It is a well-known fact, and has become part of the myth and cult of Aleksandr Pushkin as Russia's greatest poet, that Derzhavin proclaimed the adolescent Pushkin his successor in 1815 upon hearing the poem "Vospominaniia v Tsarskom Sele" (1814) at the graduation (from the lower to upper classes) of the Tsarskoe Selo Lyceum. That Derzhavin subsequently considered Pushkin Russia's greatest poet is confirmed by hi s comments to his friend S.T. Aksakov in 1815, the year before he died: "Soon a second Derzhavin will appear to the world: this is Pushkin, who still at the Lyceum has surpassed all our writers."
What did Derzhavin hear? A very ambivalent and ironic, yet great tribute to his own past poetic achievements.
Alexander Pushkin went about, quite deliberately, to write an historical drama without the conventional romantic sub-plot. He remarked in 1829 in reference to his Boris Godunov: “A tragedy without love has appealed to my imagination.” In this, he was probably following the advice of Voltaire who railed against “love intrigues, often foreign to the subject, and so often debased by idle buffooneries.” And with his drama Orestes, the French playwright made the following claim: “I have at least given my countrymen some idea of a tragedy without love, without confidants, and without episodes” (italics mine). The romantic sub-plot, in Voltaire’s view, detracted from the gravitas of the main political/military plot-line. He therefore argued for a clear separation of romance and politics. But while Voltaire simply omits a romantic sub-plot, Pushkin “lays bare” his rejection of it within Boris Godunov, thereby critically engaging the tradition. Furthermore, his inclusion of “buffooneries” in his drama and his indebtedness to Shakespeare, whom Voltaire considered “a barbarian,” suggest that Pushkin may have had somewhat different motives in excising romance than did Voltaire.
In a 1997 essay for a pre-bicentennial exhibition of Pushkiniana in Paris, Hélène Henry noted the irony of Aleksandr Pushkin’s situation: nicknamed “le Français” when he was at school, Pushkin never set foot on French soil. What’s more, his debt to French philosophy and poetry did little to enhance his reputation in the country of Voltaire and André Chénier. “In current opinion,” writes Henry, “nothing could come from Russia but ‘exotic’ objects, marked by local color and folklore: tales and legends, popular refrains, ‘Muscovite songs of old times’, and other ‘verses of moujiks’, as Mérimée expressed it.” When the French read Pushkin, it was the fantastic elements of “Ruslan and Liudmila” and the exotic locale of “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai” which drew their attention.