Remarkably enough, even as we celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Russia’s greatest Russian, as many things are said in praise of Alexander Pushkin, one may still ask whether we give him sufficient credit. A case in point is the underappreciated boldness, defiance, and audacity he displayed in writing Boris Godunov while he was a political prisoner subjected to surveillance and harassment by tsarist officials. Many readers have, of course, observed the formal daring of Pushkin’s “historical tragedy.” Although the young poet had never put his hand to drama before, let alone a large scale one on an issue of great national interest, he undertook radical innovations in dramatic form, language and versification, in his handling of the narod (the common people), and in his inquiry into the nature of history. Yet Pushkin’s play also entailed very real political risk. The potential danger of his undertaking may explain why Pushkin cited Boris Godunov as his favorite work, which in turn would help us understand why he exposed himself to professional and personal danger in so many respects while writing it (11: 40).
Among all his correspondents, Alexander Pushkin wrote the largest number of letters (76) to his wife, Natal′ia Nikolaevna Pushkina (née Goncharova), and that over a short seven-year span. Second to her is his closest friend Petr Viazemskii, with whom Pushkin corresponded for a period of nearly twenty years. My task in this article is to interpret Pushkin’s letters to Natal′ia Nikolaevna in relation to his other literary works and the cultural and social history of Nicholas I’s Russia in order to understand better Pushkin’s acts of self-fashioning in the last decade of his life.
Погасло дневное светило…
… И может быть, об участи моей
Она вздохнет над урной гробовою.
Pushkin (“Elegiia XI,” 1816-17)
Но не хочу, о други, умирать;
Я жить хочу, чтоб мыслить и страдать…
Pushkin (“Elegiia,” 1830)
Когда за городом, задумчив, я брожу
И на публичное кладбище захожу…
… Хоть плюнуть да бежать…
It has long been noted that Alexander Pushkin did not publish the majority of lyric poems he wrote in the years 1832–1836, especially those more intimate in content. For all but a few of the poet’s contemporaries, this circumstance created the false impression that he had abandoned the lyric altogether. Less than two months after Pushkin’s death, Aleksandr Nikolaevich Karamzin was surprised to find among the poet’s unpublished manuscripts lyrics of great depth and power: