What an excellent biography. When I was searching for a good description of Pushkin’s life and work this volume, written in 1926, was recommended and I found it detailed and well-written. Since it was published there have been numerous biographies which probably take the scholarship of certain aspects of Pushkin’s life further – but this is a concise and fairly objective analysis. Mirsky didn’t seem to have an axe to grind in a particular direction – though he is very dismissive of Belinsky and the other critics of the 1830s and 40s. What does come through loud and clear in the biography is the subjugation of Pushkin’s genius by the authorities. Pushkin wanted to travel extensively but wasn’t allowed, everything he wrote had to be given to the Tsar and his officials to be read before they could be published. Sometimes, as in the case of the play Boris Godunov, the consent was not given unless changes were made and so Pushkin simply didn’t publish his play. How different Pushkin’s life and art could have been if he had decided to rebel and leave Russia to find his own way. The problem was that Pushkin seems to have been a very likable and passionate man but a person that deep down wanted to please others. As a result, apart from a brief sojourn to the army in Caucasus, he never really acted against the wishes of the authorities after his banishment as a young man.
What makes this biography even more interesting is the story of the biographer DS Mirsky. Mirsky was a prince and member of the aristocracy and fought for the Russian army against the Germans in WW1. After the revolution he fought for the Mensheviks against the Bolsheviks but managed to escape as the Bolsheviks took control. Mirsky ended up in London and wrote several books while lecturing at the University of London. More detailed information is found on his wikipedia page. Mirsky then converted to Communism and returned to Russia in the 30s. In 1937 he was arrested and died two years later in a labour camp. His History of Russian Literature was much admired by Nabokov – and his biography of Lenin is considered definitive.
I have always considered Pushkin a genius, but after reading this biography I believe that he may not even have achieved his full potential due to the situation he was placed in by the Tsarist authorities. Imagine what a Pushkin could have written if he had roamed Europe in the same way that Byron did? A very thought-provoking biography.
Here is a link to Lermontov’s poem about the death of Pushkin, which in turn displeased the Tsar and as a result Lermontov was exiled to to the Caucasus. And so the cycle continued.