Review: Yuri Tynianov. «Young Pushkin»

Yuri Tynianov. Young Pushkin. Translated by Anna Kurkina Rush and Christopher Rush. Introduction by Anna Kurkina Rush. New York: The Rookery Press, Tracy Carns Ltd. in association with The Overlook Press, 2008. xxi + 515. ISBN 978-1-58567-962-1. Cloth.


     Yuri Tynianov (1894–1943), a leading Russian Formalist and specialist in the literature and history of the Pushkin era, wrote three novels featuring Russian writers Vil´gelm Kiukhel´beker, Aleksandr Griboedov, and A. S. Pushkin. His Kiukhlia (1925), about the poet and Decembrist Kiukhel´­beker, set the pattern for Soviet historical biographies of hypothetical precursors of the Russian Revolution. In 1927 Tynianov published Smert´ Vazir-Mukhtara (Death and Diplomacy in Persia), about the dramatist Griboedov, focusing on his fateful career as a bureaucrat and diplomat.[1] Tynianov may have planned a full biography of Pushkin, but illness and his early death precluded his completing it. Pushkin. Roman ends with its third section on the years 1816–20. A. K. Rush’s introduction to the trans­lation under review states that “[t]he first two parts of Pushkin were serialized in … Literaturnyi sovremennik … 1935–1937 and the third part, unrevised and unchecked by the author, in Znamia … in 1943” (ix).


     Tynianov’s three biographical novels are mixtures of fact and conjec­ture. Although Tynianov did not claim to rely solely on the known facts about his subjects (see introduction, xiv), these novels have an aura of authenticity. They reflect Tynianov’s extensive scholarship on the litera­ture of the Pushkin era, especially his continuing study of material on Kiukhel´beker. In Young Pushkin, Tynianov recaptures much of the era’s spirit and detail: the lifestyles of the irresponsible aristocracy; the antago­nism of the entrenched nobility toward “upstarts” such as M. M. Speran­sky and A. A. Arakcheev; the devastation of the Napoleonic wars; the erudition and dedication of some of the educators at the Lycée in Tsarskoe Selo; the literary salons and major and minor literary figures; and espe­cially the personalities of Pushkin, his fellow students, and literary col­leagues. An evocation of Pushkin’s life and times, Young Pushkin exempli­fies Angela Brintlinger’s comment on the methodology of Tynianov (and Bulgakov) that “guessing the essence behind the details was what made their works art.”[2] The historian may find this “guessing the essence” ap­proach disconcerting, but the reader who is forewarned that Young Push­kin is based on Tynianov’s fertile imagination, as well as his scholarship, will find much to enjoy in this creative reconstruction of Pushkin’s early years.

     Young Pushkin is divided into three parts: Childhood, The Lycée, Youth. The first section describes Pushkin’s ancestors, the Pushkin and Gannibal families. The translators have conveniently included genealogi­cal charts and a list of people significant during Pushkin’s early years. Tynianov’s treatment of the Pushkin family stresses its decadence, indebt­edness, and irresponsibility, especially that of Pushkin’s father and uncle. Their roles as minor poets may be overdone, but their flawed characters are not. They are presented as part of that déclassé segment of the aristoc­racy, the feckless, non-contributing members of society who assumed that their serfs and ancestry entitled them to wealth and power. This portrayal of Pushkin’s social and parental background contributes to an understand­ing of Pushkin’s later habits of extravagance, womanizing, gambling, duel­ing and incurring debt. 

     Tynianov’s treatment of the Gannibal family is, unfortunately, influ­enced by racial stereotyping. Tolerance for the mores of an earlier time is required in reading Tynianov’s descriptions of Pushkin’s great-grand­father, grandfather, and uncle as intemperate, crude, cruel, and ugly, and his mother as slovenly, narcissistic, uncaring, with bouts of “primitive fury.” While there may be some validity to these portrayals,[3] Tynianov certainly exaggerates these characterizations. For example, he posits Pushkin’s father observing his son with disdain, thinking that “his son was like the son of a savage” (57). In other sections, Tynianov echoes bits of Pushkin’s own writings to flesh out his characters, but not here. Had Tynianov relied on Pushkin’s romanticized portrait of his great-grand­father in The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, he might have presented Abram Gannibal as the educated, accomplished, valued engineer and mili­tary officer that he was. Instead, Tynianov describes him as ugly, incom­petent, a mere “servant” of Peter the Great (7); he may have lacked the information that is now available on this unusual man but that does not excuse his tone.

     The middle section, “The Lycée,” is the best documented and most in­formative section, reflecting Tynianov’s extensive research and writing on Kiukhel´beker. His Kiukhlia includes the years that Kiukhel´beker shared with Pushkin in the first class of the Lycée at Tsarskoe Selo (1811–17). Tynianov had access to Kiukhel´beker’s diary, his famous Slovar´, docu­ments, and memoirs of fellow students at the Lycée, and also archival material that he acquired in 1828–29;[4] these materials provided a rich ba­sis for his recreation of Pushkin’s school years. Tynianov credits Speran­sky with the concept of establishing the Lycée, presents its faculty as sons of the Enlightenment, and brings to life the erudition, character, kindness, and goals of the first director, Vasily Malinovsky, the historian Kunitsyn, and several other teachers. A chapter entitled “Aleksandr Kunitsyn’s Journal” (221–44) is, apparently, a transcript of that teacher’s actual di­ary. Thus, this section is lively, readable, and rewarding, projecting the at­mosphere of the Lycée—the gardens, dormitory, offices, classrooms, even the corridors of the school and the nearby military barracks. It is a mem­orable picture of the foibles, pranks, politics, and poetry of Pushkin and his fellow students during a highly formative period in Pushkin’s life.

     The third section, “Youth,” is episodic and appears to be unfinished; as noted, Tynianov was ill when writing this section and may have died with­out reviewing it for publication. Although this section touches many topics, one aspect prevails: the characterization of the aristocracy as fla­grantly irresponsible, profligate, decadent, impoverished, forever in debt, brutal to their servants. It is an unforgiving portrayal of the upper classes, excellent grist for the Soviet ideological mill.

     Tynianov’s delightful method of echoing Pushkin’s works to amplify his characterizations merits comment. For example, Pushkin’s mother is seen to exhibit Tatiana’s fear of the “evil eye” and participation in super­stitious games (45). She consults Martin Zadek to analyze her dreams and, like Madam Larina, recalls the Guardsman she wished to marry but could not (110). An imagined conversation between Chaadaev and Pushkin about Karamzin’s History foretells Pushkin’s 1836 letter to Chaadaev that praised Peter the Great’s contributions to Russia. The phrase “when the flags of all nations visited Russia” (464) evokes Pushkin’s St. Peters­burg and his Bronze Horseman. The notes that the translators include at the end of the book are generally helpful. However, one footnote (449) places the German Section at the time of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg rather than Moscow. Also included are ten of Pushkin’s poems written between 1814 and 1820 (507–15).

     It is pleasant and entertaining to enter Tynianov’s imaginative recon­struction of Pushkin’s world, despite the aura of conjecture that surrounds that reconstruction. Young Pushkin is a rich example of the literary devel­opment and ideological concerns of a major scholar in the early Soviet period.


Nancy Mandelker Frieden
Marymount Manhattan College


Download: Mandelker Frieden, Nancy. Rev. of Yuri Tynianov. Young Pushkin. Pushkin Review 11 (2008): 185-87.

[1] Yuri Tynianov, Death and Diplomacy in Persia, abridged and trans. Alec Brown (London: Boriswood, 1938).

[2] Angela Brintlinger, Writing a Usable Past: Russian Literary Culture, 1917–1937 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2000), 18.

[3] See T. J. Binyon, Pushkin: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 4–11.

[4] Brintlinger, Writing a Usable Past, 53 n. 39.