Novels, Tales, Journeys 
by Aleksandr Pushkin, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Penguin, 512 pp., £9.99, October 2017, 978 0 241 29037 8
Show More
Show More

Idea​ for a writer’s retreat: a Russian manor house, hundreds of miles from the bright lights of St Petersburg or Moscow. You can only get there by horse. Don’t go in spring or autumn: the road’s nothing but mud then. You might do the trip in three or four days in summer, or, even better, by sledge in winter, when the frost has hardened the ruts and the snow has smoothed the way. It’s a lovely wooden building, not big by the standards of the gentry, one or perhaps two storeys, with a slightly too grand colonnaded portico over the door. It has a bath-house, perhaps a small formal garden, an orchard, a summerhouse. There’s a river nearby, or possibly a lake, ideal for a swim first thing. There are woods of oak and birch, and water meadows. The floors are oak. A handful of rooms are heated by wood-burning stoves, and it’s sparsely furnished. There aren’t many distractions: no internet, television, computers, phones, radio, electricity. It’s the early 19th century, after all.

There’s nobody to talk to. Of course there are hundreds of people there, but not your people. Dozens of serfs, the property of the house’s owner, will greet you when you arrive. They’ll do your cooking and cleaning, fetch firewood and water, but they’re not the sort of people you converse with, for heaven’s sake. There might not even be books. All you can do is play billiards, practise with your pistol, go for long walks, listen to the old housekeeper’s anecdotes and folk tales, and write.

Such retreats were important in Aleksandr Pushkin’s compressed life (he was born in 1799 and fatally wounded in a duel in 1837). He wrote in these houses, and wrote about them. He wrote about love, and war, and history, and banditry, but the to and fro between the rural and the urban – between the lives of the roués and guards officers and princesses in St Petersburg and the lives of the family estates that pay for their champagne – underlay everything. The mood of the gentry in the country and the mood of the gentry in the city are the anode and cathode of the 19th-century Russian literary imagination. The tension between the ideals and defects of the two milieux, so different and so widely separated in space and travel time, generate so much narrative potential that the works of writers like Pushkin are drawn away from any larger sense of the social world that frames them. A sense, for example, that the modest country estate and the city apartment are connected not only by the trotting horses of the minor nobility, but by the steady flow of exploitative rents and genteel debts between the rural and urban poles. A sense that most people in the country aren’t gentry, yet are still people.

For Pushkin, the country was both a place of tranquillity and beauty, and of boredom, though that boredom had a liberating effect, giving him the blank time his writing needed. His response to an anti-literary countryside was to make literature. His masterpiece, the verse novel Eugene Onegin, opens with the protagonist’s uncle dying in his manor house.* Later, the house, the estate and its serfs pass to Onegin, who, sated with Petersburg high society, moves to the country to take possession. He finds a pastoral idyll of a house above a river, sheltered by a hill from the winds, looking out over meadows and golden fields. Inside is a tiled stove, pictures of the tsar, damask wallpaper, all rather dilapidated. Onegin roots through the cupboards. He finds nothing but an accounts book, some home-made fruit liqueurs, jugs of cider and an ancient calendar. A terrifying chasm yawns between the countryside and Petersburg, the city of new ideas, literature, books, journals and frenetic scribblers: Onegin notices there isn’t a spot of ink anywhere.

In Pushkin’s introduction to Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin, which is included in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s new translation of Pushkin’s prose, a friend of the deceased (fictional) writer, a neighbouring squire, says that after his death Belkin’s housekeeper ‘sealed all of her cottage windows with the first part of a novel he had left unfinished’. In one of Belkin’s five tales, ‘The Shot’, the narrator leaves the army and settles on his family estate:

Hardest of all was accustoming myself to spending the autumn and winter evenings in complete solitude. I still managed to drag out the time till dinner, talking with the village headman, riding around the farm works, or visiting the new installations; but as soon as it began to get dark, I simply did not know what to do with myself. The small number of books I found in the bottoms of cupboards and in the storeroom I already knew by heart. The housekeeper Kirilovna had told me all the tales she was able to recall; the village women’s songs wearied me.

In Dubrovsky, one of the longer prose works in the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, a small landowner’s son, a guards officer, who has been unthinkingly bleeding his father dry to support his champagne and card-table lifestyle in Petersburg, learns that a rich neighbour is trying to seize their estate:

He pictured his father, abandoned in a remote village, in the hands of a stupid old woman and some servants, threatened by some sort of calamity, and fading away without help in the sufferings of body and soul. Vladimir reproached himself for criminal neglect. For a long time he had received no letters from his father and had never thought of inquiring about him, supposing that he was travelling or busy with the estate.

‘Petersburg is the front hall, Moscow is the maids’ quarters, but the country is our study,’ says another ex-officer, retiring from the tedious excitement of the capital to his country estate, in the prose fragment ‘A Novel in Letters’. ‘A decent man passes of necessity through the front hall and rarely glances into the maids’ quarters, but sits down in his study.’

Each of Pushkin’s parents had a small estate. His father’s was at Boldino in Nizhny Novgorod province, four hundred miles east of Petersburg, his mother’s at Mikhailovskoye near Pskov, two hundred miles to the south of the city, between lakes on the bluffs of the River Sorot. Pushkin was first taken to Mikhailovskoye as a baby, and was buried nearby – rather than in Moscow, where he was born, or Petersburg, where he spent his wild youth and the greater part of his unhappy later years. Just before he turned 21, already a famous poet, he was banished from Petersburg by the tsar for the unforgivable trinity of popularity, sedition and swearing at his betters in unpublished verse, and spent two of his six years of internal exile at Mikhailovskoye, where part of Eugene Onegin was written.

Some of its fascination is in the interplay between Pushkin the narrator, who inserted himself directly into the story, and the fictional Onegin, whom Pushkin describes as a friend. The elaborate lengths to which Pushkin goes in order to distance himself from the character of Onegin – Onegin tries to write poetry, and fails – draw attention to their similarity, or, perhaps, to Pushkin’s awareness that his own contradictory personality can best be embodied in a character doublet. When Pushkin explains what draws him to his ‘friend’ there’s something of the fond gaze in the mirror: ‘I liked his look/His helpless loyalty to dreams/His unaffected strangeness/And his cool, sharp mind.’

Three days after moving into the manor house, Onegin succumbs to the same flavour of depression – khandra – that afflicted him in Petersburg; Pushkin describes it as coming to him like a faithful wife. Here Pushkin steps in to assure the readers that they shouldn’t confuse him with Onegin, ‘as if one simply couldn’t write/A poem about someone else/Without writing about oneself’. ‘I,’ Pushkin insists, ‘was born for the village life/For the silence of the countryside.’

The truth, as strongly suggested in Eugene Onegin, is that Pushkin’s attitudes towards the country were as conflicted as the twin self the novel in verse projects. When he stayed at Mikhailovskoye after graduating from his elite Petersburg lycée he was both delighted and impatient. ‘I remember how happy I was with village life, Russian baths, strawberries and so on,’ he wrote. ‘But all this did not please me for long.’ In the country he was constantly riding out to find companionship, love and sex among his gentry neighbours – failing that, to have sex with one of the family serfs – but still had time enough for composition. In one three-month autumn stay in Boldino, where he was less desperate for company – just engaged, but without his future wife, Natalya Goncharova – he wrote thirty poems, all five Tales of Belkin and the satirical History of the Village of Goryukhino. He also wrote the ending of Eugene Onegin and four short plays, including Mozart and Salieri, the work by which he is – invisibly – best known to modern popular culture outside Russia, via the Peter Shaffer play it inspired, Amadeus, rendered onto the big screen by Miloš Forman.

In Mikhailovskoye, as well as parts of Eugene Onegin, Pushkin wrote the historical drama Boris Godunov, finished the long poem The Gypsies, wrote the prologue to his first great success, Ruslan and Lyudmila, and took notes from the folk tales of his nanny and house serf Arina Rodionovna, which he would later turn into work that Russian childhood dreamings still rest on: ‘Tsar Saltan’, ‘The Golden Cockerel’ and ‘The Dead Princess and the Seven Mighty Men’.

Mikhailovskoye​ was also where he wrote The Moor of Peter the Great, the unfinished historical novel that opens the Pevear-Volokhonsky collection. Tales of Belkin and The Moor show the two tendencies of Pushkin’s prose: on the one hand, tightly written short stories, almost extended anecdotes, bound to the reality of present Russia; on the other, grandly plotted fictions embedded in the kind of wide historical novelscapes constructed by Walter Scott and Stendhal. Neither project was tremendously successful; there is nothing in the collection to disturb the conventional wisdom that Pushkin was a poet of genius who also wrote good prose. If Tales of Belkin gleam with possibility and the beginnings of something extraordinary that Pushkin might have gone on to do in short stories or the novel, The Moor is simply an unfinished construction, a jagged beginning pointing into space.

The Moor was inspired by the story of Pushkin’s great-grandfather Abram Gannibal, a young African slave – traditionally said to be Ethiopian, but probably from Cameroon – who was given as a gift to Tsar Peter the Great and went on to become Russia’s most senior military engineer. Pushkin was an archetypal insider-outsider, proud of the otherness conferred by his black ancestor on his mother’s side, equally proud of his old Russian boyar lineage on his father’s. Prevented by the authorities from travelling abroad, he crossed the border poetically, imagining himself, in Eugene Onegin, sighing in exile ‘beneath the sky of my Africa’. In his aborted novel, set a century before his own time, a young black Russian war hero, Ibrahim, has an affair with a married countess in Paris. He gets her pregnant; a black baby is born, but spirited away and replaced with a child bought from a poor white woman. Ibrahim is recalled to Russia by Tsar Peter, who dotes on him, and is matched up by the monarch with a bride, a boyar’s daughter, Natalya Rzhevskaya, who has a lost love of her own. At this point, 29 Penguin Classic pages after it starts, the work breaks off.

The intricacy and complexity of the fragment suggest the large plan of the whole. It isn’t the first quarter of a short novel, but one-twentieth of an unwritten doorstopper. It’s obvious that up to a certain point Pushkin was excited enough about the project to begin exploring the bold dynamic of a black protagonist in a predominantly white Eurasian society, to start sketching the historical context of Peter the Great’s ruthless effort to Europeanise Russia, and to throw up multiple unresolved plot lines – what happens to the countess and Ibrahim’s child? What’s the way out for Rzhevskaya, under pressure from the tsar and her father to marry Ibrahim? Pushkin worked himself up, and then he gave up.

The American academic Richard Gregg has argued that Pushkin’s stunted historical fiction, his ‘novelistic prose’, is a dead end because Pushkin strove to follow his personal creed – ‘precision, brevity and bare simplicity’ – at a time when the historical novel as a form demanded richness of surface and characterisation, bagginess, digression, idle talk interesting for its own sake. Gregg points to a single moment in Pushkin’s letters when he forgets his mantra of textual leanness and scolds another writer: ‘Come on, that’s enough of your quick novellas … the novel demands chit-chat.’ If only, Gregg argues, Pushkin had followed his own advice, and inflated his laconic semi-novels with the ‘abundance of descriptive detail’ that marked the work of contemporaries like Scott.

The idea that Pushkin’s attempts to write a great 19th-century novel failed because his attempts didn’t sufficiently resemble actual great 19th-century novels ignores the possibility that he was, in principle, an original enough stylist to carry off a pared-down book. A taut history-based story based on little more than situation, plot and to-the-point dialogue might have revitalised a genre which, to this day, struggles to avoid becoming a theme-park ride, with readers strapped into pods, secured behind safety bars and sent humming off on a fixed track through plastic jungles and animatronic enactments. There’s not much in Hamlet, after all, about the quaint texture of everyday life in medieval Denmark.

There’s also a different possibility: that Pushkin meant to emulate his rivals in historical fiction, but simply quailed at the labour involved and the constraints of having to tie up so many storylines. Short as it is, The Moor does abound in historical detail of the boyar household. It’s true that the treatment of the dramatic birth and disappearance of the child born to Ibrahim and the countess is absurdly casual, but was that because Pushkin was a prisoner of his ideology of laconicism, or because he meant to come back to it later? Gregg points to a letter Pushkin sent to the lexicographer Vladimir Dal, in which he lays himself bare: ‘You’ve no idea how much I want to write a novel. But no, I can’t do it. I’ve started three of them. I start really well, and then my patience runs out … I can’t cope.’

The one relatively substantial piece of historical prose fiction Pushkin managed to finish, The Captain’s Daughter, published a few weeks before he died, takes up about a hundred pages of the Pevear-Volokhonsky collection. Based on research Pushkin carried out for a history of the Pugachev rebellion, an uprising by Cossacks, peasants and ethnic minorities in the 1770s, it’s the story of а teenage army officer, Pyotr Grinyov, whose first posting, straight from the family estate, is not to the Petersburg of his hopes but to an obscure fort on the southern steppes. On his way there he shows kindness to a ne’er-do-well he meets in a snowstorm. At the fort he falls in love with the garrison commander’s daughter, Masha Mironova, but then Pugachev and his army capture the fort, kill her parents and take her prisoner. Grinyov is spared, and is able to win her back because Pugachev turns out to be the stranger he met in the blizzard. After the revolt is crushed Grinyov is thrown into prison because of his connection to Pugachev, and Mironova has to travel to Petersburg to plead his case to the Empress Catherine.

There’s enough that’s pleasing about The Captain’s Daughter to refute the notion that Pushkin’s terse style would in itself have been an obstacle to his writing a novel as good as Scott’s – or better, with none of Scott’s tedious prolixity. His sketch of the fort is economical, funny and vivid: it turns out to be a tumbledown village defended by a handful of incompetent soldiers who cross themselves before going on parade to remind themselves of right and left, and are armed with a single cannon the local children have stuffed with rags, gravel, wood chips and knucklebones. The comic tone is set off by sudden vertiginous falls into darkness, as when Grinyov, on his way to the fort, meets a hussar officer who tells him to learn to play billiards to counter the boredom of garrison life: ‘What are you going to do with yourself? You can’t beat Jews all the time.’ Masha’s jolly father doesn’t hesitate to have a Bashkir rebel tortured in order to make him talk, only to discover that the authorities had cut out his tongue thirty years earlier. Not long afterwards, after the fall of the fort, we see the same Bashkir wielding the rope that hangs the captain. Grinyov’s conflicted feelings about Pugachev, the courageous, swashbuckling monster, and Pugachev’s own uncertainty as to whether he is a wise tsar-to-be or a mere bandit, reflect the persistently tainted images of ‘authority’ and ‘opposition’ in Russia: the stable but cruel against the liberating but anarchic. Critics have been dismayed by the swiftness, the lack of gory detail, suspense, heroics, in Pugachev’s capture of the fort, but Pushkin’s handling of it strikes me as a narrative masterstroke: the characteristic of extreme events in real life is that they happen so rapidly, and are so unusual, that our inner chronicler doesn’t have time to narrate them. The slo-mo car crash is a Hollywood artefact. In the real world we are hurled from events to consequences without time to spectate.

Still, there are odd jumps and signs of an unnecessary haste to hustle the work to its end. Mironova has no personality; she’s simply a device. Grinyov undergoes an unexamined transformation in the space of a few months from ignorant yahoo to gallant hero who reads French literature. A German officer in Russian service is given a comedy accent which disappears halfway through his monologue. Statements of inexpressibility which might, I suppose, suggest portals to the Absolute in a poem are, in a novel, baffling. When Pushkin writes that ‘it is impossible to describe the effect that this simple folk song about the gallows, sung by men destined for the gallows, had on me,’ the reader is bound to ask: why is it impossible?

Novelists like Scott or Stendhal weren’t Pushkin’s only models or competitors. Bowed down by a chronic gambling addiction and consequent debts, Pushkin was trying to make his way as a professional writer, still an unfamiliar occupation in Russia, in a market flooded with translations of foreign novels, mostly of the sentimental school. According to a recent article by Hilde Hoogenboom, more than 90 per cent of the Russian novel market in Pushkin’s day was foreign literature in translation. Of the 1500 books in his library at his death, almost two-thirds were translations. Hoogenboom argues that he quietly absorbed the writings of popular sentimental contemporaries, now little remembered, while in public praising more rarefied writers. ‘Russian writers,’ she suggests, ‘represented themselves … as reading such European writers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, Germaine de Staël and Scott, but denigrated or avoided naming their actual competition: such bestselling sentimental novelists as Kotzebue, de Genlis, Lafontaine and Sophie Cottin.’

Hoogenboom applies to Russia an argument made by Margaret Cohen about the French literary field of the same era in her book The Sentimental Education of the Novel. ‘Balzac and Stendhal,’ Cohen asserts, ‘made bids for their market shares in a hostile takeover of the dominant practice of the novel when both started writing: sentimental works by women writers.’ (Hoogenboom, too, borrows a term from finance to describe the way Pushkin and his contemporaries tried to put distance between the select group of foreign influences they wished to be associated with and the sea of popular foreign fiction they were competing with: ‘creating value’.)

In Eugene Onegin Pushkin portrays his naive young heroine, Tatyana, as addicted to sentimental fiction: he makes no distinction between Goethe’s now canonic Werther and Sophie Cottin’s now forgotten but at the time far more popular Young Mathilde. He compares the effects of such romances to poison, even as he foresees his own ‘demonic possession’ by the craze for ‘novelistic prose’. Of course it may simply be that Pushkin admired Scott and genuinely disliked Kotzebue. And it is true that Hoogenboom’s claim for The Captain’s Daughter – that it is not, as usually thought, influenced by Scott’s Heart of Midlothian and Rob Roy, but drew on Cottin’s 1806 bestseller Elisabeth, or The Exiles of Siberia – barely survives the modern reader’s first contact with Cottin’s work. Stilted, artificial and relentlessly moralistic, Elisabeth resembles a medieval martyr story; stylistically it couldn’t be more different from the clarity, simplicity and lightness of most of The Captain’s Daughter. Plotwise, however, there is a similarity. At the end of Pushkin’s story Masha Mironova, like Elisabeth, must make the long and difficult journey to beg the monarch for clemency. And something strange happens at this point in the novella. The sprightliness drains from the narrative; colourless female characters perform a tired enactment of pious virtue and are rewarded by a divinely sanctioned sovereign. It’s as if at the very moment when women come to the fore, Pushkin finds himself grasping for a style and a point of view he can’t find.

It’s hard​ to get to Pushkin. In Russia schoolchildren imbibe his writings like morning milk. His phrases and idioms, like Shakespeare’s, are embedded in the modern language. Interviewed by Elif Batuman after the new translation was published, Volokhonsky talked about the expression Pushkin uses in the story ‘The Blizzard’, ‘smertèl’no vlyublenà’, which she and Pevear translate as ‘mortally in love’. When Volokhonsky asked people in Russia if they used the phrase, they said they did, but that they used it because of Pushkin. Krylov, the writer of Aesopian fables, whose unadorned prose Pushkin admired, ‘used it in the 18th century once, and then Pushkin used it, and after that it became a Russian cliché,’ Volokhonsky said. ‘But what do we do?’

Recently a Russian schoolteacher posted on the internet a list of a few of the ways Russian headline-writers have debased the famous line from Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman, about Peter the Great seeking ‘to cut a window through to Europe’ by building St Petersburg:

A Kind of Window to Europe
This Window Is Not to Europe at All
Kazakhstan to Become China’s Window to Europe
Russian Capital Cuts Window to Holland/New York/South-East Asia
Patricia Kaas Cuts Window to the Provinces
Two Windows Cut to Europe
Small Ventilation Window Cut to Europe
No Window to Europe, but a Lurid Balcony

Pushkin lies entombed in the vast mausoleum of his reputation. According to Oleg Turnov, who compiles an annual list, new works of Russian Pushkinography are published at the rate of several hundred a year, rising to an average of three a day in 1999, the bicentenary of his birth, and range from multi-volume academic studies and serious biographies to lurid works like Aleksandr Zinukhov’s Who Killed Aleksander Pushkin? (Not, we learn, his duelling partner and brother-in-law, George-Charles D’Anthès, but a grassy-knoll-style hitman hiding in the bushes.)

And when you finally get to Pushkin, you’re liable to be told that if you don’t speak Russian you can’t get to him anyway, because it’s not his prose that makes him great. His reputation rests on his poetry, on the rhymes and the rolling beat of the iambs, which any Russian will be able to recite a bit of, raising and slowing their voice to the particular chanting tone in which Russian poetry tends to be uttered. One should always be wary of suggesting that one language is a better tool than another, but it is true that at a time when English poets seeking rhyme and strict metre were twisting their uninflected language into awkward Latin-influenced forms, their Russian peers, working in a language structured very like Latin (no articles, six cases, nouns, adjectives and participles declined by number, case and gender), had no such need; although the poetic shuffling of word order wasn’t entirely natural, it was a less forced process than the English equivalent. When in Eugene Onegin Pushkin launches into a digression about his foot fetish, including the thought ‘You loved the luxurious touch of soft carpets’, he wrote ‘Lyubìli myàgkikh vy kovròv/Roskòshnoye prikòsnovenye’ – literally ‘Loved [of] soft you [of] carpets/The luxurious touch’ but he could, had the demands of metre and emphasis been different, have ordered the words in multiple other ways.

Vladimir Nabokov, whose literal translation of Eugene Onegin was as unsuccessful, for different reasons, as the many efforts to render Pushkin in English rhyme and metre, got into a public spat with Edmund Wilson about the result of his labours, while admitting from the off that his version was not and could not be ‘it’. ‘To reproduce the rhymes and yet translate the entire poem literally is mathematically impossible,’ he wrote in his introduction. ‘But in losing its rhyme the poem loses its bloom … to my ideal of literalism I sacrificed everything (elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage, and even grammar) that the dainty mimic prizes higher than the truth.’ Pushkin’s extraordinary mental agility, embodied in the description of the poet Charsky in his strange story ‘Egyptian Nights’, half-prose, half-verse, remains out of reach:

One morning Charsky felt that blessed state of mind when dreams are clearly outlined before you and you find vivid, unexpected words to embody your visions, when verses lie down easily under your pen and sonorous rhymes rush to meet harmonious thoughts … Why does a thought emerge from a poet’s head already armed with four rhymes, measured out in regular harmonious feet?

Is it possible for Pushkin’s prose to convey to a non-Russian reader something of what makes him so remarkable for Russians, to discover why he is seen as the foundation of Russian language and literature? Context is helpful. Pushkin was born in a society where only about 0.1 per cent of the population could read. In a country of fifty million, the entire readership for Russian literature in 1800 was the size of a medium-sized town, and the literati were split over the way literary language should develop. Some campaigned for an infusion of Old Church Slavonic, the archaic tongue of the Orthodox liturgy; others, led by Nikolai Karamzin (Russia’s first professional writer, Hoogenboom calls him), embraced the influence of French, German and English literature and sought a more conversational form of prose.

Pushkin sided with Karamzin, but came to feel his predecessor was too accepting of stale European conventions. Karamzin’s idea of ‘conversational’ language was the conversation of Russian high society and, in Pushkin’s view, his style was a stiff, wordy pageant of second-hand passions and Arcadian landscapes. ‘They should say “early in the morning”,’ Pushkin complained in 1822, ‘but they write: “Scarcely had the first rays of the rising sun illuminated the eastern realm of the azure sky.”’

Much of the time, the Russian gentry didn’t speak or write or read in Russian at all. They spoke in French, a language Pushkin grew up with. Hence the irony bomb Tolstoy sets off at the beginning of War and Peace, a novel built around the invasion of Russia by France that opens with Russians discussing Napoleon in French. According to the Soviet scholar Boris Tomashevsky, Pushkin fretted that his mastery of the Russian language was tainted by his bilingual upbringing; he kept a list of errors picked up on by critics. In the footnotes to his poem ‘Poltava’, for instance, instead of the correct Russian ‘yemù otkazàli’, literally ‘[to] him they refused’, he wrote ‘byl otkàzan’, ‘he was refused’, a literal translation of the French ‘il fut refusé’ – suggesting that he was, presumably unconsciously, thinking in French, or that the Frenchified Russian form had become so lodged in his mind that it seemed, unexamined, to be ‘native’.

And yet, compared to English, Pushkin’s Russian – any Russian writer’s Russian – has a sociolinguistic ‘native’ quality that poses a deep problem for any translator. For all its borrowings from Greek, Norse and German, English is fundamentally an imposition of French (by conquest) and Latin (by religion and scholarship) on a substrate of Anglo-Saxon. The languages made their peace hundreds of years ago but the legacy is an English in which the lexis of labour and the daily life of working people is skewed towards Anglo-Saxon, the lexis of intellectual analysis is highly Latinate, and the lexis of emotional self-reflection and of power leans to French.

At one point in The Captain’s Daughter Pevear and Volokhonsky – quite reasonably – translate Grinyov speaking to Pugachev as follows: ‘Listen, I’ll tell you the whole truth. Just consider, can I acknowledge you as my sovereign? You’re a sensible man: you’d see yourself that I was being devious.’ In Pushkin’s Russian, the words for ‘consider’, ‘sensible’ and ‘devious’ are etymologically transparent to native speakers. Rassudì (‘consider’) is obviously related to sudit (‘to judge’), smyshlyòny (‘sensible’) to mysl (‘thought’), and ya lukàvstvuyu (‘I was being devious’) to lukavy (‘sly’) and further to luka (‘bend’) and luk (‘bow’). Not that Russians actually perform such a breakdown when they’re using their language, of course, any more than it matters for English speakers that the French or Latin-derived ‘consider’, ‘sensible’ and ‘devious’ lack the same organic connection to the Anglo-Saxon-derived ‘deem’, ‘thought’ and ‘crooked’. What it does mean is that subtle lexical boundaries run through English that do not exist in Russian, rendering translation even of prose unavoidably awkward.

Although Sophie Cottin continued to be in high demand even after the French invasion, the defeat of Napoleon, which happened when Pushkin was a boy, encouraged the Russian elite to question their reliance on French as the medium of sophistication and enlightenment. Critical hagiography of Pushkin after his death, culminating in the Soviet portrayal of him as a Lenin of literary socialist realism, may have exaggerated his transformational role, but there’s no doubt that he played a part in steering Russia’s written language towards a greater unity of language of street, salon and academy. He certainly had a conscious desire to do so. ‘Apart from those who are occupied with poetry,’ he wrote, ‘the Russian language isn’t attractive to anyone: we have neither language nor books, from infancy we’ve gained all our knowledge, all our understanding, in foreign books, we’re used to thinking in an alien language.’

When​ a writer, in polemic and in practice, strives for an idiom more reflective of the real lived language of the present people of their country, it’s fair to ask which people: all people, or some people? One of Pushkin’s earliest notable poems was his lyric ‘The Country’, written after a visit to Mikhailovskoye in 1819, the summer he turned twenty. The first part evokes the inspiring peace and beauty of the countryside; the second is a fierce attack on serfdom, the system which kept the majority of Russians in conditions of semi-slavery on the estates of the gentry, without education or rights, obliged either to work for the lord of the manor or to pay rent. Six years later, he probably would have been among the Decembrists, who staged a failed coup in the hope of ending serfdom, had he not been in internal exile and too much of an attention-seeking blabbermouth for the rebels to have let him in on their plans. But just as none of the Decembrists freed their own serfs before the revolt, Pushkin’s attitude was flexible. When he headed for Boldino after getting engaged to Natalya Goncharova, he wondered whether he could raise a mortgage using as collateral the serfs his father had given him as a wedding present. ‘My father is giving me two hundred peasants,’ he wrote, ‘which I shall pledge at the pawn shop.’

This isn’t to accuse Pushkin of hypocrisy but to note how strong, in his prose at least, his powers of unseeing are. Realism is not simply a question of the way one portrays the world but of the breadth of world one seeks to portray. It’s not just the way you see, but what you see. The repetitive social patterns in Pushkin’s prose – the gentry army officer and his family estate, the gentry teenage woman who is meant only to marry and bear heirs, the usually invisible host of serfs invisibly cooking and scrubbing and laundering – have the feel of eternity about them. The story is not about them, but events happen against their background, and they cease to be seen.

The shorter stories are fresher. Supernatural urban tales like ‘The Coffin-Maker’ and ‘The Queen of Spades’ anticipate Gogol and Dostoevsky – ‘The Queen of Spades’, about an army officer in search of an infallible gambling trick who causes the death of an old woman, reads like a forerunner of both The Gambler and Crime and Punishment. ‘The Stationmaster’, by contrast, looks forward to Chekhov and Bunin. A version of the prodigal son story in which the son is a daughter, it tells of a teenage girl, the daughter of a low-ranking provincial official, who runs off with a wealthy hussar to the big city; when her father comes to see her, the hussar throws him out. She never sees her father again, though she takes her children to visit his grave. The deceptively slight story is studded with moments of intensity, as when the father throws away the few banknotes the hussar has given him to get rid of him, then changes his mind and goes back to pick the money up, only to see a ‘well-dressed young man’ making off with it. All this is told through the voice of a male narrator, a traveller, by turns compassionate, callous and leering. The story stands with one foot in the world of sentimental fiction, with its concern for feelings and interest in the conflict between desire and family duty, and one foot in the world of realist fiction, seeking to render visible the structural injustice of a radically unequal society.

And if you tried to do both? The story makes one wonder what Pushkin might have gone on to do in prose fiction had he lived, had the censors allowed it, had he been willing to explore the structures of power behind his country landscapes and, at the same time, to attend more ruthlessly – ruthlessly, that is, to himself – to his own relationships with women.

He did not lack for material. His biographer Timothy Binyon recounts the story of an affair Pushkin had with one of his mother’s serfs at Mikhailovskoye, Olga Kalashnikova. He got her pregnant and then tried to get one of his friends to look after her and the child. The friend refused, suggesting Pushkin put the responsibility on Kalashnikova’s father, who would, after all, be owned by Pushkin one day. Pushkin cheerfully agreed that this was a good idea. The Kalashnikovs moved to Boldino; the child, a boy, died two months after he was born, in 1826. It was not until five years later that Pushkin got around to giving Kalashnikova a deed of freedom. She then married a local squire with thirty serfs of his own. This must have given Pushkin, who harboured bitterness at his low position on the table of ranks instituted by Peter the Great, something to think about. ‘Since Olga through her marriage acquired noble status and took her husband’s rank,’ Binyon writes, ‘she was now theoretically Pushkin’s social superior and would go in to dinner before him.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences