The Biographical Subtext of Puškin’s Exile from Petersburg—Or Not

Igor Nemirovsky, Institut russkoj literatury (Puškinskij Dom), Russian Academy of Sciences

In his popular biography of Puškin, Lotman put forward the notion of Puškin’s “changing masks,” the idea that the poet was free to apply to himself different “artistic masks”, no matter what his actual circumstances were. Lotman’s approach to the correlation between Puškin’s biography and his creative works, however, lacks a clear methodological foundation (understandable in a book addressed primarily to teachers and average readers). However, Lotman’s idea, developed in the early 1980s, and popularized in various Puškin studies (S. Kibal′nik, L.Volpert, V. Baevskij), may obscure some important historical factors in the poet’s biography.

Surely, the question to what degree Puškin purposefully shaped the perception of his creative works in relation to his biography is one of the most essential for understanding his career. This paper is a part of a larger research project devoted to the problem of the biographical subtext (“biographism”) of Puškin’s lyric poetry of the 1820s, and tries to supply some of the historical context that the theory of “changing masks” ignores. The aim of this paper is to show the diversity of historical circumstances that determined the public perception of Puškin’s exile from St. Petersburg in the Spring of 1825. The further goal of this paper is to demonstrate how this perception became an integral part of the poet’s creative biography.

Puškin depicted his departure from St. Petersburg in Spring 1820 in several letters and poems. In these writings one cannot find any reference to exile. Puškin called himself a “self-willed exile,” meaning it was his own decision to leave St. Petersburg. But from the very beginning of the “southern trip” the majority of Puškin’s contemporaries interpreted the poet’s departure as an exile. This incongruity between Puškin’s poetic declarations and his contemporaries’ interpretation is going to be the main focus of my analysis.

In the course of this analysis we address several important problems in the poet’s biography. Why wasn’t Puškin returned to St. Petersburg in the Spring of 1825, despite the assurances made by Alexander I, Karamzin and many others? How intimate was Puškin’s acquaintance with Byron’s works during the Summer of 1820–Spring of 1821, and to what degree did Byron’s models shape Puškin’s behavior and creative works?