- Constructing Identity in Pushkin’s Russia
In an alley somewhere in Kharkiv, two murals depict “the duel of the century.” From one wall, a bevy of Hollywood characters come charging at the viewer—Robocop, Superman, Batman, Darth Vader, Scrooge McDuck. Facing them on the opposite wall, throwing off his top hat with his left while his right aims a pistol straight at us, stands a lone action hero in sideburns: Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin.1
These murals provide evidence, if any was needed, that the age of Pushkin remains central to the never-ending debate about the meaning of Russian culture. Hence it seems fitting that the Pushkin mural appears on the cover of Joe Peschio’s The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin. How Golden Age literature helped construct Russian identities, and in the process undermined the cultural hegemony of the imperial regime, is the subject both of Peschio’s book and of Luba Golburt’s The First Epoch: The Eighteenth Century and the Russian Cultural Imagination. Peschio examines how literature subverted the regime’s control over the public sphere. Crucial in this enterprise was what might be called the playful side of Golden Age literature: Pushkin and his comrades engaged in shalosti—pranks, obscenities, and calculated displays of rudeness—to construct intimate social spaces that [End Page 193] lay beyond the reach of imperial Russia’s authority structures. Golburt’s book, a study of Russian authors from Lomonosov to Turgenev, deals with the way literature of the 19th century delegitimized the regime through its treatment of the 18th century. The paradox of the period’s court-centered culture, she argues, lies in the twofold way in which it forms the starting point of modern Russian culture—originally as a utopian project to construct the enlightened Russia of the future, and then, starting in Pushkin’s time, as the exotic and obsolete “past” against which Russia’s ever-changing present was measured.
The circumstances of 18th-century society, historians have long argued, made it difficult for Russians to develop a strong, coherent sense of individuality. John LeDonne emphasizes the authoritarian implications of the country’s autocratic and communal traditions: in no area of Russian life, he argues, was there any “room for the assertion of individual freedom, economic initiative, and social autonomy.”2 Other authors, focusing specifically on the nobility, see evidence that educated Russians were continually confronted with a choice among competing models of thought and behavior. For instance, Iurii Mikhailovich Lotman argues that high society encouraged girls to respond to emotional shocks by fainting or welling up in tears, while life on tradition-bound country estates taught those same girls to be stoic.3 Andrei Zorin finds that when the nobleman Mikhail Nikitich Murav´ev wrote about his state-service career, he alternately described it as profoundly meaningful and as vain and meaningless. Murav´ev, Zorin writes, “expressed with equal strength and clarity two different emotional paradigms that guided his reactions and behavior. This kind of double identity was rather typical for Russian Pre-Romantic culture.”4
This cultural model bolstered autocracy because it encouraged Russians to mold their inner selves to fit the needs of the sociopolitical hierarchy—not only in political matters but in all areas of life. Consequently, the spread of individualistic ways of thinking even about ostensibly nonpolitical matters has drawn the interest of scholars who study the decline of Russia’s old regime. In his study of one small town, Aleksandr Kamenskii finds that although “the communal principle of social organization” remained intact, there were already signs in the mid-18th century of an “individualization [End Page 194] of consciousness” and of the “[individual] personality detaching itself from the collective.”5 Evidence of such attitudes became much more common in the 19th century, as broader segments of the population were connected with...