Continuing my review of this historical piece by Dmitry Bavyrin. We are now moving forward in time to the cholera epidemic of 1830-1831. Minister of Internal Affairs Arseny Zakrevsky was in charge of the emergency team handling the outbreak. Despite a brilliant career in the army and government, Zakrevsky was not up to the challenge of managing the cholera outbreak.
Zakrevsky’s mistake was that he was too strict in implementing the quarantine. As many governors are finding in current events, there is a balance between enforcing social distancing versus choking off all economic life. Zakrevsky didn’t get that (there were even some contemporaries who claimed he was just plain dumb, but his biography doesn’t support that notion), and placed so many obstacles on daily life, that he brought the people to the verge of famine. Goods and provisions were placed in quarantine, and hungry mobs started forming.
Fortunately, Tsar Nikolai I was wise enough to see that Zakrevsky’s approach wasn’t working. Zakrevsky decided he needed to spend more time with his family, he submitted his resignation in 1931. The Tsar accepted it “reluctantly”, probably with “deep sorrow” but best wishes for his “new opportunities”, etc. Don’t worry about Zakrevsky, though, his career was not nearly over, in fact he was to return as Moscow Governor-General, the most hated one ever in the city’s history.
Meanwhile, the Tsar personally took over management of the plague. He was keenly aware of the events of the previous plague, namely, the “Cholera Rebellion”, and did not want to see a repeat performance. Leaving Petersburg, the Emperor moved into the plague-ridden city of Moscow, so that the people could see he was there for them. He stayed for 10 days and risked his own health (and life) by visiting sick patients and even shaking their hands. The poet Pushkin, who spent the quarantine in the town of Boldino, where he was working busily on his masterpiece, Evgeny Onegin, wrote a poem in honor of the Tsar’s heroic feat.
The poem is called Hero, it expresses Pushkin’s ambiguous relationship with the cruel-but-just Tsar who had exiled him. This poem is rather good. I read it a long time ago, as a teenager, and did not understand it at all; I got only that it had something to do with Napoleon Bonaparte. Now, with the wisdom of age and experience, I think I see what Pushkin was actually getting at. And it reads very modern, like, dealing with issues of PR and how rulers need to be perceived, in order to inspire public confidence. And how even cynical people can find something to admire in such gestures. Pushkin presents the dilemma as a dialogue between the “Poet” who wants to believe in the Tsar’s gesture; versus the more cynical “Friend” who sees through the PR.
Comparing different types of heroism, contrasting, say, a hero like Napoleon (whose glory is ultimately shown to be vain-glory) with the Tsar’s humanitarian feat, the poem goes something like this:
Что есть истина?
Д р у г
Да, слава в прихотях вольна.
Как огненный язык, она
По избранным главам летает,
С одной сегодня исчезает
И на другой уже видна.
За новизной бежать смиренно
Народ бессмысленный привык;
Но нам уж то чело священно,
Над коим вспыхнул сей язык.
На троне, на кровавом поле,
Меж граждан на чреде иной
Из сих избранных кто всех боле
Твоею властвует душой?
П о э т
Всё он, всё он – пришлец сей бранный,
Пред кем смирилися цари,
Сей ратник, вольностью венчанный,
Исчезнувший, как тень зари.
Д р у г
Когда ж твой ум он поражает
Своею чудною звездой?
Тогда ль, как с Альпов он взирает
На дно Италии святой;
Тогда ли, как хватает знамя
Иль жезл диктаторский; тогда ль,
Как водит и кругом и вдаль
Войны стремительное пламя,
И пролетает ряд побед
Над ним одна другой вослед;
Тогда ль, как рать героя плещет
Перед громадой пирамид,
Иль, как Москва пустынно блещет,
Его приемля,- и молчит?
П о э т
Нет, не у счастия на лоне
Его я вижу, не в бою,
Не зятем кесаря на троне;
Не там, где на скалу свою
Сев, мучим казнию покоя,
Осмеян прозвищем героя,
Он угасает недвижим,
Плащом закрывшись боевым.
Не та картина предо мною!
Одров я вижу длинный строй,
Лежит на каждом труп живой,
Клейменный мощною чумою,
Царицею болезней… он,
Не бранной смертью окружен,
Нахмурясь, ходит меж одрами
И хладно руку жмет чуме,
И в погибающем уме
Рождает бодрость… Небесами
Клянусь: кто жизнию своей
Играл пред сумрачным недугом,
Чтоб ободрить угасший взор,
Клянусь, тот будет небу другом,
Каков бы ни был приговор
Д р у г
Мечты поэта –
Историк строгий гонит вас!
Увы! его раздался глас,- *
И где ж очарованье света!
П о э т
Да будет проклят правды свет,
Когда посредственности хладной,
Завистливой, к соблазну жадной,
Он угождает праздно! – Нет!
Тьмы низких истин мне дороже
Нас возвышающий обман…
Оставь герою сердце! Что же
Он будет без него? Тиран…
Д р у г
Утешься. . . . . . . . . . . .
29 сентября 1830, Москва.
[yalensis: I just scoured the internet but I can’t find an English translation for this particular poem; so I guess I have to do it myself, this won’t be very good though, I’m just warning you, and also it’s not going to rhyme or have meter, because that’s asking too much…]
29 September, 1830 – Moscow
“What is the truth?”
Yes, fame is whimsical and fleeting,
Like a fiery tongue it flits above
The chosen heads,
Disappears on the one side,
And then reappears on the other.
The unthinking people are accustomed
To follow docilely the latest thing;
But men like us regard as holy
That brow upon which the tongue descends.
On the throne, on the bloody battlefield,
Among the citizenry in the throng,
Of these chosen ones who most of all
Dominates your soul?
It’s him, it’s him — this new arrival is the chosen one,
Before whom Kings are humbled,
This warrior, crowned in will,
Who vanished like the shadow of dawn.
When does he astonish your mind
With his marvelous star?
When he gazes down from the Alps
Into the depths of Italy?
When he clutches the banner
Or the dictator’s rod? Or when
He directs, both near and far,
The rushing flame of war,
And when a series of victories soars
Above him, one after the other?
Or when the hero’s army shimmers
Before the mighty pyramids?
Or when a shining but empty Moscow
Greets him silently?
No, I don’t see him in the happiness of love,
Nor on the battlefield;
Nor as the son-in-law of Caesar on the throne;
Nor there, seated on his cliff,
Tormented by exile,
Mocked by the title of Hero,
He fades away motionless,
Covering himself with his military cloak.
That’s not the picture I have before me!
I see a long line of funeral biers,
On each one lies a living corpse,
Disfigured by this powerful plague,
This Queen of Diseases… and he,
Surrounded by those whom Death has not taken,
Frowning, paces between the biers
And coldly shakes hands with the plague,
And in the mind of the dying patient
Summons cheer… By the heavens
I swear: He who risked his own life
Before this gloomy illness,
In order to cheer up a dying gaze,
I swear, that man will have a friend in heaven,
Whatever might be the judgement
Of the blind on earth…
Dreams of a poet —
The strict historian will chase you away!
Alas! His voice rang out,-
And the world was not impressed!
May the truth of the world be damned,
When it treats us vainly with
Cold and envious mediocrity,
Greedy for temptations! – No!
I prefer the deception that elevates us
To the gloom of base truths…
Leave the hero his heart! What else
Would he be without it? Just a tyrant…
You’re kidding yourself…
[to be continued]