"Should the poet be with the czar, or against him?"
July 3, 2013 7:58 AM   Subscribe

Poets appeared in Russia in the eighteenth century. They wore officers’ uniforms and mostly wrote odes for the accession of German empresses onto the Russian throne. In a country where life was lived according to the wartime principle of unity of command, everyone including poets served the government, which was personified by the autocracy. But everything changed with Pushkin. Born in a country where serfdom was only the formal expression of a deep internal psychological slavery, he achieved the most important Russian coup, the greatest Russian revolution: in opposition to the pyramid of power, at the head of which the Czar administers the fates of individuals and nations, he created an alternative pyramid, at the head of which stood the poet. The juxtaposition of the czar and the holy fool—the old divided paradigm of authority—was exchanged for the juxtaposition of the czar and the poet.
Poets and Czars — From Pushkin to Putin: the sad tale of democracy in Russia by Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin, who caused a stir earlier this year when he withdrew from participation in literary events sponsored by the Russian state with a strongly-worded letter. His action was equally strongly criticized by the state and several Russian writers. Shishkin spoke to The American Reader about recent events. He currently lives in Switzerland and recently wrote an essay about being separated from his native language community.
posted by Kattullus (3 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I'm currently reading Shishkin's novel Maidenhair, recently translated by Marian Schwartz, and it is very, very strange and very, very good.
posted by Kattullus at 8:01 AM on July 3, 2013

I haven't read any of Shishkin's novels yet (though I have Взятие Измаила [The Taking of Izmail] sitting right here on a shelf beside me, waiting patiently for me to finish working through early-nineteenth-century Russian literature), but I've loved everything I've read by him, and this is no exception—it's one of the best brief rundowns of Russian history I've seen. (Minor quibble: I think rhetorical effectiveness seduced him into writing "The point of Peter’s reforms was to obtain military technology from the West in order to do battle against that very same West"; Peter didn't want to do battle against the West, he wanted to do battle against the Swedes and Turks, and he genuinely admired the West (which, for him, principally meant the Dutch.)
posted by languagehat at 10:21 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Interesting to think about the influence of this history on the relationship between poet John Shade and king-in-hiding Charles Kinbote in Nabokov's Pale Fire.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 12:32 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

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