The Structure of Freedom in Puškin’s Lyrical Poetry

Although Puškin’s art and thought cover a wide range of areas, one of the driving ideas in his oeuvre is the idea of “freedom.” This idea is so prevalent that he has even been called a “singer of freedom” by Vyšeslavcev. How can we, as readers, understand what Puškin’s understanding of freedom is and if a qualitative distinction exists between the two recognized words for freedom—svoboda and volja? By examining various lyrical poems and analyzing not only the overall poetic structure, but, more specifically, the socio-linguistic usage of svoboda in some of his lyrical poems, we begin to see a pattern developing of his understanding of svoboda and how this is manifested in his thought.

Anna Wierzbicka argues that both svoboda and volja are “key words” in analyzing the Russian language and culture. If they indeed are “key words,” how do they differ from the English translation of “freedom”? By extending her analysis and grounding it in the lyrical poems, this thesis will semantically investigate the usage of svoboda. This examination proposes that Puškin’s fundamental understanding of freedom is Western in origin but becomes modified in the Russian context. To delineate its uniqueness, I will examine the etymological origins of the word and trace its development.

The general conclusion that the reader gleans from these semantic environments is that svoboda is primarily an externalized structure which governs human interaction and a word which presupposes restrictedness and inhibition—stesnenie. Because stesnenie is an essential element, certain conclusions can be drawn from this, conclusions which are, fundamentally, supported by Puškin’s usage. For example, slavery is an important theme in association with svoboda. Furthermore, Puškin sees a strong correlation between the idea of svoboda and its manifestation in society. It is interactive in a larger and almost religious setting as well. Poems such as “N.N.,” “Derevnja,” and “Poslanie k kn. Gorčakovu,” demonstrate this “higher” association. It is this association which is prevalent in the development of later Russian religious philosophy. These associations, of course, are not unique in Puškin’s usage. Fedotov notes that much of the history of Russia includes an understanding of svoboda as an ideal and as a political reality.

Ultimately, this presentation aims to ground the semantics of svoboda within the nineteenth-century usage and, hence, permit further investigation into the metaphoric change over the last two centuries. Seeing how this word shifts in meaning and usage, one can also see a greater cultural shift which becomes more evident in the light of such a linguistic analysis.

Fedotov, Georgij. Rossija i svoboda: sbornik statej. New York: Chalidze Publications, 1981.

Puškin, A. S. Polnoe sobranie sochinenij. Vols. 1–4. Moscow: Izdatel′stvo akademii nauk SSSR, 1937.

Wierzbicka, Anna. Understanding Cultures Through Their Key Words. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.