The revolutionary liberal adopted by Stalin

December 1, 1999

By Elaine Feinstein
Phoenix, 1999
309 pp., $24.95 (pb)

By Phil Shannon

In February 1937, as Stalin's regime was engaged in extravagant celebrations of the centenary of the death of Russia's most famous poet, Alexander Pushkin, many victims of the massive purges of that year went off to the prison camps with Pushkin's verse in their hearts. For over 100 years, a battle for possession of Pushkin had been waged between autocracy (both tsarist and Stalinist) and its opponents.

Elaine Feinstein's biography shows us why the life and poetry of Pushkin have made him into such a political prize. Pushkin came to the attention of the West through the musical works based on his poems and plays by the Russian composers Glinka, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. The story of Pushkin is every bit as dramatic as the operas his poems inspired.

Born in Moscow in 1799 to a wealthy family which owned 1200 serfs, the young Alexander was trained at an elite tsarist school in St Petersburg. He began his adult life "lazing in bed, strolling at leisure along the Nevsky Prospect in the afternoons, attending grand soirees at night", everlastingly in debt from gambling, and, as a friend observed, "with constant scandals, frequent duels, intimately acquainted with tavern keepers, bawdy houses and Petersburg harlots".

Alongside the hedonism, however, a social conscience and artistic sensibility also flourished. Of liberal views, Pushkin gravitated towards the progressive nobility, who wanted to limit the power of the autocracy.

Pushkin worked both a frivolous and a more serious poetic seam. In manuscript only (tight censorship making publication impossible and unwise), he wrote poems critical of serfdom, in praise of freedom and longing for the fall of tyrants. Pushkin impatiently anticipated "the ruins of despotism" and celebrated the regicides of the French Revolution — he called the assassin's dagger striking at kings "a defender of freedom".

The tsar's secret police were instantly on his tail, and Pushkin was sent into "administrative exile" in the south of Russia in 1820. He married, but not before exercising the "rights" of his caste, getting a serf girl pregnant.

Police spies reported favourably that exile seemed to be having a cooling effect on his subversive views — he "was not singing any seditious songs" with the peasants, "still less has he tried to raise them". His long poem, Evgeny Onegin (later to be made famous by Tchaikovsky), about jealousy, duels and love (fallen in and spurned) was criticised by some liberals as "lacking in social awareness".

Nevertheless, Pushkin had not abandoned his desires for an end to autocracy. When Tsar Alexander I died in November 1825, setting off a dynastic crisis (he had no heirs, so one of his two brothers had to be chosen by the Senate), Pushkin set off in disguise to St Petersburg, hopeful of personal and social freedom. Acutely superstitious, however, he saw bad omens and turned back.

So Pushkin missed the "Decembrist" uprising, a military conspiracy in December 1825 by 30 officers and 3000 of their soldiers, which tried to prevent the accession to the throne of Nicholas, the more hated of the dead tsar's brothers. Poorly organised, and isolated from the rest of the garrison and the peasant masses, it was quickly crushed, the leaders hung and the participants sent to hard labour in Siberia and killed or maimed by the lash.

In the belongings of many of the conspirators were found the poems of Pushkin. "This is a bad way to make friends with the government", as one of his friends warned.

Pushkin was ordered to meet with the new tsar. He was spared the same fate as his friends, however, because of his immense popularity and because he had not been actively involved in the rebel conspiracy. The reprieve, however, came at a cost. Pushkin had to submit all his poems and movements to the tsar personally. He was also appointed to a lowly position in the tsar's personal service on a poor salary.

The ties of patronage were thus secured to a subversive poet. Pushkin felt their constraints, writing poems which seemed to toady to the tsar by expressing respectful hopes that Nicholas would turn out to be a liberal ruler, and by self-censoring some of his poems. In his verse fairy tale, The Golden Cockerel (a later Rimsky-Korsakov opera), he changed a reference to the abuses of the tsar to a reference to the abuses of tyranny ("the mighty") in general.

As this example shows, however, Pushkin had not changed his fundamental political views. What might have developed between tsar and poet will never be known, however, because Pushkin was killed in 1837 in a "gentlemen's" duel over the romantic loyalties of Pushkin's wife.

Pushkin's untimely end added to the popularity of his poems. Their "charm of bare simplicity" concealed a remarkable talent and slogging hard work.

Pushkin's hatred of tyranny and sympathy for injured humanity also resurfaced. In a poem not published until after his death, The Bronze Horseman (regarded by some as the greatest Russian poem ever), the poor clerk Evgeny (a lower class version of his namesake in "Evgeny Onegin"), having lost his wife in the terrible St Petersburg flood of 1824, angrily challenges the landmark equestrian statue of Peter the Great for building the city on swampy and flood-prone land, and for all the other hurtful actions of hard autocrats. The statue comes to life and pursues Evgeny to his death.

It would be wrong, as Stalin was wrong, to portray Pushkin as a flawless humanitarian and a progenitor of socialism. Pushkin championed the freedom of the people but not the rule of the people. As Trotsky wrote, the progressive nobility of Pushkin's class, including the Decembrists, for all their historical importance and revolutionary liberalism, wanted "the security of their own power" preserved in the seizure of power from a single autocrat.

Whilst both Lenin and Lunacharsky (the Bolshevik commissar for the arts) treasured Pushkin's poetry and recognised the progressive role played by Pushkin in revolutionary cultural history (without reducing the former to the latter), it was Stalin who ordered Pushkin expurgated of the poet's conservative views (including his opposition to freedom for Poland), his irreverence and bawdiness, and the "trimming" of his public political views under pressure of tsarist patronage. It was Stalin who coopted Pushkin into Russian cultural nationalism.

It wasn't a bronze horseman pursuing the socialists to their death in 1937 but a man of steel. Pushkin would have understood and given resonant voice to the poor Evgenys who were to pay in blood for the tyrant's power but who were never to lose the heart to challenge the apparent solidities of autocratic power.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.