Lifelong socialist, trade union militant and anti-racist activist Jack Robertson talked to Socialist Review about his new book The Man Who Shook His Fist at the Tsar. It’s about the life of the great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, and his place in the tradition of Russian radicalism.
The majority of the book takes the form of a narrative history, looking at episodes in Pushkin’s biography and in Russian history, but you start with a new verse translation of Pushkin’s epic poem The Bronze Horseman. Why have you chosen to spotlight that?
The title of Pushkin’s poem refers to the famous monument to St Petersburg’s founder, Peter the Great. It was commissioned by his successor Catherine the Great, and stands in Senate Square in the city centre. This is also the place where two tumultuous events in the city’s history took place in Pushkin’s lifetime — the Great Flood of 1824 and the Decembrist Revolt of 1825.
In the 1824 flood, witnessed by Pushkin’s brother, Leo, hundreds were drowned and the entire city was submerged. In Pushkin’s poem, his anti-hero, Evgeny, is trapped by the floodwaters in Senate Square, a few yards from the monument to Peter the Great. This is also the exact spot where the Decembrist Revolt was suppressed, when government troops opened fire on the rebel forces.
At the dramatic turning point of Pushkin’s poem, Evgeny raises his fist to the Tsar and blames him for the devastation wrought by the flood — at which point the statue comes to life and pursues him through the streets of the city.
What were the reasons for the Decembrist Revolt and to what extent does it feature in the poem?
In his earliest drafts, Pushkin had intended to write a follow-up to his commercially successful story about the society dandy, Evgeny Onegin, in which he would acquire a conscience and take up with the Decembrists, high-ranking officers within the Imperial Guard who were intent on the overthrow of Tsarism and the abolition of serfdom in Russia.
Many of these officers had taken part in the war against Napoleon and were fiercely proud of their Russian nationality — but they were also appalled by Russia’s backwardness when compared to the West, the absence of the most basic freedoms and the brutality of the regime towards the peasantry.
On the advice of his friends, and for his own safety, Pushkin burned the first few verses of his new poem, but the character of Evgeny emerged later as the humbler figure in The Bronze Horseman who pays a terrible price for having the audacity to shake his fist at the Tsar.
There was no way that Pushkin could have referred directly to the Decembrists in his new poem because, after the defeat of the revolt and the hanging of five of its leaders, any reference to the revolt was forbidden by the Tsar, Nicholas I.
However, it did not require a great stretch of the imagination to grasp that a story about the life of an ordinary citizen being arbitrarily destroyed by a tyrannical Tsar might have some contemporary relevance. And throughout the poem there are oblique references to the revolt — from the location of Evgeny’s predicament to the fact that his body is found on the very same island in the Neva delta as the five hanged Decembrist leaders were taken to be buried.
Pushkin was a known associate of many of the Decembrists — he went to school with some of them and maintained a correspondence with some of those who escaped the scaffold but were sent to Siberia.
Why is The Bronze Horseman so little known in the West?
The first explanation is that, after 1825, every word Pushkin wrote was subjected to censorship not only by the official apparatus but also by the Tsar himself. Many of his later works were never passed for publication and this included the The Bronze Horseman. It first appeared in its entirety in a Russian edition at the time of the 1905 Revolution.
Subsequently, one of the primary explanations for a dearth of good translations of Pushkin was that the person who dominated this field in the first half of the 20th century, Vladimir Nabokov, insisted that any attempt to translate Pushkin’s poetry into English was futile.
As if to prove his point, Nabokov worked on a “literal” translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin for ten years and when his monumental effort finally appeared it was in two volumes — the first contained his line-by-line literal translation, none of which rhymed; the second, much larger volume, consisted entirely of footnotes.
Nabokov contemptuously dismissed every other attempt to translate Pushkin and this intransigence was to lead to a spectacular literary fall-out with his close friend and leading light on the American literary scene, Edmund Wilson.
Wilson not only disagreed with Nabokov about Pushkin translation but was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution, which Nabokov’s wealthy family had been forced to flee. Their divergent views on Communism helped to bring their literary fall-out to a boiling point, just at the time that the Cold War was taking shape.
During the ideological confrontation which emerged between the US and Soviet Russia in the post-war years, Pushkin was to become more and more of an iconic figure for the Soviet regime — a symbol of Russia’s literary excellence.
Such was the intensity of the Nabokov-Wilson feud, and the impact it had on Pushkin translation, it was not until after the smoke had cleared that some translators began to seriously question Nabokov’s pronouncements. Among these was a group of Russian scholars at Essex University which included the East End Jewish Marxist Stanley Mitchell.
He subsequently worked on a translation of Eugene Onegin for many years before it was finally published by Penguin in 2008, to universal acclaim. Mitchell’s great triumph was that, despite Nabokov’s maxim, he had produced a translation which retains the rhyme and rhythm of Pushkin’s original.
It’s also the case, of course, that apart from the obstacles needlessly erected by Nabokov, Pushkin’s radicalism tends to be either swept under the carpet or denied altogether — in much the same way as history has treated Shelley or Robert Burns.
Another important aspect of Pushkin’s life which is often glossed over but that you deal with at some length is the fact that his ancestors on his mother’s side came from sub-Saharan Africa.
Pushkin’s great grandfather, Abraham Hannibal, was granted an estate by the Empress Elizabeth of Russia in 1742, in gratitude for his contribution to the state as an expert on fortifications and military engineering.
Pushkin was extremely proud of Hannibal’s achievements and of the fact that he had been born “under the sky of my Africa”.
Pushkin always thought this his grandparent was an Ethiopian prince but we now know that Hannibal grew up in a place called Logone-Birni — on the border between present-day Cameroon and Chad — and was the son of a local sultan (so a Muslim and not a Christian).
He was then abducted in a raid by a neighbouring sultanate and taken to Constantinople to serve as a page-boy in the Ottoman Harem.
Peter the Great was at this time determined to break the Ottoman control of the Black Sea. Keen to gather insider information on the Ottoman’s plans, he engineered the boy’s abduction for a second time. The boy was now taken to Moscow, adopted by Peter the Great as his son, and subsequently accompanied the Tsar as his personal assistant through the early years of the Great Northern War.
Later, Hannibal was sent to the top military academy in Paris to learn the latest techniques of military engineering and siege warfare and served under every 18th century Russian Tsar and Tsarina, up to and including Catherine the Great.
You go out of your way to illustrate the depth of Pushkin’s interest in Russian, European and American history and his particular focus on revolutionary episodes. Why has so little attention been given to this aspect of his writing in the past?
Pushkin was a serious historian, so much so that after the death of the Official Historiographer of Russia, Nikolai Karamzin, Pushkin was appointed in his place. However, there was a big difference in their interpretations of Russian history. Whereas Karamzin was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who believed that autocracy was the most beneficial form of government for the Russian people, Pushkin knew from his own research that there was nothing about Tsarism that the people found very beneficial and that there had been violent revolts against the autocrats throughout Russian history.
His library was full of books about the revolt led by the Russian folk hero, Sten’ka Razin, and he took a particular interest in the Pugachev Rebellion, an armed uprising which began in the south of the country during the reign of Catherine the Great and almost reached the gates of Moscow.
Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov was written at the same time as the Decembrist Revolt but used the historical analogy of Russia’s early 17th century Time of Troubles — when the entire fabric of the country went to pieces — as a metaphor for the situation in 1825.
Likewise, The Bronze Horseman registers Pushkin’s ambiguous view of the Russian autocracy, in which he is prepared to acknowledge some of its finest achievements but at the same time be equally prepared to denounce its most terrifying aspects.