"Who Am I?" Identity Formation in the Autobiographies of Gavrila Derzhavin

Donald Loewen, Binghamton University

There is something disarmingly simple in Jakov Grot's assertion that Derzhavin's two autobiographical accounts of his life (his Explanations and his Notes) were Derzhavin's attempts to provide accounts of himself in two separate spheres of life: the Explanations would describe Derzhavin as a poet, and the Notes would reveal him as a statesman, Grot writes. A closer examination of each work reveals substantial overlap between the two works, and a systematic subordination of Derzhavin's identity as a poet. In fact, one might find in Derzhavin's writing—both the Explanations and the Notes—a near-perfect corroboration for Georges Gusdorf's contention that memoirs and autobiographies are "always, to a certain degree, a revenge on history."

It is the nature of Derzhavin's "revenge" that is particularly interesting, since a close examination of both texts provides a surprisingly uniform answer to the question that Derzhavin poses for himself in these works: "Who am I?"

This paper compares Derzhavin's ostensible relationship to his two texts (the overt profession) to the textual evidence, where implicit assumptions and offhand comments reveal a very different narrative strategy—and one that is surprisingly uniform in both works. Finally, I will attempt to draw some conclusions about what can be learned about Derzhavin's own sense of identity through reading these two works. My work is based on the approach to autobiography developed by scholars like Lidija Ginzburg and Paul John Eakin, and draws further on the findings of scholars Robert Folkenflik, Jan Starobinski, Georges Gusdorf and others.