Arts: Why Russia loves Pushkin

The politics and bureaucratic chaos surrounding the celebration of his 200th birthday on Sunday would not surprise Alexander Pushkin. No other poet's life and work has ever been so bound to his country and language. By Ben Hooson
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It is Alexander Pushkin's 200th birthday next Sunday, but I do not expect to dive into a fountain on Pushkin Square, as happened on the closing night of Moscow's 850th birthday bash a couple of years ago. This will be a different sort of party. Mayor Yury Luzhkov has not hired a squadron of crop-spraying planes to break up rain clouds. The vodka will flow less freely. But like the 850th anniversary, this is another obligatory prazdnik, the resonant Russian word that means high day rather than holiday.

Moscow retailers have been offered a choice of two official picture-and- text posters to display in shop windows - "Pushkin's loves", or "Pushkin's schooldays", both executed in the style of marshland flora-and-fauna posters you will remember from primary school. Any shop failing to display one can expect a fine from City Hall. The poet's slightly African profile (he was one-eighth Abyssinian, proud of his descent from Peter the Great's black servant) adorns lamp-posts and billboards across the city, often with a quatrain such as the following, also on Pushkin Square:

Woe to a country, where the slave

and flatterer

Both stand by the throne,

And the bard, chosen by heaven,

Stands silent, his eyes downcast.

That is from "To my friends", written in 1828. Pushkin wrote it to explain his loyalty to Tsar Nicholas I, who had executed several of the poet's friends two years before, when they made an armed bid to install a Russian republic, a century or nearly two centuries too soon, depending on whether or not you count the USSR.

Why have the 1999 organisers chosen that particular verse, and not the one where the poet explains that Nicholas is actually not so bad, and the bard speaks up - the whole point of the poem? The chosen quotation would have fitted better in 1937, when the Soviet regime, triumphant over tsardom and counter-revolution, canonised Pushkin on the 100th anniversary of his death. Suitably enough for the peak year of Stalin's terror, the authorities circulated obligatory formulae for use at the celebrations, printed on black-edged, obit-like, sheets: "The great proletarian revolution renders Pushkin the true popular glory of the great poet of the Soviet land" etc.

So why that verse in 1999? First, there is a trivial answer. Pushkin himself stands just yards away, with "eyes downcast" - Moscow's most beautiful statue, with fresh flowers always at his feet. It was moved there from across the road when Stalin bulldozed the Monastery of the Passion, which formerly gave its name to the square.

But then you muse a moment and politics come flooding back. Boris Yeltsin has just fuelled old rumours that he is manipulated by a crony coterie (his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, the tycoon Boris Berezovsky et al) by forcing the appointment of a powerful vice-premier, reputed to answer to the cronies and not to the Prime Minister. And that coterie is the nemesis of the presidential hopeful, Mayor Luzhkov, who makes all the key decisions in Moscow himself, doubtless including the final list of poster quotes for the anniversary. So you can make a shrewd guess who are the slaves and flatterers standing by the throne.

Of course, the dead hand of officialdom and politicisation of his work would not have been anything new to Pushkin, who was forced by Nicholas to become the undeclared state poet, reporting directly to the Tsar's censors and censoring his own correspondence to keep out of trouble. As the poet wrote in a private note of 1834, avoiding even there to name the tsar directly: "I have stopped being angry with him, because toute reflexion faite he is not to blame for the swinishness around him. If you live in the toilet you get used to shit, and the smell stops bothering you, even if you are a gentleman."

What else might upset the national bard about his 200th birthday? This is the new free-enterprise Russia, so a big literary anniversary might have offered scope for marketing. In fact, to the relief of purists, Pushkin branding is not rife. There are "Hey, Pushkin!" chocolate bars from Red October, Russia's biggest confectioner (the reference is to "Hey, Pushkin, you son of a bitch!", a verbal slap on the back which the poet gave himself on completion of Boris Godunov).

There is (of course) Pushkin vodka, offered in a commemorative bottle by Smirnoff, the local company, which is challenging the better-known Smirnoff's trademark in a Gogolesque legal wrangle. There are Pushkin bags, a Pushkin special travel deal to London from British Airways (pounds 200 there and back), and, er, that's about it. Probably less in total than the Shakespeare products and promotions available along Oxford Street on any ordinary shopping day. Again commercialism would not have surprised the poet. Indeed he described an array of St Petersburg's most desirable consumer goods and brands in the early chapters of Eugene Onegin.

The official thumping on Pushkin's drum seems to bore rather than annoy people. The countdown to P-Day on ORT, the state-owned television channel that enjoys the highest national rating, has spawned a joke: one day in the kitchen the poet's mother turns to the poet's father and says, "Darling, it's nine months to Pushkin's birthday".

Seriously though, it is unlikely that any debasements could root out what attaches Russians to Pushkin in a way that is astonishing for foreigners, and that will undoubtedly come into play this Sunday, when they raise a sincere and reverential glass to his memory. English-speakers with sufficient learning and patience can see that Shakespeare's work is like a vast nursery, from which a new language finally emerged from the soil and flowered, but we cannot feel the miracle so strongly or directly, because we no longer speak that same language. But what Pushkin did when he fused, or expressed the fusion of spoken Russian, Church Slavonic, and the grammatical simplicity of French, which was preferred by the nobility of his time, is something modern Russians can still feel when they read Pushkin, because what they find is the first flight of the language they still speak.

The other key to Pushkin's significance for Russians is in the word freedom, everywhere associated with his name. He was free in artistic forms, moving from lyric poems, to verse epics, to prose, to drama, to criticism, to epigrams and the artistry of his letters. But he was also free in his own life, and this is a subtle point, because his submission to the "Tsar Policeman", as Nicholas was known, seems to belie it. For him that was the price of his pursuing his mission, but for Russians it is no disgrace - until 10 years ago, any total break with the state was always perceived by Russian artists and public alike in the context of betrayal. And when the price became too high, Pushkin sought self-destruction in a duel with engulfing philistinism, represented by the person of D'Anthes, who fired the fatal bullet which ended his life at the age of 37.

Pushkin's freedom was that of making up his work and life as he went along, and here, at least, the celebration of his 200th birthday is entirely true to the man. Exactly what will happen on 6 June is still unclear. With five days to go, Viktor Akulov, the Ministry of Culture official with responsibility for the anniversary, could not tell me which VIPs will do what and where: "I can't talk now, I have to attend a government meeting about just that." A radio journalist in Pskov, near Pushkin's family estate and burial place at Mikhailovskoye, ran me through the anniversary programme but said that the guest list is still up in the air. A Moscow Pushkinist, Mikhail Filin, who has brought out a series of classic works on the poet by Russian emigres to mark the anniversary, said that there are rumours that Yeltsin will go to Mikhailovskoye. Filin has also noticed a rapid facelift at the Moscow church where Pushkin was married. "That probably means that the patriarch will preside there on Sunday," he said. But no one knows for sure.

On the one hand, this is deplorable disorganisation. But it is the same Russian phenomenon of a long, intense process which issues in an unexpected outcome, like the one which brought Khrushev to risk all by arresting Beria or Yeltsin to risk all by climbing on a tank during the coup against Gorbachev. It is just another aspect of Pushkin's life and work which makes it relevant to the ferment of modern Russia. And they do say that the best parties are the ones that are not too precisely planned.