Taking Pushkin off his pedestal

  • Themes: Russia, Ukraine, War

Too often Russian literature is fetishised. It needs to be liberated. That process should begin with Pushkin.

Alexander Pushkin statue in Pushkin Square, Moscow.
Alexander Pushkin statue in Pushkin Square, Moscow. Credit: Allen Brown / Alamy Stock Photo

On the evening of February 24, 2022, a few hours after Vladimir Putin ordered his army into Ukraine, thousands of Russians, most of them young, came out onto Pushkin Square in central Moscow. They stood around the statue of Alexander Pushkin, holding placards saying ‘No to War’ for a few minutes before their protest was dispersed by the police. By rallying next to the monument to the curly-haired poet, they were perpetuating a tradition dating back to Soviet times.

Five weeks later, Ukrainian forces recaptured the town of Chernihiv north of Kyiv, which had suffered grievously from a month of Russian occupation and where hundreds had died. A Russian air strike had killed 47 civilians, a war crime that Amnesty International termed ‘a merciless, indiscriminate attack’. On April 30 Ukrainian soldiers took down a bust of Pushkin which had stood in the centre of the liberated town since 1900 and removed it to the local museum.

Across Ukraine at least two dozen Pushkin statues have been removed from their pedestals since the war began. Ukrainians say they are dethroning a Russian imperialist. They cited one of Pushkin’s poems in particular, ‘To the Slanderers of Russia,’ a jingoistic text, in which he castigates Europeans for opposing the Russian army’s suppression of the Polish uprising of 1830. It wasn’t just Ukrainians. In early 2022, Russia’s invading forces in Ukraine, also invoked an imperial Pushkin, putting up placards with his portrait in towns they had captured, such as Kherson, where the poet had lived.

Many Russian liberals who opposed the war in Ukraine were aghast at such actions. Their Pushkin was the one who was sent to southern Ukraine as a political exile and who was, in the nineteenth century, called ‘the bard of freedom’. He was the man who had written ‘I lauded freedom in a cruel age,’ a line which is inscribed on the pedestal of his statue in Moscow.

The Ukraine war has sparked a debate about the relationship of Russia’s literature and culture to its neo-imperial war. Ukrainians and others have called for the ‘de-colonisation’ of Russian literature as part of the fabric of the imperial state. Others have argued that Russian literature is part of an alternative narrative to that of the authorities. In a recent New Yorker article, Elif Batuman writes, ‘Literature, in short, looks different depending on where you read it,’ saying, more or less, that a nineteenth-century Russian text read in twenty-first century Georgia or Ukraine carries a menace that she had previously missed.

Pushkin stands in the middle of this debate. Partly because of his work because, in a pure literary sense, all modern Russian literature flows from him. But even more so because of what he is seen to represent – because of his statues. A few decades after he died in 1837 aged only 37, he was elevated to the status of ‘Russia’s national writer’. That makes him a synecdoche for Russian culture as a whole: take down Pushkin’s statue and you are challenging Russia as a whole.

The Pushkin statue debate reveals different understandings of what ‘freedom’ means to different readers in Russia and its former imperial lands.

For Ukrainians the word ‘freedom’ now means a life-and-death struggle. Having experienced violence perpetrated by Russia in 2014 in the east of the country and then wholesale in 2022, the vast majority of Ukrainians now feel an existential need to emancipate themselves from Russia in most forms. To the educated class, that now includes the desire to disassociate themselves from Russian texts and films that have for centuries either explicitly or – more commonly, implicitly– denied Ukrainians agency in their own historical story. The ‘Pushkin Must Fall’ campaign, however crudely expressed at times, is part of this process.

Then there is the seemingly Sisyphean task of a large segment of Russians to win freedom from their own abusive rulers. Alexander Etkind employs the term ‘internal colonisation’ to describe the peculiar nature of Russian imperialism in being directed equally towards its own heartlands and to its captured territories. Putin’s war is also directed inwards, towards crushing the tentative freedoms that Russians had acquired in the last three decades since the Gorbachev era. If Russian literature has little or nothing to offer Ukrainians at the moment, much of it remains a sustained critique of this ‘internal colonisation’ of Russian minds and bodies, and inspires Russians to resist it.

But the repeated failure of this educated class to make a political difference asks some serious questions of them. Too often ‘Great Russian literature’ is fetishised. It also needs emancipation. Its classic literature needs to be freed from efforts to co-opt, and commodify it as an axiomatic model of ‘civilisation’ with all the assumptions of cultural superiority that entails.

That process should begin with Pushkin, whose works are still the victim of official curating, 200 years after they were first censored. If he was sometimes the imperialist, his most frequent poetic mode is a mocking irreverence that talks everyone, including himself, down from their pedestals. Pushkin deserves to be stripped of his official veneration to reveal the irreverent poet underneath.

Some of Pushkin’s poetic blasts against bombast are frivolous, but still deserve their place in the canon. In a satirical poem ‘You and I’, which he dashed off in 1819 and was not published in his lifetime, Pushkin contrasts the poor poet with the pampered Tsar and mocks Dmitry Khvostov, a deservedly forgotten court poet of Nicholas I: ‘With the fearsome gaze of a despot/Your plump posterior you/Cleanse with calico;/I do not pamper/My sinful hole in this childish manner/But with one of Khvostov’s harsh odes,/Wipe it though I wince.’

If ‘To the Slanderers of Russia’ hits a contemporary chord (for the wrong reasons) so does this poem. There is a direct line of succession between the nineteenth-century tsar and the court poet Pushkin mocks and the grotesque hacks who worship Putin on Russian television shows.

Pushkin, arch-fox

Pushkin is a many-sided writer, open to multiple readings. Isaiah Berlin, in his essay about hedgehogs (who know one thing) and foxes (who know many things) called Pushkin ‘an arch-fox, the greatest in the nineteenth century’ and wrote of ‘the many varied provinces of Pushkin’s protean genius’. His greatest work, the novel in verse Eugene Onegin, was reduced to melodrama by Tchaikovsky. The original gives all sides of his varied personality, pulling off the trick of being both casually intimate and profound. Among the many Pushkins are the exile, the rebel, the libertine, the historian, the servant of empire, the African. For the average Russian reader he is first of all the lover, the author of dozens of uninhibited love lyrics that are instantly learned by heart.

Pushkin continually returns to the theme of ‘freedom’. He was a friend of the Decembrists who staged an abortive coup d’etat against autocracy in 1825 in the name of constitutional rule. In his youth, he wrote politically seditious poems, including one, ‘The Dagger’, that celebrates regicide and caused him to be sent into exile. He later dropped his revolutionary stance but remained strongly anti-clerical and critical of autocracy. Pushkin’s mature personal philosophy was a kind of individualism that eschewed Romantic egoism. He wrote in a poem of 1836 to which he gave the title ‘From Pindemonte’ (pretending it was a translation to try and bamboozle the censor): ‘Whom shall we serve – the people or the State?/The poet does not care – so let them wait./To give account to none, to be one’s own/vassal and liege, to please oneself alone,/to bend neither one’s neck nor inner schemes/nor conscience for obtaining that which seems/power but is a flunkey’s coat.’

This Pushkin was for many Russian and Soviet readers a kind of blueprint on how to maintain dignity in spite of the state. In a lecture on Descartes and Pushkin, given in 1981, the Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili said, ‘In the history of Russian literature there is also, it is true, a single but well-known example for us of a naturally free person. That is Pushkin.’ Mamardashvili elaborated that he meant neither a freedom from moral obligation, nor the kind of withdrawal into an avant-garde underground that some Russian intellectuals were resorting to in that era. Pushkin was an exemplar on how to inhabit a free private and civic space, but not retreat from society.

Yet Pushkin was also a child of empire. In 1924 the émigré critic Giorgy Fedotov named him ‘Bard of Empire and Freedom’, in an essay that locates him in Russia’s imperial history. Pushkin was a Russian patriot – although he also exposed that sentiment to mockery and said, ‘Of course, I despise my fatherland from head to foot but I feel upset when a foreigner shares my feelings.’ He was a man brought up among and by the imperial elite, who believed in Russia’s mission civilisatrice. He frequently returned to the figure of Peter the Great as a man of both vision and cruelty, who tried to transform a backward Russian society into a modern European state.

The poet of empire is most brazenly on show in his Romantic poem, ‘Prisoner of the Caucasus’, written during his exile in the south of the empire in 1820-1. The main body of the poem itself is a Byronic Orientalising tale of a native woman’s doomed love affair with a Russian soldier. Pushkin shows empathy for his native protagonist, but then undermines it with a jingoistic epilogue that praises imperial bayonets and the Russian conquest of the mountain peoples of the Caucasus. Some of his friends and contemporaries, such as the politically liberal Pyotr Vyazemsky, were confounded. How could he could defend the freedom of Greek revolutionaries or African slaves and not that of Russian colonial subjects?

The contradictions run through the poem ‘Exegi Monumentum’ which is partially quoted on the pedestal of his Moscow statue. He muses on his own future poetic legacy: ‘Tidings of me will spread throughout great Rus,/And every tongue who lives in her will name me,/The proud grandson of Slavs, the Finn, the wild Tungus/And the Kalmyk, friend of the Steppes./And I will long be dear to my people,/For having roused kind feelings with my lyre,/Because I lauded freedom in a cruel age/And called for mercy for the dead.’

Pushkin invokes ‘Great Rus,’ the medieval Slavic kingdom and takes it for granted that the indigenous peoples of the Russian empire will be grateful for the civilising gift of Russian culture. He also declares that the poet stands higher than the imperial column of the tsar and asserts a philosophy of freedom and empathy. Both Pushkins are present in the same poem in an unresolved duality.

Pushkin commemorated and co-opted

When Pushkin died in a duel in 1837, he had fallen out of favour with the authorities. They did not allow him a public funeral in St Isaac’s, the biggest cathedral in St Petersburg, for fear of public protest.

Pushkin’s elevation to the status of ‘national poet’ came later, in the 1870s, during the nineteenth-century’s version of the glasnost era, the reign of the more enlightened tsar, Alexander II. Writers and intellectuals, who had now acquired the social label intelligentsia, believed that putting up a statue of Pushkin in central Moscow, paid for by public subscription, would be a celebration of freedom of thought. Marcus Levitt writes, ‘During the “thaw” of the spring of 1880, for perhaps the first time, the government publicly affirmed its need to seek support from the educated classes in order to effect its policies. The Pushkin Celebration coincided with this period of new optimism, when the intelligentsia’s hopes for attaining a greater voice in Russian political life were at their highest.’ Those hopes were soon dashed. The following year Alexander II was assassinated and his successor, Alexander III, cut a more despotic figure.

When the statue was unveiled, different writers delivered speeches that laid claim to their own Pushkin. The Westerniser Ivan Turgenev spoke of him as a symbol of emancipation, freedom and education – a message that was received with great acclaim. Russia’s most famous Slavophile, Fyodor Dostoevsky, then won an even more rapturous reception with a speech portraying Pushkin as ‘an extraordinary, and perhaps unique manifestation of the Russian spirit’. The brilliant speech is still quoted but, as many have remarked, actually tells us a lot more about Dostoevsky – very much a single-minded hedgehog – than about Pushkin.

In 1899, in the celebrations marking the centenary of Pushkin’s birth, the state took over and the writers were marginalised. Pushkin was fully recast as an imperial poet, with all references to his Decembrist sympathies and African roots excised from the official biography. A carefully curated Pushkin canon became part of the school curriculum throughout the empire, imposed on millions of children of all nationalities in their Russian-language classes. This was the moment when his bust was put up in Chernihiv in Ukraine.

Pushkin the state-sponsored cultural product was born. Thirty-eight years later, on the centenary of his death in 1937, he was reinvented, even more improbably, as a Soviet symbol. Millions of copies of a new Pushkin canon were printed to educate and enlighten the newly literate Soviet citizens. Pushkin films, exhibitions, plays, musicals and songs were churned out on an industrial scale, with his struggles with tsarism now brought to the fore. The sanitised Soviet Pushkin is more or less the one still taught in schools today. In 1999, the poet’s bicentenary was celebrated with more bombast and a commercial twist. The new capitalist Russia churned out kitschy consumer products, including Pushkin vodka with a top-hat lid and Pushkin ketchup. The poet had become a brand.

The writers did not give up, however. Pushkin’s posthumous story is a cat-and-mouse game between those who heaped official veneration on him and the writers who claimed back his rebellious side and kept up what the writer Sophie Pinkham calls a chain of ‘counter-commemoration’.

Two mid-nineteenth century previous political exiles, Alexander Herzen and Nikolai Ogarev, first put the rebel Pushkin in print, when in London they published poems still banned in Russia. Herzen wrote in 1850, ‘The revolutionary verse…of Pushkin can be found in the hands of young people in the most distant provinces of the empire. There isn’t a single well-educated young lady who does not know them by heart, a single officer who does not carry them in his field-bag, a single son of a clergyman who did not make dozens of copies of them.’

The two men published ‘Ode to Freedom’ (first published in Russia only in 1906) and the anti-clerical satire ‘Gabreliada’ in which the Virgin Mary is impregnated by the Archangel Gabriel. The 1861 anthology at last included both Pushkin’s erotic and revolutionary verse. Ogarev wrote, the two genres were ‘branches of one tree, and in every indecent epigram you will find a political slap in the face.’

The Moscow statue of the pensive poet with the Afro-curly hair – the first major Russian monument not that of a warrior or leader – drew those of a dissenting disposition. Marina Tsevetaeva, in her essay ‘My Pushkin’, written in 1937 just as the Stalinist Pushkin commemoration was in full swing, writes of repeated childhood walks through Moscow to his statue, which inspires her to think differently and which she calls a ‘monument against racism’.

On December 5, 1965, 200 protestors chose the statue as their rallying point for the first public protest in Russia in decades. The protest was broken up after only a few minutes, but is credited with starting the Soviet dissident movement. Its organizer was Alexander Yesenin-Volpin, the son of the poet Sergei Yesenin. The protestors’ main demand was justice for two writers:  Alexander Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, who had been arrested for works satirising the Soviet regime.

Sinyavsky and Daniel were both sent to labour camps in Mordovia in central Russia. From there, in the late 1960s Sinyavsky (adopting the pseudonym Abram Tertz), smuggled out the manuscript of a book about Pushkin concealed among letters to his wife. Entitled Strolls with Pushkin it was first published in France in 1975. The book outraged Russian nationalist emigres, especially Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for its supposed irreverence. But that was what Sinyavsky was after. He too delighted in Pushkin’s officially ignored erotic and obscene verse. His Pushkin is light, frivolous, flirtatious, gossipy, compared to Charlie Chaplin:

Pushkin ran into great poetry on thin erotic legs and created a commotion. Erotica was his school – above all a schooling in nimbleness – and we are, as a result, indebted to it for the flexibility of the Onegin stanza as well as for other tricks.

For Sinyavsky, Pushkin’s dashing style and thought are inseparable, his wit and insouciance is in itself the essence of his philosophy.

Pushkin must fall?

For many East Europeans Pushkin represents something more problematic. In Warsaw in 1830 Polish rebels rose up against Russian imperial rule but were crushed brutally by the tsarist army. Pushkin rushed into print with two patriotic poems that turned his poetic mockery against foreigners for intervening in what he called a domestic quarrel among Slavs: ‘Don’t make a noise!’ Nowadays we might call it a ‘spheres of influence’ philosophy – do not interfere in our backyard. It makes for unpleasant reading now and has been frequently quoted by Russian propagandists since the Ukraine invasion.

The Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, Pushkin’s almost exact contemporary bitterly criticised Pushkin for the Polish poems. Their political quarrel resounds still. A Polish author calls the friendship between the two men ‘a myth’ and the differences between the two ‘insurmountable’. A leading Russian nationalist writer, Dmitry Galkovsky, talks up their quarrel and says, ‘It was in the clash of Pushkin and Mickiewicz that the choice of the fate of two Slavic cultures occurred. The rich, powerful and great Russian culture and the weak, provincial and second-rate Polish culture.’

At the time, the two poets maintained a strong critical dialogue with one another. The scholar Megan Dixon finds a mixture of friendship, intense disagreement and competitive rivalry in their long relationship. Each figures in the other’s work and they were even rivals in love, having shared at different times the same lover, the brilliant Polish noblewoman Karolina Sobanska (whose sister married Balzac). In the end, mutual literary respect outlasted their quarrel. In his obituary of Pushkin, Mickiewicz wrote, ‘The bullet which struck down Pushkin dealt a terrible blow to intellectual Russia…  Certainly Russia still has great authors… no one however can replace Pushkin.’

In the poem ‘The Monument to Peter the Great’, Mickiewicz places himself and a Russian poet, almost certainly Pushkin, in animated conversation by the statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg, seen as a monument of the Russian state’s cruelty. Mickiewicz implicates the Russian poet in this imperial story. Pushkin responded to Mickiewicz’s poem with his last great narrative poem, ‘The Bronze Horseman’, which provides an equivocal portrait of Peter the Great and the costs of the Russian imperial project. Pushkin loves the magnificent European city that Peter built. It is a place of beauty and a symbol of Russia’s new powerful empire. But he also evokes our dread at the statue of Peter, who sacrificed thousands of lives by building a city on a swamp.

The irony of the ‘Pushkin must fall’ statue programme in Ukraine is that Pushkin himself might well have shrugged his shoulders at it – and quite probably approved of it. The poet distrusted statues and the idolisation they embodied.

Those who cheaply venerate Pushkin sidestep this issue. Yet the inscription on the 1880 Moscow statue from ‘Exegi Momentum’ omitted the crucial first line of Pushkin’s poem: ‘I have raised myself a monument not built by hands…’ A recurring theme in Pushkin’s work is of the poet, a mercurial merchant of words, facing off against the immobile monumental statue. In ‘The Bronze Horseman’ he elicits sympathy for the poor clerk, Yevgeny, being chased down by ‘the idol on the bronze steed’, Peter the Great. As Anna Akhmatova observed, in the verse drama The Stone Guest, Pushkin’s take on the Don Juan story, Don Juan is made unusually sympathetic and imagined as a poet, while the statue of Don Carlos, however virtuous he is said to be, is menacing and life-denying.

In Eugene Onegin, Pushkin deploys a portrait of Byron and a bust of Napoleon at a pivotal juncture in the story: the moment when his heroine, Tatyana, begins to free herself from her infatuation with Onegin, the cynical hero, ‘a Muscovite in [Childe] Harold’s cloak.’ Onegin, has gone away and Tatyana is allowed by the housekeeper to wander through his house. She forms a prosaic understanding of the man for whom she nurtured a romantic passion. His little Napoleon bust is absurd: ‘A column with a cast-iron figure/Broad hat, grim brow, and arms compressed/Into a cross over his chest.’

Tatyana later leafs through Onegin’s books, especially his editions of Byron, and sees which passages he has marked in pencil. As the scales begin to fall from her eyes about the man she loved, we also understand that Pushkin is bidding farewell to the idols of his Byronic youth.

Pushkin’s journey into prose

Poetry-loving Tatyana leaves the idyllic Russian countryside and goes to bustling Moscow with her relatives. She gets married, perhaps not for love. She enters the world of prose.

As did Pushkin. Having finished Onegin, he turned increasingly to prose. Put in the shade by his poetry, his prose is now more accessible to the English-language reader, thanks to excellent recent translations by Robert Chandler and his collaborators. In his stories and novellas, a more democratic sensibility emerges as he finds the space to inhabit different voices and debate Russia’s abuses and shortcomings. Even outwardly swashbuckling tales, such as Dubrovsky, contain scathing depictions of serfdom and the cruellest aspects of Russian provincial life.

In Peter the Great’s African we encounter one more side of Pushkin – his African heritage. The poet’s great-grandfather, Abram Gannibal was born in Africa, sold as a slave and ended up as an imperial officer at the court of Peter the Great. Pushkin began to write it up as fiction. The poet’s African identity is played down in Russia, while others, such as African American writers of the Harlem Renaissance, have celebrated it. It was a matter of real pride, albeit with a snobbish twist, as he emphasised Gannibal’s aristocratic pedigree. In a recent essay Jennifer Wilson writes, ‘Being Black mattered to Pushkin – his own words attest to it… As a poet, he found utility in Africa as a myth and in Blackness as metaphor.’

Both Peter the Great’s African and Dubrovsky (and also The Egyptian Nights – whose main character, a poet, is based on Mickiewicz) are unfinished – like Pushkin’s life. Perhaps he was dissatisfied with his still-developing prose style, or he felt unable to properly resolve the issues he had raised. The lack of an ending is especially tantalising in the case of Peter the Great’s African. Pushkin breaks off with his ancestor betrothed to a young Russian noblewoman, who is disgusted by the prospect of marriage to an African. Pushkin had written briefly about prejudice – about racism, without using the word – and the novella seems to be building up to a fuller treatment of the issue, before it stops.

In 1829 Pushkin made a second visit to the Caucasus. The muse of war was silent this time and his journey produced only one poem, a love lyric, ‘On the hills of Georgia’. It also gave us A Journey to Arzrum, a travel tale with a more equivocal take on Russia’s role in the region, which, as Susan Layton writes ‘stripped glory from the tsarist conquest’. The battle scenes in A Journey to Arzrum are confused, somewhat farcical, fully prosaic. They prefigure Tolstoy’s raw treatment of war in War and Peace and his scintillating critique of Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus in his late novella, Hadji Murat. Not just Tolstoy, but Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy also picked up where Pushkin left off. His greatest achievement may be paving the way for the Russian nineteenth-century novel.

Pushkin returned to themes of power, war and violence in his last and longest prose work, The Captain’s Daughter, his fictional treatment of the Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-4. This was the long and violent uprising led by the Cossack Emelian Pugachev, who raised an army of serfs to fight the regime of Catherine the Great, posing as a royal imposter who pretended to be her deposed and murdered husband.

Pushkin was obsessed with the story and obtained permission to study the imperial archives, travel to the Orenburg region and interview surviving eyewitnesses. The novella is still popular with Russian teenagers as a derring-do adventure story of war and love. Its deeper themes are what holds the Russian state together and from where its rulers derive their legitimacy. He returns to the plot of his historical verse drama of sixteenth century Russia, Boris Godunov, of a pretender confronting imperial rule. The play’s more subversive passages were censored by the tsarist authorities who delayed its publication for six years.

The narrator of The Captain’s Daughter, Peter Grinev, is a young officer whose loyalties are seen to waver and is accused of treason, but who is eventually reconciled with empress and country, thanks to his lover, the captain’s daughter of the title. At the end, state order is upheld – but only just. On the way the description of the violence committed by both sides reads like a prophecy of the Russian Civil War of 1918. We also see the poverty and torture inflicted on convicts and serfs and the readiness with which ordinary people swear allegiance to Pugachev. Marina Tsvetaeva observed that Pugachev the villain is the most compelling character in the novella. Pushkin and Grinev cannot suppress their ‘sympathy for the rebel’.

Vladimir Putin, like many late-stage dictators, has also developed an obsession with history, including, it seems, the Pugachev Rebellion. In October 2022, Putin held a televised online meeting with a group of Russian teachers who had received a ‘Teacher of the Year’ award and exchanged views on the rebellion with a history teacher from the town of Izhevsk named Artyom Malinin. Asked for his explanation of the history of the revolt, Malinin told Putin that it was sparked by the cruelties of serfdom. The president was visibly not happy with the  answer and pressed him again. Malinin again mentioned serfdom and said that Pugachev was a ‘leader who could somehow catch the wave of discontent and indignation and could raise it to a high degree, to a high level of realisation’. Putin finally weighed in with his explanation: ‘[Pugachev] represented himself as the tsar, didn’t he? And that came from somewhere, isn’t that right? Why did that become possible? The element here is that of the weakening of central power.’

Putin famously draws on a rag-bag of ideas and slogans from different epochs, both tsarist and Soviet, that do not add up to a complete ideology. His banal comment on the Pugachev rebellion suggests he merely believes that Russia needs a strong, indispensable ruler: him. In other words, the state and the ruler are elided, Putin and Russia are one and the same, both are above history. The history teacher and The Captain’s Daughter beg to differ.

Taking Great Literature off its pedestal

Isaiah Berlin describes Russian society in the mid-nineteenth century in these terms:

You must therefore imagine in Russia a situation dominated by three main factors: a dead, oppressive, unimaginative government chiefly engaged in holding its subjects down, preventing change largely because this might lead to yet further change, even though its more intelligent members obscurely realised that reform – and that of a very radical kind for instance with regard to the serf system or the systems of justice and education – was both desirable and inevitable. The second factor was the condition of the vast mass of the Russian population – an ill-treated, economically wretched peasantry, sullen and inarticulately groaning, but plainly too weak and unorganised to act effectively in its own defence. Finally, between the two, a small, educated class, deeply and sometimes resentfully influenced by western ideas, with minds tantalised by visits to Europe and by the great new social and intellectual movement at work in the centres of its culture.

The Ukraine war and its hideous brutality is a moment of crisis for the modern version of this ‘small educated class’. Commenting on the Pushkin statue controversy in 2022, the critic Anna Narinskaya wrote, ‘The Russian educated class, to which I belong, did not face many challenges. One of them was not to allow Pushkin to be made a symbol of violence. And we failed in that.’ Narinskaya wrote that she and her peers had clung too closely to the idea that Russia’s ‘Great Literature’ was an antidote to something as cruel as the invasion of Ukraine. It was not so much Pushkin who had failed, as the Russian intelligentsia.

Perhaps, the Russian intelligentsia has always been inclined to exaggerate its importance (Leo Tolstoy, who stayed away from the 1880 Pushkin celebrations, certainly thought so). Their value has been, in a not entirely negative sense, self-serving: to preserve a thinking European segment in Russian society who enriched thought and culture, but have rarely had political influence. The periods when the intelligentsia has been influential – under Alexander II or during Gorbachev’s perestroika – have been episodic. The ‘dead, oppressive, unimaginative government chiefly engaged in holding its subjects down’ is more the rule than the exception.

In 2022 some members of this class supported the war in Ukraine, either with genuine enthusiasm or from subservience to their political masters. Many resurrected the imperial Pushkin and quoted his ‘To the Slanderers of Russia’ (but nothing else of his). In February 2022 hundreds of self-described writers (none have name recognition outside Russia) signed a collective letter backing the war,  published in Literaturnaya Gazeta, the official newspaper of the Writers’ Union in Soviet times, which bears Pushkin’s portrait on its masthead. ‘We look with hope on the President’ (spelled with a capital P), they declared.

A larger group of more prominent cultural figures acquitted themselves better. Many of Russia’s best writers, musicians and cultural figures have condemned the war. They include the leading novelists Boris Akunin and Dmitry Glukhovsky, the directors Kirill Serebrennikov and Lev Dodin, the rock-stars Boris Grebenshchikov, Yury Shevchuk and Zemfira and the all-time favourite pop diva of the late Soviet era, Alla Pugacheva.

The section of the public that shares their values is quite substantial – perhaps larger than it has ever been in Russia. By most measures, a large part of the Russian middle class, especially younger people, had become ‘post-imperial’ before 2022. Russia’s best-selling novelist of the last 30 years is the Tatar author Guzel Yakhina. Her most popular book, Zuleikha Opens her Eyes (published in English as Zuleikha), is a story from the 1930s of a young illiterate Tatar woman, whose abusive husband is killed by the Bolsheviks and who is driven into exile in Siberia. The novel was made into a successful television series. Yakhina was one of the first writers to oppose the war and Chulpan Khamatova, who played Zuleikha in the television series, left Russia in protest. But cultural prominence does not mean political salience. There is no strong public anti-war movement in Russia. The gap between intellectual freedom and civic agency has proved too big.

A bit of humility about the importance of Russian literature is no bad thing (and something that Ukrainians should bear in mind as well). Educated Russians’ belief that literature changes the world is an illusion. Putin does not take decisions, based on a reading of Pushkin or Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. Likewise, many literary Russians had long cultivated an idea that is also demonstrably a myth: that in Russia the poet is equal to the tsar, that Russia’s authorities fear their writers above all else. History proves that if there is ever a struggle it’s one that, in the end, the tsar always wins.

The de-mythologizing of Russian writers, beginning with Pushkin, is surely a healthy exercise. That includes taking on board a Ukrainian or Polish anti-imperial ‘reading’ of Pushkin – so long as it is not the only one. By appreciating Pushkin’s limits, we can also perhaps re-read him more closely as a man of many moods and voices and a frequently beleaguered critic of unfettered power. If Pushkin comes down off his pedestal, Russians can spend more time reading his work and less worrying about his statues.


Thomas de Waal