The Word from Russia: How We Celebrated Pushkin’s Birthday by Masha Zavialova
By June sixth of ’99, mass-media hysteria around Pushkin’s name had grown thick and impenetrable — impenetrable in the sense that no sane reasoning could dispel the idiotic fixation of the country’s authorities on his name. Pushkin’s name was everywhere, in every news source. All sorts of events were somehow tied up with the jubilee of Pushkin’s bicentennial: there were exhibitions, conferences, readings, seminars, meetings and all kinds of public gatherings devoted to Pushkin. For example, in the Hermitage museum there were exhibitions titled “Pushkin and the Winter palace,” “Pushkin and Antique Relics,” and “Pushkin and Numismatics” — I saw the posters. I wonder if Pushkin even knew the word ‘numismatics.’
On the TV screen for many days there appeared a running line saying: “There are (... ) days left till June 6, 200th birthday of the great Russian poet Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin.” Immediately a new joke was made up and circulated among people: Pushkin’s parents go out of the bedroom and, shaking each other’s hand, say; “Congratulations, my dear, there are nine months left till the birthday of the great Russian poet Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin.” I have no TV at home so I was spared of all this, but in newspapers and everywhere in the streets there were signs of something extraordinary going on. Pushkin was being imposed as an ideological icon. Back in 1937 the 100th anniversary of his death was also marked with all the great solemnity characteristic of Stalin’s epoch. (The tradition of glorifying Pushkin was started, by the way, back in the 19th century, as is evident from the words of the poet Apollon Grigoriev who said: “Pushkin is our everything,” an expression widely cited — and mocked — ever since).
Despite the fact that the futurists (Burliuk, Mayakovsky, Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov) in their famous manifesto “Box in the Ear of the Public Taste” insisted that Pushkin, Tolstoi and Dostoevsky should be thrown overboard from the ship of modernity, Pushkin remained and even became its captain. For lack of other deities (the Christian church being prohibited) Soviet authorities made Pushkin a cult figure. Now the New Russian ideology is different but the mentality seems to be the same. On June 6, 1999 the authorities were trying to use Pushkin to substitute for communist ideology. You see, our authorities are dead sure that we, the people, must, just must have some sort of state-ruled official ideology. They think that ideology will help to tackle the problem of moral degradation which is, I should admit, immense in present-day Russia. But will Pushkin help? As we, the people, say: “the fish starts rotting from the head.”
Pushkin…what a weird fate: to weather all political regimes and to become a symbol of poet, a legend rather than a poet. His life has been studied in every detail. Historians know where he was and what he did on every single day and, almost, every single hour of his thirty-seven years of life.
This craziness about Pushkin is best expressed, I think, in Dmitry Alexandrovich Prigov’s poems (don’t forget that patronymic!) where he plays with Soviet ideological cliché and attempts to rehabilitate the language from the abuse done by ideology. He works at doing this (I can’t say he has actually done it — rehabilitating a language from an ideology is something that can never be accomplished) in a very subtle way, from inside the language:
Just look with attention today and you’ll see, folks,
You’ll see that Pushkin, the one who’s a poet
Is more like a god of fecundity, yea, folks,
Like, father of people and protector of herds.
In towns and in suburbs, in faraway places
His sculptures I’d rule to be put everywhere,
And as for his verses I’d rather destroy them.
You see, folks, his image they mightily degrade.
This poem was written before 1989. Just like the following one:
All the folks are at their wits ends
Pushkin, Pushkin, help us, help.
To the fire and to the water
We’ll go for you, Help us, Help.
High above, like, from the heaven
Pushkin’s voice is heard to sing:
You guys, have both fun and sorrow,
Myself suffered and so I command you.
A lot of hilarious things (meant to be serious) happened in the days of Pushkin’s anniversary, like, for example, President Yeltsin and Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow, reciting Pushkin’s poems (mixing up sounds in words) in public. A major event was the Congress of Russian poets held on 4, 5 and 6 June in St. Petersburg on a grand scale. About a hundred poets were invited. The opening ceremony took place in the Tavricheski Palace, the former Higher Party School (Communist Party) and the venue of the first legal meetings of the Soviets back in 1917 after the abdication of Nicholas II, where Lenin made speeches at bolshevik gatherings. This revolutionary tradition was lost on the Poets’ Congress of 1999, which was run more on conservative than on revolutionary lines. It demonstrated clearly that the shift of power that took place with the collapse of the Soviet Union bypassed the literary scene. The people who were running the shop at the Congress were those who had been around back in the seventies and eighties. It’s not even the people... what ruled the waves was smooth rhymed verse. It’s amazing — I was at a reading on 5 June where about 40 or 50 people gave recitals. There were hundreds of poems, and hundreds of people in attendance, but it was the same monotonous a-b-a-b or sometimes a-a-b-b rhyme and very rarely, in a fit of non-conformism, a-b-b-a. Not a single vers libre (or was there, maybe, one?). At the end the organizers admitted to the stage a few poets I know and like: universally recognized Viktor Krivulin (a major samizdat figure of the 70s and 80s, the one whom 15 years ago the organizers of the Congress wouldn’t have let cross the threshold of their offices), Olesia Nikolaeva (an unusual turn of religious feeling), Nikolai Kononov (beautiful diction of the Volga region), Vera Pavlova (female eroticism, some fun) and a couple of others. Fun — that’s the word. What was lacking at the Congress was fun and variety (is it what is called aesthetic pleasure?).
None of the major figures of the alternative culture who were never published in Soviet “thick journals,” poets with a postmodern streak who write experimental stuff, were invited, with the exception of Krivulin, Prigov (this time mentioned without a patronymic, even without a first name, for brevity’s sake) and Kibirov who are too famous to be neglected by literary bosses. After the readings a reception was held with food and wine served for the bosses, Bella Akhmadullina among them, in a different room. When Prigov and Kibirov peeped into the privileged room somebody there said “hey boys come on over here, open the bottles,” both poets being over forty, Kibirov somewhat younger than Prigov.
The “alternative” poets, though, had their own alternative celebration. It was called “Our D’Antes.” Sounds like a blasphemy to a traditional Russian ear. An adopted son of the Dutch ambassador, and allegedly his lover, D’Antes was the young and beautiful devil-may-care who killed Pushkin in a duel over Pushkin’s wife in 1837. The opposition had a meeting in Pushkinskaia 10, a famous place in St. Petersburg, a whole building of Bohemian art galleries and studios whose story is to come in the next issue. Well-known figures of the St. Petersburg avant-guard were present: Arkadi Dragomoschenko, Alexander Skidan, Dmitry Golynko, Dmitri Chernyshov, Alexander Ilianen and others. What they were reading was full of obscenities and it was fun, as I heard many people say. I wasn’t there, though: I was at the Congress that night, as I didn’t want to miss the rare chance of seeing the always dying, but never quite dead, monster of official poetry.