Today we conclude what turned out to be an epic and somewhat picaresque journey through the interesting connection between an aristocratic/anarchist poet (=Pushkin) who self-described as a “proponent of freedom”; and a political leader and statesman (=Stalin) who self-described as a “harsh but fair” ruler of his nation. An odd couple, indeed.
Our starting point was this essay by publicist Vladimir Mozhegov. We have worked our way to the climax of the story, February 10, 1937. This was the 100th Anniversary of Pushkin’s death. Everyone knows the story how Pushkin had been shot by the French diplomat and dandy Georges d’Anthès, alleged to be the lover of Pushkin’s wife, Natalia Goncharova. In modern terms, Pushkin was forced to prove that he was no cuck. The duel was brokered at the highest levels of the French Embassy. The outcome was bitterly resented by a portion of the Russian intelligentsia, but regarded with indifference by the Russian court and the rest of the elite.
The duel concluded with the score: d’Anthès -1 Pushkin – 0. Georges proved himself to be (1) either the better aim, or (2) simply faster on the trigger. Russia’s Treasure was clipped in the hip bone, then the bullet perforated his stomach. In today’s modern world, Pushkin would have survived with minor surgery and been discharged from the hospital probably the next day, with Natalia picking him up and driving him home, after giving him a good scolding. Unfortunately, in those days, the wound was fatal. After lingering in much pain for a couple of days, the poet cashed in his chips and left this world.
Russia’s greatest poet Lermontov described the effect of horror and outrage the death of his predeccesor (=Russia’s former greatest poet) had upon the thinking class and intelligentsia of the time:
Погиб поэт! — невольник чести, —
Пал, оклеветанный молвой,
С свинцом в груди и жаждой мести,
Поникнув гордой головой!..
Не вынесла душа поэта
Позора мелочных обид,
Восстал он против мнений света
Один, как прежде… и убит!
The poet died – a slave to honor, –
He fell, a victim of slander,
With lead in his chest, and a thirst for vengeance,
He bowed his proud head!..
The soul of the poet could not endure
The shame of vulgar denigrations,
He rose up against the opinions of high society,
Alone, as always… and was murdered! (etc.)
Fast forward to February 10, 1937. What Mozhegov calls the Apotheosis. One can also consider this to be the day when Lermontov’s outrage was finally assuaged, as the new Soviet “high society” unanimously took Pushkin’s side in this century-old conflict.
Bolshoi Theater, Moscow. The entire Party elite is there: Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich. The ceremony is beamed out (presumably via radio) to the entire nation.
People’s Commissar for Culture Andrei Bubnov (who still had a year and a half to live, before being liquidated by the NKVD) opened the ceremonies with a motivating speech:
“Pushkin belongs to us!” declared this future Enemy Of The People: “Only in a country with a socialist culture, can the name of this immortal genius be crowned with fierce love; only in our country have Pushkin’s compositions become a national treasure.
Pushkin belongs to those who, under the leadership of Lenin and Stalin, built this socialist society. He belongs to all the peoples of the USSR who, under the great banner of Lenin-Stalin, march towards communism.”
The first part of the ceremony concluded with Soviet poet Alexander Bezymensky reciting one of his own compositions. In these verses, as Mozhegov notes, Bezymensky achieved the virtuoso feat of modernizing all the players in the story: The 19th-century French diplomat d’Anthès is the fascist enemy, acting on behalf of Hitler and Tsar Nicholas; whereas Pushkin is the innocent proletarian Soviet hero who forms their target:
Ты слышишь ли, Пушкин, команду «стреляй»,
ты видишь костров огневую завесу?
Там в Пушкиных целит Адольф-Николай
руками кровавых фашистских Дантесов.
Do you hear, Pushkin, the command “Shoot!”
Do you see the blazing veil of bonfires?
There, Adolph-Nikolai shoots at Pushkins
Using the hands of bloody fascist d’Anthès’es
This is factual nonsense, of course, but not much less so than Lermontov’s more famous ejaculation of emotional outrage. Lermontov, of course was closer to the crime. Bezymensky, a century removed, might have been queried by Hamlet: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?” Nonetheless, Pushkin’s death at the hands of his wife’s lover, was still obviously a sore point in the ranks of the Soviet intelligentsia. Bezymensky’s reading was followed by thunderous chants from the gallery:
“Long Live Lenin!”
“Long Live Stalin!”
“Long Live The Sun!”
“Let the Darkness Recede!”
And thus was the official Stalinist cult of Pushkin created.
And, by the way, for those who believe that Bezymensky was just some obsequious hack, that is not true at all. Bezymensky may have been obsequious, but he was no hack. He was a talented poet who wrote some terrific pieces, especially his war poems. And here we must revisit that discussion we enjoyed earlier, about political art versus “Art for Art’s Sake”.
Despite what many Westie students are taught in LitCrit classes, a poem does not have to be devoid of meaning or opinion in order to be good. It is perfectly possible for an artist to write a rousing political, even propagandistic poem, which meets all the rules of Art and Craft. In fact, some of the best poems ever, are political propaganda. Think Julia Ward Howe and the Battle Hymn Of the Republic! A poem so damned good, that it could only have been inspired by God Himself.
One of Bezymensky’s early AgitProp poems “The March Of The Young Guard” (1922) was set to music and went on to become the official anthem of the Communist Youth movement:
Вперед, заре навстречу,
Товарищи в борьбе!
Штыками и картечью
Проложим путь себе!
Forward, towards the dawn,
(My) comrades in the struggle!
With bayonets and shelling
We shall carve a path for ourselves! (etc.)
This is a good marching song. The rhyme is ABAB, the meter is iambic, a good meter for implying a marching rhythm, with a pattern of alternating 4-feet then 3-feet. In layman’s terms, the meter reads as such:
dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM
dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM
dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM
dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM
The impression is slightly bombastic but also innocent, sincere, and motivating. Completely suitable for a youthful army.
Pushkin The Renaissance Man
But now, leaving poetry and Literary Criticism aside, it is time to conclude Mozhegov’s piece. The essayist describes the new “Soviet man” image of Pushkin. The campaign of beatification was successful: The Russian people accepted Pushkin as one of their own. The new Pushkin was a Renaissance Man, a humanist, an atheist, a Decembrist a revolutionary, a democrat, and an enemy of the monarchy. None of this was true; and yet it was not a caricature either. Paradoxically, this distorted image worked to consolidate Soviet society.
Mozhegov, who has been hinting strongly throughout, but now reveals himself as a determined anti-Communist, states that the distorted Pushkin image is what saved Bolshevism by endowing it with a human face. Pushkin’s face!
The Soviet people, he claims would not have fought against Nazi invaders, if they were just fighting to preserve Communist power. No, they were fighting for Pushkin, for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. For their literary heritage!
In which case, I imagine the Nazis could have won the war, had the invading soldiers just handed out free copies of Mozart and Salieri. Or marched through the streets of Moscow chanting:
“Мой дядя самых честных правил,
Когда не в шутку занемог,
Он уважать себя заставил
И лучше выдумать не мог.”
In between stacking up the bodies, it goes without saying.