Anatoly Vorobey usually posts in Russian at Avva, but he decided to write this fascinating story in English; I’ll quote part of it here and let you go to the link for the rest:

I doubt this story has been told much outside Russia – and even in Russia, most people who heard of it are probably professors or PhD students in Russian literature. It is not widely known, but it should be.

But let me begin. There are three heroes in this story, and I will introduce them one by one. First, there was Gavriil Batenkov. […] He was a Decembrist. Batenkov was an army officer, then an engineer, and a poet (a whole lot of them were poets). He was 33 at the time of the revolt, and then he spent the next 20 years in solitary confinement at the Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg. During that time he possibly went mad (there were some very rambling writings and letters; some historians think he was faking being mad). After his release, he was exiled for 10 years to Siberia, and then finally allowed to come back and spend the last years of his life in relative peace.

Batenkov published only one poem during his life, called “The Wild One”, written at the beginning of his confinement. A tale of woe by a prisoner removed from society, it wasn’t, unfortunately, very good. He wasn’t well-known as a poet during his life, and was swiftly forgotten after his death in 1863. He doesn’t have an English-language Wikipedia entry. Historians knew there were unpublished poems and drafts remaining in his papers and letters, but there wasn’t much interest in them.

Roll forward 100 years.

Our second hero’s name is Alexander Ilyushin. […] A poet, a translator, and a philologist – that last word usually means “a student of language and literature” in Russia, a vocation that sits in the middle between linguistics and literary studies as they are understood in the West. Ilyushin studied Russian poetry of the 19th century – and in the late 1960s, when he was in his twenties, he started studying Batenkov. Ilyushin went through more archives than other researchers before him, found more letters by Batenkov, more drafts, more unpublished poems. Gradually he realized that Batenkov wrote quite a few poems after coming back from Siberia that were actually very good – much better than the single one he published and a few others written during his confinement and exile that other researchers had already published and dissected in professional literature. Most of these late poems were in a single manuscript sheaf found posthumously in the papers of a fellow writer, and overlooked until Ilyushin by other researchers. Armed with this new trove of Batenkov’s poetry, Ilyushin went to work. […]

Soon after Ilyushin’s book, these newly found poems by Batenkov went into anthologies, were noticed and mentioned by other scholars and poets, and in a few short years Batenkov was, so to speak, back on the map of Russian poetry, no longer as forgotten as he had been. Ilyushin succeeded.

Roll forward 15 more years.

In 1994, another Russian researcher by the name of Maxim Shapir – our third hero – published a PhD dissertation in Russian literature with an innocent title, but very unexpected content. Shapir argued, at length and convincingly, that the new poems by Batenkov found and published by Ilyushin… *may have been* written by Ilyushin himself.

As Anatoly says after laying out some wildly suspicious circumstances, “Documents do go missing in Russian archives, and some researchers carry so much weight that they’re informally given things to study that should not have left the premises. It could well have happened just as Ilyushin said…” There are no smoking guns, but I would bet money on its being a case of fakery, or japery, or mystification, or however you choose to consider this sort of thing (I mean, just look at Ilyushin — that’s either a monk or a mad scientist). But what I find especially interesting is how the story suits the Russian literary culture of the early 1990s.

Here are some prominent works published in 1992: Pelevin’s Sinii fonar′ [The Blue Lantern] “established him as a postmodernist writer whose work is characterized by fragmentation, conscious artificiality…, and game-playing”; in Mark Kharitonov’s Linii sud′by [Lines of Fate] the scholar Lizavin studies the archive of the writer Simeon Milashevich, who died in the 1920s, and tries to discover the lines of his fate; in Vladimir Sharov’s Repetitsii [The Rehearsals] a medieval historian is given old manuscripts and finds the diaries of a 17th-c. Frenchman, Jacques de Sertan, who wrote a play about the life of Christ; in Andrei Bitov’s Vychitanie zaitsa [Subtraction of a hare] Pushkin turned back from a journey to Petersburg, where he would have joined the Decembrists, because a hare crossed his path; in Leonid Girshovich’s Obmenyonnye golovy [Exchanged heads] a violinist visiting Germany discovers his grandfather, a famous violin virtuoso, was not shot during the occupation of Kharkov but miraculously survived; and in Alexander Melikhov’s Tak govoril Saburov [Thus spake Saburov] the scientist Saburov reads a manuscript left by an old man about another Saburov, a revolutionary nobleman who founded a colony where government and religion were eliminated. The next year, Mikhail Shishkin published Vsekh ozhidaet odna noch′ [One night awaits us all], the “stylized memoirs of a Russian gentleman living in the first half of the nineteenth century.” In 1994, the year Shapir came out with his bombshell dissertation, Vladimir Voinovich published Zamysel: Avtobiograficheskii roman [Idea: An autobiographical novel] in which Voinovich intertwines the fictitious sexual autobiography of Luiza Barskaya with his own life; that same year, Vladimir Sorokin published a number of his postmodernist works, like Roman [Novel/Roman (name of protagonist)], which is full of the clichés of the 19th-century Russian novel. In 1995, Elena Makarova’s Smekh na ruinakh [Laughter in the ruins] has a protagonist who wants to buy a nonexistent history. You get the idea: altered history, mysterious manuscripts, and the early nineteenth century were very much in the air, and the Ilyushin/Shapir saga fits right in.


  1. It occurs to me that the famous Ленин – гриб mystification fits in here; it’s from 1991.

  2. Pushkin turned back from a journey to Petersburg, where he would have joined the Decembrists, because a hare crossed his path

    This is what really happened. At least that’s Pushkin’s explanation. The alternative history would be Pushkin not turning back.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Kuryokhin arrived at his conclusion through a long series of logical fallacies and appeals to the authority of various “sources” (such as Carlos Castaneda, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky), creating the illusion of a reasoned and plausible logical chain.

    Obviously MIT is the dead giveaway there. It shouldn’t have fooled anybody that it was slipped in between reliable authorities.

  4. This is what really happened. At least that’s Pushkin’s explanation.

    Right, I mention it as an example of interest in the Decembrist period.

  5. David Marjanović says

    A hare? Do they function like black cats from the left?

    fakery, or japery, or mystification, or however you choose to consider this sort of thing

    Pseudepigraphy would be the term.

  6. Intense interest in Decembrists/Pushkin’s period was going from at least the Thaw. Interest in mystification, literary or otherwise, is indeed the sign of 1990s and later times.

  7. A hare? Do they function like black cats from the left?

    Stock exchange hare.

  8. Owlmirror says

    And WikiP tells me that Тлён, Укбар, Орбис Терциус — surely an Ur-example of mystical pseudepigraphic metafiction — had a Russian translation in 1992.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Nothing mystical about it. The world has now become Tlön, just as Borges told us it would …

  10. John Cowan says

    a philologist – that last word usually means “a student of language and literature” in Russia, a vocation that sits in the middle between linguistics and literary studies as they are understood in the West

    Philology is not dead in the West as long as Tom Shippey still lives, and he is a mere-shmere 76. For that matter, he must have had students, though a quick Google has not revealed any. There is, however, a Festschrift called Tolkien in the New Century, whose first essay is by John R. Holmes: its title is “Counseling the Scippiġræd“, that is, those counseled by Shippey. Doubtless not all of this select club are philologists, but—

    In any case, the first paragraph of this essay is about King Æthelwulf of Wessex, who named his first five sons with his own prefix Æthel- ‘noble’, but decided to change up for his sixth son, perhaps because he did not expect him to ever be king. So he named him Ælfræd ‘advised by elves’. Quoth Holmes: “While we have no historical proof that Alfred actually received counsel from elves, there is no evidence to the contrary, and the boy certainly prospered as if he had. […. He] would be the only English monarch known to history as “the Great”.

  11. I’ve been down this rabbit hole before, and not once. With the Ukolovs who famously discovered, or made up, a Russian poet and composer Nicholas DeWitte (who, they explain, hardly ever signed his work, preferring nom-de-plumes or just outright signing some friend’s name) (The Ukolov’s book, Crucified on the Harp, should be available on line, but if anyone’s interested and the book can’t be found, then just ask me for a copy). (They dug hard in the archives and didn’t include the catalog numbers). And with a renown Crimeologist who I should not name here (yes, there is such a field of research in Russia) and who is quick to admit that a beautiful and crazy story beats all sorts of factual restrictions. This researcher pushed me a theory that a great Russian romance composer Yakov Prigozhy was a Crimean Karaite, complete with much folk etymology and with a reference to a memorial plaque in the Grand Karaite Kenassa of Evpatoria (which, alas, hasn’t been photographed).

    Both threads are briefly touched in my “Dark Eyes” romance investigation, here
    and here
    (A Russian version is linked there, too)

  12. @David Eddyshaw: The head of the anthropology program at MIT (James Howe; I had to look up his name after all these years) was a serious researcher into “spirit contact” rites and behaviors in various cultures. And he really wanted to make sure we knew what a total fraud Castaneda was.

    @John Cowan: I wonder whether he was not counting Cnut as Great, or not as an English monarch.

  13. Owlmirror says

    Speaking of black cats, while I have long known of the superstition that they are supposed to be bad luck, the only time I personally witnessed someone having an extreme panicked reaction to a black cat crossing the street about a block ahead of his car was in the early 1990s, from someone from Russia. I have fuzzy memories of sudden sharp fast maneuvering that flung me about the passenger seat, then a high-speed acceleration away, before he slowed down and drove normally again.

    No mention of Pushkin. Just an apology for being so superstitious.

  14. Well, Owlmirror, in extenuation of your superstitious Russian friend, there do exist black Republican cats who believe in Open Carry. See:

  15. Owlmirror – whether black cats are lucky or unlucky varies from country to country.

    Black cats were always seen as lucky when I was growing up in the UK (living in England but with strong Scottish influences, if that makes a difference)

  16. Rodger C says

    Ah yes, Carlos Castaneda, or as I like to call him, Carlos Casinada.

  17. Just ran across this, at the very beginning of German Sadulaev’s Таблетка (The pill, translated by Carol Apollonio as The Maya Pill; I quote her translation):

    «Атан кхалам сарватум»[1]

    Единственная надпись на хазарском языке, расшифрованная исследователями. По мнению некоторых лингвистов, она означает: «Можно всё». По мнению некоторых историков, эта фраза была девизом знатной хазарской купеческой фамилии, у дома которого нашли каменную стелу с надписью. Впрочем, академическая наука не признаёт ни стелы, считая её поздней фальсификацией, ни надписи, подражающей санскритскому алфавиту деванагари, ни того, что надпись эта сделана на хазарском языке, ни её перевода.

    Atan khalam sarvatum*

    *The only inscription in the Khazar language that has been deciphered by scholars. Some linguists believe that it means “All things are possible.” The phrase was found inscribed on a stone stela that, some historians say, stood outside the home of a distinguished family of Khazar merchants; it may have served as their motto. Mainstream scholarship, however, does not recognize the stela, believing it to be a later fabrication; does not recognize the inscription itself, which is an imitation of the Sanskrit Devanagari alphabet; puts no stock in the belief that the inscription is in the Khazar language; and doesn’t think much of the translation either.

    Seems an appropriate companion to this thread.

  18. Rodger C says

    Well, I can recognize sarva- for ‘all’ as Sanskrit.

  19. John Cowan says
  20. @John Cowan: I always find it amusing when the same individuals manage to circle around to the same discussions that we have already had here.

  21. Batenkov was a most interesting figure but relatively little is known about him with perfect certainty. It is said that he was the only Decembrist born and raised in Siberia. It was assumed for a while that he was a native of Tomsk but his autobiography (which does not name his birthplace explicitly) strongly suggests it was Tobolsk.

    Batenkov says the first subjects he learned as a child were arithmetic and Tatar grammar. Speaking of the Tatar language, he mentions Iosif Giganov, a priest and the author of a Tatar grammar published in 1801 in St. Petersburg, as well as a “teacher Seifulin,” who also knew Arabic.

    In 1956, Isidor S. Katsnelson, a prominent Soviet Egyptologist, argued that Batenkov was the author of the first Russian précis (and review) of Champollion’s Précis, published only three months after the original work. Batenkov was also a competent civil engineer and architect: he designed a bridge in Irkutsk and a few houses in Tomsk.

    It’s still unclear why Batenkov was punished with such extraordinary severity for his mid-level role in the secret societies behind the Decembrist revolt. Some say he could barely walk when released; others, that he practiced gymnastics daily and learned to walk on his hands.

  22. SFReader says

    The reason for severe punishment is obvious – according to the latest plan made just before the revolt, Batenkov who had some extensive government experience as an assistant to the great reformer and former State Secretary Speransky, was to become Russian Premier – head of the Provisional Revolutionary Government.

    The Man Who Would Be King….

  23. John Cowan says

    Brett: Every piece of knowledge is the center of knowledge, for each piece leads by plain or devious connection to all.

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