Join Patrick Geoghegan and panel of distinguished poets, writers, translators and literary scholars - including our very own Dr Viktoria Ivleva - as they explore the life and intellectual legacy of Russian Poet, Novelist and Playwright Alexander Pushkin.
At the beginning of Boris Godunov, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), the Russian poet, novelist and playwright who at the time of writing his play read and studied Shakespeare, could have repeated after his English master, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Thinking about the Times of Troubles (1598-1613), Pushkin took an ambiguous episode in Russian history--Boris Godunov’s culpability in the matter of Dimitrii’s death, as Boris masterminded his accession to the throne.
The culpability has been a subject of debates among historians.
Pushkin was also interested in knowing what had sparked the first successful popular uprising that avenged Boris, but tragically led to more violence. Nikolai Karamzin (1766-1826), the Russian historian and writer and one of Pushkin’s teachers devoted the last two volumes of his History of the Russian State to this period, and Pushkin took off where Karamzin has left.
Here is what Pushkin wrote to his friend Petr Viazemskii while completing his work:
13 and 15 September, 1825
“I had been looking at Boris from a political point of view and failed to notice the poetic side of his character; I shall settle him down to the Gospels, shall make him read the story of Herod and such like.”
About 7 November 1825, Mikhailovskoe
“…I congratulate you, my dear fellow, on the appearance of a Romantic tragedy, in which the chief character is Boris Godunov! My tragedy is finished; I read it aloud to myself and clapped my hands and shouted, ‘What a Pushkin, what a son of a bitch!’ My Holy Fool is a comic fellow; Marina… is a Pole, and is very beautiful… The others are all very charming too, except Captain Margeret, who is continuously swearing—he won’t be passed by the censorship. Zhukovsky says that the Tsar will pardon me on account of my tragedy – I doubt it, my dear. Although it is written in a good spirit, I just could not hide all my ears under the Fool’s Cap, they stick out!”
As this quotation suggests, Pushkin’s masterpiece is also a take on commedia dell’arte or the art of the Russian and East Slavic minstrel-entertainers, with his ideas being masked and conveyed by different characters.
As often with Pushkin, while the tale deals with a particular historical episode and has a related topical subject, here he also reflects on topics of universal relevance, as he thinks on the times when “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”; the times of political and moral collapse, disbelief and questioning all values and ideas. After the Decembrist Uprising of 1825, which will become a turning point in his thinking and poetics, Pushkin’s tone will change, “A l’exemple de Shakespeare je me suis borné à développer une époque et des personnages historiques sans rechercher les effets théâtrals, le pathétique romanesque etc. (30 January, 1829).
In the part on Boris Godunov, find out about one of Pushkin’s many alter egos in the tale, learn about his reflections on power and people, dual faith, conscience and higher justice as well as about how he strengthens his play by adding one line at the very end.
Listen to the podcast and, in the part on Boris Godunov, find out about one of Pushkin’s many alter egos in the tale, learn about his reflections on power and people, dual faith, conscience and higher justice as well as about how he strengthens his play by adding one line at the very end.
Joining Patrick on the panel include: Professor Michael Basker, School of Modern Languages, University of Bristol, Literary Translators Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky, Dr Caryl Emerson, Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Princeton University, Dr Alexandra Smith, Reader in Russian Studies, University of Edinburgh and Dr Viktoria Ivleva, School of Modern Languages and Cultures, Durham University.
The podcast, and others in the Talking History series, are available on the Newstalk, Talking History website.