In 1927, when deciding to publish a new, full edition of Alexander Pushkin’s works, the first in Soviet times, Vladimir Narbut, the chief of the Soviet Publishing House, chose as the project editor Pavel Sakulin (1868–1930), a well-known professor of Russian literature. Sakulin was given the task of arranging a twelve-volume edition containing all of Pushkin’s published works, his unpublished manuscripts and variants, and producing new secondary scholarship about the poet. To attain these goals, Sakulin enlisted the finest Pushkin scholars in the country. An older intellectual and hardly a dogmatic Bolshevik, Sakulin emphasized ideological plurality, encouraging diversity in the scholars’ approach to Pushkin.
Just over a century ago, Valery Briusov identified three emerging trends in the scholarly response to Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, corresponding roughly to the poem’s three dominant ideological planes: the social, the political, and the religious. As David Bethea observes, the poem’s religious angle received scant critical consideration in the subsequent decades, particularly post-1917; the past several years, however, have restored some balance to the critical reception, as a new generation of scholars has begun to address the poem’s rich metaphysical contexts. In 1990, Igor Nemirovsky argued that the basic organization of TheBronze Horseman around sacred events and themes (the creation of the world; the Lord’s wrath; punishment by flood) reveals the Bible as a major creative framework upon which Pushkin modeled the world of his Petersburg tale. Certainly, as more than one Pushkin scholar has observed, the Prologue to The Bronze Horseman stages a cosmogonic drama, featuring Peter the Great as the city’s mythic Creator, coaxing worlds out of words and wringing cosmos from a boggy chaos. Numerous critics have cast the passage as an overtly biblical drama, starring Peter as more than just any old demiurge: urban theorist Marshall Berman calls the Prologue “a kind of Petersburg Book of Genesis, beginning in the mind of the city’s creator-God,” and Gary Rosenshield reads the step-by-step genesis outlined in the Prologue as a metaphoric deification. Without doubt, Peter’s biblical pedigree has been well established in the critical literature; but what of his mortal counterpart, Evgeny: did Pushkin’s poor hero also have a scriptural forerunner?
Pushkin’s 1822 narrative poem, Prisoner of the Caucasus (Kavkazskii plennik), is frequently pointed to as Russia’s first literary introduction to the Caucasus and its peoples. Belinsky praised it both for its accurate representation of the region and for the beauty of its verses. One section of the poem, the so-called ethnographic section in which the Circassian customs and way of life are described in some detail, was reprinted six times in Pushkin’s life alone. Yet, for all of its popularity, critics and readers alike have continued to struggle with the poem’s epilogue and its relation to the first two parts of the story. This epilogue, written approximately three months after Pushkin finished the first two parts of the poem, differs both stylistically and thematically from the remainder of the work. Resembling first the elegy, then the epic narrative, and finally the ceremonial ode, as Harsha Ram points out, the form of the epilogue is as discordant as its apparent new message: the celebration of imperial might and the outright conquest of the Caucasus.
David M. Bethea. The Superstitious Muse: Thinking Russian Literature Mythopoetically. Studies in Russian and Slavic Literatures, Cultures and History.Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2009. 432 pp. ISBN 978-1-934843-17-8. Cloth.
Great poets transform mere words into verbal art. In the process, they may also transmute stories into myths and myths into stories. Poets cast their spell on readers and, when we are lucky, inspire their most discerning critics with a bit of their magic. Magic highlights this collection of David Bethea’s classic essays.
Bethea seems to have been enchanted, re-enchanted, and trans-enchanted by Pushkin’s ever-metamorphosing spirit. He is therefore an eerily appropriate guide to this elusive genius. “Let it be said,” Bethea explains, “that given his ‘protean’ genius and the remarkable capaciousness of his imaginative empathy, Pushkin could insert himself, or his ‘textual desire,’ into multiple roles” (231). If we substitute “critical” for “imaginative” in this sentence, the same may be said of Bethea himself.
Alexander Pushkin. “The Captain’s Daughter” and “A History of Pugachov.” Translated by Paul Debreczeny. Richmond, UK: Alma Classics, 2011. 358 pages. ISBN-13: 9781847492159. Paper.
Alexander Pushkin. “The Queen of Spades” and Other Stories. Translated by Paul Debreczeny. Richmond, UK: Alma Classics, 2011. 352 pages. ISBN-13: 9781847491817. Paper.
Alexander Pushkin. Ruslan and Lyudmila. Translated by Roger Clarke. Richmond, UK: Alma Classics, 2012. 256 pages. ISBN-13: 9781847492968. Paper.
Alexander Pushkin. Love Poems. Edited by Roger Clarke. Translated by Roger Clarke et al. Richmond, UK: Alma Classics, 2013. 224 pages. ISBN-13: 9781847493002. Hardcover.
With this new series of translations, Roger Clarke has taken on the Herculean task of producing the complete works of Pushkin in English. Published by Alma Classics (formerly One World Classics), the series thus far consists of seven volumes—the four listed above plus “Boris Godunov” and Little Tragedies, Eugene Onegin, and Belkin’s Tales. They are a welcome resource to those who would teach Pushkin in translation and a wonderful option for anyone interested in reading Russia’s most esteemed poet through the medium of English.