January 17, 2018
Pushkin & Dostoevsky
On this day in 1880 Fyodor Dostoevsky delivered his speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin Monument in Moscow. The speech, or rather the wild enthusiasm which it inspired, is regarded as not only a historic moment in Russian literary history but the high water mark of Dostoevsky's public fame. Coming just six months before his death, the event eventually represented as much a memorial to him as to Pushkin.
Pushkin (1799-1837) was and is revered throughout Russia as the National Poet. His statue had been financed by public donations, and immediately became a symbol of the national literary consciousness. The dedication ceremony was seen as a battleground for those who wished to define that consciousness, with the speeches of Turgenev and Dostoevsky -- Tolstoy was already in the grip of his religious fundamentalism, and had declined to attend -- as the main battle. The Paris-living Turgenev represented the "Westernized" writers who promoted a more European outlook, while the peasant-loving Dostoevsky was the voice of what was exclusively Russian. He saw his Pushkin speech as an opportunity to promote his blend of mystical nationalism and devout Christianity over Turgenev's educated liberalism. Dostoevsky was in failing health, but as he says in one letter home to his wife in St. Petersburg, written several days before his speech, acutely aware of the moment:
... I am needed here, not just by the Friends of Russian Literature, but by our whole party and the whole idea for which we have been struggling for 30 years now. For the hostile party (Turgenev, Kovalevsky, and almost the entire university) is determined to play down the importance of Pushkin as the man who gave expression to the Russian national identity, by denying the very existence of that identity.... My voice will carry weight and our side will prevail....
Turgenev's speech was warmly received; Dostoevsky's speech was a hymn to the Russian spirit, a prophecy of Russian greatness, a messianic call to those present "to become a real Russian. . .and a brother to all men." All reports, including Dostoevsky's letter to his wife that night, indicate that the showdown was no contest:
When I appeared on the stage, the auditorium thundered with applause.... I bowed and made signs begging them to let me read -- but to no avail.... At last I began reading. At every page, sometimes at every sentence, I was interrupted with bursts of applause. I read in a loud voice and with fire.... When at the end I proclaimed the universal oneness of mankind, the hall seemed to go into hysterics, and when I finished, there was -- I won't call it a roar -- it was a howl of elation. People in the audience who had never met before wept and threw their arms around one another, solemnly promising to become better, and not hate, but love one another....
One listener wrote that it was as though "the walls in the auditorium had been replaced with a gigantic bonfire," and that if "our saint, our great prophet" had asked it, those present were willing to "rush into the flames and die in order to save Russia!" Dostoevsky reported that someone rushed out to buy a laurel crown, and that at the end of the evening "a throng of women (more than a hundred of them) stormed the stage and crowned me with the wreath in front of the whole audience."
Pushkin was immune to the purges, icon-bashings and statue-topplings that swept the USSR in the 20th century, and his monument in Pushkin Square is as popular as ever today as a place for gathering and reading poetry -- although it looks out on what is reportedly the most frequented McDonald's in the world.