Today we continue reading this essay by publicist Vladimir Mozhegov. I hope the discussion has provoked many thoughts. We discussed the political backdrop: the establishment and consolidation of the Soviet government and a new socialist way of life. The rise of the Stalin faction to Party leadership coincided with a conservative backlash within Russian society. The Communists were not able to cough up a sufficient number of purely Soviet artists and writers. New cultural heroes were needed, and some of the new heroes were old heroes. Including literary giants such as Alexander Pushkin of the early 1800’s.
Now, I am all for a nation preserving its valuable cultural heritage, even after a revolution. Can one even imagine Italian revolutionaries taking over the government and burning Michelangelo’s paintings? The very thought is unthinkable. The Soviets, especially under the quite conservative Stalin, took exquisite care to curate the national cultural assets, including the Russian heritage. The only problem in the Russian case is that worthy artists such as Pushkin were perhaps over-praised and endorsed at the expense of others. The Soviet state had very limited resources. In those days the editing, publishing and distribution of books, or other works of art, was quite a big deal and hard choices had to be made, as to who was the most deserving.
We talked about the special committee formed in 1935 and led by Old Bolshevik Andrei Bubnov, to celebrate Pushkin’s Centennial. The first shot in the pro-Pushkin campaign was fired by a praisatory article in Pravda. The proposed political talking point was to make of Pushkin a victim of Tsarist repression. This slant did not jibe 100% with the actual historical and biographical facts; hence, another tack was taken: Pushkin was said to be the forerunner of Herzen who, in turn, was the prophet of all socialist culture.
Communists latching on to Alexander Herzen as a possible hero or forerunner, does indeed show a certain pathetic desperation, or lack of original ideas. Anybody who has ever had to suffer through the writings of that unbearable windbag…. Oh never mind…. Let us continue on working through Mozhegov’s timeline of the Pushkinian Beatification.
In the otherwise ominous Year 1937, Soviet professors with freshly minted degrees, joining the ranks of the LitCrit Nomenclatura, came up with creative ways to portray Pushkin as [now quoting Professor Kirpotin, from his presentation at the Pushkin Session of the Academy of Sciences, 13 February 1937]: “A materialist and atheist, an enemy of serfdom, a great Realist, whose true image has been hidden from the people and distorted by the reactionary and cowardly Liberals.”
Me, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout Pushkin’s alleged atheism. He was no Harriet Beecher Stowe neither, and yet it is true that this aristo showed a certain awareness of the existence of serfs and their horrible lives. For example, in his “novel in verse” Eugene Onegin, in between the soirées and the Angst of the Landowing class, Pushkin penned the following passage giving a tiny glimpse into the lives of millions of ordinary Russian peasants who basically lived their lives as plantation slaves:
Сбирали ягоду в кустах
И хором по наказу пели
(Наказ, основанный на том,
Чтоб барской ягоды тайком
Уста лукавые не ели
И пеньем были заняты:
Затея сельской остроты!)
Душеньки, подруженьки (etc.)
[The serf girls] were gathering berries from the bushes
And singing in chorus, by order [of their masters],
The order being based on
Not allowing them to eat the master’s berries furtively,
Since their mouths were occupied with singing.
Such was the clever rural custom!
The Song of the Girls:
“Oh, maidens, fair maidens,
Lovely maidens….” (etc.)
“On the Day Of His Duel, Pushkin Fell Silent”
As the Pushkin Jubilee approached, the Soviet state put everybody into the harness: Scholars, writers, composers, political and social activists, publishers, film and theater directors… Artists were commissioned to paint giant canvases depicting the poet. Omnipresent were pieces either celebrating Pushkin’s biography or staging his plays: From the magnificent stage of the Bolshoi Theater to amateur community theaters of rural sovkhozy.
By the end of this, there remained not one man in all of Soviet Russia who did not know, with the absolute firmness of Bolshevik thought, that: “Pushkin is great! Pushkin is holy!”
Pushkin’s statue in Moscow was lovingly restored, with its original inscription: “In my cruel century I praised freedom!”
New statues were built in Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Tbilisi and Erevan.
There were some misfires: For example, Meyerhold attempted to stage Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, but the play failed and closed early. A similar fate accrued to an attempt to write a screenplay based on the Eugene Onegin story. The plans were too ambitious to start with, and there were too many thorny issues with the censors. Due to these fails, it was said jokingly that “Pushkin fell silent on the day of his duel.”
But that wasn’t completely correct. As the Fateful Anniversary dawned, Pushkin’s name was everywhere. If not on the stage, then in books. Publication of the Complete Works exceeded 14 million copies. The books were translated and published into every major language spoken by various Soviet ethnic groups: Assyrian, Buryat, Greek, Yiddish, Komi, Mongolian, Nanai, German, Polish, Udmurt, Romany, Chukot, Chuvash, Yakut… Think about this. Think about the resources involved in hiring translators to work through all these books. Heck, it takes me an hour sometimes just to translate one paragraph from Russian to English. And I am not even trying to match the cachet of a literary giant, so long as I can get the meaning correct and grammar more or less okay.
On the one hand, this project kept a lot of translators employed with paying jobs. On the other hand, was it not in some ways a colossal waste of resources? For starters, translating poetry is a futile endeavor and waste of time, IMHO. Translating prose – yes, that is more realistic and should be done. Even so, could these translators not be occupied translating more urgent books, involving science and technology, etc? Also, as pro-capitalist types will note, in capitalist countries, the Market (or perhaps wealthy patrons) would decide how all these editors and translators should be spending their time. Whereas, as Yakov Smirnoff might have said, “In Stalin Russia, Party decides who is popular!”
Next: The Apotheosis…
[to be continued]