Notes, PR 10 (2007)

Editing Pushkin: A Seminar Held at Oxford University, UK, July 2007

Catherine O’Neil


     In 2006 the first volume appeared of a projected new collection of Push­kin’s works: Pushkin: Poemy i povesti. Chast´ I. Moscow: Novoe izdatel´­stvo, 2006. Commentary by Oleg Proskurin. The complete edition is enti­tled Pushkin. Sochineniia. Kommentirovannoe izdanie pod obshchei redaktsiei Devida M. Betea (Moscow: Novoe izdatel´stvo). The collection is supported by the Vilas Trust and the Pushkin Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

     As part of the preparation of this new edition of Pushkin, the editors hosted a six-day seminar at Oxford University. This seminar, organized by David Bethea, was a workshop on the problems posed by editing Pushkin. The goal of the seminar was two-fold: 1) to discuss the best approaches to editing Pushkin’s work, and 2) to prepare younger scholars who, it is hoped, will continue to work in the field and indeed take over as the “new generation” of great Pushkinists. Despite the pressure this may have caused at first, as the week unfolded the animated and often downright jolly atmosphere in the small group discussions allowed for collegial rela­tions to be established between scholars and students and a very promis­ing working group has been formed.[1]

     Each day was devoted to detailed discussion of one or two texts. The daily seminar was led by an expert on that text who has written or is writ­ing the commentary for that particular volume. The discussions covered the following texts: Kapitanskaia dochka (led by Alexander Ospovat); An­dzhelo (led by Alexander Dolinin); Ruslan i Liudmila, Kavkazskii plennik, Bakhchisaraiskii fontan (led by Oleg Proskurin); Boris Godunov (led by Maria Virolainen). An entire day was given to lively debate and dialogue about the manuscript copies, publication and censorship issues in each case, and—a particularly important topic for editors—consideration of what should be included in the commentary to each volume. It was this last theme that occupied much of the seminar.

     As the above list of texts shows, the main task at hand focused on Pushkin’s works that appeared in his lifetime and with the publication of which he was actively engaged. As it turns out, none of these texts nor its publication history has been adequately examined, and there remain nu­merous lacunae in the scholarship that affect standard reception and in­terpretation. Indeed, this is the point of the project as a whole: to publish Pushkin’s texts as they appeared in his lifetime. As David Bethea explains in the preface to the first volume: “there are numerous instances where the versions published in Pushkin’s lifetime differ from the versions estab­lished subsequently by scholarly practice,” so “our goal is to present to the reader these published texts as ‘literary facts’” (3).

     Oleg Proskurin’s extensive commentary to the first volume (Ruslan i Liudmila, Kavkazskii plennik, Bakhchisaraiskii fontan) is likely to be the model for subsequent volumes; thus a brief description is in order. The first section (232 pages) is a facsimile reproduction of the 1835 Poemy i po­vesti, chast´ pervaia, including the three poemy and appendices to Bakh­chisaraiskii fontan, “Vypuska iz puteshestviia po Tavride I. M. Murav´eva-Apostola” and “Otryvok iz pis´ma” (Pushkin’s letter to Del´vig, apparently a response to Murav´ev-Apostol). After this facsimile comes the commen­tary proper, and this indeed provides a wealth of material for students and researchers alike. It is divided into sections: History of the publication itself; then for each work a description of the composition and manu­scripts, variants in earlier publications, the history of the composition of the poem; literary background (sources and debates); early reviews of the poem; line-by-line commentary (all together 360 pages). There is an exten­sive bibliography at the end (30 pages).

     At first glance, the edition seems daunting and the point unclear: what about censorship? How can we “trust” these editions when they often vary from manuscript versions? And, finally, what of the works that only appeared posthumously? Be assured: these concerns are all addressed by the editors. There will be a second series of the edition containing the works not published in Pushkin’s lifetime and commentary that explains the specific thorny problems of accurate dating and establishing the “au­thoritative” versions.

     The most interesting and complex question is the first: how can we “trust” works that we know have been passed through censorship? This is the finest contribution the editors of this edition are making: a painstak­ing reexamination of the extant evidence that led to publication. It is often impossible to determine from rough and fair copies what Pushkin’s origi­nal intention was, and much more often than is conventionally thought we have no real reason to think the differences between the published version and the manuscript(s) are violations of Pushkin’s intentions. There are simply too few cases where Pushkin directly objects to a change in the published version of his text, and too many steps are missing to discount the possibility that he may have made the change himself or at least ap­proved it. As David Bethea writes in the preface to volume 1: “it can be argued that too much time and effort have been spent on assuming how Pushkin censored himself, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes for personal ones, when it is difficult if not impossible to say how much, and in what precise form, he would have allowed into print had he total free­dom to do so” (4).

     This new edition will allow readers to confront the text the way it appeared to Pushkin’s public. If the editors have erred it is on the side of “too much” commentary—but that is in fact the most useful error of all, for it strives to be as comprehensive as possible and anticipate the areas in which modern readers will need most background and explanation. As in any edition, the choices may seem idiosyncratic, but given the expertise of the group currently working on the project, each volume is sure to contain a wealth of information. Pushkinists can look forward to a mini-Pushkin library in this new collected works.




     The projected contents and editors of the first series—works published in Pushkin’s lifetime—are as follows: 

Vol. 1, pt 1. Poemy i povesti (Ruslan i Liudmila, Kavkazskii plennik, Bakhchisaraiskii fontan) (1835/2006). Edited by D. Bethea and N. Okhotin, commentary by Oleg Proskurin.

Vol. 2. Boris Godunov (1831/2007). Edited by M. Virolainen and A. Dolinin.

Vol. 1, pt. 2. Poemy i povesti (Tsygany, Domik v Kolomne, Brat´ia razboiniki, Graf Nulin, Poltava, Andzhelo) (1835/2008). Edited by A. Ospovat and E. Toddes.

Vol. 3, pt. 1. Proza (Kapitanskaia dochka) (1837/2009). Edited by A. Ospovat.

Vol. 3, pt. 2. Proza (2 chapters from Arap Petra Velikogo, Pikovaia Dama, Povesti Belkina, Kapitanskaia dochka) (1837/2009). Edited by A. Ospovat.

Vol. 4, pt. 3. Stikhotvoreniia (1832/2010). Edited by A. Dolinin.


United States Naval Academy


Download: O'Neil, Catherine. "Editing Pushkin: A Seminar Held at Oxford University, UK, July 2007." Pushkin Review 10 (2007): 159 - 61.


[1] It is not a closed circle by any means; the organizers hope to continue these semi­nars on a bi-annual basis, and new participants will be encouraged to apply.