Nadezhda Teffi (1872-1952);
Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Poetry and freedom
The flowered garland from me wrench,
Break in my hand the pampered lyre . . .
I sing of Freedom’s conquering fire,
Scourge vice enthroned on royal bench.
"Pushkin wrote the ode “Liberty” in 1817, aged eighteen. It became one of the reasons the Russian authorities sent the poet away to the southern provinces. His exile was followed by nationwide fame – indeed, canonization. The centenary of Pushkin’s birth in 1899 was a pompous occasion; the centenary of his death in 1937, ditto; his birthday, June 6, was given national status in 1997 and has been celebrated as the Russian Language Day since 2011.
On June 7, the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize 2017 was awarded at the Charterhouse in London. Simon Franklin, professor of Slavonic Studies at Cambridge University, said that he and his fellow judges had to sift through more than a hundred Russia-related titles, looking for works that were informative, accessible and free of stereotypes. The six shortlisted books, all published in 2016, share these qualities; they are also, each in its own way, linked to poetry and freedom.
The House of the Dead: Siberian exile under the Tsars by Daniel Beer paints a land populated by convicts, among them the Decembrists, liberal revolutionaries who plotted a failed palace coup in 1825. Pushkin was close to many of them, although the Decembrists thought him too flippant for their secret society. His “Message to Siberia” is addressed to those of them whose punishment was exile:
Each hateful manacle and chain
Will fall; your dungeons break asunder;
Outside waits freedom’s joyous wonder
As comrades give you swords again.
In The Romanovs: 1613–1918, Simon Sebag Montefiore tells the story of Russia’s imperial rulers. One chapter touches on the relationship between Nicholas I and Pushkin, which involved censorship and played a part in the poet’s death in 1837. Rumours of his wife’s infidelity enraged Pushkin, and Nicholas was one of the main suspects, although he denied any impropriety. Unable to challenge the tsar to a duel, Pushkin fought with an obvious suitor, George D’Anthès, and was mortally wounded. Reaction to his death was overwhelming. To quote Montefiore, “Nicholas would have been amazed to learn that his own triumphs have been overshadowed in historical memory by this mere poet who would be revered as Russia’s true royalty”.
The imperial theme also features in Simon Morrison’s Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian ballet from the rule of the Tsars to today, as does that of freedom, both artistic and political, for the theatre has always been involved in power games of various kinds. It traces the history of the famous institution since its foundation in 1776, which “travels hand in hand with the history of the nation”. The Bolshoi has always lived and breathed drama of various kinds, including an acid attack and a double suicide pact. Archaeological findings locate the original theatre building 136 to 168 feet away from where it was previously believed to have been, placing it “that much closer to the Kremlin”.
Anne Garrels chose Chelyabinsk, a city 1,000 miles east of Moscow, a nuclear centre with a rich human geography, to research Putin Country: A journey into the real Russia. While there appears to be little poetry in the city’s life, the book points to parallels between freedom of speech in the nineteenth century and today: poets are no longer being sent into exile, but journalists still get killed and maimed.
This year the prize was extended into two awards, one of them given to a book originally written in Russian. Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson and Irina Steinberg, charts a journey made by Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, who wrote under the pseudonym Teffi, in 1918–19. A popular author, she was merely going on a reading tour, but the Civil War forced her to leave Russia for good. She dabbled in poetry and belonged to a bohemian circle that was doomed under the Bolsheviks. In her memoir, Teffi remembers the poet Maximilian Voloshin arriving in Odessa “in the grip of a poetic frenzy”: “Wherever he went, Voloshin was using the hum – or boom – of his verse to rescue someone whose life was endangered”.
The English-language winner of this year’s prize is The Russian Canvas: Painting in Imperial Russia, 1757–1881 by Rosalind P. Blakesley, a “book about creative, occasionally bloody-minded people”, as the author said in her acceptance speech. It spans the period between the foundation of the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and the assassination of Alexander II. Illustrations in this lavishly produced volume include two portraits of Pushkin, both painted in 1827: Vasily Tropinin’s work, “where the poet is somewhat distrait”, opposite Orest Kiprensky’s masterpiece, in which he is “arrestingly stylish, groomed, self-contained”. “I see myself as in a mirror, but this mirror flatters me”, Pushkin wrote of the latter portrait. Blakesley cites a contemporary critic: “The fire of inspiration itself has been depicted on canvas in his features, and the artist has fully conveyed in his gaze the bright ray of high, creative thoughts”.
The ray remains bright to this day, despite the attempts to turn Pushkin into a monument that began straight after his death. When Andrei Sinyavsky, writing as Abram Tertz in Strolls with Pushkin (1975), tried to rescue the poet from officialdom, such irreverences as “Pushkin ran into high poetry on thin erotic legs and created a commotion” caused outrage, with critics accusing the author of “defiling Russia’s national treasure”. What would Pushkin have made of that? In another 1817 poem he claimed:
A poem can never equal
A smile on sensuous lips!"
Anna Aslanyan is a freelance writer and translator,TLS,28 Junho 2017