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New Left Review 19, January-February 2003

Tony Wood on T. J. Binyon, Pushkin: A Biography. Scouring the crust of patriotic myths from the image of Russia’s greatest poet.



Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin became a literary figure of national importance at the age of 15, when Gavriil Derzhavin, the grand old man of Russian letters, listened in rapt attention as Pushkin read his composition for the junior examinations at the Tsarskoe Selo Lycée. Derzhavin proclaimed that the young man would assume his mantle, and St Petersburg’s leading littérateurs immediately recognized his talent: ‘The rascal will crush us all!’ wrote Prince Petr Viazemskii, later a close friend of Pushkin. Throughout the rest of Pushkin’s brief, turbulent life, both acclaim and criticism were freighted with a sense of national expectation; he was perceived by many to be not only Russia’s most gifted writer, but also an embodiment of its literary destiny. The process of mythologization had begun even in his lifetime: in 1834 Nikolai Gogol described him as a ‘unique manifestation of the Russian spirit’, claiming that ‘the countryside, soul, language and character of Russia are reflected in him with the purity and the spotless perfection with which a landscape is reflected through the convex surface of a lens.’

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Tony Wood, ‘The Poet of Decembrism?’, NLR 19: £3

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