Russian Language Blog

«С днём рождения, Александр Сергеевич!» [Happy Birthday, Alexander Sergeyevich!] Posted by on Jun 6, 2009 in Culture, History, News, Traditions

Today is the 6th of June 2009 and 210 years ago today Russia’s greatest poet (some say he was the greatest writer PERIOD, too, but I’ll settle with calling him the greatest poet at this given moment in time) was born – Александр Сергеевич Пушкин [Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin]. Being a fan of Russia (or, perhaps, more of an infatuated admirer) you must learn to keep up a conversation about Pushkin. Saying that Pushkin is – sadly enough – not very well-known in other countries because he wrote poetry, something that’s very difficult and almost impossible to translate, and because his prose is complicated to understand outside of their cultural 19th century context, doesn’t cut it if you’re serious about learning Russian language and paying your respects to Russia’s literature and culture. Russian language without Pushkin is impossible, so if you’re learning Russian language you must memorize at least one Pushkin poem – be it something as standard as «Я помню чудное мгновенье» [“I Remember a Wonderful Moment”] or «Я Вас любил» [“I Loved You”]! The important thing is not which poem by Pushkin you memorize but that you make a point of memorizing at least one, and if not the entire poem, then at least the beginning, since you’re bound to be interrupted by Russians once you start reciting it…

Knowing EVERYTHING about Pushkin is not imperative for a foreigner who does not intend to become a «пушкиновед» [a scholar of Pushkin’s art]. And learning everything about Pushkin is impossible since there has most likely been a Russian doctor’s dissertation on each and every word ever used by Pushkin. Probably there have been doctor’s dissertations on the words NOT used by Pushkin, too. But you should know your basics, especially on a day like today, when all literature lovers in Russia gather in towns and villages alike to recite his poems, poems dedicated to him, poems dedicated to poems about him and rejoice in his genius. Pushkin was a genius. That’s the first basic information a foreigner must know about him. In Russian you state it like this: «Пушкин – гений». That’s a present tense sentence hinting at Pushkin’s immorality (compare the old Lenin slogan often used in reference to Pushkin these days: «Пушкин жил, жив и будет жить!» [Pushkin lived, is alive and will live!]. You could use past tense, too, of course: «Пушкин был гением» [Pushkin was a genius].

The second basic is the fact that Pushkin’s poetry created the Russian literary language. Or in the words of Turgenev: «Пушкин создал наш поэтический язык, наш литературный язык, и нам и нашим потомкам отсаётся только идти по пути, проложенному его гением» [“Pushkin created our poetic language, our literary language, and all both we and our descendants have to do is walk along the road which he laid down (for us) with his genius.”]. Do you find this hard to believe? Try reading a work of Russian fiction written before 1820 and you’ll come to find that it is not only hard work, but contains very little esthetic pleasure for the eye and the mind. Pushkin combined simple folk sayings with Old Church Slavonic expressions, threw in a couple of things he found in European literature of the time and – voila! – modern Russian literary language was born.

Thirdly you should be acquainted with the fact that Pushkin «не только писал стихи, но и прозу» [not only wrote poetry, but also prose]. His prose is as amazing as his poems and Pushkin is generally acknowledged to have created the realistic Russian novel. Some say Lermontov and his «Герой нашего времени» [«A Hero of our Time”] marked the entrance of the realistic novel in Russian literature, but those better informed will sneeze at such words and say: “But what would Lermontov be without Pushkin?!” and remind you of how Lermontov got his literary break-through in 1837 – with a poem about Pushkin’s death in a duel! So which of Pushkin’s prose works should the formerly ignorant foreigner be familiar with? Most important (this is my personal opinion, it is in no way the only ‘correct’ opinion) is «Капитанская дочка» [“The Captain’s Daughter”]. This title has little to do with the work’s central plot – it is about the Pugachov uprising – and is interesting for two reasons: 1) its structure (it is built in a very modern way, and one will soon forget that it was written almost 200 years ago when reading it); and 2) its cultural information (which proves that Pushkin not only knew how to rhyme, but was highly skilled in historical investigations). As a matter of fact Pushkin was preparing to write more about the Pugachov uprising in the future, and had even been granted special permission to go through old state archives but – «увы – was killed in a duel at the age of 37.

The fourth basic fact – though in importance it should be regarded as Number One – is that Pushkin is the author of the best book ever written in Russian language (once again this is my personal opinion, but I think everyone will agree with me after reading it in the original): «Евгений Онегин» [“Eugene Onegin”]. This «роман в стихах» [novel written in poetry] the famous semiotic scholar Lotman (go Tartu University!) called «энциклопедия русской жизни» [an encyclopedia of Russian life]. The plot is fairly simple: the upper-class snob «Евгений Онегин», also known as «лишный человек» [a superfluous man] as he lacks a proper function in life, leaves his society life in Saint Petersburg behind to take care of his uncle’s old house in the country side. Eugene Onegin is bored to death with his stylish life in Saint Petersburg, but he realizes that the simple life in the country side is even more boring. But then there happens to be a neighboring family nearby with a young pretty daughter – and enter «Татьяна» [Tatiana]. Tanya (which is short for Tatiana) takes a liking to Eugene Onegin and he starts spending more and more time in her family’s house as a guest of honor. But Tanya isn’t your average country girl. She’s much stronger in character than Eugene Onegin and has a much more exciting personality than the man she falls in love with – but then again, at the time of their meeting she was but thirteen and should be forgiven for this ‘fling’. Her age isn’t stated in the novel, but curious and scrupulous scholars have determined this as a fact. Tanya writes a letter to Eugene Onegin in which she explains her feelings. Eugene Onegin is not capable of dealing with real emotions and tells her that even though he’s into her too, he cannot – «увы – be with her. After this Eugene Onegin’s friend is killed in a duel and he flees to the big city. A couple of years later – enough for Tanya to turn eighteen – he goes to a high society ball and meets Tanya again. Now she’s everything she wasn’t when they knew each other in the country side: she’s dressed in an expensive dress, known and loved by everyone in Moscow’s finer circles, and married to a rich older man. And Eugene Onegin finally comprehends that he loves her and thus he falls to her knees and confesses his love for her. Tanya calls him a fool (not literally, but it’s all there – in rhyme!) and turns him down.

Reading «Евгений Онегин» in Russian is difficult, but definitely worth the hard work. There are also many good translations of it into other languages. The best translations were made in the 20th century. After this novel the main theme of Russian language was decided on once and for all: strong women having feelings (of pity?) for weak men. All of Russian literature could be viewed as variations on this theme, especially every single novel written by Turgenev…

Then you should of course be aware of how Pushkin died. A Russian poet’s death is crucial to his or her art and therefore it is no surprise that Pushkin died in a duel with a foreigner (gasp!) at the absolute height of his life: at the age of 37. The age of 37 is also known as «пушкинский возраст» in Russia. And even when we’re celebrating not his death day, but his birthday today, we must remember this. Because who knows what he could’ve done had he been allowed to live on for another ten or twenty years?

The last information is only for those intended to brag to their Russian friends about their knowledge of Russian literature. Try to slip into conversation today that a) Pushkin gave Gogol’ the plot for «Ревизор» [“The Inspector General”] (in an alternative version Gogol’ stole the plot for his great comedic play from Pushkin); and b) Dostoevsky’s favorite poem by Pushkin was «Пророк» [“The Prophet”], which he very much liked to recite at public gatherings.

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  1. greg:

    Pushkins’ immorality(?)I think is meant to be Pushkins ‘immortality-hit the r instead of the t

  2. hugo ly:


  3. M:

    YOU are a great writer 🙂

  4. satbir:

    Happy Birth Anniversary to the Great Poet/writer of Russia, Though he was short lived but his works shall live for ever.