Pushkin’s Exile at Mikhailovskoe (Part 4)

Yet Pushkin is a writer who anticipated Flaubert’s principle : ‘Il ne faut pas s’ecrire.’19 As his style grew more mature, so the distance between himself and his heroes and heroines increased. And in Evgenii Onegin he even introduced himself as one of the characters of the novel, a friend of Evgenii, so much so that he drew a sketch of the two of them deep in conversation by the side of the river Neva, opposite the Petropavlovsk Fortress (complete with detailed instructions), which he inserted in the first chapter of the poem.20 Unlike Pushkin, Onegin is a man who never takes a risk if he can avoid it. It is only at the very end of the poem that he realizes that Tatyana, the girl whom he turned down at the beginning, would indeed have proved to be not only, as she modestly put it in her letter to him, a ‘true wife and a good mother’,21 but the love of his life. Again, unlike Pushkin, he also took care to fire the first shot in his duel. Arguably, Pushkin was a gambler not only in the literal sense of the word. He was certainly not Onegin.

It was while Pushkin was working at Mikhailovskoe that he became a fully professional writer, entirely dependent upon his writing for the next eight years as his only source of income. It would not be long before each line of his verse would command a price of ten roubles. That he wanted every rouble he could lay hands on is evident from a recurring refrain in his correspondence: ‘Some money, for God’s sake, some money!’22 Nevertheless, as a writer he was a perfectionist. Although his power of concentration was such that he could and sometimes did write at an almost unbelievable speed his drafts are a mass of corrections. He even drafted his letters to his friends, let alone his official correspondence. For once in his life Pushkin was able at Mikhailovskoe to spend what he earned on what he needed, because while he was living there, he was seldom exposed to the temptations of the green table. His needs during these two years consisted first and foremost of books. His correspondence is full of requests for books of every kind (including the Bible in French) to be sent to him from St. Petersburg. His brother Lev also had to send him during the first few months things as diverse as writing paper, plain paper, wine, cheese, a corkscrew, boots and braces.23

In order to reduce the cost of heating at Mikhailovskoe, Pushkin lived in a single room, which served as his study, dining room and bedroom. Arina’s room was nearby, on the opposite side of the corridor; he used to call her ‘mama’; and their long talks took place in the evening. An early riser and a late luncher, his first act on waking up was to swim in the river in summer and take an ice-cold bath in winter. He usually read or wrote either after his first cup of coffee in the morning or at night, or both. Walking or riding around the estate, he wore a red shirt belted with a sash, broad trousers and a white straw hat; and he always carried an iron stick weighing nine pounds (a habit that he had acquired in the south). This he sometimes threw in the air, catching it as it fell; while sometimes he just threw it in front of him. He maintained that his object was to strengthen his pistol hand (he practised pistol shooting as well). In the evening, if he had nothing better to do, he would play billiards against himself.24

Such was Pushkin’s normal pattern. Not surprisingly, it was not enough for a man of his restless energy. Off and on throughout his Mikhailovskoe years, he devoted time to plans to get away, with or without official permission. He soon took Olga Kalashnikov, the (serf) daughter of the estate steward, to bed. Their son, Pavel, was born in June 1826 at Boldino, where Olga and her father had moved after Pushkin had sent her, pregnant, to St. Petersburg with a letter to Vyazemsky, seeking his help.25

Although Pushkin described Olga to Vyazemsky as a ‘very sweet and good girl’,26 the chief pole of emotional attraction for him during these two years was not at Mikhailovskoe, but at the neighbouring estate of Trigorskoe, the property of a distant relation, Praskov’ya Osipova. (She was also a cousin of the Decembrist, Sergei Murav’ev-Apostol.) A competent and intelligent lady in her early forties, twice widowed, she knew how to run her estates (there was another one at Malinniki, in the province of Tver (Tver’), where Pushkin stayed later on. She was devoted to Pushkin and she was present at his burial in 1837. Whether she was ever in love with him or whether – in the words of Alexander Turgenev – she ‘loved him like a mother’,27 is a matter of speculation. What is certain is that Pushkin was a frequent and welcome visitor at Trigorskoe, where there was a good library and a bevy of girls of all ages, with whom he flirted right, left and centre. His principal targets during 1825-7 and later in the 1820s, sometimes simultaneously, were Anna (Annette) Vul’f (Praskov’ya’s daughter by her first marriage), Evpraksiya Vul’f (Zizi, Anna’s younger sister) and Aleksandra (Aline) Osipova (Praskov’ya’s stepdaughter). Praskov’ya, moreover, was the aunt of Anna Kern, whom Pushkin had met fleetingly in St. Petersburg and who in 1825 came to Trigorskoe. This time Pushkin fell in love with her.

Although there is enough evidence, in the form both of correspondence and of poetry, to enable a fairly clear picture to be formed of the criss-cross of relationships that developed from 1825 onwards (complicated by the fact that Praskov’ya’s son, Aleksei Vul’f, was both Pushkin’s rival and his confidant), it is now nearly seventy years since it was first observed that Pushkin’s biographers had ‘acquired the habit of regarding it as their duty to explain every one’ of Pushkin’s lyrics ‘biographically and using them as direct historical evidence. This is silly.’ – wise advice that has not been heeded by all subsequent biographers.28 Neither the voyeurism of some nor the censoriousness of others has added much to our understanding of Pushkin’s sexuality in relation to his Mikhailovskoe years.

This aspect of Pushkin’s character seems to have changed remarkably little during the first thirty years of his life. As late as 1828 les femmes comme il faut et les grands sentiments were, according to Pushkin himself, what he feared most in the world. Later, Anna Kern described him as ‘charmed by brilliance and outward beauty’ rather than by ‘dignity and simplicity in a woman’s character’, which she attributed to ‘his low opinion of women, entirely in keeping with the spirit of the age’. Generalizations in this field are dangerous But until his marriage Pushkin seems to have related to women -prostitutes apart – either as mature and intelligent interlocutors but physically unattractive, or as silly but attractive, although he was usually not attracted by them for long. (Elizaveta Vorontsova may have been an exception.)

This said, the biographer who declines to pursue Pushkin from one embrace to another during this period must make an exception of two of his Trigorskoe loves, Zizi Vul’f and Anna Kern – each for a different reason. Anna met Pushkin for the first time for six years when she came to stay at Trigorskoe. On the last day of her visit, the party drove over to Mikhailovskoe, where Pushkin walked with her down the avenue of trees alone. Before she left Trigorskoe next day, Pushkin gave her a copy of the opening chapter of Evgenii Onegin, the pages uncut, but enclosing a poem, ‘I remember the wonderful moment’. These twenty-four lines, unquestionably addressed to Anna, did not melt her heart. She seems to have preferred the advances of Aleksei Vul’f – ‘Lovelace’ in Pushkin’s correspondence with him – at the time. It was not until they met again in St. Petersburg three years later that she yielded to Pushkin’s insistence.

Я помню чудное мгновенье:

Передо мной явилась ты,

Как мимолётное виденье,

Как гений чистой красоты.

В томленьях грусти безнадежной,

В тревогах шумной суеты,

Звучал мне долго голос нежный И снились милые черты.

Шли годы. Бурь порыв мятежный Рассеял прежние мечты,

И я забыл твой голос нежный,

Твои небесные черты.

В глуши, во мраке заточенья

Тянулись тихо дни мои

Без божества, без вдохновенья,

Без слёз без жизни, без любви.

Душе настало пробужденье:

И вот опять явилась ты,

Как мимолётное виденье,

Как гений чистой красоты.

И сердце бьется в упоенье,

И для него воскресли вновь И божество, и вдохновенье,

И жизнь, и слёзы, и любовь.

К * * *

(Robin Edmonds)