The Man Who Shook His Fist At The Tsar

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Jack Robertson has written a magnificent account of Alexander Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman, which brings it to life in a wonderfully accessible new translation and restores the radical, revolutionary impulse that motivated Pushkin to write it.

The Bronze Horseman is an epic poem set against the background of a flood which hit St Petersburg in 1824 and plays out as drama between the figure of Evgeny, a minor government clerk, who has lost his lover Parasha in the flood, and the imposing bronze statue of Peter the Great, the founder of St Petersburg. Evgeny is driven mad by his loss and shakes his fist at the statue, blaming him for the death of Parasha. The bronze statue comes to life and chases Evgeny to his death.

But this book is much more than just the poem. The later sections, that give a background to the poem, are a masterful and sweeping account of the whole pre-revolutionary history of Russia, Pushkin’s sympathy with and connection to the uprisings against Tsarism in the early 1800s, and reflections on the relationship between art, society, history and politics.

Written under the heavy hand of censorship — the original poem was blocked from publication by Tsar Nicholas I himself — Robertson reveals the real meaning of the poem as a celebration of the 1825 uprising against the Tsar, by army officers inspired by the French Revolution, subsequently known as the Decembrist Revolt.

The poem, here illustrated with engravings from one of the earliest complete editions in 1905, is a masterpiece of subtle lyricism, ambiguity and subversion. It begins by praising Peter the Great for his foresight in creating St Petersburg and with a loving hymn to the beauty of the city, then hints at the limits to his power against the elemental forces of the river and the flood, ruin, death and destruction it brings. The final section reveals the Tsar’s tyranny as he hunts Evgeny who dared to question his power.

Robertson’s extended and very readable account of the actual Decembrists’ revolt of 1825 — many of its leaders were close personal friends of Pushkin — only heightens the drama of the poem itself. The key events of the revolt take place in the Senate Square, underneath the bronze statue, at the inauguration of Nicholas I. The rebellious army officers had planned to assassinate the new Tsar, but their rebellion was crushed, with hundreds of soldiers and onlookers killed by cannon fire or drowned beneath the ice on the River Neva. Five of the leaders were executed at the Peter and Paul Fortress and their bodies buried on the small island where Evgeny’s body is washed up at the end of the poem.

Robertson explains that his motivation to undertake this monumental work was to explain to an English-speaking audience the enduring appeal of Pushkin. In the introduction he recounts witnessing an open-air commemoration of Pushkin’s poem on a visit to St Petersburg, at which virtually every spectator knew large parts of the poem by heart. And yet it is barely known in the West, much less celebrated than more popular versions of Pushkin’s poems and plays, such as Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin.

An important thread throughout the book is to reclaim Pushkin from attempts to depoliticise his art, in much the same way as Paul Foot rescued the poet Shelley from a similar fate at the hands of the literary establishment in Britain.

Pushkin was of the generation that immediately followed the French Revolution and the shockwaves it sent across Europe. His aristocratic background gave him access to education and a wide range of the literature and writing that poured out of western Europe, directly influenced by the ideas of the revolution. As Robertson highlights, the narrative of Russian history was highly contested in the early 1800s, as various figures in the aristocracy were torn between the promise of liberal reform and the fear of unleashing revolt.

The aftermath of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, which destroyed the hopes of his liberalising mission, and stirred illusion in the Tsar Alexander I’s vague promises of a constitution, added to the sense of possibility and uncertainty. Pushkin was close to all of these developments and the way in which they inspired a layer of former fellow students and army officers to hatch a conspiracy to win a constitution and social justice.

Pushkin’s ideas and the popular memory of the Decembrist Revolt exerted a powerful influence on later generations of Russian revolutionaries. Lenin, in a memoir written in 1912, recalls the impact that the revolt had on the early Bolsheviks. The masthead of the Bolsheviks newspaper Iskra contained the line “From a spark a flame will be lit”, a direct reference to the Decembrists. After the 1917 revolution, the island off St Petersburg where the leaders of the revolt were buried was renamed Decembrist Island.

Robertson has immersed himself in the literature around Pushkin and the often furious literary debates that have surrounded the translation of his work, which as he shows, are directly related to the different interpretations of Russian history and the revolution. Even if you are unfamiliar with Pushkin’s work, or rather especially if you are daunted by Russian literature, you should read this book.