before Pushkin’s death, “In him, as in a lexicon, have been included all of the wealth, strength, and flexibility of our language.” Pushkin wrote masterfully in all genres, from works of dazzling sophistication (Eugene Onegin, his 1831 novel in verse) to fairy tales that children still read for pleasure today. He is known above all as a poet, and it is the rare Russian who cannot recite a lyric or two by heart. His biography is at least as well known as his writing: youthful years of aristocratic dissipation and poetic inspiration (he was acknowledged as a genius while still in his teens); an enthusiasm for political liberalism that got him exiled to the Caucasus; gambling; heavy debts; and finally marriage to a teenaged society beauty of dubious fidelity. Even if he had not been killed in a duel, Pushkin’s life would make a satisfyingly Byronic story.
“Had there been no Pushkin,” Dostoyevsky declared in...