Taking Pushkin off his pedestal

From Engelsberg Ideas:

On the evening of February 24, 2022, a few hours after Vladimir Putin ordered his army into Ukraine, thousands of Russians, most of them young, came out onto Pushkin Square in central Moscow. They stood around the statue of Alexander Pushkin, holding placards saying ‘No to War’ for a few minutes before their protest was dispersed by the police. By rallying next to the monument to the curly-haired poet, they were perpetuating a tradition dating back to Soviet times.

Five weeks later, Ukrainian forces recaptured the town of Chernihiv north of Kyiv, which had suffered grievously from a month of Russian occupation and where hundreds had died. A Russian air strike had killed 47 civilians, a war crime that Amnesty International termed ‘a merciless, indiscriminate attack’. On April 30 Ukrainian soldiers took down a bust of Pushkin which had stood in the centre of the liberated town since 1900 and removed it to the local museum.

Across Ukraine at least two dozen Pushkin statues have been removed from their pedestals since the war began. Ukrainians say they are dethroning a Russian imperialist. They cited one of Pushkin’s poems in particular, ‘To the Slanderers of Russia,’ a jingoistic text, in which he castigates Europeans for opposing the Russian army’s suppression of the Polish uprising of 1830. It wasn’t just Ukrainians. In early 2022, Russia’s invading forces in Ukraine, also invoked an imperial Pushkin, putting up placards with his portrait in towns they had captured, such as Kherson, where the poet had lived.

Many Russian liberals who opposed the war in Ukraine were aghast at such actions. Their Pushkin was the one who was sent to southern Ukraine as a political exile and who was, in the nineteenth century, called ‘the bard of freedom’. He was the man who had written ‘I lauded freedom in a cruel age,’ a line which is inscribed on the pedestal of his statue in Moscow.

The Ukraine war has sparked a debate about the relationship of Russia’s literature and culture to its neo-imperial war. Ukrainians and others have called for the ‘de-colonisation’ of Russian literature as part of the fabric of the imperial state. Others have argued that Russian literature is part of an alternative narrative to that of the authorities. In a recent New Yorker article, Elif Batuman writes, ‘Literature, in short, looks different depending on where you read it,’ saying, more or less, that a nineteenth-century Russian text read in twenty-first century Georgia or Ukraine carries a menace that she had previously missed.

Pushkin stands in the middle of this debate. Partly because of his work because, in a pure literary sense, all modern Russian literature flows from him. But even more so because of what he is seen to represent – because of his statues. A few decades after he died in 1837 aged only 37, he was elevated to the status of ‘Russia’s national writer’. That makes him a synecdoche for Russian culture as a whole: take down Pushkin’s statue and you are challenging Russia as a whole.

The Pushkin statue debate reveals different understandings of what ‘freedom’ means to different readers in Russia and its former imperial lands.

For Ukrainians the word ‘freedom’ now means a life-and-death struggle. Having experienced violence perpetrated by Russia in 2014 in the east of the country and then wholesale in 2022, the vast majority of Ukrainians now feel an existential need to emancipate themselves from Russia in most forms. To the educated class, that now includes the desire to disassociate themselves from Russian texts and films that have for centuries either explicitly or – more commonly, implicitly– denied Ukrainians agency in their own historical story. The ‘Pushkin Must Fall’ campaign, however crudely expressed at times, is part of this process.

Then there is the seemingly Sisyphean task of a large segment of Russians to win freedom from their own abusive rulers. Alexander Etkind employs the term ‘internal colonisation’ to describe the peculiar nature of Russian imperialism in being directed equally towards its own heartlands and to its captured territories. Putin’s war is also directed inwards, towards crushing the tentative freedoms that Russians had acquired in the last three decades since the Gorbachev era. If Russian literature has little or nothing to offer Ukrainians at the moment, much of it remains a sustained critique of this ‘internal colonisation’ of Russian minds and bodies, and inspires Russians to resist it.

But the repeated failure of this educated class to make a political difference asks some serious questions of them. Too often ‘Great Russian literature’ is fetishised. It also needs emancipation. Its classic literature needs to be freed from efforts to co-opt, and commodify it as an axiomatic model of ‘civilisation’ with all the assumptions of cultural superiority that entails.

That process should begin with Pushkin, whose works are still the victim of official curating, 200 years after they were first censored. If he was sometimes the imperialist, his most frequent poetic mode is a mocking irreverence that talks everyone, including himself, down from their pedestals. Pushkin deserves to be stripped of his official veneration to reveal the irreverent poet underneath.

. . . .

Pushkin is a many-sided writer, open to multiple readings. Isaiah Berlin, in his essay about hedgehogs (who know one thing) and foxes (who know many things) called Pushkin ‘an arch-fox, the greatest in the nineteenth century’ and wrote of ‘the many varied provinces of Pushkin’s protean genius’. His greatest work, the novel in verse Eugene Onegin, was reduced to melodrama by Tchaikovsky. The original gives all sides of his varied personality, pulling off the trick of being both casually intimate and profound. Among the many Pushkins are the exile, the rebel, the libertine, the historian, the servant of empire, the African. For the average Russian reader he is first of all the lover, the author of dozens of uninhibited love lyrics that are instantly learned by heart.

Pushkin continually returns to the theme of ‘freedom’. He was a friend of the Decembrists who staged an abortive coup d’etat against autocracy in 1825 in the name of constitutional rule. In his youth, he wrote politically seditious poems, including one, ‘The Dagger’, that celebrates regicide and caused him to be sent into exile. He later dropped his revolutionary stance but remained strongly anti-clerical and critical of autocracy. Pushkin’s mature personal philosophy was a kind of individualism that eschewed Romantic egoism. He wrote in a poem of 1836 to which he gave the title ‘From Pindemonte’ (pretending it was a translation to try and bamboozle the censor): ‘Whom shall we serve – the people or the State?/The poet does not care – so let them wait./To give account to none, to be one’s own/vassal and liege, to please oneself alone,/to bend neither one’s neck nor inner schemes/nor conscience for obtaining that which seems/power but is a flunkey’s coat.’

This Pushkin was for many Russian and Soviet readers a kind of blueprint on how to maintain dignity in spite of the state. In a lecture on Descartes and Pushkin, given in 1981, the Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili said, ‘In the history of Russian literature there is also, it is true, a single but well-known example for us of a naturally free person. That is Pushkin.’ Mamardashvili elaborated that he meant neither a freedom from moral obligation, nor the kind of withdrawal into an avant-garde underground that some Russian intellectuals were resorting to in that era. Pushkin was an exemplar on how to inhabit a free private and civic space, but not retreat from society.

Yet Pushkin was also a child of empire. In 1924 the émigré critic Giorgy Fedotov named him ‘Bard of Empire and Freedom’, in an essay that locates him in Russia’s imperial history. Pushkin was a Russian patriot – although he also exposed that sentiment to mockery and said, ‘Of course, I despise my fatherland from head to foot but I feel upset when a foreigner shares my feelings.’ He was a man brought up among and by the imperial elite, who believed in Russia’s mission civilisatrice. He frequently returned to the figure of Peter the Great as a man of both vision and cruelty, who tried to transform a backward Russian society into a modern European state.

The poet of empire is most brazenly on show in his Romantic poem, ‘Prisoner of the Caucasus’, written during his exile in the south of the empire in 1820-1. The main body of the poem itself is a Byronic Orientalising tale of a native woman’s doomed love affair with a Russian soldier. Pushkin shows empathy for his native protagonist, but then undermines it with a jingoistic epilogue that praises imperial bayonets and the Russian conquest of the mountain peoples of the Caucasus. Some of his friends and contemporaries, such as the politically liberal Pyotr Vyazemsky, were confounded. How could he could defend the freedom of Greek revolutionaries or African slaves and not that of Russian colonial subjects?

Link to the rest at Engelsberg Ideas