Typically Pushkin

Pushkin (1799-1837) is the Mozart of the literary world. He is light footed, crystal clear and highly musical. Everything is just as it should be. Even his sporadic imperfections are charming. Pushkin is from the Romantic era, like Byron, Scott and the Russian Lermontov.

Exotic relations

On his father’s side of the family he stems from ancient Russian nobility. His mother’s side of the family is exotic: his great grandfather, an Ethiopian, was given to Peter the Great as a present in 1704. Peter took a liking to the little Abraham, and gave him the patronymic Petrovich, after himself, and a proper military education. Abraham eventually became a general and took on Hannibal as a last name, a definite sign that he was no slave. The Empress Elizabeth gave him a country estate to thank him for his services, Mikhailovskoe. Pushkin would get banned to it at some point in his career. Abraham married a Swedish woman, and that makes Pushkin just as much Swedish as Ethiopian.

Father of Russian literature

Pushkin is generally considered to be the father of Russian literature. He adjusted the archaic Russian language to his own needs and created a modern language, suitable for both modern poetry and prose. With this modernised language he expressed himself in a wide variety of literary genres: stories, drama, narrative poems, poetry, novellas, fairy tales and a novel in verse. The novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, is typical for Pushkin’s innovative style.

Style and works

His stories and novellas are sheer perfection, everything is right: the subject choice, they are light, there is humour and there is mystery. Many Russian writers took them as a starting point for their own writings. As I have written before, that is considered a big compliment in Russian literature. As a result there are numerous stories that are called The Snowstorm, but Pushkin wrote the original. The novellas Queen of Spades and The Captains Daughter are true masterpieces.

His poetry is legendary. He started to write poetry at school, with a preference for patriotic, satirical or amorous subjects. These subjects remained with him throughout his career. Most Russians know at least one of his poems by heart. Pushkin’s own favourite work was Eugene Onegin. A unique work with an innovative rhyme scheme that became known as the Onegin Stanza. It’s a cheery tale, thanks to this rhyme scheme, in spite of the romantic subject. Tatyana is a typical romantic heroine, a pale and dreamy girl, who spends her nights staring out the window at the moon. Onegin is one of those superfluous men, a poet who is bored with life. Pushkin infused the story with a rich humour, folklore and fantasy.


His work did not only influence other writers, but also numerous composers. Tchaikovsky turned Eugene Onegin into an opera that is, at least in the western world, probably better known than the book. Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov were also inspired by the works of Pushkin.

So who was Pushkin influenced by? His dear old nurse, Arina Rodionovna, apparently. She narrated all the fairy tales and legends she knew to him, and even when he was already grown up, he loved to listen to her (she stayed at Mikhailovskoe until she died). His maternal grandmother, who looked after little Alexander and his sister more than their mother, told him all about the origins of his family and sparked his interest in history.

Translating Pushkin

Because his works are so playful and musical, he is notoriously difficult to translate*. Nabokov wrote two fat volumes about the translation of Eugene Onegin, and still his translation doesn’t work for me. The two volumes themselves are super informative, though.

Debt and exile

Like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Pushkin had to write to pay his debts. The lifestyle that was required of him was more expensive than he could afford. His often razor sharp pen earned him a couple of banishments.

In short

It’s not difficult to recognise Pushkin, like Mozart he has a unique style. Seemingly effortless, fluent and happy. He likes to converse with his reader too. Because he was not a Realist like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there are no moral issues that he wants to force upon his reader. Almost two centuries later his work does not appear outdated in the least. You can pick up any of his works at any time of the day and enjoy it like listening to Mozart, or a fantastic wine. So lean back in a comfortable chair and enjoy, perhaps even all three simultaneously.



Pushkin by T.J. Binyon

Photos © by me, the illustrations are from a old book that I picked up at a book market.

*Before you buy, it’s probably wise to read the first page to see if the translation works for you. In English I really like Roger Clarke, he seems to hit the right balance and gets the right feeling across. His comments and notes are also very entertaining.




31 thoughts on “Typically Pushkin

  1. Always good to hear from you! I seems to be a tricky question; which translator did the best job? I think it’s personal, whatever works for you is the right choice.
    Happy reading, dear!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A great post, as usual. Thank you.

    “Pushkin (1799-1837) is the Mozart of the literary world. He is light footed, crystal clear and highly musical. Everything is just as it should be. Even his sporadic imperfections are charming.”

    Beautifully expressed. Three crystal clear, perfectly crafted sentences.

    He “adjusted the archaic Russian language to his own needs and created a modern language, suitable for both modern poetry and prose.” Extremely interesting from several points of view, linguistic and literary.

    I myself regarded Pushkin primarily as a poet and made a couple of feeble attempts to read him in introductory and intermediate level Russian courses. Later, I read “The Captains Daughter” in translation. l really enjoyed it. It revealed to me a new dimension of Pushkin. You state that Pushkin was “not a realist” in the mode of a Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. I am sure you are right, but I was surprised to see the realism — at times verging on the brutal, if I recall correctly — in “The Captains Daughter. (Am I right?)

    I admire your writing and find that it illustrates principles of good writing we were taught in school: namely simplicity and clarity; and, an often neglected yet essential ingredient: coherence. Your train of thought is admirably clear, and there is no heavy handedness.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Once again, thank you for your kind comment!
    Pushkin was perhaps not the most typical example of a romantic writer, he definitely had a broader vision, and yes, The Captain’s Daughter contains elements of realism.
    Take care, Roger!


  4. Second time around for reading! Your posts generate creative thought – something I enjoy immensely. We forget that our parents, grandparents etc influence us, either through DNA, or through direct interaction. It is a gentle reminder that we also have influence and to use it wisely. Have a great day!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That is a lovely thought! We can be influenced by our ancestors and our influence will still be there when we’re gone. As always, it’s interesting to talk to you! Warm greetings from a small cottage in Finland, where we just had three short power cuts in a row. I’m sure our ancestors were much more used to that 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A wonderful summary/analysis of Pushkin and his work, Elisabeth! I had never read him, but your post moved me to take “The Captain’s Daughter” out of my local library. I’m about halfway through, and that novella is terrific!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello Dave, it’s really good to hear that I have inspired you and that you are now enjoying Pushkin, that is what this blog is all about, enjoying these great writers! Thank you for letting me know.
    Happy reading,

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you, dear, I’m so happy to hear that you enjoy reading Russian literature, we have that in common. Knowing a little bit more about those writers, whose lives were anything but boring, makes reading them even more enjoyable.
    Here’s a little Pushkin for you:

    Rich the first flower’s graces be,
    But dearer far the last to me;
    My spirit feels renewal sweet,
    Of all my dreams hope or desire–
    The hours of parting oft inspire
    More than the moments when we meet!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh what a lovely poem , Thank you for sharing this ! I’ve been saving a post of mine which is about Pushkin for next month and I will defo let you know when I post it ! Have you heard of that new book on the Romanovs? It’s supposed to be really good 🙂


  10. You make a good point about the translation of the particular book potentially not working for some readers – I’ll keep that in mind when I read any translated novels! As for Pushkin, his writing sounds marvelous!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Mm.. Pushkin, Mozart and a glass of wine – sounds perfect.
    The edition of Anna Karenina that I’m reading has noted various references to some of Pushkin’s work throughout the novel, so my interest in his poetry was already piqued. After reading your post, I think I’ll be adding his novels to my TBR list too!

    Liked by 1 person

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