Russia swept by Pushkin mania

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RUSSIA WILL hold lavish celebrations tomorrow to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of a man who is not only the country's most celebrated writer but also a key figure in an official drive to restore a battered sense of national identity.

For weeks, authorities across the country have been preparing for the Pushkin Day festivities, amid criticism that the poet's name is being exploited by politicians and marketing executives.

Russian television will devote 109 hours of programmes to the poet over three days. Placido Domingo, the Spanish tenor, is flying in for a performance on Red Square. Readings, theatrical performances, fireworks and balls are being staged across 11 time zones; in Moscow alone, there will be at least six street parties today.

At Pushkin's grave, in a monastery near Pskov in north-eastern Russia, flowers and wreaths have been piling up at the foot of the writer's grave as if his death was not in 1837, in a duel, but freshly mourned.

"People bring them all the time," said Yelena Mukovnina, a Pushkin excursion organiser. She reads Pushkin for at least an hour every day: "I have worked here for 20 years and the interest in him has never fallen and it will never die away. He is the only Russian poet who speaks to modern life." Most Russians, who learnt Pushkin by rote at school, seem able to quote him by heart.

While authorities have been spending heavily on the event - the Pushkin museum and family estate have been extensively refurbished - millions more have been paid out by other interests eager to cash in on the event.

The centrist party, Our Home is Russia - headed by the Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin - has financed the publication of a 24-volume set of Pushkin's works. The Communists have organised poetry readings, extolling the purity of Pushkin's Russian language.

Orphanages and hospitals have received editions of Pushkin from Fatherland, party of the Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. Orders have gone out from City Hall to every shop and business to display a Pushkin poster or risk a fine.

The rush by politicians to associate themselves with the nation's greatest writer is nothing new - at the height of the terror in 1937, Stalin used the 100th anniversary of Pushkin's death to present the poet as a Bolshevik hero, the people's champion stifled by Tsarism. But these efforts have been enthusiastically matched in the post-Soviet world of marketing. Pushkin's name is being used to sell everything from pickles and matches to bread and vodka. One Moscow hairdresser is reportedly offering a "Pushkin haircut". British Airways has got into the act, advertising $200 return flights to London with the motif "poetry in motion".

This free-for-all has, inevitably, ruffled some feathers. There have been complaints that other poets' words have mistakenly ended up on posters under Pushkin's name, and that extracts of his poems have been rendered meaningless by being taken out of context.

"All these billboards in the shop windows are just too much," said Vladimir Chekharin, a consultant to the Duma culture committee. "It shouldn't be happening. Pushkin was sincere in everything and he could never stand bootlicking."

Handling Pushkin's work has always been a sensitive issue among Russia's intelligentsia, demonstrated this week with the premiere of a British- made version of Pushkin's classic Eugene Onegin, starring Ralph Fiennes and directed by his sister Martha.Unable to believe that foreigners could ever truly understand their god, critics were on the look-out for every error as they flocked to showings in St Petersburg and Moscow.

And they found some. "There were some charming, inadvertent mistakes," said Dmitri Savelyev, a St Petersburg critic. "In one scene, Onegin's friend, Lenski, goes hunting in a sheepskin coat in the summer - but wasn't he hot?" He also cited the use of music that is widely associated with the Stalin era, and a theme tune from the 1904 Russian-Japanese War. Overall, though, the film was well received.