Russia celebrates literary treasure


Poet: Streets are being repaved, buildings restored and a new vodka is in production -- all for a gala 200th birthday party for Alexander S. Pushkin.


MIKHAILOVSKOE, Russia -- Zhenya Ryabova, 11 years old and very end-of-20th-century in silvery wraparound sunglasses and red "101 Dalmatians" T-shirt, hops off a lumbering tourist bus here and happily answers a request to recite a 179-year-old poem.

With speed, enthusiasm and inflection, Zhenya rattles off her favorite part of "Ruslan and Ludmila," a poem about an evil dwarf thwarted by a romantic hero that was written nearly two centuries ago by Alexander S. Pushkin, who once lived on an estate in this northwestern Russia village.

Today is Pushkin's 200th birthday, and in Russia it has set off a huge national celebration of a nature that is difficult to imagine in another country. In the English-speaking world, it could perhaps be equaled only by the Beatles reuniting for a world Shakespeare-reciting tour.

"Pushkin is our everything," says Yelena Potyomina, head of research at the State Pushkin Museum in Moscow, quoting Apollon A. Grigoriev, a 19th-century literary critic.

Russia has made the birthday a priority, spending millions of dollars on the celebration despite the straitened national budget. The Pushkin estate here has been meticulously restored. When Zhenya and her group visited from Moscow, 530 miles away, the smell of fresh wood fences perfumed the air, and the sound of hammers, tapping like woodpeckers, echoed through the tree-shaded grounds.

In Moscow last week, the city was repaving Khrushchev Street (named after a 19th-century chamberlain) next to the spectacularly restored State Pushkin Museum. On the corner, 20 workmen hung from the side of a new concert hall addition to the museum, painting, caulking and sanding. Across the street, the facade of the Luxemburg Embassy was being prettied up, and gardeners were busily planting grass in front of an adjoining building.

Pushkin chocolate bars

A Pushkin banner, billboard or poster can be found on nearly every Moscow block; the Pskov distillery, near Mikhailovskoe, is producing a new Pushkin vodka; factories are turning out Pushkin chocolate bars; publishers are printing commemorative editions of Pushkin's works.

ORT, the national state television network, has had a months-long countdown to the birthday, daily broadcasting short glimpses of the famous and ordinary, all quoting favorite lines of Pushkin. Over the weekend, television is devoting 109 hours to Pushkin.

The city of Moscow sponsored concerts Thursday and seven outdoor balls yesterday. In Red Square today, Placido Domingo will sing parts of "The Queen of Spades," a Tchaikovsky opera based on a Pushkin story.

Pushkin was born June 6, 1799, in Moscow and died in St. Petersburg in 1837, at age 37, shot in a duel fought because of gossip that his wife had been flirting with another man. His great-grandfather was from a princely family in what is now Eritrea; as a child the ancestor was held hostage in Constantinople, where a Russian envoy bought him and sent him as a gift to Peter the Great.

Pushkin's works don't lend themselves to English, and he is not well-known in the West. But here he made a reputation for writing beautifully and clearly in Russian, discarding the affected style that preceded him.

He wrote fairy tales, poems and stories. A favorite work here is "Eugene Onegin," a novel in verse that was also turned into an opera by Tchaikovsky. One of his poems, "The Bronze Horseman," is considered the greatest ever written in the Russian language.

James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress who wrote about Russian culture in "The Icon and the Axe," says Pushkin emerged at a time when Russian philosophers, feeling their country compared unfavorably to the West because of its lack of a classical heritage, were searching for a peculiarly Russian identity.

They found it in Pushkin, who was widely praised as soon as he began publishing.

Ever since, each Russian has found his own Pushkin. The czar at the time, Nicholas I, appreciated Pushkin as a monarchist and glorifier of things Russian. The Decembrists, aristocratic dissidents of the era, gravitated toward Pushkin's love of personal freedom.

Stalin appropriated Pushkin as a symbol of revolutionary spirit, conveniently ignoring his monarchism, and used him to inspire Russians in World War II. Today, politicians from President Boris N. Yeltsin to his fierce Communist critic, Gennady A. Zyuganov, jostle for space in the poet's shadow.

"It's our desire to see him the way we want," says Potyomina of the Pushkin museum. She quotes a critic from the middle of the 19th century, who wrote, "Each epoch can be described by the way they treat Pushkin."

Classical, modern poet

For Potyomina, Pushkin's living presence helps her through daily life. Squeezed in a stuffy subway car for her commute to work, she recites Pushkin to herself, often lines of a poem that talk about the ending of hardships and the promise of joy ahead.

"It's only 40 minutes," she says, "but it's enough to make an impression."

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