Silencing the Living Dead: Folk-Hesychast Historicism in Boris Godunov

Jonathan Brooks Platt, Columbia University

In this essay, I examine the philosophical structure of Puškin’s Boris Godunov in dialogue with its Shakespearean model, the double tetralogy of chronicle plays or histories. Following the prevailing revisionist trend in Shakespeare criticism that views the histories not as expositions of the providential grace enjoyed by Elizabethan power, but of the worldly poetics of this power’s construction and perpetuation, contemporary readings of Puškin’s drama have emphasized its transgressive representation of power and its grounding in a constructivist historical consciousness. While much of Puškin’s foray into the Shakespearean tradition does seem to recall Greenblatt avant la lettre, in this paper I suggest that a providentialist perspective nevertheless persists in Puškin’s Romantic tragedy, albeit one distinct from that traditionally found in Shakespeare.

Following Shakespeare, Puškin chooses a succession crisis for the theme of his chronicle play, thus invoking the ultimate historical metaphor for a departure from providential design. Through an analysis of his blurring of the boundary between the realms of the living and the dead in the play, I demonstrate how Puškin, now in contradistinction to Shakespeare, saturates this metaphorical frame with apocalyptic reverberations. The result of this shift of the dramatic focus leads to a further shift from the central Shakespearean preoccupation with judging the true from the false to an opposition of all language, implicated universally in the fallen cosmos, to silence, the only strategy of restoration and return to a state of grace. The resultant providentialism is thus not one of eschatological prediction, promising the advent of the messianic age in the person of a divinely ordained ruler, but of a passive, folk belief in an immutable, divine order to history, static and ultimately resistant to the political overtures of linguistically gifted pretenders (equated with the Antichrist) and accessible only through a posture of radical silence and withdrawal.