Why do we read historical fiction? For one thing, it promises an entry into the past that is richer and more textured than straightforward history, which is obliged to stick to the facts—or, at least, to preface speculation with a responsible disclaimer. Good historical fiction produces a gratifying sense of immersion in the life of, say, a Roman emperor or a French queen. They may not be like us, but they feel close enough to touch. For a few hours the boundaries of time and mortality, geography and class are erased.
Historical fiction can also have another, more slippery purpose: to comment on the present by way of the past, as sci-fi interprets the present by imagining the future. This mode is especially useful to writers who are restricted in what they are allowed to say—as in the Soviet Union. Historical fiction offers a way of writing between the lines. The attentive reader notices parallels and patterns, silent gestures toward the tyranny and absurdity of the moment of writing: after all, history repeats itself.
For Yuri Tynianov, who is best known in the anglophone world—if he is known at all—as a Formalist literary critic (along with Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum, and Roman Jakobson), historical fiction offered a refuge not only from censorship and political attacks but from poverty and the stifling hopelessness of the Stalinist present. His historical novels Küchlya (1925), The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar (1927), and Young Pushkin (1935–1943), all now available in English, dramatize a densely populated world of characters from Russia’s literary golden age in the early nineteenth century: Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s national poet; Alexander Griboedov, the author of the seminal comedic play Woe from Wit; and Wilhelm Küchelbecker, aka Küchlya, a friend of both Pushkin’s and Griboedov’s, and a participant in the failed Decembrist uprising of 1825. These engrossing novels, written with an effortless erudition, were also a proving ground for Tynianov’s theories, demonstrating how literature emerges from the web of everyday life and is transformed by the movement of history.
Yuri Nikolaevich Tynianov was born into a Jewish doctor’s family in 1894, in a small town in the Pale of Settlement, in what is now Latvia. He attended secondary school in Pskov, and while still a teenager knew the whole Russian literary tradition as well as Greek and Roman poetry. According to Anna Kurkina Rush, who cotranslated and introduced all three of the novels:
He referred to the great Russian authors by their first names and patronymics, as if they were members of his family. Pushkin was the writer he most worshipped, identifying with him at one time to the point of growing sideburns to look like him.
Tynianov studied at Petersburg University for about six years starting in 1912, years of turmoil and revolution. In 1918 he began collaborating with Eikhenbaum and Shklovsky in OPOYAZ, the Society for the Study of Poetic Language, a precursor of the Formalist school that had been founded in 1916 to examine the nature of literary devices and publish the work of its members. He married a musician named Yelena Zilber, with whom he had a daughter while he was still a student. In 1921 Tynianov was hired to teach at the Institute of History of the Arts, but he was paid a pittance and had to scrape together a living with a variety of side jobs: French interpreter at the Comintern, high school literature teacher, copy editor, magazine editor.
In the hectic 1920s Tynianov became one of the world’s first film theorists, grounding his essays (several of which are included in Permanent Evolution, a new collection of his criticism in a lucid, rigorous translation by Ainsley Morse and Philip Redko) in his firsthand experiences in the blossoming Soviet film industry—another, more glamorous round of side jobs. From 1926 to 1927 he worked at a Leningrad film studio, Sevzapkino (later Lenfilm), and wrote screenplays and delivered literary lectures for the Eccentric Actor Factory, an experimental filmmaking group that also provided him with clowning and boxing lessons.
His scripts for The Overcoat, based loosely on Gogol’s stories, Club of the Great Deed, about the Decembrists, and Lieutenant Kizhe, a Gogolian satire set in the late eighteenth century, were all made into films. (All three are available on YouTube, though only the last has English subtitles.) Lieutenant Kizhe, from 1934, had a soundtrack composed by Prokofiev, who later refashioned the music into a gorgeous suite of the same name. Tynianov also converted Lieutenant Kizhe into a biting novella, newly translated into English by Nicolas Pasternak Slater.
As the political climate became increasingly repressive, Tynianov found it even harder to practice his trades, numerous though they were. The Formalist school—the subject of party ire since 1924, when Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky called them “stubborn relics” and Trotsky denigrated Formalist theory as “superficial and reactionary”—was effectively dissolved. The problem wasn’t that the Formalists had been criticizing communism or the authorities; their sin was a lack of political ideology. “Formalism” became a slur used to deride any art or theory that focused on aesthetic elements rather than relying on Marxist-Leninist theory.
This has contributed—as Daria Khitrova writes in her introduction to Permanent Evolution—to the mistaken idea that Russian Formalism analyzes artistic works as abstract objects divorced from historical, political, or economic context, in the manner of the New Criticism. In fact, any encounter with Tynianov’s work—whether criticism or fiction—shows that he viewed historical, political, and economic background as essential, though he did not consider them adequate explanations in themselves for what he termed “literary evolution.”
Tynianov preferred the periphery to the center, misfits to monuments. “I like rough-edged, unpolished, unfinished things,” he wrote in 1930. The process of creation interested him more than the result, and he believed that any work had to be understood in relation to the time it was written. As he put it in his 1924 essay “Literary Fact,” “You can’t judge a bullet by its color, taste or smell: a bullet must be judged by its dynamics.”
The Formalists were especially concerned with genre: its boundaries, its evolution, and its hybrid forms. In “Literary Fact,” Tynianov wrote:
When a genre is in the process of disintegrating, it migrates from the center to the periphery, and a new phenomenon moves in from the minutiae of literature, its backwoods and lowlands, and takes the previous genre’s place at the center.
The tumult of the early Soviet years stimulated the rapid reconfiguration of genres, with innovations such as the “production novel” (heroic, inspiring tales of industry) and “factography,” in which artists visited industrial sites and produced photomontages and texts merging avant-garde artistic techniques with agitprop. Life was art. Viewed from an early Soviet perspective, the current vogue for autofiction is comically old-fashioned.
Tynianov, Shklovsky, and Eikhenbaum shrugged off the rigid standards of academic writing, experimenting instead with such hybrids as the epistolary essay-novel (in Shklovsky’s Zoo, or, Letters Not About Love), and a journal form that included memoir, poetry, theory, criticism, and literary history (in Eikhenbaum’s My Annals). Tynianov’s film scripts and historical novels blended literary-historical research and fiction and doubled as a means of elaborating his ideas about literary evolution and parody.
In a letter to Shklovsky, Tynianov called his historical novels “experiments in scholarly fantasy.” He drew on an encyclopedic knowledge of the eras he depicted, but sought to move past fact into something even more real. In a draft introduction to his Pushkin novel, Tynianov wrote, “What I want to do in this book is to get as near as possible to artistic truth about the past, which is always the goal of the historical novelist.” Elsewhere, he observed that “literature differs from history not by ‘invention’ but by a greater, more intimate understanding of people and events, by deeper concern about them.”
Tynianov’s historical fiction began with Küchlya. It was hastily commissioned by a publishing house as an educational novella for teenagers in honor of the centenary of the 1825 Decembrist uprising, which the Soviets commemorated as a crucial early step in Russian revolutionary politics. Tynianov was given mere weeks to complete the book, but it feels fully imagined. Much later, Shklovsky observed that Küchlya had “already lived in Tynianov’s imagination and he only flung open the door to where it had been waiting for him.”
Available in English for the first time thanks to Anna Kurkina Rush and her cotranslator Christopher Rush, Küchlya is based on Tynianov’s own extensive research into Küchelbecker, a relatively obscure figure who was arrested for his involvement in the uprising. Küchelbecker had started writing poetry while still a student at the St. Petersburg Imperial Lycée, where he was a member of Pushkin’s circle, but little of his work was published before his arrest, and afterward he was banned from publishing. (This edition includes an appendix of his poems, translated by Peter France.) A lively, often funny tale offering an intimate, unfamiliar perspective on a legendary period of Russian history, Küchlya proved popular among readers and critics, and it remains a much-loved minor classic.
“Küchlya,” which sounds like a mangled version of the Russian word for doll (kukla), was Küchelbecker’s nickname at the Imperial Lycée, a progressive institution founded by Alexander I in 1811 to educate his younger brothers, Nicholas and Michael, and to produce a new generation of literate Russian aristocrats who would make enlightened, competent civil servants and help lift Russia out of its darkness. There was no corporal punishment, teachers acted in loco parentis, and, crucially for the often impoverished aristocracy, tuition was free.
The prodigiously gifted and self-confident Pushkin was already well on his way to celebrity when he studied at the lycée, a time he immortalized in poetry as the most idyllic in his life. Küchlya, on the other hand, was the butt of all the jokes. He was gangly and half deaf, and he stammered; his Russian was weak, as he had spent years in a German-language school; and he had a passionate, volatile temperament that made him easy to tease. But he was an idealist, possessed by fantasies of revolution and martyrdom—unlike Pushkin, who devoted most of his extraliterary energy to seduction.
The lycée was short-lived, as was the blossoming of rationalist education in Russia. Alexander I turned reactionary, exiling his progressive state secretary, Mikhail Speransky, the mastermind of the educational reform, to a trivial post in Siberia and replacing him with the draconian artillery general Count Aleksey Arakcheyev. As would happen again and again in Russian history, dashed hopes bred revolt—and in this case, the revolt grew in the heart of the lycée’s alumni body.
The Decembrist conspirators, several of whom were Pushkin’s friends or former classmates, originally intended to assassinate Alexander I on March 12, 1826, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his reign, and then march to Kiev and Moscow, gathering troops along the way, to demand a constitutional monarchy and the abolition of serfdom. They moved forward prematurely because of the emperor’s unexpected death from typhus in Taganrog, in southern Russia.
Alexander did not wish to be succeeded by his brother Constantine, next in line for the throne; in Küchlya, Tynianov depicts Constantine, then lieutenant general of the Kingdom of Poland, as a sadist responsible for several casual murders. Alexander wrote a testament making his brother Nicholas his heir instead—but he didn’t make the document public, in part because Nicholas, who had inherited the family obsession with military drills, was so unpopular.
Constantine had accepted the plan, but only in private. He was in Poland when news of Alexander’s death arrived, and thus unavailable to make a statement of abdication in St. Petersburg. The Decembrist plotters raced around the city, trying to foment rebellion by spreading rumors that Nicholas had mounted a coup against Constantine. But they were disorganized and divided; some chose to move forward with the half-baked plan at any cost, eager to give up their lives for freedom, while others made themselves scarce. Küchelbecker took a shot at Grand Duke Michael, but, in Tynianov’s account, his powder was wet with snow. The plot fizzled and five leaders were hanged, the others—among them several former lycée students—imprisoned or exiled.
Drawing on the new cinematic technique of montage, Tynianov offers a thrilling, darkly funny account of the botched uprising. He imagines the streets and squares of St. Petersburg as arteries in a human body: when the regiments push through the vessels, the city experiences “a rupture of the heart in which genuine blood was spilled.” The almost slapstick missteps that take place during the uprising give added power to the gruesome ending of the sequence:
Fan-shaped splatterings of blood on the walls of the Senate. Corpses—in heaps, singly, black and bloodied. Carts covered with matting, dripping with blood. On the Neva River—from St. Isaac’s Bridge to the Academy of Arts—surreptitious stirrings: corpses are being lowered into the narrow ice-holes. Sometimes groans are heard among the corpses—the wounded being pushed down into the narrow holes together with the dead….
Later that winter, when people are hacking the ice, they will find human heads, arms, and legs in the clear bluish ice floes.
Despite Küchlya’s origins, it is too grim for children and too serious for hackneyed celebration. Rebellion seems an inglorious affair. Küchelbecker, the holy fool of the embryonic Russian revolution, is held in solitary confinement in a series of fortresses, nearly going mad. He is eventually exiled to Siberia, where he continues to write energetically. Death comes when he loses faith in his talent, the only hope he had left to sustain him.
Tynianov’s next full-length novel, The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, available in a new translation by the Rushes and, coincidentally, in a recent translation by the late Susan Causey,1 is far more difficult and experimental than Küchlya. It takes up a subject that even the most creative Soviet propagandist couldn’t spin into an inspiring tale: Griboedov’s diplomatic mission to Persia, which ended in his murder by an angry mob in Tehran in 1829. He has the distinction of being the only great Russian writer to have died as a result of jihad.
Unlike the prolific Pushkin, Griboedov earned his place in the Russian literary canon with a single play in verse, Woe from Wit, a satire of Russian high society that was censored and never performed in Russia during his lifetime, though it was widely circulated and admired. Many of its lines have passed into common usage, as with Shakespeare in English.2 Griboedov was a few years older than Pushkin and Küchelbecker, and he didn’t attend the lycée, but he shared their penurious aristocratic background and moved in similar circles. He is a poignant secondary character in Küchlya: noble-hearted and despairing, feeling trapped in a society that offers him no real hope—a dark leitmotif of Tynianov’s novels and a reflection of his own predicament.
Vazir-Mukhtar begins with the failure of the Decembrists, suggesting that this was the event that set in motion the tragic course of the rest of Griboedov’s abbreviated life. Though he was in Georgia during the revolt, he had sympathized with the conspirators. His punishment, Tynianov suggests, was to be sent to force a peace treaty on Persia, so that Russia could send its troops to Turkey to face a more formidable and significant opponent. (Other Decembrists were sent to fight as low-ranking soldiers.)
Decembrists and their enemies haunt the novel. In one scene, Griboedov finds himself sitting at dinner in St. Petersburg with a man who was in command of the artillery that helped squash the revolt, a judge who interrogated the rebels—including Griboedov himself—and, worst of all, the man who oversaw the botched hanging (using rotten rope) of five conspirators, three of whom were Griboedov’s friends. They eat, drink, and smile as if nothing had happened.
In Tehran, Griboedov pines for the world of the theater, for the literary circles he left behind in St. Petersburg. But the boundary between his two professions is often blurred. The diplomat, who is “extraterritorial, detached,” profits from the writer’s subtle powers of observation, and Griboedov often finds himself imagining his interactions as scenes in a play. Sometimes he disappears back into literature, overtaken by trances of composition, while at other moments he seems to vanish into his official role as vazir-mukhtar, or minister plenipotentiary. (Lieutenant Kizhe, which Tynianov wrote at the same time, deals with a similar idea of the disappearance of the individual.) He finds relief in unfamiliar customs, which help him forget the unhappiness and frustration he felt in Russia.
The novel is full of people who have crossed geographic, religious, cultural, and sexual boundaries, often against their will. The most striking are the novel’s many eunuchs, most of whom are kidnapped Georgians or Armenians. Griboedov’s murder results from his decision to repatriate, according to the terms of the new treaty, an intellectual young Armenian who was kidnapped by the Persians and made a eunuch in the shah’s harem. The man has sought refuge in the Russian Embassy. When the mob, incited by clerics who have declared Griboedov’s act a violation of sharia law, approaches to kill Griboedov, he hears the din as the howling of an audience in a theater. His head is put on a stake and his dismembered corpse is thrown in a rubbish heap along with those of his colleagues.
This is a story of political repression of writers and rebels—of symbolic as well as literal dismemberment—but it is also a sharp-eyed account of the struggle of empires to maximize their economic clout through colonialism, a fascinating example of an anticolonial Soviet historical novel. Tynianov’s critical approach is consonant with Soviet attacks on imperialism—but it might also be a veiled criticism of the new flavor of imperialism embodied by the USSR. (A reference to the mass deportation of the Tatars is chillingly prescient.)
Russia and Persia played tug-of-war for a century over the port city of Derbent, which Russia needed in order to profit from the Caucasus, until Persia ceded it in an 1813 treaty that also gave Russia control over Georgia and parts of present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan. England, meanwhile, stood to benefit from these tensions, which distracted Persia from English activities in India and helped prevent Persia from developing textile, silk, and paper factories or sugar refineries that would compete with England’s. (An earlier translation of Vazir-Mukhtar, Alec Brown’s 1938 Death and Diplomacy in Persia, was substantially abridged, in part to remove the sections about England’s involvement in encouraging the mob uprising against the Russian Embassy.) As Tynianov puts it, “Persia in itself was a tattered scrap of paper, but that scrap of paper was a banknote.”
Contemporary reviewers denounced The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar’s dark take on history, so alien to Bolshevik forced optimism. But like Küchlya, it was a popular success. This is a testament to the remarkable willingness of readers during this period to engage with modernist literature. In contrast with the easier, more conventional pleasures of Küchlya, Vazir-Mukhtar is deliberately fragmented and often enigmatic, recalling the style of Andrei Bely’s 1913 masterpiece Petersburg, which is itself often compared to Ulysses. Fascinating though it is, Vazir-Mukhtar can be confusing, especially for a reader who is unfamiliar with the Russian or Persian background; it incorporates many Persian words and is packed with references to Russian history and literature. A more extensively annotated and carefully edited scholarly edition would be desirable—but the new translations are an excellent start, a gift to those interested in Tynianov, Griboedov, or Russian imperial history.
With Pushkin, Tynianov reached the pinnacle of his historical-biographical fiction—despite the fact that he died before he was able to finish the novel, which was meant to extend from Pushkin’s birth to his death but only reaches his youth. Around 1928 Tynianov had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; the knowledge that his life would be brief seems to have spurred him to even greater productivity. The first two installments of Pushkin were published serially in a literary journal between 1935 and 1937. By 1940, Tynianov could hardly move. He and his family were evacuated from besieged Leningrad in 1941, and by 1943 he was losing his sight and falling in and out of consciousness. That April he entered the hospital for the final time; in August the unrevised final section of Pushkin was published in another literary journal.
Even then, Kurkina Rush writes, “the very mention of the name of Pushkin would revive him somewhat and cause his lips to move,” as if he were trying to recite the beloved poems. Having survived the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, Stalin’s purges, and the siege of Leningrad, Tynianov died of complications from multiple sclerosis at the end of 1943. Two suicide notes were found among his possessions, at least one of them dating from the terrifying year of 1937—the centenary of Pushkin’s death. From a certain perspective, Tynianov was lucky to die of natural causes; many of his peers were not so fortunate.
Young Pushkin, as it is titled in a fine 2008 translation by the Rushes, was conceived, according to Tynianov,
not as a fictionalised biography, but as an epic on the origins, development and death of our national poet. I don’t distinguish in the novel between the hero’s life and his work, and I don’t distinguish between his work and his country’s history.
Tynianov recreates the whole world—food, fashion, games, decor, manners, folklore, literary controversies and fashions, social scandals, political debates, and even natural phenomena (a minor earthquake in Moscow, the comet of 1811)—that fed Pushkin’s writing and that of his contemporaries.
Anyone acquainted with Pushkin’s oeuvre will delight in Tynianov’s sly, artful way of introducing familiar themes—for instance, observations about the gendered use of French and Russian: “Female guests spoke quickly, interspersing their Russian with French phrases like fine round peas.” Pushkin’s volatile, frustrated parents, his beloved nanny, his buffoonish poet uncle, and his schoolmates become fully formed literary characters, along with a whole host of figures who would otherwise be mere historical footnotes. In exquisite detail, the novel captures the process of a child’s slow discovery of his poetic vocation (at age seven, “what he adored most of all was poetry. Rhyme was a kind of proof that the events described had really happened”) and an adolescent’s process of self-invention.
We are also treated to wonderful, idiosyncratic portraits of major political and literary figures of the era. Alexander I still feels guilty about his passive involvement in the assassination of his father, Paul I, by his own officers; since then, his figure has sagged, his vanity has demanded a corset, and his face has “lost its character in constant travelling like a world-famous actor’s.” The aging Gavrila Derzhavin, who once wrote odes to Catherine the Great, recognizes Pushkin’s genius at first sight, or rather at first hearing, during a performance at the lycée:
His eyesight had long since started to betray him but nevertheless he saw as if in a mist: the schoolboy’s eyes were bright and burning. Nobody read poems like this: with little swellings and lingerings at the ends of lines, as in song. And as if listening to Bach, he raised his old and sinewy index finger and, oblivious of everyone, just perceptibly started to point the metre.
Tynianov’s interweaving of the domestic and the historical has a strong whiff of Tolstoy, but, as Kurkina Rush notes in her introduction, without the didacticism.
The reader might never guess that the novel was written during a period of life-threatening censorship, as many of the author’s colleagues and friends were arrested and killed, or that it was the work of a dying man: it exudes life, grace, and freedom, even as it documents the beginning of an era of renewed political repression after the brief period of enlightenment during Alexander I’s early reign.
Tynianov’s fiction and scholarly work went out of print until the political thaw that began in 1956, with Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. Now that all three of his novels are accessible in English, along with Permanent Evolution and Lieutenant Kizhe (plus two other historical novellas), it is to be hoped that Tynianov will finally get the recognition he deserves outside of Russia. As Daria Khitrova writes in her introduction to the essays, “A hundred years have almost passed; Tynianov has yet to be discovered.”