Nekrasov's Peasant Voice

J. Alexander Ogden, University of South Carolina

This paper analyzes how Nikolaj Nekrasov in much of his poetry was able to "speak" in a peasant voice and why this peasant voice was largely accepted as authentic by his readership. At issue is not only Nekrasov's relationship to folkloric sources and his first-hand knowledge of peasant life (both much-studied in Nekrasov scholarship), but also the way in which Nekrasov—who in life enjoyed his noble status and never pretended to be a "peasant poet"—was able to create a peasant narrative persona that, in readers' minds, was more than a stylization and took on the authority of a direct expression of the "voice of the people." In the words of one subsequent reader, "the poet learned to view life with the eyes of the narod, to think and feel in the spirit of the narod, to speak with its voice and write in its style" (Sakulin, 1922). Some of the misdirection involved in Nekrasov's use of a peasant voice was revealed by one friend who, responding to Nekrasov's statement that he did not write for society, remarked to the poet: "So you, my dear friend, write for the Russian muzhik—but he's illiterate!" (Panaeva, Vospominanija).

Drawing on several studies of ways in which the popular voice has been appropriated, romanticized, and mythologized (de Certeau, George Boas), I will focus on Nekrasov's various peasant voices in his huge work "Komu na Rusi zhit' xorosho" (1863-1878), which the poet called his "epic of contemporary peasant life." In addition to the panorama of peasant life portrayed in the poem, a peasant persona is also implied as the narrator of the work, and peasants are, it can be argued, the implied audience as well. There is a startling gap between the model for communication set up by the poem (discourse between a peasant narrator and peasant listeners) and the actual situation in which the poem was read (first in the pages of Otechestvennye zapiski,). My paper will first examine specific passages in the work that call into question the transparency of mutual understanding between peasant and non-peasant, then show how the aspects of communication which are problematized by Nekrasov within the poem are not seen by him as hindrances in his own literary or social context, and finally consider the attitudes and motivations of both author and readers that made Nekrasov's appropriation of a peasant voice desirable, successful, and unproblematic in spite of the latent inconsistencies and ironies inherent within that voice itself.