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POETRY: From Russia with love

"STOP ANY Russian in the street, and he'll be able to recite more than one verse of Pushkin by heart," according to Elaine Feinstein, author of a recent biography of the man.

Stop anyone in the street over here, and you'll be lucky if they know who you are talking about. Feinstein didn't say as much when introducing After Pushkin, readings from a new anthology in the poet's honour, but the event presupposed gross ignorance on our part. The father of Russian literature foretold his own immortality in his verse, but his genius has proved, Feinstein explained, "peculiarly resistant to translation".

The 21 contributors to the volume had been encouraged to take risks and respond as they saw fit. On Monday, eight took to the Purcell Room stage along with Ralph Fiennes who had "gatecrashed" on the strength of Eugene Onegin (his "film translation") and was to close the evening with a reading.

As the outsider among the writers and the man closest in years and dashing celebrity to Pushkin at the time of his death (he was killed in a duel aged 37), Fiennes had to sit waxwork still to avoid upstaging the speakers. Was it fanciful, though, to read some of Onegin's flamboyant ennui into the baleful looks the star occasionally directed at the auditorium in the first half?

The "six sardonic little verses" with which Christopher Reid kicked off the evening, for example, were the stuff of polite laughter. The accomplished selection from Charles Tomlinson was delivered with Gielgudian majesty. Taken with the narrative poems The Bronze Horseman (via Carol Rumens), and The Gypsies (via John Fuller), you got some idea of Pushkin's range - as Tomlinson put it, a "Mozartian' mixture of lightness and tragic undertones".

You often couldn't help but see the distance between the living writers and their source-material, the poet's passion blazing through most strongly when caution was thrown to the winds. Ruth Padel's Writing to Onegin reworks Tatyana's declaration of love using glaring anachronisms. Though sometimes cringe-makingly showy in her reading, Padel made the gaucher elements ring true.

But in the end Fiennes did steal the show. He smiled bash-fully but you knew he'd deliver Heaney's version of Arion and Hughes's The Prophet, with sonorous exactitude. Both sing of the solitary, mystical authority of the poet. "With the Word / Burn the hearts of the people," Fiennes urged. You grasped then what all the fuss was about.

`After Pushkin' is published by Carcanet (7.95) and the Folio Society (pounds 19.95)