In earlier days, I took you through Act III of Griboedov’s masterpiece, Горе от ума. All the elements are now in place for the final catrastrophe, and the Triumph of Folly. But before proceeding, I have to mention some more details of the author himself, and his grisly death.
We last ended with Chatsky’s famous winged phrase
Да, мочи нет: мильон терзаний…
(“I have no strength left. A million torments…”)
Which could be seen as an eerie premonition of Griboedov’s own violent death at the hands of a “Persian” mob. In which the poet was literally torn apart into a million pieces.
Pushkin’s Trip to Erzerum
My thoughts were sparked by this post on Professor Paul Robinson’s blog yesterday. Which was the 100th anniversary of the Russian capture of Erzerum, during World War I. This made me think of Alexander Pushkin’s travelogue about his trip to Erzerum, in 1829.
Recall that the two “Alexander Sergeeviches”, Pushkin and Griboedov lived in the same era, they were both considered the “greatest Russian poet” of their time, and vied for that title. They knew each other and were possibly rivals, although not enemies.
In 1829, in the height of the Russo-Turkish war (all about control of the Caucasus region and the Balkans — long story), Pushkin took a trip around the region, all the way to Erzerum. Without any facts to back this up, I personally like to believe that Pushkin was a secret agent gathering Intel for the Russian army. But his cover story was that he was visiting with friends in the service. The army at that time was led by Field Marshal Ivan Paskevich. Who had already been granted the title of “Count of Erevan”, for his outstanding victories in the war.
Pushkin began his journey in Moscow and took a bit of a detour, going through Kaluga, Belev and Orel. In Orel, he met the famous Cossack leader Yermolov. They discussed the Paskevich campaign, and many other interesting topics.
Pushkin then proceeded along a direct route to Tbilisi. There is much interesting discussion of the people and places he encountered, too much detail to go into here. Pushkin expressed some compassion for the Cherkesy, who hate Russians, he writes, but for good reasons, since “we” pushed them out of their native pastures and burned down their villages. Cherkesy, who only recently adopted Islam and are rather fanatical about their Korans, continue to wage a low-level guerilla war against Russian soldiers. “What can you do with such a people?” Pushkin asks himself. And expresses hope that cutting the Cherkesy off from their trade with Turkey will eventually help bring together Russians and Cherkesy in friendlier relations. [Nothing ever really changes, does it?]
Pushkin eventually arrived at the city of Vladikavkaz (“Ruler of the Caucasus”), today the capital of North Ossetia, just in time to witness an Ossetian funeral, in one of their “auly” (villages). The custom was to bury the Ossetian warrior, along with his rifle, 30 versts from the village. Pushkin described the Ossetians as the poorest tribe of all among the Caucasians, but also having the most beautiful women.
Pushkin then proceeded to join up with a unit of Russian infantry and Cossacks, they marched to the shore of the Terek River and spent the night in a town called Lars.
The journey continued the following day, to a place called Darial, and thence to Mount Kazbek. The town of Kazbek, at the foothills of the mountain, belonged to Prince Kazbek.
Various other adventures and meetings with interesting people follow, in Pushkin’s travels through Gruzia, until he finally arrived in Tbilisi.
Pushkin meets his Demon
Pushkin was always fond of Gruzia and felt a strong kinship with the people (Caucasians in general, as well) and their mentality. Here is how he described the bustling streets while on his way to the sauna baths:
“The city is very crowded. Asiatic structures along with the bazaar remind me of Kishinev. Along the narrow and twisting alleys trot doneys, laden with baskets of produce: carts drawn by oxen block the road. Armenians, Gruzians, Cherkesy, Persians, all clustered on the uneven square. Among them also young Russian officials riding on Karabakh mares.”
Many pages later, filled with adventures and impressions, Pushkin finally received permission from General Raevsky, to proceed to the city of Kars. This is what Raevsky’s wiki entry has to say about this incident in his life:
In May 1821, during a visit to the Caucasus, Raevsky befriended a young Alexander Pushkin and traveled with him to the Crimea. Pushkin would form close friendships with Raevsky’s sons, his sons-in-law, and his half-brother, Vasily Davydov – all members of the Southern Society that helped plot the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. The General’s eldest son, Alexander, served as the model for the protagonist of Pushkin’s poem The Demon.
For the record, here is Pushkin’s Demon poem.
And here is an English translation:
In bygone days when life’s array –
The sweet song of the nightingale
And maidens’ eyes, the rustling woods –
Still left a fresh impression on me,
When loftiness of feeling,
And freedom, glory, love
So deeply stirred my blood,
My times of hope were cast in shade
And pleasure dimmed by longing,
For it was then an evil genius
Began to pay me secret visits.
Our meetings were quite dolorous:
His smile, his glance mysterious,
His venom-filled and caustic sermons
Poured frozen poison in my soul.
With endless slandering remarks
He tempted Providence;
He claimed that beauty’s but a dream;
Felt scorn for inspiration;
He had no faith in love or freedom;
He looked on life with ridicule-
And in the whole of nature
He did not wish to praise a single thing.
In other words, this younger Raevsky fellow sounds like a real negative-nellie type person Maybe even with a touch of Chatsky in him?
A Beautiful Death
And speaking of Chatsky, we finally get to the scene where Pushkin re-encounters his old frienemy, Griboedov. Pushkin was riding up the flank of a mountain called Gora Bezobdal, which separates Gruzia from Armenia. Arriving in an Armenian village, Pushkin was greeted by some women, one of whom went into her hut and brought him out some cheese and milk. Travelling on, he arrived at a fortress which he calls “Gergery”, and I cannot find the English equivalent of this name. Coming up the hill, Pushkin encountered some Gruzian travellers, accompaying an ox-cart. “Where are you coming from?” he asked them.
“What are you carrying in that ox-cart?”
“Griboedov,” they replied.
It was the body of Griboedov, or what was left of it, being transported back to Tbilisi.
Pushkin recalled his last encounter with, and his impressions of, Griboedov, and these final words in this post are a translation from Pushkin’s musings in his travelogue:
I last saw him last year in Petersburg, just before he left for Persia. He was melancholy and had some strange premonitions. I tried to reassure him. He replied: “Vous ne connaissez pas ces gens-là: vous verrez qu’il faudra jouer des couteaux.” He believed that the upcoming death of the Shah would cause civil war among the Shah’s 70 sons. But the old Shah is still alive, yet Griboedov’s prophetic words came to pass. He perished under the knives of the Persians, a victim of ignorance and treachery. His mutilated body, used as a plaything for three whole days by the Teheran mob, was identified only by (the scar on) one hand, which had been once pierced through by a bullet, during a duel.
I first became acquaianted with Griboedov in 1817. His melancholy character, his embittered mind, his good heart, his very weaknesses and vices, inevitable companions of man, everything about him was unusually appealing. Born with a sense of pride, equal to his talents, he was long oppressed by trivial needs and his own lack of recognition. His abilities as a government servant were not needed; his talant as a poet was not recognized; even his chilling and stunning bravery were brought into doubt. He had a few friends who recognized his worth, and they saw that skeptical smile, that stupid unendurable smile that they got in response, when they spoke about him as an extraordinary man. People only respect famous people, they don’t understand, that walking among them might be some Napoleon who has not had the opportunity to lead a Jaeger regiment; or some Descartes who has not yet published a single line in the “Moscow Telegraph”. And by the way, our fawing reverence for famous people comes, perhaps, from our own vanity.
Griboedov’s life was darkened by several clouds: the consequence of fiery passions and rather weighty circumstances. He decided to part abruptly, and once and for all, with his youth and turn his life in a completely different direction. He bid goodbye to Petersburg and with careless aplomb travelled to Gruzia, where he spent eight years in solitary, tireless endeavours. His return to Moscow in 1824 was another turning point in his life, and also marked the beginning of uninterrupted successes. His handwritten comedy “Woe From Wit” had an indescribable effect and in a single moment placed him among the ranks of our top poets. Some time after that, his knowledge of the locale where the war began, opened up a new opportunity for him: He was appointed Ambassador. Arriving in Gruzia, he married the girl he loved. I can’t think of anything more to be envied than the next few years of his busy life. Even his very death, which he encountered while fighting bravely in unequal battle, was not a horrible, long drawn out one for Griboedov: It was an instantaneous, and beautiful, death.
What a pity, though, that Griboedov did not leave behind his notes! It would have been the duty of his friends to write his biography. But remarkable people among us, disappear, without leaving a trace. We are lazy and incurious….