Pushkin’s Exile at Mikhailovskoe (Part 6)

Neither with Anna nor with Zizi did Pushkin’s love affair last for long. Zizi’s biographical importance lies in the fact that, during the last critical days of Pushkin’s life, she visited St. Petersburg (by then married, Baroness Vrevskaya) in order to stay with her sister. She thus became one of the few friends to whom Pushkin then unburdened himself. Unlike most of the others, she was aware of his impending duel. She will therefore recur in the last part of this book.

During 1825 Pushkin saw three of his school-friends: Gorchakov, Delvig and Pushchin. The first of these he visited at the home of Gorchakov’s uncle, sixty-nine versts from Mikhailovskoe. The other two came to Mikhailovskoe. Pushkin and Gorchakov had drifted apart since Tsarskoe Selo and their short meeting in 1825 did nothing to bring them closer to each other. Pushkin read a part of Boris Godunov to Gorchakov, who criticized the everyday language (a reference to ‘spit’) that Pushkin used in the dialogue. Pushkin thought that Gorchakov was ‘terribly dried up’.34 He played no further part in Pushkin’s life.

Delvig spent at least a week at Mikhailovskoe in April, but little has been recorded about his visit, to which Pushkin had been eagerly looking forward for a long time. On the other hand, Pushchin, who spent less than twenty-four hours in Mikhailovskoe at the beginning of the year, described his visit in detail in his memoirs.35 As a present for the poet Pushchin brought a copy of Griboedov’s Woe from Wit; he also bought three bottles of Veuve Clicquot on the way. He arrived at Mikhailovskoe in deep snow at about eight o’clock on the morning of 11 January. Bare-footed and in his shirt, Pushkin greeted him on the steps of the house. After embracing each other there, they went inside, as Pushchin put it, ‘the one almost naked and the other covered in snow’: a scene which even after thirty years Pushchin found it impossible to write about without tears blurring his spectacles. Pushchin found Pushkin’s appearance little changed, except for the sideburns that he had grown since he had last seen him in St. Petersburg. He also seemed a little more serious, although he had lost none of his gaiety and liveliness. Toasts were drunk. They discussed everything under the sun: the reasons for Pushkin’s dismissal from the imperial service; what people in St. Petersburg, particularly the tsar, thought about Pushkin; the chances of his exile coming to an end; and finally, the secret society. Of this Pushchin wrote:

When I said to him that I was not the only one to have entered into this new service of the fatherland, he leapt from his chair and exclaimed: ‘Probably all this is connected with Major Raevsky, who has been held for five years in the Tiraspol prison and they can get nothing out of him.’ Afterwards he quietened down and continued: ‘By the way, I am not compelling you, my dear Pushchin, to talk. Perhaps you were right not to trust me. Probably I do not deserve that trust – because of my many foolishnesses.’ In silence, I kissed him warmly; we embraced and went for a walk; we both of us needed some air.

Introduced to Arina, Pushchin noticed one of the seamstresses in her room (presumably Olga), but said nothing about her to Pushkin, who ‘smiled significantly’. While Pushkin was reading Woe from Wit aloud, they were interrupted by a visit from the monk who was Pushkin’s spiritual supervisor; he drank some glasses of rum as well as the coffee that was offered to him. After he had left Pushkin simply continued reading where he had left off and he went on to read part of his Gypsies. It was long after midnight when Pushchin finally left on his sleigh. They never met again. Pushkin’s poem, ‘My first friend, my priceless friend’, drafted soon afterwards and finished in 1826, was later handed to Pushchin across the palisade at Chita (the Decembrists’ place of imprisonment in Siberia) by the wife of a fellow-prisoner, on the day of his arrival there.

Pushkin’s plans for getting away from Mikhailovskoe took several different forms as time went on. At the very beginning, in December 1824, he was to go abroad disguised as Aleksei Vul’f’s servant.37 This project never got off the ground; and almost simultaneously he wrote an imaginary conversation with Alexander I in which Pushkin sought to explain his atheistic letter as ‘a schoolboy joke’, two empty phrases of which should not be judged as though they were ‘an address to the whole nation’. The final paragraph, however, reads: ‘But here Pushkin would have got angry and said much more to me [to Alexander] that was superfluous, I [Alexander] would have lost my temper and sent him off to Siberia, where he would have written a poem . . .’

In the following spring the idea of treatment for his aneurism was resurrected. Pushkin drafted a letter himself to the tsar in April asking for permission to travel abroad. In June his mother wrote to the tsar on his behalf, asking for permission for him to travel to Riga to consult a specialist there. The outcome was official permission for Pushkin to travel to Pskov, which he at first refused. In the autumn, however, he finally did visit Pskov, where he saw a doctor, whom he consulted again in the following year.

These manoeuvrings were brought to an end by a piece of news that did not reach St Petersburg until 27 November 1825 and Mikhailovskoe at the very end of that month. On 19 November Alexander I died suddenly at Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov. There is no first-hand evidence of Pushkin’s immediate reaction to this wholly unexpected event (the reason for the tsar’s journey was his wife’s ailing health, not his own). The account that we have of what Pushkin then did is based on the recollection of a letter written by him at the time to his brother, which has not survived. Nevertheless there is no reason to doubt that, in the heat of the moment, on 1 or 2 December, Pushkin set out for St. Petersburg under the name of one of Praskov’ya Osipova’s servants. Nor, given his superstitious nature, is it improbable that the sight of a brace of hares and a priest soon after he left home were enough to convince him that the journey would not have a happy outcome. He returned to Mikhailovskoe. He was still there when, a little over a fortnight later, he learnt the news of something even more dramatic: the Decembrist Revolt in St. Petersburg.

(Robin Edmonds)