Ukrainian Poets and Readers in Puškin’s Poltava and Hrebinka’s Poltava

Nicole Boudreau, University of Chicago

Since its publication the historicity of Puškin’s Poltava (1828, publ. 1829), particularly in regard to the literary treatment of Mazepa, has been the subject of study and critical debate (e.g. Nadeždin, 1829; Maksymovyč, 1829; J.P. Pauls, 1962, Burns, 1977). I would like to shift the focus from questions of which artistic principles motivated Puškin’s depiction of Mazepa or whether the character adequately conveys the undeniably complex and ambivalent historical personage to a comparatively neglected facet of Mazepa which also combines the historical and literary, namely Mazepa’s identity as a Ukrainian poet. It is noteworthy that Puškin emphasizes Mazepa’s identity as a poet to greater extent than either Ryleev or Byron in “Voinarovsky”(1823–24) and “Mazeppa”(1819).

In a footnote designed to provide an objective context to Poltava, Puškin acknowledged Mazepa to be a poet of some talent whose verses on the theme of a suffering Ukraine racked by internal division (“Duma Hetmana Mazepy”) and preyed upon from without (“Oj, bida, bida chaici nebozi”) were known by the Ukrainian narod. In the body of the počma Puškin presents Mazepa as a poet for a primarily Ukrainian audience. Maria displays her attraction to Mazepa by always singing songs that the hetman composed before his rise to power (Canto I, lines 119 – 122). On the eve of his execution, Kočubej, at one time Mazepa’s friend and privy to his plans for an alliance with the Swedes against the Russians, recalls the songs his daughter sang (Canto II, line 152 – 155). The počma closes with a scene of a kobzar’ performing Mazepa’s songs before the narod where he mentions in passing Maria’s tragic fate to an audience of young Cossack women (Canto III, lines 466 – 471).

Based on Deutsch Kornblatt’s insight that Maria reads Mazepa according to the conventions of Cossack mythology and Hasty’s work on gender and reading (Deutsch Kornblatt, 1992; Hasty, 1999), I will argue that Puškin provides specific models of Ukrainian authorship and readership. Not surprisingly, the Ukrainian characters in Poltava configure varying notions of Ukrainianness depending on their response to Mazepa’s poetry. My analysis will center on a direct Ukrainian response to Puškin – Yevhen Hrebinka’s translation of Poltava (1836). Hrebinka’s počma has been duly criticized as a non-equivalent translation, particularly with regard to his choice of narrative voice (Zerov, 1990; Fylypovyč, 1927; Neborjačok, 1958). However, Hrebinka undertook the translation when Ukrainian writers were actively debating what language and literary persona they had to fashion in order to address a Ukrainian audience. I use Grabowicz’s and Ajzenštok’s studies of the poetics of kotljarevščina, which heavily influenced the development of Ukrainian poetry in the 1820s and 1830s (Grabowicz, 1997; Ajzenštok, 1928), to question whether Hrebinka, as a Ukrainian poet, significantly undermined Puškin’s models by rewriting Puškin’s text for Ukrainian readers.