Sunday, November 6, 2011


Alexander Pushkin, shown above, is probably the earliest of the famous Russian writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Writers of earlier periods of Russian history are not as well known as writers such as Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy in the 19th century, or Babel, Mayakovsky, Bulgakov, Solzshenitzyn, Yevtushenko, and Aksyonov in the 20th. The period also saw a flowering in music and in film. The great Russian films of the 1920s and 1930s still manage to be moving and engaging even given all we know about the ruling regime.

Many people of my age, mid 60s, might have heard of Boris Godunov in connection with a cartoon character in a satirical program that ran for a few years during our adolescence. The character was Boris Badenov, and the program was Rocky and Bullwinkle. The program was funny, and it’s still watchable today, but it was a product of the time, and the Cold War was ongoing, so our Soviet/Russian rivals got mocked a good deal in the popular culture. During the 19th century I think there was a general view, among Europeans, that Russia was more or less backwards. In some respects it probably was. Boris Godunov bound the serfs to the land in 1601. This effectively prolonged the life of serfdom as an institution, but that institution was dying out in Europe, if not already extinct during Boris’ reign. It wasn’t until the 1860s, 1861 unless I’m mistaken, that serfdom was actually abolished. The Anglo-American view of Russia, which was frequently used to include many of the areas of the Soviet Union that would later break away and form independent states, varied greatly over time. You might have a Ninotchka in 1939, with its observation that the purges meant there were fewer but better Russians, and then a few years later, under the pressures of our wartime alliance, find Mission to Moscow accepting the purges as legitimate trials. Through it all much of the real contribution of Russia to literature and to civilization was lost sight of.

In 1966 I started a course in Soviet literature at GW. Unfortunately, I had to drop out midway through the semester. When I returned to GW, I did take a course in a Gogol. I had read Dostoyevsky in high school, and I’ve managed to read some Solzhenitzyn and some other Russian authors, so I’m not an expert on Russian lit, and what I say should not be taken as in anyway authoritative.

As I’ve indicated, Pushkin is perhaps the earliest Russian example of high literature, i.e., famous for literary quality, as opposed to popular or folk literature. He comes in after the Europeanizing efforts of Catherine the Great and the effects of the French revolution. While he is best known as a poet he also wrote a number of plays. Boris Godunov is the first play in the volume at the right.

Boris is set during what is known as the “time of troubles” the period between the end of the dynasty that culminated in Ivan IV, known as “the Terrible,” and the start of the Romanov dynasty. Boris was the Tsar for about 6 years at the start of this period.

Pushkin knew Shakespeare through French prose translations, so presumably he got the plots and some sense of the character development, but not the language and the poetry in Shakespeare. Having said that one thing that is immediately striking in the drama is the interaction between the pretender, the so-called false Dmitry, and Marina in scene 13. It seems more than a little reminiscent of a similar confrontation involving Macbeth and his wife.

A Scene From Faust seems to owe more to Byron than to Goethe. (Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus seems to have no descendants, at least that I can think of. It is Goethe’s romantic version who has engendered operas by Gounod, Berlioz, and Boito, as well as novels by the likes of Thomas Mann, and various films and television plays.) Pushkin’s Faust is effete and bored, and asks Mephistopheles to destroy a ship for his own amusement.

In Mozart and Salieri he uses the idea that Salieri killed Mozart. Mozart was supremely gifted, and was capable of pulling melodies out of the air, and fashioning them into marvelous works of art. Salieri, on the other hand, was not so gifted, and had to work hard at his craft. Pushkin raises the same questions that will be raised 150 years later in the play Amadeus. Why are some gifted, and others not?

In The Stone Guest Pushkin uses the Don Juan legend as set in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The Don is there, as is Leporello. One character who is not there in Mozart’s original is Laura. She appears only in scene 2, but she serves as the amoral feminine counterpart to Don Juan.

Rusalka is the story of a maiden who is enticed by a prince. This prince, while charming, enough so to get her pants off, and get her with child, is a rotter, and leaves her. She throws herself into a river, and becomes a water nymph.

Boris Godunov with its echoes of Shakespeare is perhaps the most interesting of the plays. It also serves as the source for an opera. The four “little tragedies” are more like the final acts of longer and more complex tragedies. Like Boris, they also served as sources for operas, as did Rusalka, which inspired a Russian opera, and one by Dvorak.

Next up will be five plays by Chekhov.