Sam Driver. «Puškin: Literature and Social Ideals». New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. xii, 143 pp.

Sam Driver worked many years on this subject, publishing selected parts as articles along the way; now we have the fine result in book form. The word "politics" is not in the title, but this is a study of Pushkin's development as a political, as well as social, thinker. Driver concentrates on the poet's thought after 1828 without neglecting teh earlier, more liberal, sometimes radical political position. Central to his approach is a carefully defined notion of Pushkin's leadership of the "aristocratic party," understood as a defense of his own class of the nobility (dvorianstvo) and a rationale for a legally established class which would be at once a counter to the autocracy and its bureaucracy and a caretaker of the peasantry. Driver cautions us to be wary of interpretations of Pushkin the Decembrist fellow-traveler, and he refutes attempts to prove that teh mature Pushkin rejected his class (Blagoi's literal understanding of the sarcastic jeer "Ia meshchanin!"). His conclusion, stated early and argued throughout, is that Pushkin matured to a conservative gradualism tempered by quite liberal attitudes on such questions as serfdom, law, violence and revolution, monarchy, and the necessity of enlightenment.

Certain Pushkinists and others, including Solzhenitsyn, have tried to argue that Pushkin was a profound philosopher. Such attempts have proved inconclusive, unless one considers Pushkin's expression of brilliantly original ideas, often in his prose, poetry, and letters, but even more often and certainly as effectively in conversation. Conversely, no one would argue seriously that Pushkin was not a serious historian and historiographer with a precise sense of history and rationally articulated historicism. It ought to be as easy to define Pushkin the social and political thinker, even despite all the ideologically motivated political interpretations that have made this question so controversial. But it is not easy, and Driver has done well to offer the most sensible, well researched, and carefully thought out study to date. All the more so because his arguments and the voice with which he presents them are even.

Indicative here is the first chapter on "Puškin and Politics," a long review of studies of the question by, among others, Annenkov, Sipovskii, Tomashevskii, Blagoi, Sakulin, Mikkelson, Lotman, Mazour, and Vickery. According to Driver, Pushkin used the word "aristocracy" (aristokratiia) positively to refer to his own "judicially defined estate of the dvorjanstvo" and pejoratively "in the sense of the ranking aristocracy of men of power and wealth, not necessarily of old families." We must therefore discriminate between those instances where Pushkin has in mind his own aristocratic party of friends and literary allies from distinguished old families like his own, and those vulgar newcomers "defined as the rich and powerful families with a sharp political eye on oligarchy" (14-15). Pushkin had equally clear and strong ideas about the small class of bourgeois merchantry (meshchanstvo), the swiftly rising plebeian bureaucracy (raznochintsy), the peasantry, the rabble (chern´), and high society (svet). Pushkin, a Russian, did not share the English prejudice against being "in trade," but was not a democrat in the sense of solidarity with the bourgeoisie. He despised the plebeians as passionately as he decried the new aristocrats and the vulgarians of high society and the court. His attitude toward the peasantry was liberal, enlightened, and as democratic as an aristocrat could be. True to his class, he feared the rabble, especially Russia's violent history of pugachevshchina. His animosity toward the plebeians was exacerbated in the late 1820s and 1830s by the rise of the monopolist publishers and critics in literature and the turn of Russian literature to the newly literate readers who preferred "low" prose stories and novels to "high" prose and poetry (Belinskii called them "lackey readers"). This struggle between the aristocrats and plebeians is as important to Driver's argumetn re literature and social ideas as Pushkin's thought in relation to politics, history, social class, and his view of himself as a genuine aristocrat in both society and literature.

Driver's attention to the mature post-1828 Pushkin enables him to avoid full confrontation with a problem of Pushkin studies which, I think, has not been satisfactorily resolved. The aspect of Pushkin's complex personality which has most greatly vexed Pushkinists is the difficulty of reconciling the "impetuous" with the rational and downright sensible Pushkin. All would be well and good if the impetuous young Pushkin who wrote the ode "Liberty" developed consistently into the thoughtful author of numerous (if usually not completed) political treatises, serious historian of the Pugachev rebellion, and mature historical fictionist of "The Bronze Horseman." Unhappily, the poet was not so accommodating: the impetuous younger Pushkin might well have stood and fallen with his comrades on Senate Square, but the sensible Pushkin advised him to return to Mikhailovskoe. Pushkin was a more sober man by 1830, but his reaction to the Polish Rebellion was hardly rational, or fair, or for that matter pleasant.

Here I wish that Driver had given more credence to the testimony of many Decembrists and other that Pushkin was too flighty to be trusted. Ryleev and Bestuzhev-Marlinsky have to answer for their own class resentments in their assessments of Pushkin as a too frivolous person and poet, and it is their very "seriousness" which, as Lotman has pointed out, led them both to their political doom and to the overly stereotypical character of their civic literature. Still, there must have been more than Pushkin's sometimes pompous pride in his 600-year-old ancestry to make them resent (and ridicule) him, and there must have been something in his personality that requires more careful attention to their view of him as an unreliable fellow traveler. After all, Pushkin did not fully disassociate himself from Onegin the dandy, a fact which suggests that he himself recognized his tendency to flit from fashion to fashion and remains to be dealt with despite Driver's convincing argument that behind Pushkin's dandyism lie serious, fully thought out political convictions.

Pushkinists also tend, I think, to stroll too easily with Pushkin. Driver is especialy level when he treats the poet's class prejudices, but I am not certain that such objectivity is fully effective here. It is one thing, for example, to dismiss "Bulgarin and his ilk," and quite another to include under that rubric Nikolai Polevoi, to whom Pushkin was decidedly unfair. Pushkin's and the other literary aristocrats' opposition to Poloevoi's History of the Russian People is understandable in terms of their own class position, but what really irked them was not Polevoi's position on its own merits, but that this plebeian upstard had had the effrontery to qeustion so seriously the great Karamzin. It was all right for Pushkin to challenge Karamzin's pro-autocracy position, that is, but criticism from a plebeian like Polevoi was no more acceptable to Pushkin in social terms than Mickiewicz's Polish criticism of the Russian autocracy was acceptable to him in nationalist terms. (This despite the fact that prior to 1830 Pushkin and Mickiewicz were fully agreed about the Russian autocracy, and that Mickiewicz's view was significantly shaped in his discussions with Pushkin.) Pushkin began to undermine Polevoi and his Moscow Telegraph well before the dispute over Karamzin, and his letters to Viazemskii indicate that his motivations were snobbish. Polevoi was neither wise, nor gracious in the debate over the great man versus great people theory of history, but the record shows that he was pushed to this extreme position by Pushkin's and Viazemskii's stings. He was also pushed, unwillingly, closer to the Bulgarin camp. In any case, Polevoi was a decent, profoundly liberal person of his time, and his translations of leading European philosophers and historians into Russian earn him a better place in Russian intellectual history than that consigned him by Pushkin's animosity.

Driver devotes attention to Pushkin's major œuvre, including Eugene Onegin and The Bronze Horseman, but one remarkable feature of his work is that he has gleaned the manuscript fragments, parts of letters, undeveloped drafts, and testimonies of contemporaries for a considerable portion of his evidence. To this sifting and winnowing he adds complete command of the scholarship on these minute texts. This approach was dictated in part by the fact that it is precisely in out-of-the-way, fragmented places that Pushkin, who could not hope to publish his most acute political views, lodged his ideas about literature and society. This kind of scholarship—a synthesis of bits and pieces—is painstaking but, in result, well worth the effort. Indicative here is the chapter on "Pelham and Petronius," a discussion of two "ingriguing fragments left by Pushkin for projected works," a Russian version of Bulwer-Lytton's novel Pelham and "an imaginative retelling of Tacitus' account of the death of Petronius Arbiter." The first of theses is no more than a fragment and "some rather detailed outlines" of a novel. The second is some five pages of printed prose with verse interpolations and a short general plan "which breaks off before any clear conclusion is suggested (103, 113). By juxtaposing these dissimilar works and by sleuthing among both related pieces of evidence and secondary scholarship, Driver has assembled a coherent picture of Pushkin's social views during the last decade of his life. The chapter on "Pušhkin and Dandyism" deals with a broader question, but here, too, Driver has gleaned existing literature on dandyism in European culture, searched out Pushkin's every thought about dandyism, and hunted down evidence of the phenomenon in Russian society of Pushkin's time. Prior to this study we had only Grossman's short 1918 study of Pushkin's dandyism and a few glances at the fashion by other Pushkinists. We now have a coherent argument which convinces us that dadyism was itself more than a fad, and that in Russia, especially for Pushkin, it was a means of expressing an "admirable insolence" (94), a protest against the "indignity of sumptuary laws" (98), and a statement about class.

Driver concludes his book by emphasizing that it is only a start. Other questions and numerous other works still need attention. There is a need, too, for another book or books about Pushkin, literature, and social ideas. But a start has been made, and the way has been shown. Let us now hope that others, or Driver himself, will continue in the direction he has pointed.


Lauren G. Leighton
University of Illinois at Chicago



Leighton, Lauren. Rev. of Sam Driver, Puškin: Literature and Social IdealsPushkin Review 1 (1998): 157-60. Retrieved from: <>.