The People’s Poet: Russocentric Populism during the USSR’s Official 1937 Puškin Commemoration

One of the most elaborate commemorations of A. S. Puškin took place during the turbulent weeks of January and February, 1937. As incongruous as it may seem that the party would seek to honor a nineteenth-century poet on the eve of the revolution’s twentieth anniversary, the pragmatic dimensions of the event can reveal much about its ultimate character. It is useful to remember that during the mid-to- late 1930s, Soviet society witnessed a major ideological about-face, russocentric and “Great Power” (velikoderžavnye) appeals superseding earlier internationalist slogans. Stalinist ideologists privileged these themes to enhance the legitimacy of the state and to mobilize popular support. Soviet literature’s curious co-optation of Puškin thusly dovetails with the party’s rehabilitation of Aleksandr Nevskij and the Red Army’s revival of the cult of A. Suvorov.

Although there is a growing corpus of material dealing with the 1937 Puškin commemoration, little has been written that concentrates on the commemoration’s relationship to the “official party line” during the late 1930s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most traditional accounts skirt the Puškin politics of 1937 to focus tightly on the era’s scholarly achievements. Recent discussions have more directly addressed the state’s manipulation of the Puškin canon, authorities like Katerina Clark noting that Puškin was even styled as anticipating socialist realism and the revolutionary mores of Soviet society. Detailing how the commemoration reflected preceding cultural forms, commentators including Marcus Levitt have looked back to Puškin celebrations under the old regime. Others like Stephanie Sandler have called attention to the poet’s increasing prominence in the post-revolutionary popular imagination, as well as the renaissance in Puškin scholarship during the 1920s and the perseverance of individual Puškinisty during the following decade. Yet despite the transparency of 1937’s ethnically-polarized Puškin propaganda (“velikij russkij nacional′nyj poèt,” “gordost′ velikogo russkogo naroda”), few works have connected the Soviet co-optation of Puškin with the regime’s peculiarly populist and nativist sentiments. A historical analysis of the jingoistic tone of the official Soviet Puškin centenary, this paper examines the “Sovietization” of Puškin using accounts drawn from the newly-opened Soviet archives, recently published memoirs, diaries and little-known scholarly treatments of the subject.