Conference Proceedings: "Alexander Pushkin and Russian National Identity: Taboo Texts, Topics, Interpretations," University of Notre Dame, 9-11 January 2009

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     Alyssa Gillespie (University of Notre Dame) and Katya Hokanson (Univer­sity of Oregon), the editors of a forthcoming volume on Pushkin and taboo, convened this conference to provide the volume’s contributors an opportu­nity to come together to grapple with its overarching themes. Among many other things, participants took on the big questions of morality and immo­rality, national identity, cognitive vs. institutional taboo, eroticism, cul­tural permission and cultural prohibition, and finally kitsch in Pushkin’s work and, by extension, Russian culture as a whole. No doubt, more ques­tions were asked than were answered (always the case at a productive con­ference), but the central questions that came into focus as a result of the conference were these: How have taboos of various kinds clouded our pic­ture of Pushkin? Can and, indeed, should we overcome these taboos? How and why do these taboos come about and how are they perpetuated centu­ries later? How can we mine the history of a given taboo for insights on the culture/period in which it is in force? The articles in Gillespie and Hokan­son’s book will provide some answers to these questions.

     In her keynote speech Caryl Emerson (Princeton) offered a conceptual framework for the conference, focusing on neurosis and taboo, the relation­ship between society and the poet, and the moral self-censorship that blinds readers to the transgressive aspect of poetry. She asks in the Freud­ian sense whether the poet can heal, whether by acknowledging repression, self-censorship, and taboo, we readers of Pushkin can overcome the abyss that lies between us and the poet. The next day, Professor Emerson presented some of her new research on the Soviet writer Sigizmund Krzhi­zhanovsky and his theater work related to Pushkin in a paper entitled “Censored or Banned: Eugene Onegin and ‘Cleopatra’ in the 1930s.” The second keynote speaker, Oleg Proskurin (Russian Academy of Sciences), delivered an address entitled “‘Forbidden Pushkin’ in Putin’s Russia: Para­doxes of Post-Soviet Postmodernity,” in which he regaled the audience with anecdotes of how Pushkin has been appropriated for various purposes in the last decade, showing how the Russian language can restrain (consciousness) better than a pair of handcuffs. No less informative was his paper on Saturday, “Pushkin and Metropolitan Philaret: Rethinking the Problem.”

     Participants presented papers based on working drafts of their contri­butions for the volume, which were distributed to everyone some weeks in advance of the conference in order to facilitate meaningful and productive discussion. The papers drew on methods and concepts from all over the dis­ciplinary map—history, sociology, anthropology, psychology—in addition to literary studies. They fell into roughly two categories. Some papers were devoted to various aspects of Pushkin’s life and works which have been ob­scured by taboos of various sorts—e.g., Pushkin’s “career” as a bureaucrat, his racial identity, “obscene” aspects of his poetry, etc.—in an attempt to overcome these taboos and regain some clarity of scholarly vision. For ex­ample, in “Pushkin the Titular Councilor,” Irina Reyfman (Columbia Uni­versity) gave an account of Pushkin the civil servant, a topic which still en­genders distaste among many Pushkinomaniacs. Other papers treated the ways in which taboos are generated and have restrained and continue to mold representations of Pushkin in various media even today. For example, Elena Vasilyeva (University of Southern California) delivered a paper entitled “Pushkin through the Lens: Soviet Cinematic Treatments of the Poet, 1930s–1950s.” Distinct from, but very relevant to, these two groups of papers was Alexandra Smith’s (University of Edinburgh) exploration of Freudian approaches to Pushkin which were suppressed in the Soviet Union.

     In a conference on Pushkin and taboo it is no surprise that eroticism occupied a central place. J. Douglas Clayton and Natalia Vesselova (Uni­versity of Ottawa) presented “Resexing the Female Reader: Tsar Nikita and His Forty Daughters,” Brian Horowitz (Tulane University) spoke on Aleksei Vul´f’s diary, while Jonathan Platt (Smolny Institute) gave a paper on Pushkin’s necrophilia (“Loving the Dead in Pushkin”). The relations of Pushkin to Ivan Barkov were explored in Igor Pilshchikov’s paper, “If Only Pushkin Had Not Written This Filth: ‘Ten´ Barkova’ and Philological Coverups,” and Alyssa Gillespie spoke on “Bawdy and Soul: Functions of Genital Imagery in Pushkin’s Poetics.” Professor Gillespie’s sparkling paper on the leitmotifs of genitalia served to support Dr. Pilshchikov’s as­sertion that Pushkin authored the obscene ballad “Ten´ Barkova.” These critics were convinced by the massive amount of philological evidence and argued that the reluctance of some to accept the moral “stain” on the repu­tation of Russia’s national poet must be overcome.

     Political taboos were also a common point of interest for several contri­butors. The ways in which literary-historical taboos distort our picture of Pushkin’s connection to Decembrism were discussed by Igor Nemirovsky (Russian Academy of Sciences) in “Pushkin between Libertinage and Lib­eralism” and by Joe Peschio (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) in his paper “Uncovering the Poetry of The Green Lamp.” Carol Any (Trinity Col­lege) took up the Stalinist recasting of Pushkin in her paper, “The Red Pushkin and the Writers’ Union in 1937.” And Katya Hokanson explored Pushkin the nationalist in her paper, “Pushkin’s Anti-Polish Poems.”

     Another central theme of the conference was Pushkin’s racial identity and especially the question of his “blackness.” Catharine Nepomnyashchy (Columbia University) discussed “Pushkin’s African Heritage in Today’s Russia,” while Allison Blakely (Boston University) gave a stimulating multi-media talk on “Gannibal, Pushkin, and Afro-Russian Identity in European Context.”

     In addition to the panels, participants were treated to a more informal evening roundtable with entertaining and informative presentations by Catharine Nepomnyashchy (on contemporary Russian attitudes toward blackness), Jonathan Platt (on Pushkin in contemporary Russian text­books), Igor Pilshchikov (on the de-mythologization of Pushkin), and Alex­andra Smith (on the recent film 1814).

     The conference was sponsored in large part by Notre Dame’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies. Additional support came from Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts and the Office of Re­search. As the Notre Dame host, Professor Gillespie did a wonderful job of providing a warm and scientific atmosphere in which open expression and comradely competition spurred intense discussion that continued each day over dinner and late into the evening. Professors Gillespie and Hokanson expect that the resulting volume will be published in 2010.


Brian Horowitz (Tulane University) and
Joe Peschio (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)


Download: Horowitz, Brian and Joe Peschio. Conference Proceedings: "Alexander Pushkin and Russian National Identity: Taboo Texts, Topics, Interpretations," University of Notre Dame, 9-11 January, 2009. Pushkin Review 11 (2008): 181-83.