Pushkin not Flooded: Toward the History of the Pushkin Myth and Anti-Myth

Anna Gessen, Harvard University

The title is an allusion to a Roland Barthes essay “Paris not flooded” where he discusses the distorted topology of the landscape during a flood and the consequences of such distortion. The flood destroys the hierarchy among “accidents of space:” river, road, fields; also, the panoramic view loses its major power: to organize space as a juxtaposition of functions. In similar terms, as early as 1922, Yuri Tynianov discussed the destructive effect of the Pushkin cult on the landscape of literary studies—as “a distortion of historical perspective” which disorients the historian of literature and ruins his sense of proportion. He vigorously objected to so many histories of literature “under a sign of Pushkin,” yet quite a few have been published since his time. All of them share in the same failure of panoramic view on the literary history; the hierarchy of authors and styles that these works construct are dominated by the sense of Pushkin’s absolute value, just as Tynianov had feared in 1922. When was the historical perspective on Pushkin shattered for the first time? I suggest that the first conscious distortion of the truth about Pushkin occurred in Zhukovskii’s open letter to Pushkin’s father and, slightly later, in his tombeau on Pushkin’s death. In them, Zhukovskii attempts, and succeeds, in elevating Pushkin to sainthood. Thus, the first saintly phantom of Pushkin was released right after his death and became gradually appropriated by officialdom and deadly scholarship, well into the Soviet times culminating with the 1937 death centennial. At the same time, Marina Tsvetaeva protested against the nice, obedient “fellow-citizen” Pushkin of the state-inspired commemoration in the essays “Moi Pushkin” and “Pushkin i Pugachev.” Later, Abram Terts would undertake a similar attack on the Sovietized icon in the scandalous Progulki s Pushkinym. In my talk, I examine the above-mentioned authors and texts; trace the official policy towards Pushkin and the counter-tendencies that were taking place simultaneously in different strata of the society, often employing carnivalesque tools to snatch Pushkin away from the pedestal. I end by looking at the appalling/hilarious recent bicentennial and make a guess about the current and upcoming ruling Pushkin phantom.