Notes on Pushkin

In 1821, when Pushkin was twenty-two, he wrote a long poem called Gavriiliada, which was circulated widely in manuscript but, on account of its impiety and indecency, never published during Pushkin’s lifetime. It made trouble for him in 1828, when Pushkin was already in bad odor with the authorities. The servants of a Captain Mitkov complained that their immoral master had been reading them a blasphemous poem. The captain was arrested, and Pushkin was made to appear before the military governor general of Petersburg. He denied having written the poem, but this disavowal was not accepted, and he might well have been sent to Siberia if he had not addressed a letter to the Tsar in which he is thought to have confessed and expressed the deepest contrition. The Gavriiliada appeared in print only in 1861, when the poet Ogarev had it published in London. Today it is included in all the Soviet editions of Pushkin; yet it still has so black a reputation among members of the old regime that I have found that a highly intelligent and otherwise well-read Russian friend has never been able to bring herself to face it.

The Gavriiliada was obviously prompted by the literature of the French eighteenth century, of the mockery of the Bible by Voltaire and his follower Evariste Parny. It is directly indebted, in its comic treatment of the legend of the Immaculate Conception, to Les Galanteries de la Bible and La Guerre des Dieux of the latter; and in Parny’s version of the Garden of Eden, in which Satan in the guise of a serpent is made to play a liberating role, to his Paradis Perdu.

I have just reread the Gavriiliada and I found that it did not have the charm for me that it did when I first read it. But if one comes to it after Parny, graceful and well-turned though this is, but thin and dry in the eighteenth-century fashion, one is struck by Pushkin’s faculty for making anything he touched humanly sympathetic. His Mary is successively ravished by Satan, who has transformed himself from a snake to a handsome young man; by the Archangel Gabriel, who has been sent by the Lord to prepare the way for His holiday from the routine hymns and prayers in His praise, but takes advantage of the opportunity to make love to the irresistible Mary; and finally by the Lord Himself in the form of a quivering billing dove.

All these characters are brought to life much more vividly than Parny has been able to do. The first of the seductions leads Pushkin to remember wistfully his first arousing the desires of a well-brought-up young girl; and the struggle between Satan and Gabriel is described in terms of his schoolboy wrestling with comrades. The serpent’s account of the raptures of love to which he introduces Adam and Eve seems to me more attractive than those of either Milton or Parny:

И не страшась обжественного …

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Letters

Slavism February 11, 1971