Hermitage, St. Petersburg/Scala/White Images/Art Resource

Alexander Pushkin; painting by Pyotr Konchalovsky, 1932

Who was Alexander Pushkin? Russians regard him as their greatest writer, greater even than Lev Tolstoy. Edmund Wilson, once one of America’s best-known public intellectuals, pronounced him “the greatest poet of the nineteenth century.” But for those who do not know Russian, the reasons for this praise remain elusive.

In fact, almost everything about Pushkin is elusive. When Isaiah Berlin formulated his famous distinction between “hedgehogs” and “foxes”—the great system-builders and the congenital skeptics—he deemed Pushkin (1799–1837) the perfect fox. As man and poet, Pushkin seems to be the master of a thousand strange disguises and masks concealing still more masks.

Pushkin was himself a strange mixture. The Pushkins were one of Russia’s most prominent noble families, but the poet’s maternal great-grandfather, Ibrahim Hannibal, was an African who, legend has it, was an Abyssinian prince taken hostage by the Turks. In 1705 a Russian envoy rescued him from the sultan’s court in Istanbul and delivered him to Tsar Peter the Great as a gift. Peter adopted the boy as his godson, dispatched him to France for military training, and made him an officer in his most prestigious regiment. Hannibal eventually rose to the rank of general. Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, granted him considerable property, including the estate at Mikhailovskoe, near the Latvian border, where Pushkin, as every Russian schoolchild knows, wrote some of his best poems.

Everything about him has become legendary. Russians visit “Pushkin places” associated with incidents in his life. When the Russian Formalists ridiculed biographical criticism they imagined an article entitled “Did Pushkin Smoke?” If something costs too much, a Russian might ask: “So who’s going to pay for it? Pushkin?” Vain and endlessly playful, Pushkin would have appreciated both the adoration and the parodies of it.

He loved being outrageous. One young woman Pushkin courted recalled his “terrible sidewhiskers, his disheveled hair, his nails long as claws,…the strangeness of his natural and constrained disposition, and his unlimited vanity,” all of which combined with a face given to expressions of “malice and sarcasm.” Others mentioned his careless attire and habit of twirling a cane or whip. Of course, he made the most of his exotic African heritage. His greatest work, the novel in verse Eugene Onegin, features a narrator who longs to stroll once again “under the sun of my Africa”—where Pushkin never set foot—and his unfinished novella, “The Moor of Peter the Great,” is a romanticized biography of his ancestor.

Pushkin sometimes imitated Byron and sometimes parodied imitators of Byron. With his endless seductions of society women, Pushkin became fascinated with the figure of Don Juan. How could the great seducer transform himself at will into whatever a given woman most desired? Pushkin’s play The Stone Guest deals with Don Juan, while prurient scholars have excited themselves by deciphering the code Pushkin used in his notorious “Don Juan list,” which supposedly lists his many lovers.

As a young man, Pushkin got into trouble by writing obscene, as well as politically unacceptable, poems. In his mock epic “The Gabrieliad,” written in 1821, a parody of the annunciation, Gabriel and Satan sleep with Mary before God ever gets to her, which leads us to ask, exactly whose son is Jesus? The quest in the mock quest story “Tsar Nikita’s Forty Daughters” is for the daughters’ missing vaginas. It’s no surprise that Pushkin spent a lot of time in internal exile in Ekaterinoslav, Kishinev, and Odessa.

In December 1825, a group of idealistic noblemen staged a rebellion, which was easily put down. Five were hanged, and many other “Decembrists” were exiled to Siberia, providing stories of martyrdom for later radicals. If you believe the legend, the superstitious Pushkin was on his way to join the Decembrists when a hare crossed his path, which he took as a sign to go back. Russians sometimes refer to “the hare that saved Russian literature.”

When Pushkin at last married—his wife was the much younger beauty Natalia Goncharova—he found himself in the position of the husbands he used to cuckold. He grew especially sensitive to perceived slights, such as the tsar’s awarding him a low-ranking position at court so as (he supposed) to attend to the poet’s gorgeous wife, including at the many court balls Pushkin resented having to attend. When rumors implicated her in an intrigue with a French émigré cavalry officer, Pushkin provoked a duel in which he was killed. Hagiographical biographers found ways to blame the tsar: the greater one’s enemies, the more exalted one’s death!

Who then was Pushkin? Since he was Russia’s first great writer, “the father of Russian literature,” the question became entangled in issues of national identity. Tell me who you think Pushkin was, and I’ll tell you your view of Russian history. As it happens, his work lends itself to almost any image.


Known first as an incomparable lyric poet, Pushkin commands an astonishing variety of voices. His love poems, which range from the suggestive to the elegiac, often turn out to be less about love than about the memory of love, and, indeed, about memory itself. He wrote spectacular odes, like his brilliant “Autumn,” powerful political poems (“The Dagger”), meditations on evil (“The Upas Tree”), and plaintive fears for his sanity (“God Grant I Go Not Mad”). He was also a master of the insulting epigram, like the one entitled “On Vorontsov”: “Half a snob and half a slime,/Half depraved and half a dope,/Half a scoundrel—but there’s hope,/He’ll be a full one given time.” An especially great number of his poems are playful and celebrate sheer creativity.

You can find poems expressing love for the common people as well as snobbish ones, like “My Ancestry,” celebrating his noble blood. He loved to offer a persuasive expression of a worldview, like a passage in Eugene Onegin celebrating cynicism, only to deflate it by remarking wryly that such sentiments give charm to conversation. His poem “Echo” comments on his entire oeuvre:

Let a beast roar in the dense wood,
Let a horn blare, or thunder crash,
Let a maiden sing beyond the hill—
      To every sound
You at once produce a response
      In the empty air.

You listen to thunder rumble,
The voice of the storm and waves,
And the cry of village shepherds—
      You send an answer,
But to you there is no response.
      Poet, that’s just like you!

Pushkin’s story “Egyptian Nights” asks whether one can form an authentic identity by skillfully assuming the identities of others. Charsky, who keeps his poetry entirely separate from his social life, encounters a visiting Italian improvisatore, whose act consists in composing on the spot a poem on any suggested theme. To Charsky’s surprise, the improvisatore seems to be genuinely inspired each time, as if the theme came from the depths of his own soul. Charsky tries to perplex the performer by suggesting the theme: “The poet chooses the subject of his songs himself; the crowd has no right to command his inspiration.” Surely the improvisatore cannot be inspired by that theme without contradicting himself! But to his amazement, the improvisatore produces a marvelous lyric. When Charsky inquires how it is possible to make another’s will one’s own, we recognize with surprise that the story has much larger implications, including political ones. People do manage not just to obey, but also to embrace, another’s will.

The surprising and barely stated philosophical question: that is one way Pushkin’s poems and stories gain unexpected depth. The classic Russian writers to follow made lengthy philosophical speeches a Russian trademark in novels Henry James called “loose baggy monsters.” But Pushkin is never baggy, and even his apparently profuse digressions are concise. He raises ultimate questions with a hint. The gesture is enough. He resembles, and clearly learned from, the great masters of brevity, aphorists like Pascal and La Rochefoucauld. Some compare his witty couplets to Alexander Pope’s because their concision makes him so eminently quotable. His lines, like Pope’s, have become more than proverbial: it’s as if they had been born with the language.

Nothing could be more concise, or raise so many philosophical questions, as Pushkin’s “little tragedy,” Mozart and Salieri. In ten pages it suggested ideas for countless Russian writers, philosophers, and critics. Among Americans, it is best known for the film it loosely (and baggily) inspired, Amadeus, which recounts the legend of how the composer Salieri out of envy poisoned Mozart.

Pushkin’s Mozart bears a striking resemblance to Pushkin himself: his inspiration comes easily, and he effortlessly creates masterpieces while drinking, laughing, or playing. Salieri, by contrast, has expended immense effort to learn his craft, and knows he will never be more than a craftsman. The play opens with Salieri’s famous monologue:

Men say there is no justice in the world;
But neither is there justice up above….
                    Killing sounds
I dissected music like a corpse. I checked
Harmony with algebra. Only then I dared…
I began to create, but in silence, in secret.

For Salieri, Mozart’s carelessness is not only unjustly successful but disgraces his own genius. When Mozart arrives with a blind violinist whom he has overheard playing one of his own arias badly, he laughs, but Salieri is deeply offended. “Ah, Salieri,/Can it be that you are not laughing?” Mozart wonders. Salieri replies that he finds no humor when a wretched painter bedaubs a Raphael or when a contemptible buffoon “dishonors Alighieri with a parody.” But Pushkin’s art was itself parody, all playful impersonation inseparable from humor. Salieri believes greatness must be deadly serious, and both his villainy and unoriginality derive from his humorlessness. For Mozart the fox, as for the playful and the creative generally, laughter is a whole philosophy of life. It reflects the highest wisdom, the ability to stand outside oneself.


In the most famous commentary ever written on Pushkin, Dostoevsky managed, with his splendid ideological alchemy, to transmute Pushkin’s foxiness into nationalist hedgehogism. The reason Pushkin could adopt all viewpoints and impersonate all nationalities, Dostoevsky explained, is that “responsiveness” constitutes the essence of Russianness. Since Peter the Great, “we [Russians] have accepted the genius of other nations into our soul,” just as Pushkin made foreign voices his own. It follows for Dostoevsky that Russia is the one “pan-human” country, destined to reconcile all antagonisms and create the brotherhood of nations. If Salieri killed harmony with algebra, Dostoevsky here murdered playfulness with nationalism.

Russian writers and artists have found it almost obligatory to offer their own version of Pushkin. Some, like Tchaikovsky, have used his plots as inspiration for their own artistic works, while poets and literary critics have contributed to a critical genre known as “My Pushkin.” Perhaps the most delightful belongs to Andrei Sinyavsky (1925–1997), who, using the pen-name Abram Tertz to conceal his identity, smuggled abroad brilliant fiction and politically unacceptable criticism. Eventually identified, he and another writer were put on trial in 1966, and the trial’s smuggled transcripts—published in English as On Trial: The Soviet State Versus Abram Tertz and Nikolai Arzhak (1966)—offers a superb primer on the difference between Soviet and Western views of art.

Sentenced to five years of hard labor in the Dubrovlag camp system, Sinyavsky managed to write Strolls with Pushkin and smuggle it out, piece by piece, in what passed for letters to his wife.1 After emigrating in 1973, he taught literature at the Sorbonne. Interestingly enough, he continued to use not only his real name but also his pseudonym, with “Tertz” authoring works meant to be especially exaggerated, playful, or fantastic. He is credited, in fact, with inventing a new genre, “fantastic literary criticism.” Always the taboo-breaker, he challenged the nationalism of the Russian émigré community in France as he had challenged the Soviet establishment.

Alexander Pushkin
Alexander Pushkin; drawing by David Levine

Strolls was undoubtedly his most shocking work. A playful appreciation of Pushkin’s playfulness, it ends on a deadly serious last word: Dubrovlag, the camp where it was authored. When it first became possible to publish parts of Strolls in Russia, Sinyavsky was denounced as a “Russophobe” who had disfigured Russia’s national treasure the way Salieri imagines the disfiguring of Raphael. One simply does not make light of Pushkin. To do so, as one Russian cautioned me, constitutes “blasphemy.” In Russia, literature is not just literature, it is scripture.

Russians took special offense at Sinyavsky’s comment that “Pushkin ran into great poetry on thin erotic legs.” Sinyavsky’s Pushkin is all flightiness, all role without core self, a shapeshifter given to parody of everything, including the parodist. He won’t be pinned down. You mistake him for his incognitos. Pushkin loved the figure of Don Juan, who could become the desired ideal of woman after woman, much as Pushkin could speak in any voice and voice any idea. “Emptiness was Pushkin’s content,” Sinyavsky declares, and Eugene Onegin is “a novel about nothing.”

Sinyavsky’s essay begins with the question non–Russian speakers always ask: What is so great about Pushkin? The fact is, Pushkin does not travel well, loses more than most in translation. In Russian, his lyrics rise from clichés to perfect expressions of timeless truths, but what comes across in translation is just the underlying cliché. Eugene Onegin is above all a work of sparkling wit, with beautifully turned epigrams and aphorisms that rely, like all great witticisms, on perfect timing. In translation, one often feels as if the poet were giving a punch line a bit too late. If, as David Damrosch has argued, a national masterpiece enters “world literature” only when it generates wide appreciation in translation, then Pushkin’s oeuvre could stand as exhibit one of incomparable greatness largely limited to its homeland.

Dissatisfied with verse translations of Onegin, including his own, Vladimir Nabokov produced a ponderous, literal one, in occasionally metered prose set in lines, accompanied by a huge two-volume commentary filled with score-settling and idiosyncratic literary judgments offered as unchallengeable truth. There is also a fourth volume, reproducing the pages of the 1837 edition of the poem, that is entirely useless for someone needing a translation; the text is so small one needs a magnifying glass to decipher it. This entire translation occasioned one of the great quarrels of American literary history, which Alex Beam ably retells in The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship.

The feud began with Wilson’s review, in these pages, of Nabokov’s translation.2 Nabokov replied, and before long other significant figures (like the poet Robert Lowell and the Russian historian Alexander Gerschenkron) gave their views in various British and American periodicals. The argument strayed into numerous topics, from politics—Nabokov ridiculed Wilson’s earlier admiration of Lenin and the Russian Revolution—to the function of criticism, Nabokov’s command of English, and Wilson’s of Russian.

Nabokov deliberately made his translation unreadable. In his reply to Wilson, he promised revisions to make it even uglier. “In future editions I plan to defowlerize it [make it even less idiomatic?] still more drastically” and render it in “a still bumpier brand of English.” Nabokov aims to be completely literal and aspires to the perfect “crib.” As a beginning graduate student, I took this promise literally and tried to use his translation that way, but it proved almost useless, for reasons Wilson gave. First, the syntax is sometimes mystifying to a native English speaker. Second, when Pushkin uses a common Russian word Nabokov gives us an “equivalent” that no native speaker of English knows, if it exists at all. The Russian nega (languor, voluptuousness), a word in common use, thus becomes “mollitude.” It never seems to occur to Nabokov that a word’s meaning includes its tone, stylistic level, and usual contexts of use, which is why one does not translate legalese into children’s slang.

I remember throwing up my hands at Nabokov’s version of a stanza in which the poet jokingly laments: “Oh dreams, dreams! where is your sweetness?/Where is its stock rhyme, youth?” In Russian, sweetness (sladost’) is an obvious rhyme with youth (mladost’), and so when Sinyavsky cites this couplet, his translators Catharine Nepomnyashchy and Slava Yastremski give: “O, dreams, my dreams! Where is your truth?/And where is its constant rhyme: sweet youth?” The version by Walter Arndt, which Nabokov had recently panned (also in these pages), gives “sweetness” and “fleetness,” which is not as good, since fleetness is not a common rhyme for anything. And Nabokov? “Dreams, dreams! Where is your dulcitude?/Where is (its stock rhyme) juventude?” How could words never used have stock rhymes? If Pushkin parodies poetic clichés, Nabokov the curmudgeon makes a mockery of his own translation.

When Nabokov first came to America, Wilson, already influential, introduced him to the circles that could help an aspiring writer. Long friends, they differed when Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago appeared, with Wilson admiring and Nabokov despising it. Why Wilson risked his friendship with the prickly novelist by writing a devastating review remains a mystery. Beam unconvincingly attributes it to envy, since Nabokov after Lolita was far better known than Wilson, whose reputation was not what it had been. But that equation of Wilson with Salieri seems baseless, especially because Wilson’s criticisms were mostly on target. They amount to the obvious point that a translation is supposed to convey not the text, the words on the page, but the work, the impression the words make on a sensitive reader. As anyone who has read a humorless translation of a comic masterpiece, like Gogol’s Dead Souls, will testify, what is the point of a comic novel that isn’t funny?—or, in this case, of a masterpiece of lightness made ponderous?

The extravagant praise of Russian critics notwithstanding, Pushkin’s prose does not measure up to his poetry, except, perhaps, for his best tale, “The Queen of Spades.” On the surface, it tells the story of the young officer Hermann, who is consumed by the desire to make his fortune by gambling, but only if he can do so without risk. It turns out that a famous mystic, who may also have discovered the secret of eternal life, once gave an old lady the secret of guessing three cards in succession. To gain access to the old lady’s house, Hermann courts her ward. One night he sneaks into the old lady’s bedroom, watches “the hideous secrets of her toilet,” and, coming out of hiding, threatens her with a pistol to disclose the secret. She dies from fright, but then returns as a ghost to reveal the secret on condition he marry the ward.

Readers notice here an allegory of all attempts to gain superhuman knowledge, in this case, to overcome chance. Later Russian writers transformed it into novels about philosophical quests to transcend other aspects of the human condition. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, also a tale of an ideologist who kills an old woman, is obviously modeled on it.

The story’s climax occurs when the hero, having won fabulous sums by correctly guessing two cards, stakes everything on the third. In Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s version—included in Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin—the text reads:

“The ace wins!” said Hermann, and he turned over his card.

“Your queen loses,” [his opponent] Chekalinsky said affably [better: tenderly].

Hermann shuddered: indeed, instead of an ace, the queen of spades stood before him…. At that moment it seemed to him that the queen of spades winked and grinned….

“The old woman!” he cried in horror.

This passage, and indeed the whole story, depends on an untranslatable figure of speech. “Your queen loses” is literally “Your old lady is killed.” Paul Debreczeny’s version gives: “Your lady has been murdered,” and adds a footnote to explain. Pevear and Volokhonsky, who footnote a great deal but not this line, appear to have missed the point.3

Even Pushkin’s prose, then, is not so easy to render as it seems. It is easy to produce a word-by-word rendition of the texts, but the great works remain elusive, impossible to pin down, like Pushkin himself.