A Poet Astray: Puškin and the Image of a Nomadic Wanderer in Putešestvie v Arzrum

Ingrid Kleespies, University of California, Berkeley

Puškin’s travel text Journey to Arzrum (Putešestvie v Arzrum, 1835) has most often been considered to be an anti- or post-Romantic response to the Romantic fashion of travel writing about the exotic East. Though the text does, in fact, debunk several of the expectations of the genre, the way in which movement itself emerges as a significant element of Puškin’s narrative identity in this text has been overlooked. Movement (or circulation) – of rumors, representations, text, poets, Russians, and even armies – permeates Journey to Arzrum to an unusual degree. I will consider the various thematic and stylistic ways in which Journey to Arzrum is a text about travel; that is, it is not so much a travelogue as it is a text that is directly concerned with the implications of movement and travel in relation to the poet’s identity. A number of the text's key elements contribute to this “nomadic identity” – its many narrative shifts, its discussion of the narrator’s previous travels to the region, his encounters with his own and others’ “traveling texts,” his traveling reputation, as well as the narrator’s concern with leaving a trace behind in space and time. This nomadic identity functions on multiple levels, addressing the poet’s concerns surrounding both individual fame and the role of the writer within the larger context of Russian society.

Long absence from the capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg meant that Puškin’s reputation, as well as the publication and private circulation of his works, functioned as stand-ins for his person. The years of banishment he endured enforced upon him a life of extensive movement as well as remove, and the importance of Puškin’s travels away from the center should not be overlooked, especially given the importance of travel as a Romantic category. As part of my study of Journey to Arzrum, I will look closely at the appearance of literary texts in the cultural periphery of the Russian empire, the presentation of  observation and representation as problematic entities, and, finally, at the traveling narrator’s encounters with national and imperial borders. While an interest in borders may function as part of the larger Romantic concern with liminal space and the transgression of boundaries, Puškin’s focus on border acquires extra political meaning in the Russian context. In looking at the representation of borders, and movement around or across them, I will show that the Russian poet acquires the persona of a nomadic traveler, an identity that both incorporates and transcends the very real circumstances of the poet’s biography.