There is little if any dissension among literary scholars, whether Russian or otherwise, regarding the preeminent place of Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin in Russian literary history, and many consider him to be the father of Russian realism. Yet that statement says very little about the reality of Pushkin to the Russian people. The legend of Pushkin, who wrote in the early part of the nineteenth century, continued to grow enormously in Russia after his death (from a pistol wound received in a duel), until his status reached heights normally reserved for more traditionally notable worthies of Russian culture such as generals and statespersons. Indeed, the cult of Pushkin nearly overshadowed the author’s literary accomplishments. Co-opted over the centuries by various groups that claimed that his works represented their particular nationalistic views of “Russianness,” Pushkin is nevertheless regarded as the first Russian national poet and a Russian cultural icon as well. Partly because of objections to this “holy” view of Pushkin, but also perhaps for subtler reasons that become apparent as one encounters his text, Andrei Sinyavsky (writing under the pseudonym Abram Tertz) raised Russian hackles and eyebrows when Strolls with Pushkin was first introduced to the Russian literary intelligentsia in 1989.
Progulki s Pushkinym was published in Russia in 1975 but was not available outside the Soviet Union until fourteen years later, toward the end of the glasnost period. Sinyavsky had penned most of the work while detained in a Dubrovlag prison camp from 1965 to 1971 (where he had been sentenced to hard labor for “anti-Soviet agitation”), smuggling it out piece by piece to his wife in long letters. The immediate reaction to his work from the émigré Russian press was negative and passionately hostile. Even the noted dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn attacked Sinyavsky’s work. Yet the criticism seemed to be aimed more against how Sinyavsky prepared this critical assessment of Pushkin than with the critical acumen Sinyavsky demonstrated. Indeed, the outrage exhibited by Russians over Sinyavsky’s book is perhaps difficult for the non-Russian reader to understand. Though considered shocking to Russians, Sinyavsky’s text seems rather mild, if taxing in its own way, to non-Russian readers.
Strolls with Pushkin is not an introduction to the works of Pushkin. Strategically and stylistically it can be challenging. It demands somewhat close reading and presupposes a certain degree of Russian literary knowledge; however, the superb introduction by Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and the text’s excellent annotations are wonderful aids in that regard. It may seem to wander aimlessly from topic to topic with little concern for chronology, yet this may well be integral to Sinyavsky’s overall design. The language Sinyavsky employs is at times offhand and coarse, reminding some critics of the time he spent at Dubrovlag. The apparently whimsical manner with which Sinyavsky first introduces both Pushkin and the antithetical sacred/profane representations of him, for example, had some Russian scholars nearly apoplectic with rage.
“Art strolls,” says Sinyavsky at one point, and to make sense of his sometimes bewildering foray into the world of Pushkin, in all of its evolutions and permutations, one ought to pay attention to that particular trope. The title Strolls with Pushkin symbolizes not simply a figurative walk with the famous Russian poet (as though an arm-in-arm companionable jaunt) but more a free-spirited ramble along unexpected pathways that leads to new associations and connections. Important to Sinyavsky’s objective, it is a walk without apparent purpose (though this itself seems a contradiction), seeming to meander without a concrete goal or destination in mind.
Though this walk with Pushkin appears not to aim for any specific destination, still Sinyavsky exhibits dual purposes in his work: one being to demythologize Pushkin, and another to examine the very view of art and the artist’s function to society that helped to propagate the myth of Pushkin. Yet Sinyavsky is also almost certainly slyly commenting on the nationalistic uses of art that led to his own internment at Dubrov-lag. One should recall that when Sinyavsky wrote this work, the then Soviet Union was a very different place. Accordingly, his partial aim of exposing the co-option of the artist to the service of the state was relevant with regard to himself as well as to Pushkin.
The reader might think of this “stroll” as one that is taken between two borders. On the one side is the sacred Pushkin, revered in Russian culture, more a myth than...
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