Review: Boris Gasparov, et al, eds. «Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism»

Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism: From the Golden Age to the Silver Age. Edited by Boris Gasparov, Robert P. Hughes, and Irina Paperno. California Slavic Studies, vol. 15. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. 494 pp.


The twenty-three essays in this volume are the product of a conference held at the University of California, Berkeley in May of 1987 to commemorate the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Pushkin's death. The focus and underlying assumptions of this conference, however, were quite different than those of other conferences held to commemorate the Pushkin jubilee, and consequently the papers themselves are quite different. Rather than focusing on specific problems of Pushkin studies or different approaches to Pushkin, as was the case for example at the conference held the same year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (the papers from teh Madison conference have been published by Indiana University Press), these essays celebrate tehnotion of "cultural return" and are based on two assumptions: 1) that there are deep affinities between the Golden and Silver Ages of Russian literature; and 2) that the Pushkin myth occupies a central place in the Modernist culture of the Silver Age. In fact, as one of teh participants, Monika Greenleaf, noted, the time frame of teh period virtually coincides, at a century's distance, with the dates of Pushkin's own life.

The collection is organized into three groupings: 1) "The Cultural Myth of Pushkin"; 2) "Pushkin As an Institution"; and 3) "Pushkin in the Twentieth Century: Readings, Texts and Subtexts." All the contributions are worthwhile; moreover, they complement each other in interesting ways. Often, texts are paired which have natural affinities but previously have not been examined together. For example, Andrew Wachtel discusses the connections between Pushkin's "A Journey to Arzrum" and Mandel´shtam's "A Journey to Armenia," both hybrid works, written almost one hundred years apart and occupying analogous positions in the literary system. Particularly informative are teh essays by Marcus Levitt and Robert Hughes on the Pushkin celebrations of 1899 and 1921. Gasparov's introduction to the collection, entitled "The 'Golden Age' and Its Role in the Cultural Mythology of Russian Modernism," and Paperno's article, "Pushkin v zhizni cheloveka serebrianogo veka" are seminal and articulate hypotheses underlying teh collection. Following the latter begin "case studies" on Zinaida Gippius (by Olga Matich), Tsvetaeva (by Liza Knapp), Tynianov (by Monika Greenleaf), and Belyi (by John Malmstad). Taken as a whole, the articles demonstrate that not only did the Silver Age model itself on Pushkin's life and texts but that it also recreated Pushkin in its own image, "selecting" those biographical phenomena and texts which corresponded to its own dilemmas and cultural preferences. In this regard the case studies that follow Paperno's extensive discussion of the phenomenon of "life-creation" (zhiznetvorchestvo) are particularly revealing: Gippius acting out the role of Pushkin's Cleopatra; Tsvetaeva identifying with Pushkin's death, anticipating that shee too, like Pushkin, would be killed by byt; Tynianov singling out structural principles in Pushkin's poetry that accorded with those set out in his own theoretical writings; Belyi using the example of Pushkin to write about his own predicament in the mid-twenties. (The text of Belyi's lecture, preserved in TsGALI, is published here for the first time by Malmstad in an appendix to the collection.) Yet it was these Modernists who rekindled serious interest in Pushkin, approached the study of his poetry and prose in a systematic fashion, and thereby made significant contributions to Pushkin studies. They were the ones who established canonical texts and authoritative editions of Pushkin's works and "demystified" the poet's biography. In this regard Briusov played an important role, as Joan Grossman confirms in her essay. Of the twentieth-century writers successfully paired with Pushkin in this volume it would seem that Nabokov and Zoshchenko were most faithful to the poet's "aesthetic creed," for they, like Pushkin, possessed a capacity for play, for irony, for parody, for literary masks and stylization, as is well demonstrated by Irina Reyfman (in her essay on Zoshchenko) and by Sergei Davydov (in his essay on Nabokov's Gift).

In the introduction to the collection, translated by Eric Naiman, Gasparov formulates a productive way to comprehend Russian Modernism as a whole (the usual tendency is to fragment it) and chart its development—namely, by reference to a figure from another age. Taking care to distinguish the mythological from the historical, he argues that the Modernist period, despite its many and diverse groupings, was marked by "Pushkin's mythological presence," which both informed it and defined its parameters. There was, states Gasparov, "a general fascination with a 'Pushkin essence' as manifested in the poet's imagery, poetics, and symbolically interpreted biography. 'The Pushkin myth' is served as a constant symbolic backgound against which the age of Modernism saw itself, tested its ideas and aspirations, and recognized and comprehended its ideal, transcendent essence and destiny" (5). In the post-revolutionary epoch, asserts Gasparov, "the death of the poet," epitomized by Pushkin's death, becomes the most powerful aspect of this myth.

Cultural Mythologies is a handsome volume. It is also well indexed. All the essays are of high quality; would that there were space here to discuss each individually. My one regret (aside from the fact that five of the contributions in Russian were not translated and thus remain inaccessible to a wider audience) is that no essay was included on Akhmatova. This despite the fact that she is repeatedly mentioned in the collection. Certainly Tsarskoe Selo, the most celebrated of the Pushkinskie mesta, plays an important mythic role in her pre-revolutionary poetry, as Stephanie Sandler points out in her essay, Remembrance in Mikhailovskoe," and after all it was Akhmatova who produced the most interesting and valuable Pushkin studies of the 1930s.


Sona Stephan Hoisington
University of Illinois at Chicago



Hoisington, Sona. Rev. of Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism. Pushkin Review 1 (1998): 155-57.


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