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  • Introduction
  • Michael Wachtel

The following three translations are intended to acquaint the non-Russian reader with some of the highlights of Pushkin scholarship over the past eighty years. Each piece has a distinct approach, and each focuses on an important interpretive challenge.

Mark Konstantinovich Azadovsky (1888–1954) was one of Russia’s great folklorists and ethnographers. His work on Pushkin was by no means his central focus, but this work was nonetheless pioneering and remains authoritative. Based on strict textual evidence and a vast knowledge of folkloric traditions, Azadovsky produced an essay in which he proved that the plots of Pushkin’s beloved fairy tales were almost all foreign, that they were largely drawn from French translations of the Brothers Grimm. Such a conclusion flew in the face of the received wisdom, according to which Pushkin had reworked fairy tales that he had heard either from his nanny or, if not directly from her, then from the “narod” (the common people more generally). Azadovsky’s essay appeared in 1936 in the inaugural volume of the journal Vremennik Pushkinskoi Kommissii (Chronicle of the Pushkin Committee). That issue featured essays by most of the great Pushkinists of the time. Today even in Russia it may be difficult to appreciate the daring it took to publish this essay in 1936. This was a period of mounting xenophobia, where knowledge of foreign texts was by no means smiled upon, and the notion that the national poet’s most “national” works had foreign origins was unwelcome, to say the least. Two years later Azadovsky republished this essay as a chapter of his book Literature and Folklore. This allowed him to add some new observations and recent discoveries, but he also took the opportunity to tone down some of the statements that were becoming increasingly dangerous. It should be emphasized that Azadovsky altered none of his central points or conclusions. The changes were marginal, though revealing. To give but one example: in the 1936 essay he had written (on p. 154): “There is no reason to think Pushkin had any closeness to oral tradition.” When he republished the essay in 1938, he changed this sentence to read: “We do not know the true extent of Pushkin’s knowledge of oral tradition” (p. 95). In the present translation, we have used the 1936 [End Page 1] essay as the basis, but supplemented it when the 1938 essay gave more detail or corrected minor errors in the earlier version. We have not, however, explicitly noted which passages were interpolated from the later version, nor have we included the minor changes prompted by ideological concerns. Such issues may well be of interest to Pushkin scholars and Soviet historians, but they would simply be distracting to an English-speaking audience.

The second essay is an excerpt from Yuri Lotman’s commentary to Eugene Onegin. Lotman (1922–93) had an unusual status in the scholarly hierarchy of the Soviet Union. He was an independent thinker, though not a dissident. As such, his work was not encouraged, but it was tolerated. It is indicative that he taught in Tartu, in “distant” Estonia, where the stakes were lower and where there was greater academic autonomy than in Moscow and Leningrad. In Tartu Lotman and his colleagues developed a semiotic approach to literature that could not easily be reconciled with the reigning Marxist-Leninist tendencies. His department was undoubtedly the most exciting place to study Russian literature in the Soviet Union, but it was also treated as a province by the Soviet literary establishment. Whereas scholars from Moscow and Leningrad had the most prestigious presses at their disposal, Lotman’s work generally appeared in tiny print runs in his local journal Trudy po znakovym sistemam (Works on Semiotic Systems). His commentary to Onegin appeared in 1980 in Leningrad, but with the unprepossessing publishing house “Prosveshchenie.” Lotman’s book likewise announced itself without pretension and perhaps self-protectively; it carried the subtitle: A Guide for the (School) Teacher. Such subtitles were routinely given to books that summarized basic points about classic literature. Lotman’s book, however, was something completely different. Based on meticulous historical scholarship as well as careful study of little-known sources (including...


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