Pushkin – A Cultural Encounter in St Petersburg

Arts & Culture

It is difficult to overstate the towering influence Aleksander Pushkin exerts to this day on Russia

Follow the trail of Aleksander Pushkin around the city of St Petersburg and get to know this popular figure of Russia's literary history a little bit better.

It is difficult to overstate the towering influence Aleksander Pushkin exerts to this day on Russia’s literary landscape and culture. Surprisingly, he remains relatively unknown in the west where the difficulty of translation means he is only really known for those works which were turned into operas – Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Tchaikovsky’s Evgeniy Onegin and Queen of Spades and Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila were all inspired by Pushkin poems. He is widely considered to have created the modern Russian language by combining the different registers of the language into a single unified form - old Slavonic forms combined with Latinisms and Gallicisms, with a healthy dose of earthy peasant speech thrown in for good measure. And he managed to do this in a playful way that respects poetic forms while sounding unforced and entirely natural. His poetry remains genuinely cherished by lovers of the Russian language, and it is not uncommon for a conversation between a group of Russians to include a peppering of direct quotations or references from some of the great man’s poems in a way that is hard to imagine among speakers of English, French or German. Try to imagine a combination of Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Alfred Lord Tennyson – and then some.  

For all this he was a man of contrasts. A member of the nobility who was a direct descendant of an African slave belonging to Peter the Great; a frequent habitué of the court and aristocratic circles, who also entertained libertarian beliefs and associated with revolutionaries (which brought him into conflict several times with his royal patrons); and a poet whose artistic discipline contrasted with a tumultuous personal life stemming from an inability to control his own petty jealousies (he fought almost 30 duels, and was eventually killed from injuries received in the last of these). 

Contemporary Portrait of Pushkin

Although he was born in Moscow, buried on the family estate near Pskov and exiled on different occasions to what are now Chisinau in Moldova and Odessa in the Ukraine, St Petersburg is the place with which he is most closely associated. His influence can be felt across the city, whether in iconic monuments such as the Bronze Horseman statue, in the names of hotels, restaurants,schools and universities, in the name of atown and administrative district, a metro station, or even in the 'Alexander Pushkin slept here'-type memorial boards on the sides of buildings where the great man may once have stopped for a cup of tea.

There are several attractions in St Petersburg worth seeing in orderto learn more about him. A good place to start would be out at Tsarskoye Selo, the location of the Imperial Lyceum which Pushkin attended as a boy, a kind of Tsarist-era Eton for the sons of the nobility. It was here that he firstmade a name for himself as a 15 year old, reciting his own poetry before one of Russia's greatest literary figures of the day, Derzhavin. You canalsosee the very ordinary dorm room he occupied and a rare statue of the poet as a youth, invariably bedecked in flowers.This is just one of several statues dedicated to the poet around the city;others can be found in the metro station bearing his name, in the courtyard of his house-museum, out near the spot at which he received his fatal wounds, and most famously in front of the Russian Museum, in the centreof Arts Square. 

Pushkinskaya metro station

Back in the city, arguably the most iconic monument to the great man is not actually a statue of him, but of one of his most memorable fictional creations – the Bronze Horseman (Medniy vsadnik in Russian), one of many important things to see in St Petersburg.The statue was erected by order of Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, in memory of her ancestor and founder of the city, Peterthe Great. Set on an enormous boulder dragged into place by some 400 workmen from its original location inland, Peter is depicted sitting on the back of a rearing horse trampling a serpent underfoot – allegedly representing the Swedes, who Peter defeated to occupy the land. Pushkin's story was inspired by terrible floods which would periodically affect the city, and in typically ambiguous terms he both praises the city he loves and curses the Tsar for his disregard for his people. But it is as a hymn to the cityof St Petersburg, considered by many Peter's greatest legacy, that the poem resonates so strongly.Pushkin praises Peter's vision for the city in words every Russian knows: «I love you, Peter's creation, I love your stern but elegant look, the powerful flow of the Neva and its granite embankments, your wrought-iron gates, the transparent twilight and moonless gleam of your meditative nights….» Today the statue, set inDecembrists' Square, is a favourite of tourists and wedding parties, and there is a small park next to it where you can sit and watch the world go by.

Heading back towards Nevskiy Prospekt and onto the Moika Embankment, on the north east corner opposite the Taleon Hotel you will pass the famous Wolff & Béranger restaurant, now known as the Literary Caféin orderto capitalise on the poet's association with the place. This was Pushkin’s favourite confectioner and café, just round the corner from his apartment. He stopped in here on his way to the duel which eventually killed him, in order to meet with his second. Frankly it’s seen better days, but you might want to pop in anyway for a quick cup of tea before heading to Number 12 on the Moika, the apartment in which Pushkin lived for the last few months of his life. 

Bronze horseman statue

Now probably the most comprehensive of the many museums around Russia dedicated to him, the apartment was first opened as a museum in 1925 but has since been reconstructed several times, most recently last year. You can see pictures of the state of the building before and after several of these reconstructions. Here the poet spent the last four months of his life, and the apartment has been faithfully reconstructed and decorated with many original pieces of period furniture and items belonging to the great man himself. There’s no doubt it’s a charming set of rooms with plenty of light, high ceilings, and fresh pastel colours. But the four months he lived here were difficult – at the time he was heavily in debt, married to a society beauty with high maintenance expectations and living under the constant threat of eviction in an apartment he shared with his wife, four children, two sisters-in-law and servants. He was probably in a state of near nervous exhaustion for much of the time, which may explain the ease with which he became embroiled in a silly stand-off with the adopted son of the Dutch ambassador, who was by this time married to his wife’s sister. The result of the argument, as is well known, was a duel which took place on the 27th of January, 1837, at around 4:30 in the afternoon out at Chornaya Rechka on the northern outskirts of the city. It’s easy to imagine the cold, damp and gloomy setting. There you’ll find a monument marking the spot where he was fatally wounded. The event looms large in popular culture to this day, and recently self-styled Belarussian cabaret band Serebryannaya svadba (Silver Wedding) recorded a song in which the narrator tries to persuade the great poet not to go to the duel at Chornaya Rechka. You can find this slightly odd and rather melancholic song here.

After the duel, Pushkin was brought back to the house on the Moika in great pain and made preparations for his inevitable demise, which followed two days later. Even if you don’t speak Russian, the solemnity and hushed tones in which the museum guide describes these events would make you think it had just happened, rather than nearly 200 years ago.  

After the visit to the museum, head towards Konushennaya ploschad, where the salmon pink building of the Temple of the Saviour of the Icon Not Made by Hands was the location for Pushkin’s funeral service. Arrangements were made at the last minute even after the invitations had been printed which specified that the service would be held at St Isaacs Cathedral. The authorities then (as now) were sensitive to the potential for civil disorder and so moved the funeral to the local church, which also happened to be much smaller and an easier place to manage crowds. By order of the Tsar himself, Pushkin’s body was removed from the church under cover of darkness and began the journey to the Pushkin family country estate at Mikhaylovsksoe, near Pskov, where he was buried in the local monastery.  The country’s greatest poet died in typical Romantic poet fashion at the tragically young age of just 37. But his memory will never be forgotten.


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