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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.3 (2006) 619-632

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"All the World's a Stage"

Aspects of the Historical Interplay of Culture and Society with Myth and Mask in 18th- and Early 19th-Century Russia

Dept. of Russian
Durham University
Elvet Riverside
Durham DH1 3 JT
United Kingdom
T. J. Binyon, Pushkin: A Biography. xxix + 727 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. ISBN 1400041104, $35.00 (cloth); 1400076528, $20.00 (paper).
Oksana Ivanovna Kiianskaia, Pavel Pestel´: Ofitser, razvedchik, zagovorshchik. [Pavel Pestel´: Officer, Intelligence Agent, Conspirator]. 511 pp. Moscow: Paralleli, 2002. ISBN 5932730633.
Gennadii Abramovich Nevelev, Dekabristy i dekabristovedy [The Decembrists and Scholars of Decembrism]. 299 pp. St. Petersburg: Tekhnologos, 2003. ISBN 5931470026.
Stephanie Sandler, Commemorating Pushkin: Russia's Myth of a National Poet. xii + 415 pp. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0804734488. $70.00.
Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter, The Play of Ideas in Russian Enlightenment Theater. xv + 296 pp. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003. ISBN 0875803105. $40.00.

The theme of the historical interplay of culture and society with myth and mask in 18th- and early 19th-century Russia serves as a leitmotif that connects all five books under review—whether it features the stage provided to actors by Russia's 18th-century theaters or to the Decembrist insurgents by St. Petersburg's Senate Square on 14 December 1825, or the restlessly changing [End Page 619] intellectual and emotional (at times truly dramatic) makeup of Aleksandr Pushkin and Pavel Pestel´. To this extent, the familiar Shakespearean notion of ubiquitous "players" on the world's "stage" captures succinctly the common theme identified here. For while each of the five books engages discretely with its respective subject, they are actually all concerned with aspects of the cultural and socio-political history of the 18th and early 19th centuries that interweave and interact to a surprising degree, particularly around the problems of myth and mask and of assumed or presumed identity on history's Russian stage. They deal respectively with the social significance of the Enlightenment theater and the origins of a civil society in Russia; with Pushkin as man and myth; and with Pestel´ and the Decembrists, whose mythology—as is well known—dates back to Alexander Herzen. Both the exploration of Pushkin as myth (Stephanie Sandler) and an assessment of Decembrist historiography (G. A. Nevelev) serve to extend the books' time-line well into the 20th century. This review essay discusses the works both chronologically and thematically.

The primary goal of Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter's meticulously researched study of early Russian theater is to explain how Russia's educated service classes perceived contemporary social and political relationships by way of mask through the staging of plays that "offered a unique forum for the debate of civic issues" (xi). Her study is based on the texts of 260 secular plays dating from the 1740s to the 1790s, 45 of them by anonymous writers and the remainder representing the work of 78 known authors. Wirtschafter has also made extensive use of state and personal papers in the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts (RGADA) and of 18th-century Russian periodicals. Furthermore, she has engaged with a vast range of printed primary and secondary source material. A useful 18-page appendix gives biographical data of the authors whose plays she considers.1

The first of six chapters traces the relatively late emergence of Russian public theater in the 18th century from its 17th-century roots. It also explores the role of foreign impresarios and the growth of commercial and provincial theater. By the end of the 18th century, permanent public theater in Russia had yet to achieve either commercial viability or independence from court patronage. This in turn helps explain why contemporary Russian playwrights consistently praised the reforms of Catherine the Great (1762–96). [End Page 620]

In a lively discussion of state reaction to the theater...


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