Review: E.I. Vysochina, «Obraz, berezhno khranimyi: Zhizn´ Pushkina v pamiati pokolenii»

E.I. Vysochina. Obraz, berezhno khranimyi: Zhizn´ Pushkina v pamiati pokolenii. Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 1989. 238 pp.

 

Pushkin's role as Russia's "first love" may have become a cliché, but challenges to the truism more often than not simply intensify Pushkin's primacy, as in Maiakovskii's "Iubileinoe" or Tsvetaeva's "Stikhi k Pushkinu." Atttudes toward him have changed dramatically, perhaps even cyclically, and creating a Pushkin in one's own image marks the work of many Russian poets and some epochs as well. In Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism, edited by Boris Gasparov, Robert P. Hughes and Irina Paperno, several essays take this point further: using a cultural semiotic approach they demonstrate how Silver Age poets and writers modeled their careers on Pushkin's example. One result of these and other essays may be our different understanding of how "Pushkin" has operated as a sign in Russian culture.

The method foregrounded in Obraz, berezhno khranimyi is quite similar. Elena Vysochina claims that her book will explore Russia's "cultural-historical memory" (p. 5) of Pushkin; she draws on the work of Lotman, Ginzburg, and others from time to time, as well as on jidiciouslyselected Pushkin scholarship and a wealth of primary material. Her book offers a broad and synthesisizing view of images of Pushkin beginning with his lifetime. Vysochina analyzes both verbal and visual images, occasionally demonstrating how the two have interacted. Much of the material will be familiar to Pushkin scholars, but there is a refreshing admixture of the less known, some of it creatively chosen.

Her first chapter treats the images of Pushkin during his lifetime and focuses on epistles to Pushkin: since epistles typically evoked the style of their addressee, she views poems to Pushkin as condensed expressions of the image of the poet, and as sites where the image was produced and disseminated. The polemic surrounding Ruslan i Liudmila is discussed as an argument over what sort of image contemporaries believed.

Pushkin ought to assume, from which a persuasive analysis of the first portrait of Pushkin (Geitman's 1822 engraving) also emerges. Close readings of the portraits by Tropinin and Kiprenskii explain how Romantic expectations shaped the pose, iconography, dress, and even expression on Pushkin's face. The discussion of the 1830s, however, reveals less than this account of the earlier period, perhaps inevitably given Vysochina's view of the 1830s as a time when Puyshkin's position diminishes. He became less interesting to his contemporaries, less a figure whose image was worth contesting. This all changed in 1837, and Vysochina concludes the chapter with good discussions of Zhukovskii's vs. Lermontov's reactions to Pushkin's death, setting up thematic oppositions, particular over questions of martyrdom adn blame, that chapter 2 pursues.

Vysochina's instinct to begin with a fundamental rethinking of the period of his lifetime is admirable and successfully realized. Because of the prominence given Pushkin's death in the twentieth-century myths of Pushkin, especially after the 1937 Jubilee, it ahs seemed plausible that Pushkin became "Pushkin" when he died, that the interpretation of his death as martyrdom has been a cornerstone of the images we might have of the poet. Vysochina does not challenge this assumption directly, but her book's strategy offers the grounds for such a challenge because she sees the imagery of the poet as taking shape as early as his first appearance in print. What is missing is an assessment of Pushkin's own contribution to this image-making, an investigation that could follow quite naturally from the cultural semiotic approach Vysochina often uses. Instead, we have only texts to and about Pushkin, from one age to the next. In this and the subsequent three chapters, she gives the chronological account of changes in Pushkin's image delineated often by two kinds of dates—official history and Jubilee celberations. Vysochina keeps this from becoming a forced march through the familiar by including subsequent generations' responses to well-worn sentiments.

Chapter 2 rightly characterizes the second half of the nineteenth century as a time when the Pushkin canon could be solidified. New texts were published and many memoir accounts emerged, but what distinguished the period until the 1880 monument opening in Moscow was an atmosphere of polemic and debate. Vysochina delineates the positions of Belinskii, Chernyshevskii, Dobroliubov, and Pisarev, often noting the specific ways in which an opposition between Pushkin and Gogol´ was deployed by each side. The 1880 monument opening returns her to visual imagery, and she brings together good recollections of the competition that produced Opekushin's monument as well as interesting memoir accounts of why the final monument suggested a particularly dreamy, unadorned image for Pushkin. For those who know Marcus Levitt's book, her discussion of the speeches may seem thin, and certainly her account of the 1899 celberation sticks very close to the official Soviet line of dismissal.

Treatment of the Soviet period siilarly repeats slogans one could well do without, but the chapter also includes a number of insightful points. Vysochina observes that the 1937 Pravda editorials provided a useful corrective to the silly efforts to put Pushkin on trial in the 1920s as reactionary, for example, but her evaluation of the 1937 celebrations is silent on their distoritions, vulgarity, and appropriation by Stalin's campaign of terror. Marina Tsvetaeva's "Stikhi k Pushkinu" appear ratehr unfortunately alongside reports of all-Union exhibitions and popular editions of Pushkin to evidence progress in the greater understanding of Pushkin's actual image. Predictably, an account of how "Pushkin fought alongside the entire Soviet people" (p. 166) emerges from the war years. Certainly, Vysochina's reluctance to take on the dificult task of reassessing the treatment of Pushkin from the 1920s through about the 1970s is understandable, especially since this book may well have been written well before its 1989 publication date. yet the omissions are regrettable, not least because her talent for deciphering visual representations of Pushkin could be put to good use in analyses of the proliferating Pushkin monuments during this period.

These monuments do attract her attention in the book's final chapter, particularly representations of Pushkin as he looked in the 1830s. As Vysochina notes astutely, recent Russian thinkers have focused increasingly on this period for their image of Pushkin. Here her own selections for illustration grow more interesting, particularly the juxtaposition of P.F. Borel's 1885 Pribytie ranenogo Pushkina to E. E. Moiseenko's stunning Pamiati poeta (1985). The final section of the chapter, on Pushkin's self-portraits, returns Vysochina to the period of his lifetime. It is as close as she gets to juxtaposing representations with self-representations; the analysis of artists who try to make their portraits look like Pushkin's own self-portraits is smart and convincing, as is the wonderful inclusion of Andrei Krzhzhanovskii's films that animate Pushkin's drawings.

Occasionally predictable but mostly written with intelligence and clarity, Vyoschina's book paarticipates in teh contemporary move to analyze the representations of Pushkin. Essays during the last few years by Nepomniashchii, Agranovich and Rassovskaia, and Epshtein, as well as the more provocative prose of Bitov and Siniavskii demonstrate recent Russian thinking about the position Pushkin occupies in their culture. Vysochina's intent is at once more specific and more far-reaching: the book's subtitle indicates that Obraz, berezhno khranimyi is for teachers, and from time to time Vysochina observes how one or another idea might be usuefully presented to students. This targeted audience is no more limiting than the similar label attached to Iurii Lotman's commentary to Evgenii Onegin, though both may have hoped to change the way teachers present Pushkin to their students. Vysochina appears to recognize that students need a more sophisticated approach to Pushkin if his work is to amerge afresh from all the tired slogans about his greatness. Pushkin scholars will find her book useful too, particularly those concerned with the larger project of understanding how and why Pushkin's image has defined Russian culture's process of national self-definition.

Stephanie Sandler
Amherst College

 


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Sandler, Stephanie. Rev. of E.I. Vysochina, Obraz, berezhno khranimyi: Zhizn´ Pushkina v pamiati pokolenii. Pushkin Review 01 (1998): 175-78.

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Vol. 01 (1998)