Another fine essay by Mikhail Shishkin (see this post), discussing the history of relations between the intelligentsia (particularly the literary part of it) and the rulers of Russia:

Poets appeared in Russia in the eighteenth century. They wore officers’ uniforms and mostly wrote odes for the accession of German empresses onto the Russian throne. In a country where life was lived according to the wartime principle of unity of command, everyone including poets served the government, which was personified by the autocracy. But everything changed with Pushkin. Born in a country where serfdom was only the formal expression of a deep internal psychological slavery, he achieved the most important Russian coup, the greatest Russian revolution: in opposition to the pyramid of power, at the head of which the Czar administers the fates of individuals and nations, he created an alternative pyramid, at the head of which stood the poet. The juxtaposition of the czar and the holy fool—the old divided paradigm of authority—was exchanged for the juxtaposition of the czar and the poet.

Minor quibble: I think rhetorical effectiveness seduced him into writing “The point of Peter’s reforms was to obtain military technology from the West in order to do battle against that very same West”; Peter didn’t want to do battle against the West, he wanted to do battle against the Swedes and Turks, and he genuinely admired the West (which, for him, principally meant the Dutch). Thanks, Paul!


  1. Mao had the right idea: the intelligentsia are not a class but just “hair attached to the skin. If the skin is eliminated, how can the hair survive?”

  2. Okay, but the role of the Chinese intellectuals can’t be compared with the role of the Russian ones, which in turn can’t be compared with the role of the Western European ones, which can’t be compared with the role of the American ones. They have a lot in common with each other (hidden behind vicious faction fights), but their places in their societies differ immensely.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    So how did substituting poets for holy fools work out for the Russian people?

  4. I would not call it a fine piece. If anything, I expected something less simplified from the sensitive Shishkin.
    “They wore officers’ uniforms and mostly wrote odes for the accession of German empresses onto the Russian throne.”
    As if Shishkin had never read “God” or “On the death of Prince Meschersky” or “The Swallow” by Derzhavin or “The evening meditation on divine majesty” by Lomonosov. As if Lomonosov had not been (albeit at times only) ferociously independent: “I shall not act the fool at the table of high-born masters, nor any earthly lords, nor even the Lord God, who gave me reason – until He, perhaps, should take it away.” (From a letter to his patron, I.I. Shuvalov. Pushkin was fond of that quote. He wrote to his wife: “I can be a servant, even a slave – but not a lackey or a jester, even to the Heavenly King.”)
    Both Lomonosov and Derzhavin rendered “Exegi monumentum” into Russian before Pushkin, but while Lomonosov thought of himself as a scholar, Derzhavin, who did wear a uniform for many years, took himself rather seriously as a poet. “My enemies’ bones will be gnawed away by worms, / But I am a poet, and shall not die.” Or even better:
    Transported high above envy,
    I will leave beneath me the glitter of kingdoms,
    Indeed! Inglorious by birth,
    but being a favorite of the Muses,
    I am not equal to other grandees
    and Death himself will give me preference.
    No sepulcher will confine me;
    amid stars, I will not turn to dust,
    but, like a certain flute,
    I will sound as voices from the skies.
    (Derzhavin imagines himself literally becoming a swan and taking off in this poem, which turns quite hilarious at times.)
    On Pushkin as revolutionary, I prefer G.P. Fedotov’s less rosy take in “The Poet of Empire and Freedom.”

  5. Yes, it’s oversimplified, but you have to remember that the target audience knows almost nothing about any of this, and we all have to start with oversimplified versions before we can digest more complex ones.

  6. Indeed, the difference between simplifying and oversimplifying is mostly in the point of view, and often a matter of allegiance to particular teachers as against others who denounce them.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m not sure Shishkin is writing about the intelligentsy at all. The class of Russians capable of Pushkin/Tolstoy-like personal iconicity to whom even autocrats must pay homage is much much much smaller than the intelligentsia, and the class of Russians desirous and capable of temporarily trying to steer the political system in a non-autocratic direction (as in Feb. 1917 and again in 1991, just to use his examples) is too large to be just or even primarily the intelligentsia, although apparently still not large enough and/or competent enough to maintain political control for any sustained period.
    The notion that Putin is not a very good autocrat because he doesn’t bother to pay lip service to the iconicity of Great Russian Writers the way Stalin did does not make one sympathetic to Shishkin. Rather, it makes him sound like a whiner. I am happier thinking about Medvedev enjoying his collection of ’70’s classic rock albums on vinyl than I would be if he felt constrained to explain that Akhmatova is a greater artist than all past and present members of Deep Purple combined (which she of course is), And That This Is Because Of The Profundity of The Russian Soul.

  8. I felt that Shishkin’s piece was highly politicised. It’s interesting as a view of history, but does seem distorted by the polemical need to make his point. It’s only slightly more sophisticated than those old Hollywood movies that purport to present a history of Christianity, or the Chinese Communist Party’s version of Chinese history.

  9. It’s interesting as a view of history, but does seem distorted by the polemical need to make his point.
    Well, it is after all a polemical piece and not a work of history. I guess I’m more indulgent toward it because I like his polemics.

  10. Russia’s eighteen-century poets welcomed Catherine II as an agent of Enlightenment but Alexander Radischev saw the monarchic principle itself as the root of evil. His 1783 ode “Liberty” is republican: Radischev proclaims the people as the sole source of authority and invokes George Washington’s name.
    In 1817, a prodigiously gifted 18-year-old poet named Alexander Pushkin produced his own “Liberty.” Surprisingly, it was not simply an ode to tyrannomachia: it praises freedom protected by law. It paints the execution of Louis XVI and the murder of Pavel I as a warning to tyrants but refuses to glorify their slayers. Its author admits to “wicked joy” at the death of an unnamed autocrat and his children, but sees the French regicide as pointless.
    I’m not saying it sounds better than Shishkin but gives some context at least, rather than “it all changed with Pushkin.”

  11. Yes, a good point.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    There are two different questions here: a) was Pushkin and/or Pushkin’s work radically different from that of prior Russian poets; versus b) was the symbolic cultural/pseudo-spiritual/quasi-political role that came to be occupied by Pushkin and/or his work radically different from whatever symbolic etc. role had been occupied by prior Russian poets. My sense is that b) does seem to be the case, and that’s an interesting and important fact about Russian history in and of itself even if the answer to a) doesn’t satisfactorily explain why b) should be the case. In other words, to evaluate the claim “it all changed with Pushkin,” you have to identify the relevant antecedent of “it.”

  13. m-l: Continuing the matter of brush from the previous page: brousse was an error on my part for brosse. The OF form was broisse, broce, whose meaning apparently covered both modern brousse (cf. English underbrush, brush hook) and brosse. Brush past is part of the same semantic complex, from the idea of making one’s way through thick woods.
    The short u of brush is < Anglo-Norman bruce. It’s not clear to me whether Occitan brus is the source of the French word or just a cognate that also retained the vowel quality of Latin *bruscia ‘bundle of twigs’. The ultimate origin is probably < Germanic brust- (> English brist(le)) < PIE *bhars- ‘point’.

  14. marie-lucie says

    JC: I think it is easier to see word resemblances in another language than one’s own, since in one’s own language the sounds are inextricably linked with the meaning. It did not occur to me that you might have meant la brosse ‘brush’ (as in “toothbrush”, etc), even though the TLFI to which I resorted for brousse‘s history also mentioned brosse.
    I doubt that brosse is from Occitan, since both languages have preserved Latin short u as the front rounded vowel. I agree that a Germanic origin is more likely for the French word(s) (and, much earlier, for the Latin one). Etienne might know!

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