Pushkin, Women’s Emancipation, and the Art of Throwing Stones: Dostoevsky vs. Katkov in the 1861 Scandal-Debate over “Egipetskie nochi”

Ekaterina Yudina, University of California, Riverside

This paper examines a scandalous debate that took place in 1861 on the pages of several important literary journals and newspapers of both Moscow and St. Petersburg. The debate was provoked by an event in the cultural milieu of provincial Russia: at a musical and literary charity party in Perm’, certain Mme. Tolmacheva recited Pushkin’s “Egipetskie nochi.” First reported to the Russian readers with a great enthusiasm by Sank-Peterburgskie vedomosti, it was soon presented in the form of a merciless feuilleton in Vek. The public outrage provoked by this mockery and the debate in press led by Dostoevsky and Katkov as two major opponents can be understood only in connection with the young Russian movement for women’s emancipation, which was the symbol for the general social emancipation of the individual. This paper traces the transformation of Tolmacheva from a reader in a provincial salon to a literary character, prefiguring the idealization of women in texts of the 1860s to 1880s, from Dostoevsky himself to the Russian positivists.

Another important aspect of the 1861 discussion that this paper analyzes is the perception of “Egipetskie nochi” and the genius of Pushkin in general. The paper demonstrates that the debate over “Egipetskie nochi” served as a litmus test for the positions of the opponents. In it both the main thesis of Dostoevsky’s famous speech at the dedication of monument to Pushkin in 1881 as well as Katkov’s latest interpretation of Pushkin’s oeuvre and heritage were already formed.

The paper refers to a broad spectrum of books and articles on Russian literary theory of the second half of the 19th century, the most important are listed in this brief bibliography.

Genereux, George. “The Crisis in Russian Literary Criticism: 1856 – The Decisive Year”, Russian Literature Triquarterly, No. 17 (1982): 117-140.

Katz, Martin. Mikhail N. Katkov: A Political Biography. The Hague and Paris: University of Alberta, 1966.

Moser, Charles A. “Dostoevsky and the Aesthetics of Journalism,” Dostoevsky Studies, Vol. 3 (1982): 27-41.

Reifman, P.S. “Moskovskie vedomosti 1860-kh i pravitel’stvennye krugi Rossii,” Trudy po russkoi i slavianskoi filologii, Tartusskii universitet, 1975. 3-27.

Tracy, Lewis: “Decoding Pushkin: Resurrecting Some Readers’ Responses to 'Egyptian Nights',” SEEJ, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Winter 1993): 456-472.

Tvardovskaia, V. A. Ideologiia poreformennogo samoderzhaviia (M.N. Katkov I ego izdaniia). Nauka, 1978.