Many in the West are not familiar with the works of Alexander Pushkin. They may not even be aware of his existence and this is a real loss for western thinking. Just as Shakespeare is admired throughout the world and not just in Britain, for his lessons are universal and touch all hearts no matter what period or part of the world they were born into, so too does Pushkin partake in and deserve our attention.
For those who are not familiar with Pushkin, he is considered the Father of the Russian language. Though Russia had existed for centuries, with the founding of the Russian Empire in 1721, the Russian language was not considered well-established until Pushkin, who lived from 1799 to 1837. He was only 37 years old when he was killed.
When channels of dialogue were re-opened with Europe, after over 230 years of almost no communication due to the Russian Orthodox Church declaring autocephaly in 1448, Russia felt how far it had fallen behind. As Pushkin would write “The great epoch of the Renaissance had no influence here [in Russia].”
By the time of the reign of Tsarina Elisabeth I (1741-1762), French became the dominant language of the Russian courts and intellectual circles. To be “well read” in French thought became a fad of sorts and a sign of one’s good breeding and superiority. It did not take long for the latest fads in French philosophical thought to penetrate into Russian courts and amongst the Russian “intellectuals.” And so Russia had missed out on the Renaissance but would immerse itself in the French intellectual movement of the Enlightenment and be sure not to be left behind this time around.
At the time there really wasn’t a Russian philosophical school, and the Russian language which was incredibly undeveloped, did not have the capability to communicate the sorts of ideas that were being conveyed by the intellectual movements of Europe. It was thus no surprise that most aristocrats and intellectuals of Russia learned how to speak and think in French. Although it was typical that many foreign languages were spoken at court, French became the dominant language during the reign of Tsarina Elisabeth I, and the Russian language became increasingly something considered for only “lowly uneducated peasants”.
Thus not only did the elite mostly think and converse in a foreign language, but their published works in the sciences and arts were also written down in the French language.
Catherine the Great would reign from 1762-1796, and ardently promoted Enlightenment thinking, even holding regular correspondences with Voltaire. In spite of this apparent erudition of the courts, injustice and inequality also flourished and by the end of Catherine the Great’s reign, 90% of the Russian population, that is 20 million people, lived in serfdom.
It would take a Pushkin, who was born three years after Catherine’s reign, to correct this scar within Russia’s psyche and attract people from around the world to read amongst the most beautiful works in poetry, drama and philosophy for the first time in the Russian language.
In this lecture, Cynthia Chung discusses Pushkin’s rightful place among the literary greats, such as Shakespeare and Schiller, focusing on Pushkin’s “Little Tragedies,” and the role of Nemesis.
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