Review: "Pushkin and the Wikipedia"


Michael Wachtel


     Wikipedia has become a common resource not only for students shirking the rigors of genuine research, but also for scholars seeking a quick and reliable answer to a basic question. In that capacity it has been extremely useful and time-saving to us all. Recent comparisons have shown that in many respects the Wikipedia is no worse than traditional encyclopedias. And of course the Wikipedia has the immense advantage of being a work in progress. Wrong information can be corrected; bad entries can be improved.

     Perhaps the best that can be said about the present Pushkin entry is that it can only get better. The text consists of platitudes occasionally spiced with factual errors. The few footnotes rarely refer to scholarly works, but more often to questionable sources that the author(s) happened upon while surfing the web. From a stylistic point of view, the essay is a horror. In the brief space of three pages, the same weak points are made two or three times, sometimes verbatim.

     The essay begins with an overview. We learn that Pushkin “is consid­ered by many to be the greatest Russian poet.” (The authors appear to find this point so controversial that they substantiate it by four different sources, two of whom are from the BBC.) Apparently Pushkin earned this reputation by “pioneer<ing> the use of vernacular speech in his poems and plays.” While there may be a hint of truth here, it of course does not get close to explaining Pushkin’s unique style, so intimately linked to the history of the Russian literary language and the problem of “archaists and innovators.” That the authors do not dwell on such subtleties is hardly surprising. However, one can only express dismay at their decision to close the first paragraph by saying that Pushkin’s “Marie: A Story of Russian Love provides insight into Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great.” It is not a good sign when the very first work explicitly mentioned does not exist. (A subsequent internet search made clear that this is the title of an early translation of The Captain’s Daughter.)

     We then move on to politics. The Wikipedia authors appear to derive their information here from a bad précis of Soviet scholarship. The subject of Pushkin and politics is of course significant and has been discussed recently by both Sergei Davydov and Oleg Proskurin in English essays directed at non-specialists (in The Pushkin Handbook and The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin, respectively). Alas, the Wikipedia is unaware of this scholarship. Thus, we learn that Pushkin “gradually became committed to social reform” (whatever that means), that “in the early 1820s he clashed with the government” and then in 1823 in Odessa “he again clashed with the government.” From there we jump to the fact that Pushkin and his wife “later became regulars of court society.”

     What is wrong with this picture? To begin with, it is time to recognize that the question of Pushkin’s radical politics was blown out of all propor­tion by Soviet scholars. An up-to-date essay on Pushkin should note that even those early poems always cited by the Soviets and indeed (as the Wikipedia points out) memorized and recopied by the Decembrists, were never viewed by Pushkin as being particularly radical (see Igor´ Nemirov­skii’s essay on “Kinzhal” in his Tvorchestvo Pushkina i problema publich­nogo povedeniia poeta). In fact, there is every reason to believe that Tsar Alexander himself did not view them as radical; evidence suggests that he found in them a reflection of his own liberal views. As recent scholars (e.g., Mark Al´tshuller, in his excellent Mezhdu dvukh tsarei) have argued, Pushkin’s exile is almost certainly to be attributed not to the political po­ems, but to his ad hominem epigrams directed at the tsar. More to the point: Pushkin always approved of the institution of monarchy, as long as it was based on a respect for the law. When Nicholas came to power, Push­kin was his staunch defender, often to the amazement of his more liberal friends. Pushkin sometimes chafed at the treatment he received from the new emperor, but he never questioned his legitimacy or his political posi­tions. In 1831, Pushkin acted on his political convictions by writing  jingo­istic poems on the subject of Russia’s brutal response to the Polish Upris­ing. This is a fact that even the Soviets never disputed. Why does it not find its way into the Wikipedia?

     But let us return for a moment to the subject of Pushkin’s exile. The early years in Odessa and Kishinev were, of course, hardly a punishment. Pushkin was more or less left alone, and he continued the dissolute life he had led earlier, simply transferring his theater of operations from the capi­tal to the provinces. He still had an official position that made almost no demands on him as well as a salary. In 1824, things really did change for the worse, but this had nothing to do with politics. Unless a love affair with a superior’s wife is considered “clashing with the authorities,” there is really nothing political that caused him to lose his sinecure and head off to the truly unpleasant exile (“enforced rustication,” as Nabokov so elo­quently puts it) in Mikhailovskoe.

     And what happened then? With its usual stylistic verve, the Wikipedia tell us (italics mine): “However, some of the authorities allowed him to visit Tsar Nicholas I to petition for his release, which he obtained. But some of the insurgents in the Decembrist Uprising (1825) in St. Petersburg had kept some of his early political poems amongst their papers, and soon Pushkin found himself under the strict control of government censors…” All of this hemming and hawing leaves cause and effect up in the air. There can be no doubt that Nicholas I himself authorized Pushkin’s visit to the capital and that Pushkin would always be grateful to Nicholas for “freeing” him. The famous (admittedly still obscure) hour-long conversa­tion between Nicholas and Pushkin is not mentioned, nor is the result of that meeting—that Nicholas agreed to be Pushkin’s personal censor. The realization of that agreement proved to be disastrous for Pushkin (with Bulgarin evaluating some of his work and Benkendorff acting as the per­manent go-between). All of this is interesting and relevant; it should find a reflection in the Wikipedia.

     In sum, the Wikipedia biography of Pushkin is nothing more than a random selection of facts and factoids without any logical connection or historical context. But what about his work? Here, unfortunately, we do not fare much better. We are told that “critics consider many of his works masterpieces [this is not too shocking given that we have already learned that Pushkin “is considered by many to be the greatest Russian poet”!] such as the poem The Bronze Horseman and the drama The Stone Guest, a tale of the fall of Don Juan. His poetic short drama ‘Mozart and Salieri’ was the inspiration for Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Pushkin himself preferred his verse novel Eugene Onegin.…” It would be nice if we had even the briefest of comments about The Bronze Horseman or “Mozart and Salieri,” or some elucidation on how we know that Pushkin preferred Eugene Onegin to them. For the inquisitive reader, it is true, links provide some help. While the “Mozart and Salieri” link is only a few paragraphs (devoted mainly to Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera), the Onegin link is quite detailed, especially on the subject of English translations. This article is not pathbreaking, but generally reliable (and one has no right to expect more from an encyclo­pedia entry).

     Every once in a while an occasional good point shines through this mo­rass. The two brief references to Michael Basker’s “Pushkin and Romanti­cism” (from A Companion to European Romanticism) are intelligent and right on the mark. There is also an informative paragraph about operas based on Pushkin’s texts, with a footnote to Richard Taruskin. An indis­putably attractive element of this Wikipedia page is the visual material, featuring Repin’s painting of the young Pushkin reciting his verse for Derzhavin, Vrubel’s picture of the Seraph in Pushkin’s “Prophet,” Aivazov­sky’s portrait of Pushkin at the sea, the Pushkin monument in Moscow, etc. None of this is contextualized, but at least it is there. (The overwhelm­ing majority of the illustrations seems to have been borrowed from the Russian Wikipedia entry—itself no masterpiece, but certainly better than its English counterpart.)

     And this is about all that can be praised. The Wikipedia article closes with a passage obviously written by a native speaker of Russian (marked stylistically by the absence of articles). This section, called “Influence on the Russian Language,” makes some legitimate points about Pushkin’s contributions to all genres of the time, his interest in Western writers, and his role as a link between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But even here one encounters appalling platitudes and misinformation. The paragraph concludes: “Pushkin’s intelligence, sharpness of his opinion, his devotion to poetry, realistic thinking and incredible historical and political [sic!!] intuition make him one of the greatest Russian national genii.”

     The essay is rounded out by a list of major works and various external links. Some of these are valuable, e.g., our own Pushkin Review, the 10-volume Tsiavlovskaia internet edition of Pushkin’s works, the Russian Digital Scholarly Edition of Pushkin (an indispensable resource for the serious Pushkin scholar). However, the list also includes a “short biog­raphy of Pushkin by Caryl Emerson,” which my computer was incapable of accessing. Alas, Caryl Emerson has never written such a piece, so one can only wonder where this might have led. The final link goes to Malay trans­lations of Pushkin’s poems. The source of this mysterious link revealed itself after a bit of internet sleuthing. The Malay translator of Pushkin obviously edited the page. He also modestly lists his monograph (in Malay) on “The Great Russian Poet Pushkin and the Oriental World.” Curious, but hardly central to basic Pushkin studies and accessible only to the privi­leged few.

     In conclusion, one can say that the Wikipedia is a potentially useful source of information on our poet. But its present incarnation is almost useless; it gives no sense of the time, its biography is misleading, and it does not explain why anyone would want to read Pushkin’s poetry. Insofar as students consult this page, they will come away from it either confused or disgusted. If they dare plagiarize anything here, they’ll be lucky to get a “C+.”

     Note: Reviewing a Wikipedia article is a bit like shooting at a moving target. The present review was based on the article accessed on 28  August 2010. A comparison with the version accessed on 10 September 2010 has shown some improvement. For example, the reference to Marie: A Story of Russian Love has been changed to The Captain’s Daughter. Most of the other criticisms still hold. With luck, they will not hold for long.


Princeton University


Download: Wachtel, Michael. "Pushkin and the Wikipedia." Pushkin Review 12-13 (2009-10): 163-66.