Tragedy and Ethical Evaluation in Pushkin's «Poltava»

Ivan Eubanks*


     Alexander Pushkin’s Poltava concludes with a paean to the subtle traces of human lives a century after their ends. All that “goes on four feet, two feet and three feet … and is most feeble when it walks on four” passes to dust, thereafter existing in this world only as a shade of past events, per­haps exerting a presence in history or legend and then, possibly, in myth.[1] The barely discernible remains of the Swedish king’s camp at Bender, three steps descending into the belly of the earth, say little about his wor­thiness as Peter’s foe. The field at Poltava and its trees silently memorial­ize the warriors who fought and died in the battle. A monument built by the labor of hands commemorates the two “martyrs,” Colonel Iskra and the Judge General Kochubei, concealing the deleterious longing for ven­geance against Mazepa that motivated their loyalty to Russia. As for the Hetman himself, the final stanza of Poltava claims that:

Забыт Мазепа с давних пор;
Лишь в торжествующей святыне
Раз в год анафемой доныне,
Грозя, гремит о нем собор.

Mazepa had long been forgotten;
Only during solemnities on holy ground,
Annually unto this day, menacing,
The cathedral thunders anathema on him.[2]

The church renews its curse on the Hetman each year to condemn his betrayal of Russia, not his appalling mistreatment and ultimate abandonment of Maria. Her place in cultural memory resembles Mazepa’s; she is paradoxically both forgotten (lost in “impenetrable darkness”) and remembered only in songs about a “sinful maiden” occasionally sung by a blind, aged rhapsodist.

     The theme of memory at the poem’s conclusion discloses the centripe­tal force of a tragedy that draws the individuals in its orbit toward the dis­integration of identity. Russia as a nation, however, benefits from their suffering and loss. Pushkin’s preface to Poltava remarks that Russia rose into modernity and established itself as a world power after the battle, while his narrator claims that one hundred years later nothing remains of the poem’s heroes except an allegorical sum of moral judgments. These summaries explain the characters’ roles in the intrigues leading up to the decisive engagement, and they reflect the narrator’s general tendency to cast political allegiances and shifting loyalties as a struggle of good vs. evil. The five dramatic dialogues embedded in Poltava contrast the narra­tor’s rhetoric and intensify the poem’s tragic gravity by providing more complex ethical conflicts. In those scenes the narrator falls silent and the interlocutors speak for themselves, without the filter of an ideologically charged lens, expressing motivations that do not fit securely within their reduction to the hagiographic, demonological and poetic symbols evoked in the poem’s closing lines.

     Discourse between the opinionated narrative voice in Poltava and the characters’ direct speeches (particularly, but not exclusively, in the dra­matic dialogues) reveals a profound dilemma, in which civic duty clashes with morality. The narrator, who does not always represent Pushkin’s own views, considers loyalty to Russia the epitome of virtue and accord­ingly evaluates the characters through the refraction of national history, which he relates in a mostly factual but biased manner. He thereby serves as a chorus in relation to the dialogues, which, along with all but two of the monologues, depict the heroes struggling with a discordance of moral versus civic correctness. Consequentially, the very nature of civic cor­rectness appears questionable and beyond clear definition, while the char­acters’ personal interactions set strong examples for morality and immorality.

     Traditional wisdom suggests that Pushkin’s historical novella in verse consists of two distinct storylines—one political, historical, or epic and the other private, romantic, or domestic. Such readings focus on Mazepa’s schemes prior to the battle, on the one hand, and his relationship with Maria, on the other. Faddei Bulgarin, in his 1829 review of Poltava, planted the seeds for this trend, accusing Pushkin not only of grossly dis­torting history but also of fabricating a romance that was implausible due to the lovers’ age difference.[3] Roughly a decade later, Vissarion Belinsky developed Bulgarin’s criticisms in his “Seventh Essay on Pushkin’s Works,” arguing that the love affair is not implausible but does inflict a lack of unity on Poltava, which wavers between a romance and an epic that should have concentrated more on Peter the Great’s exploits.[4] Later critics and scholars reiterate Belinsky’s reading in their own more sophis­ticated analyses of Poltava as a romantic, realistic, or heroic narrative poem.[5]

     Weaving domesticities with political contests and threats to national unity should not be viewed as an anomaly. It is a common trait in trage­dies, ancient and modern. The admixture of private and public crises per­meates works such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Theban plays (Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus), and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, King Lear, Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth. The dual plot-lines of romance and revolt were all but requisite for French Neoclassical trag­edy.[6] Pushkin follows these traditions and others originating in tragedy with his Poltava, in which spiritual blindness is the ultimate touchstone for sin and identity depends partially on cultural memory and one’s status in society.[7]

     Maria’s fate encapsulates the core of Pushkin’s tragedy. The first stan­zas of Poltava outline the fundamental constituents of who she is: her position in society, her reputation, and her psyche. As the story progresses the heroine loses her family, her esteem, her beloved, and finally her mind. The very last lines of the poem describe her almost non-existent place in cultural memory.[8] Maria’s loss of all that defined who she was, like Oedipus’ discovery of his own identity, follows a trajectory from a state of moral blindness, when she cannot see the Hetman’s evil nature, to a disjunction of her perception from the material world, a state of mental blindness. In the final dialogue of Poltava—a recognition scene similar to that in which Shakespeare’s Lear mistakes Cordelia for a ghost but finally realizes she was his dutiful, loving daughter—Maria ceases to see Mazepa as her lover and senses the wickedness in the old man standing before her. She can perceive what is most important only after her fade into madness. At this moment the Hetman abandons her, and she vanishes into darkness.

     Although blindness, figuratively speaking, afflicts everyone in the poem, including Peter the Great, none suffer from it more than Maria. Nevertheless, her behavior suggests a system of values more closely aligned with moral goodness than that of any other character. In the spirit of Antigone, Maria values personal love over all else, including civic duty. Maria’s hamartia is, therefore, a “missing of the mark” in the purest sense, devoid of malice and ill intent but disobedient and short-sighted. She naively succumbs to temptation without foreseeing the inevitable ill consequences, and thus she learns the difference between good and evil.

     Maria’s tragedy in Poltava creates an evaluative plane that clashes with the narrator’s moralizing rhetoric, and it deserves special attention because it constitutes Pushkin’s most radical alteration of history in the poem. A fictional and wholly tragic being from the opening lines of Poltava until she loses her sanity, Maria was little more than a footnote in history. Yet Pushkin begins and ends his poem with her. The first stanza lists all of the treasures less dear to Kochubei than his daughter Maria. In the au­thor’s third annotation to the text, which comes at the end of that stanza, Pushkin informs us that “Kochubei had several daughters; one of them was married to Obidovskii, Mazepa’s nephew. She, whom we here recall, was named Matryona.”[9] In the next note, which marks the end of the second stanza, a twenty-five line blazon to Maria, the poet tells us that “Mazepa actually did propose to his goddaughter, but he was refused.”[10]

     The author’s third and fourth annotations indicate where Poltava be­gins to deviate from history. Pushkin changes the name Matryona (Motrya in Ukrainian) to Maria, and he transforms Mazepa’s brief courtship into a fictional, tragic romance.[11] In both the poem and in history, Maria’s/ Motrya’s parents denied the Hetman’s proposed marriage. In history, Ma­zepa sent Motrya home immediately when she attempted to elope. This happened in 1704. Pushkin’s Mazepa keeps his goddaughter as a mistress and has her living in his castle until 1708, when Kochubei’s execution takes place.[12]

     Every significant deviation from history in Poltava plays some part in Pushkin’s fictionalization of Maria and her fate, either happening in the dialogues themselves or serving to fuse her story with the historical framework of the Great Northern War. The five embedded dialogues wherein Maria’s tragedy unravels dominate the fictional aspect of the poem. The characters who have little or no contact with Maria not only act in greater accordance with history than those who do, but they also play less prominent roles in the fictional portions of Poltava.[13]

     In Pushkin’s poem, Maria’s misguided pursuit of unsanctioned passion for her godfather, Mazepa, compels her father to inform Peter I of the Het­man’s plans to shift his allegiance to Charles XII. In history, Kochubei did denounce Mazepa, but not as a means of exacting revenge on him for keep­ing his daughter as a mistress, because the Hetman did not do so.[14] Never­theless, the narrator, who judges everyone according to the outcome of history, characterizes the Judge General as a visionary who deserves an everlasting monument to his honor for being loyal to Russia. By the same token, the narrated portions of Poltava characterize the Hetman as a trai­tor to his nation because of his blindly ambitious decision to support Swe­den against Russia. Neither Kochubei nor Mazepa, however, are Russians. Both are Zaporozhian Cossacks, and in the dramatic dialogues Mazepa and Maria alike speak as if their homeland is Ukraine.

     In their own speeches, either with or about Maria, both Kochubei and Mazepa undermine the narrator’s system of values. The welfare of Russia does not motivate the Judge General, but the Hetman does seek autonomy for his own people, who are not Russians. In response to his poem’s earli­est critics, who attacked it for, among other things, its depiction of the Hetman, Pushkin claims that “Mazepa acts, in my poem, precisely as in history, and his speeches clarify his historical character.”[15] Aside from his relationship with Maria, Pushkin’s Mazepa for the most part does act in accordance with history. Both Pushkin’s villain and the historical Ivan Mazepa negotiated an alliance with Charles XII of Sweden and Stanisław Leszczyński of Poland, executed Kochubei for informing Peter I of this, feigned illness to delay further communications with the tsar, supported Sweden in the battle of Poltava, and afterward fled with Charles and his army.[16] In Poltava, the Hetman’s “speeches clarify his historical charac­ter” because, contrary to the narrator’s interpretation of him, they reveal that he sees himself as a national leader, not a subordinate of the Russian tsar. He shifts allegiances for the purpose of setting up a Ukrainian state independent from Russia, thereby serving what he thinks are the best in­terests of his country. Mazepa admits that he does so in part to avenge an insult, but this motivation suggests that he sees himself as an equal, not a vassal, of Peter I.

     The narrator in Poltava clearly sees Mazepa and Kochubei as subjects of the tsar and therefore criticizes or praises them accordingly. The civic judgments that the narrator constantly issues, however, depend not only on an imperialist attitude toward Ukraine but also on the notion that Rus­sia was somehow “right,” that it was her destiny to defeat Sweden and be­come a prominent world power under Peter I, and that those who did not see this were “wrong.” In order to verify this position, the narrator ex­presses the privileged vantage point of one who knows what, for the poem’s characters, happens in the future. For example, one acquainted with the history of the Great Northern War, such as the narrator, knows that Mazepa’s plans to support Charles will end in disaster, while the Het­man himself obviously does not realize this until the eve of the battle. 

     All of the major characters share the tragic flaw of inhibited vision, or the inability to see the correct course of action to take. The narrator, how­ever, transfers the equation of sin and blindness, along with its moral im­plications, into the context of political allegiances, whereas the dramatic dialogues give us a chance to judge characters according to their own words and personal interactions. At the same time, the narrator faithfully provides the dialogues with “off-stage” historical context, despite his bom­bastic commentaries. Pushkin similarly uses third-person narration as an elaborate chorus surrounding dramatic dialogue in two other narrative poems: Gypsies (1824) and Angelo (1831). V. M. Zhirmunsky points out that in the earlier work:

Narrative passages (223 lines) are arranged here at the beginning of the poem (exposition), in the concluding scenes, and in transi­tional passages (“Two years went by…”). The rest of the story con­sists of a series of dramatic scenes, sometimes with a few introduc­tory lines defining the situation. Thus a fundamental part of the action passes before us in a dramatically palpable form, not as a story in third person.… Some dialogues have purely dramatic characteristics, depicting essential moments in the development of the plot: particularly, for example, the conversation between Zem­fira, Aleko, and the old man near the child’s cradle, when Zemfira lets her husband know that she loves another (“The old man basked in the vernal sun…”), or the scene of the murder.[17]

As in the Gypsies (1824), the dramatic dialogues in Angelo (1831)show us the most pivotal moments in the story. One could say the same for Pol­tava, as far as the fictional scenes go, but it presents a somewhat more complex plot because it is historical fiction; as such, a number of key events from history play into the story through the voice of the third-person narrator. All three poems, however, focus on a conflict between one’s duty to society and one’s personal passions, be they jealousy, love, vengeance, ambition, or carnal desire, and the dramatic dialogues occur precisely at moments crucial to an ethical evaluation of the interlocutors.[18] By casting these moral dilemmas in free-standing dialogues, Pushkin lib­erates readers from the filter of an idiosyncratic and, in Poltava, contro­versial narrative voice, allowing them to judge the characters for themselves.

     The narrator in Poltava is by far more opinionated than those in either Gypsies or Angelo, and he seems to have a greater interest in rein­forcing his opinion by constantly interpreting the dramatic dialogues be­fore and after they occur. To say the least, the narrator’s rhetorically effective commentaries themselves are not indisputable. In their speeches, the characters do not necessarily verify or contradict his black-and-white valuations. By drawing on historically documented symbols in the final lines—Kochubei’s tomb, the curse on Mazepa, his songs about Maria—the narrator attempts to utter the final word concerning the heroes of the tragedy, to reduce the individuals to images of a small portion of their true natures. In doing so he establishes his own ideological positions rather than truly helping us to understand the people who took part in the events he describes.

     Paul Debreczeny, in “Narrative Voices in Pushkin’s Poltava,” goes so far as to argue for three distinct ideological identities in the poem’s narra­tion: an Imperialist Russian Court Historian; an authorial persona who chose the epigraph and wrote the dedication; and a lyric poet with an af­finity for folk language. He suggests that Pushkin thereby accommodates several different views of Mazepa in the poem by means of shifting narra­tive voices and contradictory annotations.[19] To be sure, the narrator at times renders faithful accounts of events as they happened in history, while at other times he imposes a nationalistic interpretation on them. He also seems to shift opinions and contradict himself, as if the chorus sur­rounding Maria’s tragedy consisted of multiple voices that do not always agree or speak in unison.[20] Whether or not one agrees with Debreczeny, the shifts in the poem’s narrative voice should discourage us from conflat­ing it with Pushkin’s own views. The poet, for example, knew that Mazepa had neither “long been forgotten” nor remembered solely in anathema, yet the narrator nevertheless makes this claim at the poem’s conclusion.[21] Also, the narrated passages at times express the perspectives of a given society as a whole, such as the lines describing Maria’s reputation or gen­eral Cossack sentiments toward Mazepa and the war.

     The chorus in Attic tragedy generally functions in the same way, taking on the multiple duties of representing a collective opinion, narrat­ing and summarizing events that did not happen on stage, particularly bloodshed, analyzing the story and its heroes, and interacting both with fictional characters and the real audience. In Oedipus Rex, for example, the king’s quest to discover the cause of the plague on Thebes transforms into a personal investigation of his own identity, which he carries out pub­licly, before the chorus of Theban citizens, who offers remarks and inter­pretations. Thus the chorus mediates between the audience, the tragic hero and the polis, or the society affected by his actions and his fate. At one point, when Oedipus and Tiresias hurl accusations at one another, the chorus intervenes, interpreting the words of each as expressions of exces­sive anger and chiding them both.[22] In Poltava, historical events and bloodshed only occur in the narrated passages while the dialogues reflect the characters’ inner psyches during intersticial scenes; the narrator ad­dresses his readership from a point in time when the Great Northern War had become part of national history, and yet he also addresses the char­acters and has access to moments in their lives that no historical record does; and finally, he offers readers his own analysis of the story.

     In the passages preceding the first embedded dialogue, for example, the narrator casts Maria as a hapless, naïve victim of the worldly, wicked serpent Mazepa. “Mariia, bednaia Mariia” (Maria, poor Maria), the penul­timate stanza of Canto One laments:

Краса черкасских дочерей!
Не знаешь ты, какого змия
Ласкаешь на груди своей.

Beauty of Circassian daughters,
You don't know the serpent you caress,
Held against your bosom.[23]

This apostrophe to the heroine summarizes her romance with the Hetman in symbolic terms that equate it with the myth of the Fall.[24] Because she does not know the “serpent” for who he is, Mazepa manages to tempt Maria with the fruit of passion. In her blindness to evil she succumbs. “Svoimi chudnymi ochami” (With his enchanting eyes), the chorus continues:

Тебя старик заворожил,
Своими тихими речами
В тебе он совесть усыпил;
Ты на него с благоговеньем
Возводишь ослепленный взор,
Его лелеешь умиленьем—
Тебе приятен твой позор,
Ты им, в безумном упоенье,
Как целомудрием горда—
Ты прелесть нежную стыда
В своем утратила паденье.

The old man cast a spell on you,
With his gentle speeches
He lulled your conscience to sleep;
You raise your blinded gaze
To look on him with reverence,
You coddle him with affection—
You find your disgrace pleasant,
You, in your senseless rapture,
Are proud of it, as if it were chastity—
You lost the tender charm of shame
In your fall...[25]

This stanza sets up the first of the dramatic dialogues in Poltava, which follows at the beginning of Canto Two, as a temptation scene. In the myth­ical context of Eden, Eve’s original sin is not necessarily malicious, but disobedient and short-sighted. Thus the stanza quoted above characterizes Maria as sinful but not evil in and of herself as it prepares us for the en­suing dialogue. Sophocles uses the chorus for a similar effect in Antigone, characterizing his heroine in lines 944–87 according to a traditional myth. Robert Fagles’ translation of this apostrophe to Antigone begins:

Danaë, Danaë—
Even she endured a fate like yours,
In all her lovely strength she traded
The light of day for the bolted brazen vault.[26]

     This particular speech rectifies an exchange between the chorus and heroine that occurs some 150 lines earlier, in which the chorus objects to Antigone’s comparison of herself to Niobe.[27] Like the chorus in Antigone, which not only offers an interpretation of the heroine that contradicts her own speech but also looks ahead to the play’s conclusion by evoking the image of Danaë’s “brazen vault,” Pushkin’s choral narrator foreshadows Maria’s fate by constructing an allegory of the Eden myth: as a result of her fall, Maria shall languish in her consequential knowledge of evil, which equals blindness to what is good, because hers is the original sin of spiritual blindness.

     In keeping with the choral odes in Attic tragedies, which did at times represent multiple people, sometimes even consisting of dissenting voices, as in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Pushkin’s narrator turns on itself, as if shifting from one perspective to another. Thus the following stanza recti­fies judgment of Maria, contextualizing her submission to temptation. “Chto styd Marii? chto molva?” [What’s shame to Maria? What are rumors], when she has her beloved by her side? Why care what others say or think:

Когда с ней гетман забывает
Судьбы своей и труд и шум,
Иль тайны смелых, грозных дум
Ей, деве робкой, открывает?

When with her, the Hetman forgets
The noise and labor of his lot,
Or reveals the secrets of his bold,
Grim thoughts to her, a timid girl?[28]

     Here the narrator offers a more stern interpretation of Maria’s motiva­tions. No longer the “poor” victim of a sorcerer-serpent or an innocent girl whose conscience an old man lulled to sleep with magic spells, Maria now seems to have cared nothing for shame or rumor in the first place. She feels flattered by the fact that she can distract the Hetman from his con­cerns with the affairs of state; she is attracted to his power. This shift in the narrator’s interpretation of Maria presents a paradox. Does she suc­cumb to evil because she “does not know the serpent she nurtures,” or be­cause she feels attracted to its very nature in the first place?

     Maria’s own speeches suggest neither. In her dialogue with Mazepa she seems to love him genuinely. She hardly acts as if under a spell when she questions the Hetman about Princess Dul´skaia. Maria excitedly offers to support and even die for Mazepa’s plot to shift allegiances, because she interprets it as a plan to establish him as tsar of an autonomous Ukraine. Disregarding the narrator’s description of Mazepa as a charming sorcerer, we might assume that Maria does not, in other words, consider his plans treasonous toward his native land. Otherwise, she herself is treasonous, but that does not fit with her personality throughout the poem.

     Mazepa discloses his ambitions to Maria precisely when she grows suspicious of Princess Dul´skaia:

Готово всё:  в переговорах
Со мною оба короля;
И скоро в смутах, в бранных спорах,
Быть может, трон воздвигну я.
Друзей надежных я имею:
Княгиня Дульская и с нею
Мой езуит, да нищий сей...

Now all is ready: I have both
The kings  negotiating with me;
And in the bloody chaos of
Strife I, perhaps, will ascend to the throne.
I have reliable adherents:
The Princess Dul´skaia is one,
My Jesuit, and that beggar, too.[29]

We have no reason to assume that Mazepa changes the conversation in order to evade Maria’s questions about Dul´skaia. The narrator implies that he manipulates Maria’s awe for his power in preparation to broach a far graver subject—that of Kochubei’s impending beheading. Maria at this point thinks that the brunt of her father’s wrath has fallen on herself, and she does not know that he is imprisoned in the very castle where she lives. The narrator, however, has already disclosed Mazepa’s plans to execute Kochubei. In light of this fact, as well as the serpent motif applied to Ma­zepa just prior to this dialogue, the following inquisition should strike readers as an act of incredible cruelty:

Маз.: Скажи: отец или супруг
Тебе дороже?

Мария:             Милый друг,
К чему вопрос такой? тревожит
Меня напрасно он. Семью
Стараюсь я забыть мою.
Я стала ей в позор; быть может
(Какая страшная мечта!),
Моим отцом я проклята,
А за кого?

Маз.:          Так я дороже
Тебе отца? Молчишь...

Мария:                                 О боже!

Маз.: Что ж? отвечай.

Мария:                               Реши ты сам.

Маз.: Послушай: если было б нам,
Ему иль мне, погибнуть надо
А ты бы нам судьей была,
Кого б ты в жертву принесла,
Кому бы ты была ограда?

Мария: Ах, полно! сердце не смущай!
Ты искуситель.

Маз.:                     Отвечай!

Мария: Ты бледен; речь твоя сурова...
О, не сердись! Всем, всем готова
Тебе я жертвовать, поверь;
Но страшны мне слова такие.

Маз.:        Помни же, Мария,
Что ты сказала мне теперь.

.: Tell me: is your father or your spouse
More dear to you?

Maria:                      My dear,
Why ask such a question? It vexes
Me needlessly. I’m trying to
Forget about my family.
I’ve brought disgrace on them, perhaps
(Oh, what a horrible dream!)
My father has cursed me,
And for whom?

Maz.:                  So I’m more precious
To you than your father? You’re silent…

Maria:                                                               Oh god!

Maz.: What is it? Answer.

Maria:                                  Decide for yourself.

Maz.: Now listen: were it to happen that we,
He or I, had to perish,
And you were to be our judge,
Whom would you choose to sacrifice,
And whom would you shield?

Maria: Enough! Don’t wrench my heart
Like that! You are a tempter.

Maz.:                                            Answer!

Maria: You’re pale; your words are harsh…
Oh, don’t be angry! All—I’m prepared
To sacrifice all for you, believe me;
Such words as these are terrifying.

Maz.: Remember that, Maria,
What you told me just now.[30]

     The narrator informs us before this dialogue that Mazepa does not propose a hypothetical situation—the Hetman has already scheduled Kochubei’s execution for the following day. What remains unclear, how­ever, is why the Hetman asks Maria whom she would rather lose. Later, in the third dramatic dialogue, Maria’s mother suggests that she could in fact convince her lover to call off the execution. The narrator implies that Mazepa wants to torture Maria or place some share of responsibility for his crimes on her. If, however, we disregard the narrator’s rhetoric (e.g., “Mazepa is a serpent”) and think only of facts (e.g., “Mazepa executes Kochubei”), we might interpret the Hetman as a more complex, conflicted character.

     The predicament in which Mazepa finds himself—the need to execute Kochubei in order to achieve his goal of liberating Ukraine from Russia and setting himself up as tsar—did not come about solely by his own doing. It partially reflects the will of his people. In one of the numerous passages where the narrator falls silent to allow direct speech, we hear Zaporozhian Cossacks grumbling about fighting in foreign lands against a foe they do not consider theirs:

«Что ж гетман? – юноши твердили,
Он изнемог; он слишком стар;
Труды и годы угасили
В нем прежний, деятельный жар.
Зачем дрожащею рукою
Еще он носит булаву?
На ненавистную Москву!
Когда бы старый Дорошенко,
Иль Самойлович молодой,
Иль наш Палей, иль Гордеенко
Владели силой войсковой,
Тогда б в снегах чужбины дальной
Не погибали казаки
И Малороссии печальной
Овобождались уж полки».

“What’s with the Hetman?”
“He’s incapacitated, old;
His flame has waned in passing seasons,
Excessive labors leave him cold.
Why should hands that tremble like his
Still hold the Hetman’s staff and mace?
Now’s the time for us to assail
Oppressive Moscow’s walls!
If old Doroshenko,
Or the young Samoilovich,
Or our Paley, or Gordeenko
Controlled our military forces,
Then Cossacks wouldn’t have to die
Face down in snow, in foreign lands,
And all their troops already would
Have liberated Little Russia.”[31]

As a leader who was, at least in principle, democratically elected, the Het­man must pursue the best interests of the people he represents.[32] Of course his personal ambitions come into play, but one cannot discount the popular voice just because it agrees with him. Kochubei himself bears some responsibility as well, especially since he denounced the Hetman out of a desire to punish him rather than out of loyalty to Russia or any na­tion. Finally, Maria’s own role in bringing about the catastrophe remains open.

     Early the morning after Orlik has tortured Kochubei, Maria’s mother sneaks into Mazepa’s castle to warn her daughter of the impending exe­cution. Whether or not Maria could have prevented her father’s death by choosing to sacrifice Mazepa, the question of responsibility again comes into the third dramatic dialogue. In Canto One, Maria’s mother had urged Kochubei to denounce Mazepa, but now she prompts her daughter to supplication:

Беги, пади к его ногам,
Спаси отца, будь ангел нам:
Твой взгляд злодеям руки свяжет,
Ты можешь их топор отвесть.
Рвись, требуй—гетман не откажет:
Ты для него забыла честь,
Родных и Бога.

Run, fall at his feet!
Deliver your father, be our angel!
Your gaze will bind the villains’ hands,
You can deflect them from the axe.
Hurry, demand—the Hetman won’t refuse:
For him you have forgotten honor,
Your family, and God.[33]

Maria’s mother thrusts the same problem on her that Mazepa had in the first dramatic dialogue: whom would she rather lose? Her mother at­tempts to move her with guilt, suggesting that she would put her lover be­fore her father. Eight lines prior to the passage quoted above, she says:

Я вижу: скорбную семью
Ты отвергаешь для Мазепы;
Тебя я сонну застаю,
Когда свершают суд свирепый,
Когда читают приговор,
Когда готов отцу топор.

I see: you’ll scorn
Your grieved family for Mazepa;
I find you here slumbering
When they pass cruel judgment,
When the sentence is being read,
When an axe is readied for your father’s head.[34]

     Maria’s mother is either desperate and hopeless, or she actually be­lieves that Mazepa will call off the execution at his lover’s request. Be­cause the narrator does not filter this scene, we can read it as we will, and our interpretation should directly impact our evaluation of the Hetman. Furthermore, in placing responsibility for Kochubei’s death on her, claim­ing that his life is in her hands, Maria’s mother treats her as harshly as Mazepa himself does. The burden of guilt contributes to Maria’s insanity, and her madness begins in this very scene. Thus she resembles Oedipus, who blinds himself upon learning his own identity, that of his parents, and the crimes he committed against them and Thebes, or Shakespeare’s Lear, who goes mad when he realizes he has exiled those who love him, Kent and Cordelia, and split his kingdom between his opportunistic elder daughters.

     Maria’s indirect role in the catastrophe brings to bear the ethical di­lemma. She acts out of love. However inappropriate her passion, it is surely not a worse sin than seeking vengeance or political ambition at any cost, but her deeds and words do provide a catalyst for the tragic events to follow. Neither wicked nor malicious, Maria represents the purest defi­nition of sin in the poem. Sin is the blindness of mortality, such as that which afflicted Oedipus. Maria simply does not know who her “spouse” truly is, until she has lost her mind. She knows neither of his political plots nor his mercilessness when she decides to elope. And sin results from moral blindness even in the absence of malice, although destiny can turn it toward good or evil. Maria brings disgrace on her family, and her ac­tions spur Kochubei to ensure his own death by denouncing Mazepa, but at the same time her shame brings greater honor to her family in the long run—Kochubei ends up a hero in Peter’s eyes. One can see this, however, only in retrospect, which both history and the poem’s narrator provide.

     The lens of history provides a view wide enough to show how each person’s decisions fit into a machine of events that becomes Russia’s ve­hicle for its foreordained eminence in Europe.[35]Pushkin’s preface to Pol­tava encourages such a reading. Furthermore, the narrator depicts certain characters, such as Mazepa, Maria, and the King of Sweden, as blind or unaware, whereas others, such as Kochubei and the tsar, have or gain vi­sion. His valuations depend on his nationalist sentiments and the outcome of history. Kochubei, for example, denounces Mazepa in order to punish him for keeping his daughter as a mistress. The Judge General wants ven­geance and blood, which one can hardly say are “good” desires, yet the narrator all but canonizes him as a saint for having the foresight to cast his lot with the tsar of Russia.

     The narrator’s ethical evaluations establish a series of contrasts, an “evil twin motif,” in which figures such as Peter I and Charles XII, Iskra and Orlik, Voinarovsky and Palei, or Mazepa and Kochubei reflect the positive or negative qualities of one another. Peter therefore appears as the hero of destiny, even though he does succumb to Mazepa’s wiles in the business of Kochubei’s execution, while Charles suffers from hubris. Iskra proves his devotion to the right cause, while Orlik’s greed and cruelty lead him to his fate of permanent exile. Mazepa, blindly arrogant, vengeful, and insatiably hungry for power, destroys Kochubei, whose vision and loy­alty earn him and his family everlasting honor. None of these juxtaposi­tions, however, define the characters’ true moral qualities because the narrator’s ethical evaluations of them depend entirely on whether they cast their lot on the side of victory or defeat.

     The narrated scenes of Poltava therefore attach an epithet of evil to the Hetman, describing him as an archetypically wicked force, and his sig­nificance as such equals his importance as a controversial historical icon. The tragedy as a whole, however, provides a less categorical view of Ma­zepa, thus “clarifying his historical character.” The result is a sympathetic devil—a figure who may be evil and cruel, but whose greatest fault is be­ing a rebel who cannot see the futility of his cause or the inevitable tri­umph of the authorities he seeks to undermine. Kochubei’s development in the narrative forms the opposite pattern. History verifies his written devo­tion to Russia (in the form of a denunciation of Mazepa), for which the tsar honors his memory, and because of which the narrator treats him as a visionary. Aside from the honor he achieved through his political loyalties, however, one can hardly perceive him as “good.”

     Kochubei, in fact, rebels against Mazepa in much the same and way and for the same reasons as the Hetman betrays Peter. The Judge Gen­eral had been friends with Mazepa for a long time, knowing his treacher­ous nature, but did not denounce him to the tsar until he felt insulted by him. In the Hetman’s eyes Kochubei is an aged man who has reached the summit of his powers, and:

Он сам, надменный вольнодумец
Сам точит на себя топор.
Куда бежит, зажавши вежды?
На чем он основал надежды?

He, himself, the proud rebel, he brought
The axe upon his neck himself.
With eyelids shut he bolted. Why?
What were his hopes based on?[36]

In Canto Three, however, Mazepa describes himself as the blind, fool­ish old man whose ambitions exceed his potential. Shortly thereafter, glory shines on the Judge General’s grave, marking it as a testament to the triumph of destiny.

     Notwithstanding the narrator’s praise of one and condemnation of the other, Mazepa and Kochubei differ primarily in their political allegiances and their consequential burial (or lack thereof). Otherwise they are nearly identical. One is Maria’s father, the other her godfather. Both love her. They are high-ranking Cossacks. Each is beyond his prime in years. They bore arms together, and “Ikh koni po poliam pobedy / Skakali riadom skvoz´ ogni” (Their steeds, traversing the fields of victory, / Had galloped side by side through flames).[37] They trusted one another—Mazepa told Kochubei of his plans to form an alliance with Charles and Leszczyński, the Judge General asked the Hetman to christen his daughter. One is bound to the theme of lameness, the other is shackled.[38]Maria’s godfather, with Peter’s blessing, arranges the torture and beheading of her father, who attempts to do the same to him. Peter the Great approves the actual execution of one and orders the other’s effigy executed. The Hetman com­pels Maria to state whose life she would rather save, forcing her to express her choice, but her father gives her no choice at all.

     Kochubei’s letter to the tsar, in which he denounces the Hetman for shifting loyalties, marks his point of departure from Mazepa in the narra­tor’s evaluative paradigm. His motivation to send the letter, which he di­rectly expresses in a monologue, underscores his resemblance to the Het­man because it is identical to his rival’s reason for betraying Peter—revenge. In the fourth dramatic dialogue, Mazepa explains to Orlik that he cannot make peace with Peter because of an insult he suffered some time ago: the tsar had tweaked his mustache in public, at a feast.[39] Ma­zepa, in other words, feels equal to Peter, and this sense of equality drives him to rebellion.[40] Ambition also plays into the Hetman’s motivations, and the same goes for the Judge General.

     Kochubei gives little indication of his politics. He expresses no ideolog­ical rationale for supporting Russia. The narrator admits that the Judge General was indeed close enough to Mazepa to have knowledge of his plans to break with Peter, but he neither objected nor informed the tsar until the Hetman soiled his family’s name by keeping Maria as a mistress. Ambition certainly could have factored into Kochubei’s change of devotion (at least in history this seems to be his primary motivation). In Poltava, however, he indisputably voices vengeance as a deciding factor. He wrote a letter to the tsar as a means to punish Mazepa for a personal insult:

Скрежеща мыслит Кочубей,
Я пощажу твою обитель,
Темницу дочери моей;
Ты не истлеешь средь пожара,
Ты не издохнешь от удара
Казачей сабли. Нет, злодей,
В руках московских палачей,
В крови, при тщетных отрицаньях,
На дыбе, корчась о истязаньях,
Ты проклянешь и день и час,
Когда ты дочь крестал у нас…

Kochubei meditated, grinding his teeth—
“I’ll spare your den,
My daughter’s prison,
You won’t smolder in flames,
Of a Cossack’s saber. No, villain,
In the hands of Muscovite executioners,
Bleeding, amid your vain denials,
On the rack, trembling from torture,
You’ll curse the day and very hour
When you christened our daughter…”[41]

     Like Oedipus’ sons Eteocles and cursed Polynices, or Gloucester’s sons Edmund and Edgar in King Lear, the most significant distinctive factor between Kochubei and Mazepa in the narrator’s eyes is not morality, but legitimacy.[42] Polynices proved himself an illegitimate citizen of Thebes, having assaulted the city with an Athenian army, and so Creon forbids him the rites of the dead. Mazepa also takes the field with invading forces in an attempt to secure control of his homeland. He fails, dying shortly after the disastrous battle and never receiving an honorable burial in his native soil.[43]

     By honoring his memory and his family, the tsar legitimizes Kochu­bei’s actions, but the deed that earned his grace ironically precipitates the only moment in Poltava when Peter errs. Blinded by Mazepa’s rhetoric, the tsar approves the Judge General’s execution, mistaking his proclama­tion of the Hetman’s treachery for slander. Once he is arrested, Kochubei begins his metamorphosis in the narrator’s rhetoric from a vengeful father into a seer or martyr. In the poem’s second dramatic dialogue, however, Kochubei laments the fact that no one will avenge his death. Enduring torture, he claims that God will avenge him. Just before his execution he courageously meets his doom, and the narrator reports that he piously for­gives his transgressors.[44] The narrated portions of Poltava imply that Kochubei lost his life voicing truths that no one else, not even Peter, could see, but as far as Maria’s fate is concerned he gave his life to punish her beloved.

     Good and evil, as they are defined in the narrated portions of Poltava, neutralize one another in Pushkin’s tragic depiction of Maria. She escapes the necessary classification of allegiance to either Sweden or Russia. She has no evil twin. Motivated by passion to abandon her beloved family’s home, selfishly devoting herself to her lover, Maria consequently endures the death of her father and her godfather’s/husband’s exile. She has no schemes or calculations to evaluate, only the emotions that guide her. Thus Pushkin’s fictionalization of her tragedy not only provides a counter­point to his narrator’s harsh rhetoric, but it also showshow her actions in­advertently affect the outcome of major political events.

     The polarization of ethical evaluations underscores the narrator’s in­terpretations of Mazepa and Kochubei. While this polarization may inform our reading of the dramatic scenes, the dialogues themselves indicate its subjectivity. The subjective assignation of right and wrong in Poltava em­anates from a retrospective view of history, which has shown us that the tsar of Russia brought his nation into its foreordained greatness. In fact, in his introduction to Poltava, Pushkin writes:

The battle of Poltava is one of the most important and most fortunate events of Peter the Great’s reign. It relieved him of a dangerous enemy, established Russian sovereignty in the south, secured our new presence in the north, and proved to the govern­ment the success and necessity of the reforms instituted by the tsar.
     The Swedish king’s error has passed into proverb. He has been reproached for his carelessness; his march on Ukraine has been characterized as irrational. It is impossible to please the critics, particularly after failure.[45]

This retrospective view turns Pushkin’s juxtaposition of Peter I with Charles XII into a basis for positive and negative valuations throughout the poem. Because destiny favored Peter in the war, those who support him are “right.” Charles and his followers, however, stumble in the blind­ness of hubris; they attempt to control the outcome of history, to defy the will of destiny, and so they are “wrong.” In this sense, Maria is both right and wrong, because she compels her father to join with the Russians and encourages her lover to support the Swedes. Through their interactions with her, both Mazepa and Kochubei reveal similar complexity, whereas Peter and Charles, who do not interact with the heroine, remain firmly aligned with the narrator’s categorizations of positive or negative.

     The virtues of Peter the Great illuminate the shortcomings of Charles XII, and vice versa. Although each of the monarchs represents a powerful European nation, one has reached the summit of his powers while the other stands on the verge of greatness. When the two meet in battle:

Выходит Петр. Его глаза
Сияют. Лик его ужасен.
Движенья быстры. Он прекрасен,
Он весь, как божия гроза. Идет…

Peter comes forth. His eyes
Blaze. His face provokes awe.
His movements are swift. He is magnificent,
In every aspect like divine thunder. He walks…[46]

[… on his own two feet. But then]:

…перед синими рядами
Своих воинственных дружин,
Несомый верными слугами,
В качалке, бледен, недвижим,
Страдая раной, Карл явился.

…before the cobalt ranks
Of his martial retinue,
Born forth by loyal servants,
Upon a litter, pale, unmoving,
Suffering from his wound, Charles appeared.[47]

And he appears “most feeble” as he goes “on four” feet, for even those feet are not his own. Being carried on a litter, Charles was most likely sup­ported by two people, with a total of four feet, and hence the riddle of the Sphinx, central to the Oedipus myth, manifests completely in Poltava, for Mazepa carries a staff—also akin to Lucifer’s cane, which he uses because his leg was wounded when he was cast out of heaven.[48]

     The narrator states that “Kazalos´, Karla privodil / Zhelannyi boi v nedoumen´e…” (It seemed as if the battle Charles desired / Had led him into a quandary…) The narrator’s derisive tone responds to the Swedish king’s reputation for martial prowess; and “Vdrug slabym maniem ruki / Na russkikh dvinul on polki” (Suddenly with a weak wave of his hand / He moved his troops against the Russians).[49] The themes of lameness and youth merge in Charles, who moves on four legs, and thus they represent an anatomy of hubris. His childish overestimation of himself is glaringly obvious in light of Peter’s aura of true confidence, which reaches a magni­tude that can only be achieved by one who is right. Charles was a vain vo­tary of fate, but Peter performs the will of destiny.

     Lameness thereby coincides with blind arrogance in Charles. It also amalgamates with wickedness, as Mazepa, the negative pole of evil in the narrator’s rhetoric, feigns illness when Peter discovers his treachery. Even his own people perceive him as old and lame; young Cossacks grumble: “Zachem drozhashcheiu rukoiu / Eshche on nosit bulavu” (Why does he still hold / The Hetman’s mace with trembling hands?). Because like his staff it is a metonymic vessel of his power:

Но старость ходить осторожно
И подозрительно глядит…
… Думы в ней,
Плоды подавленных страстей,
Лежат погружены глубоко,
И замысел давнишних дней,
Быть может, зреет одиноко.

[For] old age treads with caution,
And prudently it eyes each step…
… In age, contemplations,
The fruits of contained passions,
Repose submerged beneath the depths,
And a scheme from long past days
Can perhaps ripen on its own.[50]

Mazepa’s office is the vehicle by which he moves in his quest to establish himself as tsar of a united Ukraine, liberated from the Russian protec­torate. In other words, he moves on three legs, as his staff symbolizes the power he has gained through the experience that comes with age. The vestments of his office lend him the wicked charm with which he attracts Maria, who:

… неженскою душой
Она любила конный строй,
И бранный звон литавр, и клики
Пред бунчуком и булавой
Малороссийского владыки…

… with a not so feminine spirit
Loved cavalry formations,
The martial beat of kettledrums, and salutes
To the mace and staff
Of Little Russia’s sovereign…[51]

She blindly encourages his ambitions and promises to die with him on the chopping block should he fail to achieve them. As the narrator would have it, the Hetman, with his inimitable charm, beguiles not only his young goddaughter, but even Peter the Great. Yet Mazepa’s treachery and per­suasion earn him permanent exile, death abroad, burial on foreign soil, and anathema. Once stripped of the vestments of power, he no longer fools Peter or Maria. The heroine in fact sees him at the end of the poem as a wicked old man and shuns him. Thus his signature Mephistophelean lameness and the staff with which he moves foreshadow his effective dam­nation and exile from his home.

     Regardless of whether Mazepa was truly a demonic villain or Kochu­bei was truly a saint, the former was mistaken and the latter correct in their respective decisions to support Sweden or Russia, according to the outcome of history. Mazepa in fact describes his decision to align himself with Charles as an “error” in his calculations. In the fourth dramatic dia­logue, he confesses:

«Нет, вижу я, нет, Орлик мой,
Поторопились мы некстати:
Расчет и дерзкий и плохой,
И в нем не будет благодати.
Пропала, видно, цель моя.
Что делать? дал я промах важный:
Ошибся в этом Карле я.
Он мальчик бойкий и отважный…»

“No, I can see it, dear Orlik,
We’ve rushed into misfortune:
Our calculations were bold and flawed,
And in them there will be no grace.
My goal has clearly failed.
What now? Fortune has been cruel:
I was mistaken in Charles.
He’s just a spry, courageous boy…”[52]

The irony of Mazepa’s fated ruin infuses his confession from the start. In the phrase “I can see it,” he indicates proof of his own blindness to Orlik, proceeding to describe what he could not see before yet could no longer deny—his inalterable demise.

     The error of following Charles in his miscalculations, such as Mazepa did while Kochubei did not, is a missing of the mark, the symptom of mor­tal blindness that caused Oedipus so much anguish. The historical retro­spective narration in Poltava seizes on this to reinforce the notion that some intangible force, such as destiny, brought Russia into greatness and therefore one need only have been “good” or “right” to have chosen the winning side. Thus he characterizes Charles’ invasion as mistake result­ing from foolish pride:

Венчанный славой бесполезной,
Отважный Карл скользил над бездной.
Он шел на древнюю Москву,
Взметая русские дружины,
Как вихорь гонит прах долины
И клонит пыльную траву.
Он шел путем, где след оставил
В дни наши новый, сильный враг
Когда падением ославил
Муж рока свой попятный шаг.

Crowned with ineffectual glory,
Audacious Charles slipped near an abyss.
He marched on ancient Moscow,
Enraging Russian principalities,
Like a whirlwind stirring ashen plains
And forcing dusty grass to bow.
He took the road where tracks were left
In our newer days by a mighty foe,
When the retreating steps of that fated man
Glorified his fall.[53]

“In our days,” when Pushkin wrote the poem and when we read it, we can perceive the omens of Sweden’s defeat. The narrator can tell us that the Swedish king and Napoleon tread upon the same ground, and they failed to accomplish analogous goals. Charles, however, could not have seen that by invading Russia he would doom himself to the fate the French General would suffer one 104 years later. We know that both of Russia’s aggressors were predestined to stumble blindly into the abyss because both of them did, and each one’s plummet confirms the inevitability of the other’s.

     One may retrospectively identify hamartia without knowing what mo­tivates a character, evaluating him according to the consequences of his actions, of which we are aware because they have already occurred. In the tragic plot one may likewise know sin and wickedness by their fruits, but passing judgment on the sinful obligates us to inquire into why they did what they do. Why, for example, does Mazepa force his lover to choose be­tween saving his life or her father’s? Would he really have sacrificed his life had Maria chosen Kochubei? And why does Maria’s mother blame her for Kochubei’s death?

     The most difficult ethical questions in Poltava emerge from the dra­matic scenes and are therefore intimately connected to Pushkin’s Maria. History does not tell us what happens to her, however inevitable the dis­semination of her psyche may be in the fictional aspects of the poem. On the contrary, the poet tells us that the shade of her memory exists only on the aged lips of a blind rhapsodist. One cannot foresee her doom through a historic lens because her story largely deviates from the historical record, but one can discern its tragic certainty in the darkness emanating from her. The dichotomy between right and wrong that reverberates from Charles’ invasion does not trap Maria, because the consequences of her actions are both good and bad. The passages in the text that orbit around her, the tragic aspects of the poem, instead transform the narrator’s polar­izations into an ideological identity for him, rendering his moral judg­ments suspect.

     If Kochubei’s honor and glory were destined for him, as Russia’s vic­tory was for her, then Peter’s approval of his execution no longer appears to be an act of blindness. It establishes the Judge General’s place in his­tory and brings his family honor for generations to come. Peter therefore not only embodies the will of historic destiny, he also wields the authority of fate. Kochubei’s beheading severs the last thread of sanity in Maria, tragically destroying her. Her father had been willing to die for honor, which he bought at the expense of his daughter’s psyche. If he were truly a visionary, as the narrator describes him, he must have foreseen the conse­quences of his actions. Otherwise he was as blind as anyone.

     Poltava opens with a testament to Maria’s preciousness; she is the treasure Kochubei loves most of all his impressive riches. She quickly metamorphoses from an object of lyrical beauty, imbuing all in her pres­ence with poetry, into a tragic heroine as complex as Antigone. The poem concludes with a lamentation for the memory of her faded tragedy. When Mazepa finally encounters her after the battle near the banks of the Dnepr, she has been reduced to a shade of her former self, and by the end of the poem she is nothing more than a legend. Maria loses honor, but for what? For eloping? Or for eloping with a man who will be known as a trai­tor to Russia? Her blind passions bring dishonor on her family, but Kochu­bei’s execution and subsequent glory amend this.

     In the tragedy formed by the dramatic dialogues in Poltava, the subtle erotic motivations of a single character precipitate acts of passion and be­trayal. Maria’s elopement, in other words, sparks contention between Kochubei and Mazepa, but at the same time the historic narration depicts the expulsion from Russia of a mighty invader, the thwarting of treachery and eventual reverence for loyalty. Although it has no positive effect until the end, Kochubei does notify Peter of Mazepa’s betrayal. Had Maria been an obedient daughter, Kochubei may have been numbered among the trai­tors to the tsar (or at least would have been less motivated to warn Peter), in which case his estate, title, and life would have been forfeit, as would his honor and his family’s honor.

     In witnessing the unraveling of fate in Poltava one experiences an effective anamnesis. We know the future as soon as we see the present un­fold, and this occurs because of the combination of two temporal spheres—the historical past and the dramatic, absolute present. The two consequen­tial evaluative planes allow us to recall the significance of an event as we see it occur. The result, as in the Oedipus myth, is optimistic tragedy. In­vasion provides tragedies of this sort (e.g., Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, King Lear, and Poltava) with a historical backdrop that sug­gests how little the cogs and wheels of time value human life and emotion, but the question of the role of Fate remains open.

     However inevitable Maria’s downfall, it was not meaningless in the larger scope of history. Although the heroine perhaps chose the less repu­table and maybe even less moral of two options, her transgression contrib­utes to a Russian triumph. Oedipus at Colonus features the same phenom­enon, for Sophocles was, after all, Athenian, and the hero’s death and burial on Athenian soil insures victory over Thebes for the city of Theseus. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, had Cordelia flattered her father a third of his kingdom would have been her dowry in marriage either to the King of France or the Duke of Burgundy. As it turns out, England remains whole and in Edgar’s hands. No foreign power can make rightful claim to the is­land, since the armies of the milk-toast Albany and the deceased Cornwall defeated the French in the battle near the Cliffs of Dover. As part of the myth of national tradition, Lear’s tragic fate therefore insures a better fu­ture for England. If Fate controls the destinies of great peoples, Lear and Maria’s weaknesses unavoidably lead them to sacrifice, and we should do as Shakespeare’s Kent suggests: “vex not [their ghosts] and let [them] pass.”


Princeton University


Download: Eubanks, Ivan. "Tragedy and Ethical Evaluation in Pushkin's Poltava." Pushkin Review 11 (2008): 33-59.

* I would like to thank the editorial board of the Pushkin Review, both of the anonymous reviewers they provided, Caryl Emerson, Michael Wachtel, Olga Hasty, and Timothy Portice for reading this essay and offering insightful re­sponses and indispensable advice throughout the different stages of its develop­ment. This is truly a better essay than it would have been without their input.

[1] This rendition of the “Riddle of the Sphinx” comes from Bernard Knox, “Greece and the Theater,” in Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 13–30, esp. 28.

[2] Aleksandr S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v desiati tomakh, ed. B. V. Tomashevskii, 10 vols. (Moscow: Akademiia nauk, 1962), 4: 304. Subsequent cita­tions of Pushkin will come from this edition and will list the author’s name, the volume number, and the page numbers. All translations in this essay are mine unless otherwise noted. See my complete, less literal, translation of Poltava in this volume.

[3] Faddei Bulgarin, “Razbor poemy: Poltava, sochinenie Aleksandra Pushkina,” Syn otechestva 125: 15–16 (1829), in Russkaia kriticheskaia literatura o proizvedeni­iakh A. S. Pushkina: Khronologicheskii sbornik kritiko-bibliograficheskikh stat´ei, ed. A. Zelinskii, 7 vols. (Moscow: Tipografiia E. Lissnera i Iu. Romana, 1887), 2: 149–62. Hereafter, material cited from this anthology will list full information re­garding original place of publication and partial bibliographic information on Zelinsky’s compilation (e.g., “in Zelinskii, Russkaia kriticheskaia literatura, 2: 149–62”).

[4] V. G. Belinskii, “Sochinenia Aleksandra Pushkina: VII. Poemy: ‘Tsygany,’ ‘Poltava,’ ‘Graf Nulin,’” in Sochineniia V. Belinskogo, ed. K. Soldatenkov and N. Shchepkin, 13 vols. (Moscow: V tipografii N. Gracheva i Komp., 1860), 8: 451–509. Belinsky’s essay addresses these issues at numerous points throughout, so I have not indicated precise page numbers.

[5] See, for example, A. Gukovskii, Pushkin i problemy realisticheskogo stil´ia (Mos­cow: Goslitizdat, 1957), 84–109; N. V. Izmailov, “Pushkin v rabote nad ‘Poltavoi,’” in Ocherki tvorchestva Pushkina (Leningrad: Nauka, 1975), 5–124; Iu. Lotman, “K strukture dialogicheskogo teksta v poemakh Pushkina (Problema avtorskikh pri­mechanii k tekstu),” in Pushkin: Biografiia pisatel´ia, Stat´i i zametki. 1960–1990, “Evgenii Onegin.” Komentarii, ed. A. Iu. Balakin, O. N. Nechipurenko, and N. G. Nikolaiuk (St. Petersburg: Isskustvo-SPB, 2003), 228–36, esp. 234–35; V. M. Zhir­munskii, Bairon i Pushkin: Pushkin i zapadnaia literatura, ed. M. P. Alekseev and Iu. D. Levin (Leningrad: Nauka, 1978), 200–20.

[6] One notable exception is Voltaire’s Oreste, which does balance domestic and polit­ical struggles but forgoes the love affair because the main hero and heroine (Oreste and Electra) are siblings.

[7] In his 1829 review of Poltava, Ksenofont Polevoi proclaimed that in Pushkin Rus­sia finally had a poet who equaled great tragedians such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Shakespeare. He was right. See Ksenofont Polevoi, “Poltava, poema Aleksandra Pushkina,” Moskovskii telegraf 27: 10 (1829), in Zelinskii, Russkaia kriticheskaia literatura, 2: 138–48, esp. 146–47.

[8] Scholars and critics have not shied from applying the epithet “tragedy” to the story of Maria’s ill-fated love affair with her godfather, the Hetman Ivan Mazepa, yet they usually treat her as an ancillary figure.

[9] Pushkin, 4: 306 n. 3.

[10] Ibid., n. 4.

[11] There has been some speculation as to whether Pushkin’s alteration of Ma­tryona’s name links Maria to the enigmatic dedication. Iurii Lotman suggests that the dedication establishes a mythologized authorial persona in the poem (“Posvia­shchenie Poltavy”), and one of the poem’s likely dedicatees is Maria Volkonskaia, née Raevskaia, with whom Pushkin had become close friends during his southern exile. Her husband was himself exiled to Siberia in 1826 for his role in the Decem­brist uprising, and she followed him there. If Pushkin did in fact dedicate Poltava to her, then one may read the poem as a touching reconciliation between the poetic inspiration of loss and the cold gravity of fate. See Iurii Lotman, “Posviashchenie ‘Poltavy’ (Adresat, tekst, funktsiia),” in Balakin et al., Pushkin, 253–65; and John P. Pauls, “Pushkin’s Dedication of ‘Poltava’ and Princess Mariya Volkonskaya,” in Pushkin’s “Poltava” (New York: Shevchenko Scientific Society, 1962), 87–107.

[12] In his “Historicity of Pushkin’s ‘Poltava,’” Pauls argues that the poet changes the date of Maria’s elopement in order to demonize Mazepa. John P. Pauls, “His­toricity of Pushkin’s ‘Poltava,’” in Pushkin’s “Poltava,” 37–84, esp. 54–59. Pauls is not necessarily correct. Pushkin gives no indication of how much time passes be­tween Maria’s elopement and her father’s execution, so one can argue that he extends the duration of the love affair rather than moving it four years ahead. In his dialogues with Maria, as we will demonstrate below, the Hetman proves a more complex and human character than Pauls gives Pushkin credit for depicting.

[13] The degree to which a character is fictionalized in Poltava bears a proportional relationship with his or her proximity to Maria. It is chiefly through their roles in her tragedy that characters act out of accordance with history or, in some cases, exist at all. An anonymous young Cossack, for example, becomes the subject of a ballad because Maria was the object of his unrequited love. Thus the messenger who bore Kochubei’s denunciation of Mazepa to the tsar gains a fictional personal­ity through Maria. He later perishes in the battle. Voinarovsky kills him and pre­vents him from slaying Mazepa.

[14] One of the anonymous peer-reviewers for this essay graciously stressed the im­portance of this detail, which I had not explored enough in earlier drafts. I am most grateful to the reviewer for her or his comments, as they helped me to demonstrate the complexity of Kochubei’s character.

[15] Pushkin, 7: 191. This sentence appears in a defense of Poltava published in Den­nitsa in 1831. It addresses attacks by Faddei Bulgarin and Nikolai Nadezhdin. See Bulgarin, “Razbor Poemy,” in Zelinskii, Russkaia kriticheskaia literatura, 2: 149–62; and Nikolai Nadezhdin, “Poltava, Poema Aleksandra Pushkina,” Vestnik Ev­ropy, nos. 8–9 (1829), in Zelinskii, Russkaia kriticheskaia literatura, 2: 167–85. For an analysis of these polemics, see Paul Debreczeny, “The Reception of Pushkin’s Poetic Works in the 1820s: A Study of the Critic’s Role,” Slavic Review 28: 3 (Sep­tember 1969): 394–415. Debreczeny suggests that literary criticism in Pushkin’s Russia had not developed quickly enough to adequately address the spectacular poetry of that time.

[16] A vast number of historical sources confirm this. For a first-hand account written by Charles XII’s court chamberlain, see M. Gustavus Adlerfeld, The Military History of Charles XII, King of Sweden, 3 vols. (London, 1740), 3: 15–16, 192–96, 233, 245–48. Izmailov suggests that Pushkin may have had access to this text in French translation (“Pushkin v rabote nad ‘Poltavoi,’” 11–12). Pushkin’s main source also documents many of these events: D. N. Bantysh-Kamenskii, Istoriia Maloi Rossii, 3 vols. (Moscow: Tipografiia Semion Sklivanovskago, 1822), 3: 375–416.

[17] Zhirmunskii, Bairon i Pushkin, 90.

[18] Nikolai Izmailov suggests that the seeds for Poltava began to incubate in Pushkin’s mind during his southern exile, when he visited the remains of Charles’ camp at Bender in 1824, the same year he wrote Gypsies. See Izmailov, “Pushkin v rabote nad ‘Poltavoi,’” 8: “Pushkin’s interest in the Petrine epoch came about during a trip he undertook with I. P. Liprandi in 1824, from Odessa to Bender, with the goal of seeking out traces of Charles XII’s camp and the grave of Hetman Mazepa. And, perhaps, precisely in Bender, at the all but vanished remains of the Swedish camp, in the vain search for the Hetman’s forgotten grave, ‘immersed in thought,’ the poet (in the words from a draft of the epilogue to Poltava) first conceived a vague outline for his future narrative poem.” This, of course, explains much about the conclusion to Poltava.Pushkin also discovered a serious interest in Shakespeare that year, which would blossom during his northern exile and last the rest of his life. Finally, in 1824 Pushkin made his first attempt at writing trag­edy in his unfinished Vadim, which would have followed the French Neoclassical format. He also began and never finished a narrative poem by the same name.

[19] Debreczeny’s reading aims to liberate Poltava from the charge of imperialism and, in keeping with Izmailov (in “Pushkin v rabote nad ‘Poltavoi’”), proposes a complex meaning in the poem connected to the poet’s response to the Decembrists’ fate and a willingness to reconcile himself with the tsar after his own periods of exile. See Paul Debreczeny, “Narrative Voices in Pushkin’s Poltava,” Russian Lit­erature 24: 3 (1988): 319–48. For more on the footnotes in Poltava, see Lotman, “K strukture dialogicheskogo teksta,” 228–36. For an essay discussing the role of footnotes that contradict the story in historical fiction contemporary to Pushkin, see Dan Ungurianu, “Fact and Fiction in the Romantic Historical Novel,” Russian Review 57: 3 (July 1998): 380–93. Ungurianu does not address narrative poems, only prose novels, but he does provide a chart indicating how many novels, in­cluding Pushkin’s Captain’s Daughter, feature subtitles defining the genre, fore­words, afterwards, epigraphs, annotations, or indications of authorial presence in the text.

[20] Attic tragedy provides a precedent for this as well. For example, in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon the chorus debates both the credibility of Cassandra’s prophesying and the course of action to take as they hear their dying king’s groans coming from the baths.

[21] Pushkin mentions two well known, contrary depictions of Mazepa in his refuta­tions to Poltava’s critics—Voltaire’s Histoire de Charles XII, Roi de Suéde and Lord Byron’s Mazeppa (Pushkin, 7: 190–93). He also mentions Voltaire’s Histoire in the notes to Poltava (Pushkin 4: 308 n. 29) and quotes Byron’s poem in the epigraph (Pushkin, 4: 251). Mazepa has remained ambiguous in Eastern Europe, sometimes lauded as a champion of the people who defied the oppressive Russian empire and served the best interests of Ukraine’s autonomy, and elsewhere criticized as an op­portunist or traitor. Mazepa’s contemporaries across Europe perceived him as a man of refined manners, excellent education, and superior intelligence. Western intellectuals saw him as a marvel of the East, and Pushkin defies the legends propagated by Voltaire, Lord Byron, and Victor Hugo with his own characteriza­tion. He describes Byron’s Mazeppa, in fact, as little more than “a series of pic­tures, each more impressive than the last,” lamenting that “if only the history of a seduced daughter and her executed father had fallen under his pen, then no one, to be sure, would have dared touch upon the horrific subject after him” (Pushkin, 7: 193). Pushkin comments more amiably on Ryleev’s Voinarovskii, nevertheless pointing out his fellow Russian’s similar neglect of the tragic potential realized only in Poltava (Pushkin, 7: 193). For a discussion of the most famous Western, Central, and Eastern European treatments of Mazepa in art and literature, in­cluding Voltaire, Byron, Victor Hugo, Pushkin, Ryleev, Słowacki, and others, see Hubert F. Babinski, The Mazeppa Legend in European Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974). See also Theodore Mackiw, Prince Mazepa, Hetman of Ukraine in Contemporary English Publications 1687–1709 (Chicago: Ukrainian Research and Information Institute, 1967).

[22] See Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, in Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays, trans. Rob­ert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 182: ll. 460–63.

[23] Pushkin, 4: 269.

[24] This is also an inverted Cleopatra motif. Mazepa, despite his ambitions, is not exactly Mark Antony, and Maria is naïve, in contrast to the Egyptian queen, who knew well the consequences of nursing an asp.

[25] Pushkin, 4: 270.

[26] Sophocles, Antigone, in The Three Theban Plays, 108: ll. 1035–39. Sir Richard Jebb offers the following prose translation: “[944] So too endured Danae in her beauty to change [945] the light of the sky for brass-bound walls.” The original Greek runs thus: “Coròv: ètla—kaì Danáav—oùràn∆on—fåv / àllàxa∆—dèmav—èn calkod∑to∆v aùlaìv.” Sophocles, The Antigone of Sophocles, ed. and trans. Sir Richard Jebb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1891), ll. 944–45. This text is available online at the Perseus Digital Library.

[27] Niobe had fourteen children, all of whom were slain by Apollo and Artemis as punishment for their mother’s boasting her superiority to the gods. Danaë was the mother of Perseus, whom she conceived with Zeus when her father, Acrisius, locked her away in a tower because of a prophecy that she would bear a son who would later take his life.

[28] Pushkin, 4: 270.

[29] Pushkin, 4: 274. By “both the kings,” the Hetman means Charles XII and Stani­sław Leszczyński, whom the Swedish king nominated for the throne of Poland in 1705. The Swedes had taken Warsaw. Peter and a good portion of the Polish nobil­ity supported King August of Saxony, whom Charles ousted and whom Leszczyński defeated in 1706. Leszczyński’s devotees began attempting to persuade Mazepa into their camp in 1705, when Peter sent him to the Right Bank in a move to rein­force Russia’s candidate for the throne.
     Mazepa’s allusion to the Polish usurper echoes the “evil twin” archetype that contributes so much to the structure of Poltava, at once adding historical depth to the poem and evoking classical patterns, which commonly involve a contest for sovereignty. For example: Atreus vs. Thyestes (Seneca’s Thyestes, Voltaire’s Les Pélopides); Aegysthus vs. Agamemnon (Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Seneca’s Agamem­non); Polynices vs. Eteocles (the Oedipus saga, dramatically manifested in three of Sophocles’ plays, particularly Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes); Edgar vs. Edmund (Shakespeare’s King Lear), etc.

[30] Pushkin, 4: 276–77.

[31] Ibid., 260–61.

[32] The treaty of Pereiaslav, according to existing documentation, guaranteed the Zaporozhian Cossacks the right to choose their own Hetman in keeping with their democratic tradition. Peter I circumvented this rule in setting up Ivan Skoro­padsky as Hetman after Mazepa’s defection in 1708. The controversy surrounding Mazepa in fact stems from the treaty of Pereiaslav, which some argue granted au­tonomy to the Zaporozhian Cossacks but also obliged them to militarily support Russia. The issues surrounding this are complicated, but in a nutshell the ques­tion is whether Russia had nullified the treaty by failing to honor its articles ade­quately or whether Mazepa brazenly violated it in supporting Sweden. See John Besarab, Pereiaslav 1654: A Historiographical Study (Edmonton, Alberta: CIUS Press, 1982), 230–36, cited in Paul Robert Magosci, A History of Ukraine (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), 207–16, esp. 214–15.

[33] Pushkin, 4: 285.

[34] Ibid.

[35] In tragic myths the absolute past and the grip of destiny are established by like means. Tiresias, for example, in his dialogue with the king in Oedipus Rex predicts the play’s unavoidable development toward its tragic conclusion. In other trage­dies, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a plot-structure and set of narrative devices familiar to the audience foreshadows the expected ending. The point of watching such plays (or reading them) is not to find out what happens, but how and why.

[36] Pushkin, 4: 269.

[37] Pushkin, 4: 263.

[38] Mazepa feigned illness when he was worried that Peter may have discovered his plans. Much is made of this in Poltava.

[39] Pushkin’s critics ridiculed this, but the poet defended it as a plausible illustra­tion of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century conventions of honor.

[40] It also contributes to the analogy between Mazepa and Satan, who felt that he was as great as God. For a superb reading of Poltava as a holy war myth, wherein Peter represents the storm god Perun and Mazepa the serpent he wrestles, see Svetlana Evdokimova’s Pushkin’s Historic Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univer­sity Press, 1999), 173–208.

[41] Pushkin, 4: 262–63.

[42] Eteocles and Polynices, Oedipus’ sons, fought over the throne of Thebes. Eteoc­les prevailed, and Polynices returned with seven Athenian champions and their armies. Each dies at the other’s hand. Creon forbids Polynices’ burial and then buries Antigone alive for sprinkling dust and libations on her brother’s remains. Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear, engages in mortal combat with his brother Edgar, the Earl’s legitimate son. Edmund seeks to gain power, possibly the throne, in the wake of a French invasion.

[43] Mazepa dies near Bender on October 2, 1709.

[44] See Svetlana Evdokimova’s Pushkin’s Historical Imagination for a thorough reading of how Kochubei is transformed into a saint in Poltava.

[45] Pushkin, 4: 518–19.

[46] Pushkin, 4: 296.

[47] Ibid., 297.

[48] One of this essay’s anonymous reviewers rightly points out that Mazepa’s bun­chuk, his staff, was a symbol of power, not weakness. I am grateful for his or her suggestion that I clarify this apparent contradiction. The next few paragraphs hopefully do so, but I will briefly address it here. In the riddle of the Sphinx, the third leg of the “three-legged” stage of life is presumably a cane, staff, or walking stick, which symbolizes old age, an attribute continually assigned to Mazepa in Poltava. In the first canto, for example, the Cossack youths complain that Mazepa is too old and weak to oppose Russia, and in the third canto he successfully feigns an incapacitating illness in order to conceal his treachery from Peter. Neverthe­less, it is through age and experience that the Hetman has come by the power and authority he wields. Satan’s cane functions in a similar way, as it represents spiri­tual lameness, at the root of which is his reliance on deceit and manipulation for the purpose of ruining others. The symbol of the cane, in other words, does not mean that the Devil lacks the potential to influence people or bend them to his will.

[49] Pushkin, 4: 297.

[50] Ibid., 260–61.

[51] Ibid., 259.

[52] Ibid., 292–93.

[53] Ibid., 259–60.