Griboedovedenie: An Introduction

Angela Brintlinger

 

In his Crimean travel notes of 25 June 1825, Alexander Griboedov de­scribes an animated, magical landscape where he and his fellow travelers are mere observers:

A pink stripe across gloomy clouds, the play of the evening sun; a pike shows blue in the distance; a ship in Alushta seems to hang in the air; the sea blends into the sky. We find a sheepfold on the eastern heights, facing south. Whey to eat; the air is cold; I warm myself. I lie down on my horse’s blanket with the saddle at my head, listening to the bleating of goats and sheep whose pen hangs over the rapids. In the night I rise, the moon swims over the sea between the two capes. A star emerges from behind a black cloud. Another careens above me. What genius has caught it?[1]

These romantic descriptions of the Black Sea region in June of the year that will end with the Decembrist Revolt in St. Petersburg include views of Bakhchiserai, of Chatyr-Dag, Sably, and Alupta. Regardless of political rumblings and events in his personal and professional life, Griboedov took the time to sketch these mountains and their people, the valleys, the rela­tionship between sky and water; he strove to capture in words the con­trasts of light and color, air and altitude, of physical sensation and the stirrings of imagination.

Like Mickiewicz, who wrote sonnets to “Alushta in the Daytime,” “Alushta at Night,” and “Aiudag,” among others, Griboedov was capti­vated by the scenery along the coast. It seemed a veritable font of poetic inspiration. Of Alushta itself Griboedov wrote: “The whole place is sur­rounded as if by an amphitheater, the spurs of Yail and Chatyr-Dag—whose summits reign over this valley—reach to the sea.[2]

Traveling around the Crimea today, one encounters sites, museums, monuments, and memorials to writers from all eras: from Adam Mickie­wicz to Anton Chekhov, from Maxim Gorky and Lev Tolstoy to Ivan Shmelev and Sergei Sergeev-Tsensky. But the pride of the peninsula re­mains the two Alexander Sergeeviches: Griboedov and Pushkin. The cen­tral square of Alushta features a bust of the former; a towering tree called “Pushkin’s cypress” still graces the garden of a sanatorium in nearby Gurzuf.

The cluster of articles gathered below represent the first installment in a new section for the Pushkin Review: Pushkin’s Contemporaries. The parallel travels and shared acquaintances and friendships of many writers from the Pushkin era make for fascinating juxtapositions and compari­sons, and we hope that articles in this rubric will complement articles on Pushkin, deepening and broadening our understanding of his era.

I started this essay with Griboedov’s notes on Crimea because I re­cently returned from there: in Alushta at the end of May 2012 scholars gathered from all over the world to explore the topic of “Griboedov and Contemporary Times.” Some of the biggest names in Griboedovedenie were there: Sergei Fomichev, who has done more than anyone in the history of Russian literary scholarship to foster the study of Alexander Griboedov; Ludmila Orekhova, who specializes in the role played by Crimean topog­raphy in Griboedov’s life and work; Nadezhda Tarkhova, who has written on “Griboedov’s Homes and Haunts,” to use the Library of Congress desig­nation; Vyacheslav Koshelev, whose books on Pushkin and other nineteenth-century poets make him an expert on the “other” Alexander Sergeevich as well; Herbert Lembke, who has explored translations of Woe from Wit into German and whose foundation, Ad Infinitum, funded the recent publications of the Griboedov Encyclopedia[3] and the long-awaited third volume of the authoritative Complete Works of A. S. Griboedov.[4]

A refrain that began to sound in the halls and courtyards of the Alushta Ethnographic Museum, where the conference took place, was “a gde molodezh´?” (Where are the young scholars who will take Griboedov studies into a new era?) There were, in fact, several young people—two or three graduate students and recent kandidaty—present, but I submit that the readers of the Pushkin Review are benefitting from that new genera­tion, which appears to be thriving in the United States. The three essays collected here are all written by young scholars, molodye griboedovedy, who write in the traditions of Griboedov scholarship in several ways, as we will see below.

After all, there is much still to research and write. Basic biographical information remains in dispute and source material frustratingly incom­plete. At the Alushta conference several discussions arose as to just when Griboedov was born—scholars still raise 1795, and 1794, and 1792, and 1790 as potential dates, the earliest of which would make Griboedov ille­gitimate (his parents married in 1791)[5] and possibly throw into question the identity of his biological father. As to when he died—could it really be that the mission in Tehran was stormed twice? What might the reason be? And why did Griboedov write so few letters to the young wife he had left in Tabriz, when she wrote him nine? Perhaps he died some days earlier than reported, and the attack on the mission was a coverup? And what of the nature of his friendship with the infamous police spy and journalist Faddei Bulgarin? Griboedov’s relationship with Pushkin was also central to conversations, as is always the case in griboedovedenie, and it is de­lightful that our “other Alexander Sergeevich” inaugurates the “Pushkin’s Contemporaries” section of Pushkin Review.

Our first essay confronts an essential question in understanding the life and work of this enigmatic poet-diplomat: given that Griboedov had a dual career as both poet and playwright and also as civil servant, ambas­sador, and representative of the Russian Imperial government, what role did his project of the Russian Transcaucasian Company play in his phil­osophical system? Anna Aydinyan places Griboedov’s now lost 1828 proj­ect for economic expansion and colonization within the context of Adam Smith’s theories and the writings of the French Enlighteners. As early as 5 February 1819, Griboedov was using Adam Smith’s “system,” as he called it, as a contrast to what he saw in the Persian khanate of Yerevan, where “not only external trade, but internal as well” was controlled by the Sardar Hussein-Khan.[6] Aydinyan explores General Mikhail Zhukovsky’s criticism of Griboedov’s project, perhaps agreeing with Yuri Tynianov, whom she cites in her epigraphs, that Griboedov had reapplied his creativ­ity from the sphere of literature to that of economic development and that his attempts to draw parallels with the British East India Company to hide his own power grab were ambitious indeed, if not unethical.

Our second essay looks at the immortal comedy and its influence in the history of Russian drama. Justin Wilmes considers Griboedov’s play Woe from Wit in the context of tragicomedy, specifically the work of Anton Chekhov, and argues that devices we now consider to be “Chekhovian” were first seen in the classic Griboedov satire on Moscow society. The mis­understandings and lack of communication that lead to unhappiness in Chekhov’s turn-of-the-century world, Wilmes argues, were first explored in the house of Famusov.

Like Wilmes, Jennifer Louise Wilson focuses on the issue of caricature in Woe from Wit, but she points out that the “immortal comedy” had a sec­ond life in Meyerhold’s theater a century later. Frustrations with Soviet censorship, she argues, led Meyerhold to rewrite Woe from Wit as Woe to Wit and to stage his efforts to confront gender bending and sexual mores in the contemporary play I Want a Baby! by Sergei Tretiakov using Gribo­edov’s characters. Griboedov wrote in 1825 to explain what he hoped would be the widespread importance of his play:

Portraits, and only portraits, enter into the cast of comedies and tragedies; however, in them are characteristics that are common to many other people, and some to the entire human race to the extent to which each individual is like his two-legged comrades.[7]

Meyerhold was able to see the commonalities between Sergei Tretiakov’s two-legged creatures and those who entered Russian drama a century ear­lier. Soviet censorship kept Tretiakov off the stage the way that imperial censorship had blocked Griboedov, but Meyerhold used the latter to give portraits of his contemporaries. Both Wilson and Wilmes remind us of just how up-to-date Griboedov can be and how central he is to the traditions of Russian drama.

We might paraphrase Pushkin to say: Greetings, young griboedovedy! Здравствуйте, племя младое, незнакомое! Enjoy.

 

The Ohio State University

 


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Brintlinger, Angela. "Griboedovedenie: An Introduction." Pushkin Review 15 (2012): 97-100.


[1] “Розовая полоса над мрачными облаками, игра вечернего солнца; судак синеется вдали; корабль в Алуште будто на воздухе; море слито с небом. Попа­даем в овчарню на восточной вершине, обращенной лицом к югу. Сыворотка, холод, греюсь, ложусь на попону, седло в головах, блеяние козлов и овец, на­висших на стремнинах. Ночью встаю, луна плавает над морем между двух мысов. Звезда из-за черного облака. Другая скатилась надо мною. Какой гений подхватил ее?” “Krym,” in Sochineniia, ed. S. A. Fomichev (Moscow: Khudozhest­vennaia literatura, 1988), 423–24.

[2] “Все место окружено амфитеатром, к морю отрогами обоих Яйл и Чатыр-Дага, которого вершины господствуют над сей долиною” (“Krym,” 425).

[3] S. A. Fomichev, ed., Griboedov: Entsiklopediia (St. Petersburg: Nestor-Istoriia, 2007).

[4] S. A. Fomichev et al., eds., A. S. Griboedov. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v trekh tomakh. Tom tretii: Pis´ma, dokumenty, sluzhebnye bumagi (St. Petersburg: Dmitrii Bulanin, 2006).

[5] This debate has gone on for some time. At the “Bicentennial” conference devoted to Griboedov in 1995, A. L. Grishunin confirmed his belief that 1795 was correct. See “O gode rozhdeniia A. S. Griboedova,” in A. S. Griboedov: Khmelitskii sbornik (Smolensk: Smolenskii gosudarstvennyi universitet, 1998), 238–48. But in a foot­note to that article, the editors pointed to M. V. Stroganov’s article, which gives differing opinions. See Stroganov, “God rozhdeniia Griboedova, ili ‘polputi zhizni,’” in A. S. Griboedov: Materialy k biografii (Leningrad: Nauka, 1989), 10–17.

[6] A. S. Griboedov, “Tiflis–Tegeran,” in Sochineniia, 403.

[7] “[П]ортреты, и только портреты, входят в состав комедии и трагедии, в них, однако, есть черты, свойственные многим другим лицам, а иные всему роду человеческому настолько, насколько каждый человек похож на всех своих двуногих собратий.” Letter from A. S. Griboedov to P. A. Katenin, second half of January–14 February 1825, in Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 3: 87.