The Russian Jurodivyj and the Drama of Boris Godunov in Karamzin's History, Pushkin's Tragedy, and Musorgskij's Opera

Svitlana Kobets, University of Toronto

In my discussion of the first secular textualization of the Russian jurodivyj I am offering a new insight on the role of the jurodivyj in the Boris Godunov drama.

In the first part of the paper I discuss foolishness in Christ as a sui generis Russian phenomenon. While Byzantium, the Motherland of jurodstvo, canonized only six holy foolish saints, Russia made the jurodivyj her unconditional favorite. This predilection was validated in the public cult of holy fools as well as in their numerous canonizations. Before the nineteenth century Russian jurodivye (or fools in Christ) were described mostly in hagiographic materials and in travelogues of foreign visitors to Muscovy, who were invariably bemused but also shocked and repulsed by this spectacle. They described the jurodivye as a Russian rarity, commenting on their extravagant outfit, their "rude liberty," and their reverent acceptance in all strata of Russian population. Karamzin's and then Pushkin's textualizations of the jurodivyj for the first time in Russian literary history brought this figure to the purview of educated, secular Russian readership and later on Musorgskij's operatic masterpiece introduced the jurodivyj to the West. Thus three famous narratives of Boris Godunov tale became instrumental for the jurodivyj's appearance in the world cultural arena.

After discussing the most important characteristics of this form of Christian asceticism I examine Karamzin's and then Pushkin's and Musorgskij's sources of information about jurodstvo and their choice of topoi for describing their holy foolish characters. I argue that unlike Karamzin, whose task of introducing the jurodivyj into secular literature compelled him to create a comprehensive portrayal of this cultural type, Pushkin did not face this chore. He could enjoy the luxury of brevity, covertly referring his readership to both Karamzin's text and to the well-known cultural stereotype. Thus in Pushkin the term jurodivyj has a much higher connotative value and a wider field of reference.

Musorgskij inherited Pushkin's jurodivyj in toto, at the same time his understanding of this figure's role in Godunov's drama kept changing, which can be seen in the different redactions of the libretto. Initially the changes were minor. Yet in the second redaction the jurodivyj appears an additional, second time, closing the scene by his prophetic song about the future perils of Russia. By making the jurodivyj the last person to be seen on the stage, Musorgskii further emphasizes and expands his importance to the narrative.

While comparing the three texts I raise the question about the validity of the accusations uttered by the jurodivyj and trace textualizations of these accusations to the hagiographical sources. I analyze chronological discrepancies in the texts of the Life of St. John the Big Cap of Moscow and Rostov, who died in 1589, two years earlier than Prince Dmitrij, and Karamzin's narrative about this fool in Christ. I argue that both Karamzin and the author(s) of St. John's hagiography were aware of the fact that St. John's accusations of Boris's crime were anachronistic. Yet, in a way, they were compelled to textualize this sham story anyway. I identify the factor that came in play here as nothing else, but "people's opinion" and show how it influenced St. John's hagiographers and then traveled to Karamzin's History. The latter text impressed and inspired Pushkin, subsequently flashing out into his, and later Musorgskij's renowned versions of the Boris Tale, which smeared the name of this ruler and sealed his vile reputation by the power of the holy fool's condemnation.