According to Pushkin’s own account written immediately afterwards, Sergei L’vovich not only took seriously the official charge of atheism levelled against his elder son — even accusing Alexander Sergeevich of attempting to corrupt his elder sister and younger brother with atheistic doctrine – but he also agreed to the governor’s request that he himself should assume the responsibility for his son’s secular supervision. (A local monk was appointed Pushkin’s spiritual supervisor.) This responsibility was interpreted as including the reading of Alexander Sergeevich’s correspondence, on which he was now almost entirely dependent for maintaining contact with the outside world. Father and son had never been close at any time. Now insults flew in both directions. Alexander Sergeevich declared that he would never speak to his father again, while for Sergei L’vovich Alexander became ‘ce monstre, cefils denature’, who had, he alleged, threatened to beat him.3 In the upshot, the family returned to St. Petersburg in November. Although the quarrel was eventually patched up, Pushkin’s parents did not visit Mikhailovskoe so long as he was living there. He remained on this dilapidated but beautiful estate, alone except for the serfs and his nanny, Arina, for the next twenty-two months.
In spite of this unpromising beginning, these two years of isolation proved to be providential for Pushkin. Had he been in St. Petersburg in December 1825, he would almost certainly have been caught up in the Decembrist Revolt, with incalculable consequences for the remainder of his life. (Even if he had still been in Odessa, there were enough Decembrists in the town who were his personal friends, such as Prince Volkonsky, to constitute a political risk for him, if only by association.) Equally important, for the first time in his life Pushkin had almost nothing to do but write and read.
Pushkin’s friends did not all agree about where the blame for his exile lay. (Vyazemsky was sympathetic; Delvig urged him to be careful for a year or two; and Karamzin observed that Vorontsov was ‘no despot’.) But they were united in wanting him to make good use of it. As Zhukovsky put it, ‘You are born to be a great poet, be worthy of this!’ Ryleev wrote in similar vein.4 They may have been preaching to the converted, but he certainly followed their advice. The use that Pushkin made of these years may best be judged if an attempt is made to compare the scale of his literary achievement as it actually was by the end of 1826, when he finally returned first to Moscow and then to St. Petersburg, with the kind of assessment of his work which his death might have evoked from literary critics and historians if his life had ended simultaneously with Byron’s (in 1824) or at any time during the following six months.
In 1824, ten years after his first poem had appeared in the St. Petersburg press, Pushkin’s reputation rested in large measure on three of his longer, published, works: Ruslan and Lyudmila, The Captive of the Caucasus and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. On the basis of this evidence, critics would have speculated about the direction that his mature poetry would have taken after the early flowering of his extraordinary talent. Posthumous publication of the draft of The Gypsies and the opening chapters of Evgenii Onegin might have confused them (as indeed they actually did confuse some critics when they were first published). Misleading comparisons would probably have been drawn between Pushkin and Byron. Abroad, even at this early date, Pushkin’s death would not have gone unnoticed. Pushkin’s three major poems of the period 1820-4 were already beginning to be translated into German before he left the south; and articles about his work were beginning to appear in English, French and Polish literary journals as well. The Westminster Review, for example, devoted several pages to this ‘very original’ poet at the beginning of 1824.5 Even in Russia, however, a hypothetical evaluation of Pushkin’s work in mid-1824 could not perhaps have gone very much further than this: an original writer of infinite, but still uncertain, promise.
By the time Pushkin left Mikhailovskoe in September 1826 he had written some of the finest lyrics in the Russian language; he had finished The Gypsies; and the greater part of Evgenii Onegin was either written or drafted. The Gypsies was not published until 1827, but the first chapter of Evgenii Onegin was published in 1825 and the first edition of Pushkin’s collected poems came out in the following year. It was at Mikhailovskoe that he wrote prefaces in verse – very different from one another, but each of them superb – to Ruslan and Lyudmila6 and to Evgenii Onegin.1 His other Mikhailovskoe poems included, at one end of the scale, Count Nulin, a poem which if Graham Greene had written it, he might have classified as an ‘entertainment’ : the Rape of Lucrece in Russian nineteenth-century dress, but relating what might have happened if Lucrece had slapped Tarquin’s face.8 At the opposite pole stands Boris Godunov, a play written partly in blank verse and partly in prose, set in the period of the Russian ‘Time of the Troubles’ in the late sixteenth century.9 Moreover, it was in these two years that Pushkin first developed his power of criticism. Although he never wrote any single work of literary criticism from then until the time of his death, the aggregate of his views on the writing of others, whether of his own or earlier ages, scattered among letters, notes and commentaries of every kind over a period of twelve years, constitutes a variegated corpus of rigorous literary criticism.10