Looking for Alexander Pushkin

Sean Carman reports and sends photographs from St. Petersburg, Russia.

I’m in St. Petersburg, Russia, attending the Summer Literary Seminars. The SLS program is sort of a Bread Loaf for Eastern Europe, a summer literary workshop for which you need a passport, a visa, and a migration card. At Bread Loaf, I imagine, they sip red wine and exchange refined thoughts about poetry. Here the participants throw back shots of vodka, and the question that begins each morning is, “Did you go to bed last night?”

St. Petersburg is a city of contradictions. Built as a capital, it instead became a literary city — home to Tolstoy and Pushkin and the setting for Crime and Punishment and The Nose. Peter the Great imagined he was founding a grand city, and he was, but he built it out of a swamp with the help of slave labor. And the city looks it. There are grand squares and towering monuments, but just as many inelegant streets and lifeless facades. The city is laced with canals and bridges but you can’t really call them beautiful, and the water they carry isn’t safe to drink. Modernization has left the city with twin souls. One is emerging, capitalistic, Western. The other is the broken spirit of the Eastern Bloc.

They are building fancy cafes on the sidewalks and yuppie coffeehouses along the canals. At the same time, the club down the street from our hotel seems to be some sort of Russian mafia hang-out. During the daytime the place is staked out with men with tiny earpieces, who talk into their collars and stare daggers at passersby. I walk by several times a day, each time expecting a rival gang of well-dressed men to speed by. They will be wearing fedoras, driving a De Soto, and firing tommy guns out their windows.

On Saturday I took a bus tour to the Summer Palace of Catherine the Great (pictured at right). It is, it turns out, a reconstruction. The spectacular building was reduced to a pile of bricks by the Germans in World War II, and has since been completely rebuilt. You don’t visit Catherine’s Summer Palace. You visit the idea of Catherine’s Summer Palace.

St. Petersburg somehow occupies a larger place in the imagination than it does in real life. Peter the Great’s grand dream of building a glorious city seems to have fallen short of its mark, and contrary to his desire it never became the permanent Russian capitol. Even today St. Petersburg frustrates the visitor. You can’t quite figure it out.

Saturday night we attended a reading by the Russian poet Sergey Gandlevsky. It took place in Akhmatova’s former house, which is now a museum dedicated to her life and works. I can’t tell you anything about Gandlevsky, except that he reads well. He spoke in Russian, and I couldn’t understand a word he said.

But we listened to him on the second-floor of Akhmatova’s graceful stucco mansion, with its arched doorways and hardwood floors, and the songs of birds drifting in from the courtyard below.

I learned from the captioned photos on the wall that in the 1930’s St. Petersburg hosted a literary scene that rivaled San Francisco’s and New York’s in the 60’s. One of those photographs captures Joseph Brodsky, who could pass for a young Robert Redford, mourning Akmatova as she lies in state on a public street. Brodsky has his hand to his mouth, muffling an anguished cry. The photograph reveals Akhmatova as the center of a swirling literary and artistic scene. Brodsky, and many others, must have loved her. I had never heard of Akhmatova, but having seen her house and those photographs of her time, I want more than anything to read her poetry.

I thought the “Excursion to Pushkin,” scheduled the following Saturday, would introduce the great Russian poet, but nothing doing. It was, in fact, the bus trip to see Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace, which is located, it turns out, in a suburb that recently took Pushkin’s name.

The tour guide, however, read her own translation of a Pushkin love poem. It sounded like a Shakespearean sonnet or something from Byron.

The next day I discovered Pushkin’s apartment, which lies inside a building along the Moyka Canal, and has been turned into a museum. The entrance is a small, inconspicuous wooden door on the sidewalk. The sign outside is in Russian. Unless you were looking for it, or spoke the language, you would walk right past.

Inside the wooden door is a splendid courtyard. There Pushkin’s statue surveys hedges and park benches that border a small patch of grass.

Pushkin is remembered as the greatest Russian poet and the founder of Russian classical prose. His romantic poems and prose are said to have paved the way for Gogol and Dostoevsky. He is also, apparently, the least-translatable of any Russian writer. His work represents yet another example of how St. Petersburg keeps its distance and refuses to reveal itself to the visitor. I keep telling St. Petersburg natives that I would like to read more of Pushkin. They keep telling me that no matter how much I read, I’ll never completely get it.

The Pushkin museum does a good job telling the story of the poet’s life. He had the misfortune to lead a life as romantic, and ultimately as tragic, as his poetry. He married Natalya Gonchorova, one of the most beautiful women in St. Petersburg. Shortly after their marriage a French military officer, known by the name D’Anthes, became a competitor for Gonchorova’s affections. D’Anthes and his friends began sending Pushkin letters welcoming him to “the honorable member of the Order of the Cuckold.”

Pushkin challenged D’Anthes to a duel and lost. He died in his apartment three days later. His best friend and teacher Vasily Zhokovsky attended to him in his final hours, and closed Pushkin’s eyes after he passed away. In Pushkin’s study there is a lithograph portrait of Zhokovky. It had been Zhokovsky’s gift to Pushkin. Its inscription reads, “To the student who surpassed his teacher.”

Pushkin’s poetry may have been untranslatable, but he wrote a few lines about St. Petersburg that, even in English, capture the beauty that lies beneath the city’s inscrutable surface:

I love thee Peter’s proud creation
The princely stateliness of line
The regal Neva coursing through
Sober walls of massive stone

In another poem Pushkin foresaw his place in history:

I shall not wholly die
For in my lyre my spirit shall outlive
My dust’s corruption
And honor shall I have
So long as the glorious fire of poesy
Flames on one single . . .

And there, in the last word of Pushkin’s lyric self-assessment, the stubborn inscrutability of St. Petersburg raised its ugly head.

I could not understand the last word of the poem. Statue? Stantion? Stanza? I listened to the spot on the Pushkin Apartment Museum audio guide cassette tape several times. I simply couldn’t make it out.


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