Aleksandr Pushkin and Prosper Mérimée on the Populist Politics of the False Dimitrii

Elizabeth Blake, Saint Louis University

As Caryl Emerson well establishes in Boris Godunov: Transpositions of a Russian Theme, Aleksandr Pushkin’s dramatic transposition of the Boris Tale, Boris Godunov, along with Nikolai Karamzin’s influential history Istoriia gosudarstva rossiiskogo effectively shaped nineteenth-century Russia’s comprehension of the historical events that culminated in her past Time of Troubles. Yet, his decision to focus on Boris Godunov’s reign to the exclusion of Dimitrii’s—a focus signaled by the change in title from his first draft’s Komediia o Tsare Borise i Grishke Otrep’eve to his final version’s Boris Godunov—allowed his nineteenth-century literary successors a significant amount of freedom in depicting the character of the False Dimitrii. Pushkin’s tragedy inspired several sequels, including Aleksei Khomiakov’s Dimitrii Samozvanets (1833), N. A. Chaev’s Dimitrii Samozvanets (1865), and Aleksandr Ostrovskii’s Dimitrii Samozvanets i Vasilii Shuiskii (1867), in which the dramatists explored the role that ethno-religious tensions between the Polish Catholics and the Russian Orthodox played in the False Dimitrii’s successful, but ultimately doomed, pretendership. Still, Pushkin’s “original idea that Dmitrii’s successful military campaign against Boris Godunov was tremendously aided by the narod’s expectation that Dmitrii would abolish serfdom” drew little attention from Russian dramatists. However, historians such as Mikhail Pogodin and his protégé Sergei Solov’ev investigated the impact that Russian peasants had on Dimitrii’s campaign, as Chester Dunning points out in “Rethinking the Canonical Text of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov” (581, 589).

My presentation will discuss a French dramatic work from this period, Prosper Mérimée’s 1852 Les Faux Démétrius, which was inspired by the Pushkinian connection between the False Dimitrii and peasant discontent. First, a presentation of Pushkin’s and Mérimée’s shared interest in Russia’s history of popular uprisings will provide socio-political background on their respective historical writings. Then, a discussion of their experimentation with romantic drama will identify formal similarities between Pushkin’s and Mérimée’s Time of Troubles dramas. Mérimée’s description of the populist pretender’s adventures as well as his criticism of Pushkin’s incomplete portrayal of the False Dimitrii will establish the general conservatism of Pushkin’s 1831 text vis-à-vis Les Faux Démétrius. Finally, my paper will suggest that the populist ethic of Mérimée’s dramatic scenes represents a road not taken by Pushkin so that the pregnant silence of the narod which concludes Boris Godunov is emblematic of the narod’s failure to impact public discourse in the drama.