Contemporary Russian Myths.
A Skeptical View of the Literary Past
Pushkin's Hallowed Nurse
We Russians have known Alexander Pushkin's nurse since our own childhood, as if she had cared not just for the poet but for us as well. She has an honored place in every one of his biographies. Is taking up such a banal theme worthwhile? What could we manage to say that was new? Looking yet again at a thick folder with her name on it, documents collected over long years, we made up our mind to try to catch a glimpse of her as an historical-literary phenomenon, so to speak, and maybe as one of the unsolved riddles of Pushkin's biography.
Primary materials on his nurse are scant, but, to all appearances, the maximum possible has already been drawn from them and interpreted variously, sometimes at odds with historical fact—in turn, something with its own reasons. According to the unwritten law of Pushkin studies, the environment around the great poet has been staked out and divided up between friends and enemies, with a consequent hypertrophy of their virtues or deficiencies. His nurse has survived many a purge, with honor intact.
1. A nurse. But what kind?
First of all, the expression “Pushkin's nurse” itself, that has become an accepted traditional term in Pushkin studies, requires elaboration. In life she was called Arina. In her old age some called her Rodionovna, the way they do sometimes in the country. Pushkin himself never even once called her by name, and in his letters he wrote “nurse,” once even with a capital letter. In scholarly Russian and Western literature she is more frequently referred to as Arina Rodionovna, without any family name, or, more rarely, with the surname Yakovleva.
Arina was what they called her around the house, but she had two genuine names: Irina, and in other documents, Irinya. Her family name, according to the serf tax register, was Rodionova. She was buried under that name. In a recent publication it says: “There are no good grounds for the appearance of the family name Yakovleva in modern literature about Pushkin's nurse, as if it belonged to her. As a serf-woman, a nurse would have no family name. In documents (accounting ledgers, confessional inventories, parish birth registers) she was called after her father—Rodionova—and in an everyday context, Rodionovna (the normal patronymic). None of the poet's contemporaries referred to her as Yakovleva.”
This is a debatable issue, since children are named after their father, and her father's surname is Yakovlev. Meylakh called her Arina Matveyeva (after her husband). Whichever way you look at it, Pushkin's and Gogol's serf-characters had names like Savelyich, Selifan, or Petrushka; and her respectful address by name and patronymic as Arina Rodionovna, without a family name, widely accepted in literature, puts the nurse straightaway on a definite level. After all, beginning with folkloric names (Mikula Selyaninovich, say), it has been the custom in print to dignify this way only heroes, tsars, grand dukes (for example, Nikolay Pavlovich, Konstantin Pavlovich for Nicholas I and his brother) and widely-known people (Alexander Sergeyevich, Joseph Vissarionovich for Pushkin and Stalin).
According to the parish register of the Voskresenskaya Suydinskaya church, she was born on April 10, 1758, in Suyda (the present village of Voskresenskoye), or more precisely, a quarter of a mile away, in the hamlet of Lampovo. This is the so-called Izhorsk land in the St. Petersburg guberniya, on the territory of Ingermanlandia, at one point belonging to Great Novgorod, then to Sweden, and then reconquered by Peter the Great. First Orthodox Christianity was propagated on this thinly-populated locality, then Lutheranism, then again Orthodoxy. Her mother, Lukerya Kirillova, and her father, Rodion Yakovlev, had seven children—among them two with the same name, Yevdokiya. While Arina was a child, she was reckoned the serf of Count Fyodor Apraksin. Suyda and its adjacent hamlets with their inhabitants were purchased from Count Apraksin by the poet's grandfather, Abram Hannibal. Arina (Irina, Irinya) Rodionova-Yakovleva-Matveyeva lived a long life, for those times—past her seventieth year.
In 1781 Arina got married and was allowed to move to her husband's in the village of Kobrino, not far from the present-day Gatchina. A year later, following Pushkin's birth, his grandmother, Maria Hannibal, sold Kobrino with all the people in it and bought Zakharovo, outside Moscow. She excluded Arina, along with her family and the house that they lived in, from the bill of sale. The situation isn't as clear as it has been represented. At one time, it was the custom to consider that Maria Hannibal either gave Arina and her family—her husband, Fyodor Matveyev, who died in 1801 or 1802 from drunkenness, and four children—their freedom, or wanted to.
Arina refused the offer of freedom. Pushkin's sister, Olga Pavlishcheva, alleges this in her memoirs. Arina remained a house-serf. Incidentally, a dictionary definition of the Russian word for house-serf, dvorovoy, gives the meaning as “a serf, one who has been brought into a lordly, seigniorial manor (used to signify peasant serfs who have been taken from the land into the service of a landlord and his house).” Arina Rodionovna's daughter, Marya, married a serf and in this fashion remained a serf. Arina said, “I was a peasant myself, what do I need freedom for?”
Arina's biographer A. I. Ulyansky claims that her children never received their freedom. All her life, Arina considered herself a slave of her lords: “a loyal slave,” Pushkin himself calls the nurse in Dubrovsky, although this is a fictional character, of course,. “To grant freedom to the nurse and her family,” proposed Granovskaya, “was something that Maria Hannibal was evidently going to do … but never got around to.”7 If this was so, then Arina's refusal of the offer of freedom makes no sense. At Mikhaylovskoye, according to the register, she and her children were again listed as serfs. “Arina Rodionovna was born a serf and died one.” “Thrice over” a serf, Nadezhda Braginskaya noted in retrospect: “of Apraksin, of Hannibal, and of the Pushkins.” And we should note that Pushkin was comfortable with this situation. He never touched upon this topic in regards to his nurse, not a word, although slavery in general stirred his civic indignation on more than one occasion.
What is important is that Arina and her children found themselves in a rather unusual position. Arina went back and forth between the Pushkins' and her village—and we don't know for sure which one that would have been. By necessity, she had been taken into service in the manor, but they evidently sent her back to Mikhaylovskoye, as well. She was something along the lines of a steward: she would watch over the estate, carrying out her lords' bidding; certain of her honesty, they would entrust her with various financial affairs. Vladimir Nabokov uses the English word housekeeper to try to explain her role to the Western reader. In 1792, Arina was taken by Maria Hannibal to the house of the guardian of her daughter, that is, Pushkin's mother, to be a wet-nurse for the man's son. The poet's uncle, A. Y. Pushkin, wrote about the son that “Hannibal's wife gave the aformentioned Arina Rodionovna from Kobrino to him as a wet-nurse.” She “was left with him as nurse until 1797.”
How does the birth of her own children correspond to the birth of the Pushkin children? This is not an idle question, for who nursed the poet at her breast? When Pushkin was born, Arina was 41; two years later she was widowed and had no more children. The ages of Arina Rodionovna's children by Fyodor Matveyev in the year of Pushkin's birth were: Yegor, 17; Nadezhda, 11; Marya (who left something like a primitive memoir), 10. Arina's last son, Stefan, was born most likely at the end of 1797, at the very time (December 20, 1797) as Pushkin's older sister Olga, and they took Arina from the village into the Pushkin's house because she was in milk. Pushkin was born a year and a half later, when she had already weaned his sister, or was about to. Most likely, Arina had already gone dry and had been sent back to the village. Arina's daughter Marya recalled, “She had just weaned Olga, and then she was taken to be Alexander's nurse.” The evidence isn't precise. A different wet-nurse was brought for Pushkin.
The expression “Pushkin's nurse” includes, at a minimum, two different women. In his sister Olga's testimony, the poet had two nurses. Both of them have been known as Yakovleva up to the present. Most likely his first nurse was taken from the village that belonged to Maria Hannibal. As is still normal to this day, a few family names would have sufficed for a whole village.
The poet's first nurse was Ulyana Yakovlevna or Yakovleva (born probably in 1767 or 1768, perhaps a widow, year of death unknown). She breast-fed him from birth and, as a Soviet source euphemizes in order to avoid the issue of breast-feeding, Ulyana “for the first two years played a major role.” A year and ten months later after Pushkin, his brother Nikolay was born (who died six years later); and, four years further on, his brother Lev was born. Olga wrote that “Lev was born and Arina Rodionovna was entrusted with his care: that is how she became a general nurse.” Meanwhile, Ulyana remained with Pushkin until 1811.
After Olga, Arina was nurse to Alexander and Lev, but was wet-nurse only to Olga. Nabokov says that Arina Rodionovna is “more precisely, his sister's old nurse,” and then says “formerly his sister's nurse.” She was not the only nurse, of course. There were lots of servants in the Pushkins' house; wet-nurses were easily found in the villages and returned to them, but this nurse was trusted with far more than the others. Pushkin's mother, when she needed her, allowed her to sleep not in the servants' hall, but in the manor itself. Later on, her daughter Nadezhda was also taken into service at their lordships'.
Arina's children were permitted to settle in the little village of Zakharovo. In 1811, Zakharovo was sold. The Pushkins had children who were born and died as infants: Sofya, Pavel, Mikhail, and Platon. It is not known if Arina nursed any of these children. His parents, when Pushkin entered the Lyceum, left Moscow for Warsaw, where his father had procured a post. Arina was sent back to Mikhaylovskoye.
In Pushkin's autobiographical sketches, there is this line: “First impressions. The Yusupov garden, the earthquake, my nurse.” His autobiography remained unrealized, and it is arguable which nurse Pushkin had in mind to describe during the earthquake of 1802. Let's take a look at his formal usage of the word “nurse.” In Thomas Shaw's Index of Pushkin's Poetry, the word “nurse” is used 23 times in various grammatical cases in his poems, including 17 times in Onegin, with 6 left over. In the Dictionary of Pushkin's Language, including letters and draft versions, the word “nurse” is mentioned 36 times; of these, 19 times in Onegin, and 17 others for the whole life of the poet.
Arina Rodionovna's significance to the history of Russian literature is based on several theses, whose most fundamental is sentimental: the poet loved his nurse and included her in his works. Did she really play an important part in his life?
2. In the master's service
Let's ponder the time of their relationship. The first summer of his life Pushkin spent at Mikhaylovskoye, to which he had been brought soon after his birth; only in the fall did his parents leave for St. Petersburg. When she started nursing him is not clear, but “in his seventh year,” wrote Bartenev, “nurse and grandmother were replaced by tutors and teachers.” It is unlikely that they saw each other when, in November 1817, Arina was brought to the city to nurse the last-born Pushkin child, Platon. They went back with him to Mikhaylovskoye, where he soon died. In the summers of 1817 and 1819, Pushkin came to Mikhaylovskoye for his vacation, and she saw him during these visits, “if she was there at the time,” as Nabokov stresses it. His attachment to her, or, as has been written, his love for his nurse, meaning her role in his life, relates to his Mikhaylovskoye exile, which lasted for two years. He was living in the large, seigniorial manor, and his nurse lived either in the outbuilding where the bath was, or in the maids' hall. After his exile, the poet returned again to the village two months later, and still another time, in 1847.
His love for his nurse is confirmed by a range of sources. His sister, Olga, amplifies: he had loved her since childhood, but even more so when he was at Mikhaylovskoye. The tremendous precision of Pushkin's characterization (Arina Rodionovna was 68) leaves us in no doubt about it:
Friend of my bleak days,
My darling in her dotage . . .
As Nestor Kotlyarevsky noted, “Pushkin embellished his recollections.” Let's reread the poet's Mikhaylovskoye correspondence, often quoted in confirmation of his friendship with Arina Rodionovna. Mention of his nurse runs first from Pushkin's life into his letters, and then into his works, and it is difficult for the biographer to distinguish between facts of life and literary exaggerations. “Do you know what I'm doing?” he shared with his brother (November, 1824). “Before dinner I write up my notes, then dine late; after dinner I go riding, and in the evening I listen to Nurse's fairy-tales, making up for the deficiencies of my accursed upbringing.”
Thirty years afterwards Pavel Annenkov wrote: “Arina Rodionovna was the go-between, as everyone knows, in his relations with the Russian fairy-tale world, his guide to finding out the beliefs, customs, and the very ways of the people … “ And more: “Alexander Sergeyevich spoke of his nurse as his ultimate preceptor, and that he was obliged to this teacher for correcting the deficiencies of his original French upbringing.” This was the Annenkov's fundamental observation. But Pushkin himself, in contrast to his biographer, never called his nurse either go-between or guide or ultimate preceptor or teacher. By the way, neither is there any phrase like “accursed French upbringing” in Pushkin; he has “my accursed upbringing.” From these words of the poet, it follows that Arina, while his nurse, hadn't done a very good job of raising him, and neither had his parents (“the deficiencies of my accursed upbringing.”) It's Pushkin who contradicts those Pushkin scholars who assert the huge positive role of Arina in the development of the child-poet.
In a letter to Dmitry Shvarts, a chancellery official in Odessa, Pushkin wrote (December 1824), “… in the evening I listen to the fairy tales of my nurse, the original of Tatyana's nurse; you, it seems to me, saw her once—she is my only friend—and only with her am I not bored.” In a letter to his friend Pyotr Vyazemsky (January, 1825), on the same subject: “… I loll on the stove-bench and listen to old fairy-tales and songs.” And in Eugene Onegin:
But the fruits of my daydreams
And ventures in harmony
I read to my old nurse alone,
That friend of my youth.
All these reminders of his nurse were after a fight with his father, when his parents had gone away and Pushkin was left alone. “I read to my old nurse alone”—only to her, because his constant contact with the inhabitants of Trigorskoye had not yet come to pass. Lines from his poem “Winter's Evening,” in our minds from childhood, are brilliant. However, the poet's mood in the storm covering the sky with gloom, and even the text of a letter written on a frosty winter's day at the beginning of his Mikhaylovskoye exile, being boundless generalizations, distort the real picture of the poet's life in the country, narrow his pastimes to the constant spending of his time only with his nurse. However easy and comfortable he might have felt with her anyway, it was his enforced solitude that she was taking the edge off.
A letter to the younger Nikolay Rayevsky is important here: “For the time being I live in utter solitude: the only neighbor I could visit left for Riga, and I literally have no other society except for my old nurse and my tragedy; the latter is coming along, and I am satisfied with it.” Judging from the letter, he had to while away his time with Arina Rodionovna for the time being because of the absence of Osipova and her company.
Sad am I: with me no friend
With whom to drown the long parting…
I drink alone…
I have no friend; I drink alone. And several lines later he repeats: “I drink alone…” This is addressed to his Lyceum comrades after a year at Mikhaylovskoye. He wrote no more about his nurse. Aleksey Vulf recalled that Pushkin's desk was piled high with books by Montesquieu and other authors. There is a lot of eyewitness testimony that the poet would spend whole days, and of course evenings and sometimes nights as well, at Trigorskoye. Imagine yourself a passionate 25-year-old man: would you listen for a long time, and especially every day, to fairy-tales from your nurse, when there was a house within two miles full of cheery feminine laughter and flirtation?
“Every day about three in the afternoon, Pushkin would show up at our place from his Mikhaylovskoye,” wrote Maria Osipova, the daughter of Praskovya Osipova. Pushkin would go to the Osipov-Vulfs' at Trigorskoye sometimes on horseback, sometimes by wagon, sometimes on foot. There was company there, there he carried on affairs with everyone in turn, starting with the mistress of the estate. His nurse would come to Trigorskoye to carry out various tasks for her master. “She often visited us in Trigorskoye, and, consequently, it was at our place that she composed those letters that she sent to her nursling.” As for Mikhaylovskoye, the poet spent most of his time there alone, taking target-practice with a pistol in his cellar, and, as he confessed himself, frightening the ducks on the lake by reading his poems to them.
In his Mikhaylovskoye exile, Pushkin's nurse was his aide in practical affairs, in everyday life. Her kindness and caring for him and for visitors made her irreplaceable. Pushkin once even quoted her in a letter to Pyotr Vyazemsky: “Thou'rt such a game cock, as my Nurse puts it.” At that same time, in December of 1824, he wrote to his sister Olga, whom he missed, that “nurse has carried out your commission: she went to Svyatye Gory and had a requiem mass said or whatever was necessary.” On August 25, Pushkin appended the following in Russian to a letter in French to his sister: “Nurse sends to kiss your hand, Olga Sergeyevna, my little darling.” Pushkin wasn't a good landlord; the bailiffs would cheat him, and he was able to eke only a miserable existence out of the estate. Arina would look into the estate's affairs, telling her master what was going on in the village.
Pushkin's love for Mikhaylovskoye was changing. On December 1, 1826, he wrote to his friend Vasily Zubkov that he had left “my accursed hamlet.” And after his exile, he would sometimes, in his freedom, hide himself away in the country from the “vulgarity and stupidity” of Moscow and St. Petersburg “almost like Harlequin, who, to the question of whether he preferred being broken on the wheel or hanged, answered, 'I prefer milk soup.'” (a letter to Osipova, the summer of 1827). Pushkin told Vyazemsky: “You know, I'm not making myself out to be sensitive, but a meeting with my menials, louts, and my nurse—really and truly tickles my heart more pleasantly than glory, than taking pride in something, than distractions, and so on. My nurse is hilarious. Imagine, at 70 she has learned off by heart a new prayer for the softening of her lord's heart and the curbing of his soul's ferocity, a prayer probably composed during the reign of Tsar Ivan. Right now priests are bawling the service in her room and keeping me from going about my business.” It's most likely that that's a joking exaggeration at the end of the letter, about the priest's pilgrimage to his nurse's room. The description of the company the poet met with is interesting as well: menials, louts, and nurse, who is hilarious.
“Among the letters to Pushkin from almost all the celebrities of Russian society there are notes from his old nurse, that he kept on an equal footing with the foremost.” Thus Pavel Annenkov sings the praises of Arina Rodionovna. He came across with a brilliant euphemism: “The idea and the very form of the idea, evidently, belonged to Arina Rodionovna, although she did borrow someone's hand [my italics—Y.D.] for their exposition.” Two such notes exist. The first letter was apparently “composed” by Arina, as Maria Osipova put it; that is, she didn't ask someone in Trigorskoye to write it for her but found a peasant who could write. She sent off the letter with Arkhip the gardener, who was entrusted with bringing Pushkin's books from Mikhaylovskoye to St. Petersburg (1827). Both letters are here presented with their original style attempted in translation.
Genuary—30th day. Dear Sir of Alexander, sergeyevich ive the honor to wish you a happy past new year in a new happiness, ani wish you my kined benefactor health and prosperity; ani notify you that iwasin petersburg: annabout you noboddy—cant know, where you are an your parents, Condole for you that youwont come see them; and Olga sergevnna have writ toyou infrontof me withone lady knowen to you But We, batyushka, were awaiting a letter from you When you order us to bring Books, but we failed to wait it out: thats why we conceived the idea in accordance with your old order to send: that's why I send big and small books in number—134 books igive arkhip money, nos. 85 rub. [crossed out—Y. D.] 90 rubles: meanwhile Kined friend ikiss your hands by your leave a hundred times anwish you whatyou wishyour self iremain sincerely yours Arinna Rodivonovnna.
The second letter was written for the nurse by the poet's girl-friend at Trigorskoye, Anna Nikolayevna Vulf, who missed the mischief-maker and ladies' man Pushkin no less than Arina Rodionovna.
Alexander Sergeyevich, I received your letter and money that you had sent me. For all your favors I am thankful with all my heart—you are constantly in my heart and in my mind, and only when I fall asleep I forget you and your favors to me. Your kind sister does not forget me either. Your promise to visit us in summer makes me very happy. Come, my angel, to us at Mikhaylovskoye, I shall post all the horses along the road for you. Ours will not be in Petersbur. in summer, they are [all] going without fail to Reval. I will await you and pray to God that he will grant that we meet. Prask. Aleks. [Praskovya Osipova, Pushkin's friend—Y.D.] has arrived from Petersburg—the young ladies send their regards and are thankful that you do not forget them, but they say that you remember them in your prayers before time, since they are thank God alive and healthy. Farewell, my batyushka Alexander Sergeyevich. For your health I have taken the communion host and said a mass, live on nicely, my little friend, you will like it. I am well, thank God, I kiss your hands and remain your much-loving nurse, Arina Rodivonovna. Trigorskoye. March 6.
In the second letter, as we can see, Arina seems quite different, thanks to the intelligence of her ghost-writer. She sometimes uses the respectful second-person plural, sometimes the affectionate singular. He uses only the singular, it goes without saying, as was the custom. The tone of both letters is similar: her tenderness, love, and care for her master. Pushkin answered at least one of his nurse's letters.
He saw his nurse for the last time at Mikhaylovskoye on September 14, 1827, nine months before her death. There is no information about his ever seeing her in St. Petersburg. To one side of a draft version of his poem “Fatigued by Life's Emotion,” dated June 25 (1828), we find: “Fanny Nyanya + Elisa e Claudio nya.” “Fanny” is, in the opinion of Mstislav Tsyavlovsky, a prostitute whom he probably visited that day; “Elisa” is the name of the opera in the St. Petersburg Imperial Theater, which he attended, and in the middle there is a cross. Supposedly, Pushkin found out about the death of his nurse, who had been taken not long before from Mikhaylovskoye to St. Petersburg in the retinue of his sister Olga, who had just gotten married, and according to one version Arina caught a cold on her way. Pushkin didn't come to her funeral, nor did his sister. She was buried by Olga's husband, Nikolay Pavlishchev, alone, who buried her in an unmarked grave. It's normally accepted that “nyanya +” in Pushkin's manuscript signifies the death of his nurse. Supposedly, it just happened that way, his feeling sad about his nurse's death in between a prostitute and the theater.
The date, however, still remains unclear. For over a hundred years it wasn't known in which cemetery she was buried. Ulyansky in his book Pushkin's Nurse proved that she died on July 31, 1828, of which there is a record in the church of The Icon of Our Lady of Vladimir: “Arina Rodionovna, serving woman of 5th-class Official Pushkin. Disease: old age.” N.Granovskaya considers that she died on July 29, since, in that period, one was interred and the burial service read on the third day. But how can that be matched up with the date of June 25, marked with a cross by Pushkin? Even if we suppose that it's worth considering it to be not “June” but “July,” they wouldn't have been able to delay a burial for six days in high summer anyway. Attempts to explain the June 25 date have led to nothing. Maybe Pushkin marked with a cross the onset of some irreversible illness of hers that he had found out about and understood that she would never recover from—something like a stroke, for instance. He doubtlessly and sincerely loved his nurse, but the place for this affection was Mikhaylovskoye; in St. Petersburg he had no need of her.
His nurse's grave vanished immediately. Several different versions of where the spot should be make their way around in the literature: that her grave is in the Svyatogorsk monastery, near the poet's grave; that Arina was buried back in her home country of Suyda; and also at Bolsheokhtinskoye cemetery in St. Petersburg, where for some time there was even a headstone with “Pushkin's Nurse” inscribed instead of a name. Only towards the end of the 30s of this century did they find the registration of her funeral at the Smolensk cemetery in St. Petersburg.
3. The Prototype and the Poet's Friends
Pushkin's nurse became a literary model and found a second life in his imagination and in his texts. Apart from everything else, that was the style of those times and of Pushkin's circle—a humane attitude towards common people, or, in Pushkin's favorite word, towards the mob. It's acceptable to say that his nurse was the prototype for a whole range of his heroines. For instance, Filipyevna, Tatyana Larina's nurse, whom he called in his drafts Fadeyevna or Filatyevna as well. Then there was the nurse Kseniya in Boris Godunov, and Dubrovsky's nurse Orina Yegorovna (Pakhomovna), who even wrote a letter similar to the ones that Arina dictated. The same type is the princess's wet-nurse (in “The Mermaid”) and perhaps even the female dwarf Swallow in “The Blackamoor of Peter the Great.” Always secondary characters, similar to one another.
Nabokov, too, searched for the roots of the prototypes of the nurse in Pushkin. “The story-telling old nurse is of course an ancient thematic device. In Maria Edgeworth's Ennui (1809), she is Irish, and her tales are of the Irish Black Beard and the ghost of King O'Donoghue.” The facts of Arina Rodionovna's own life, as a prototype for a heroine, were almost never used by Pushkin. For example, his nurse was married at the age of 22, but Filipyevna in Onegin at 13, and her story is more interesting. In other words, Pushkin used information that he obtained outside of his relations with his nurse. We're paying particular attention to this because the poet's literary characters subsequently enriched the legendary image of Arina Rodionovna.
The unfinished draft of the widely known poem “Friend of my bleak days…” had no name. The heading “To Nurse,” put to it on its first publication by Annenkov, was indicated at first in brackets, and then subsequent editors began deleting the brackets as well as the half-finished line “Then you imagine…” Annenkov first published it in 1855, having connected the artistic image straightaway with Arina.
The real life, the tragedy of the existence of the slave Arina Rodionovna, although she was probably completely satisfied with her life, found almost no reflection in Pushkin. It was a serious topic, not a romantic one, because both “her youth and her love were taken from her by strangers, without asking her.” “Both character-types and pictures from the lives of common people are almost absent” in Pushkin, wrote Kotlyarevsky. And further: “The only filled-out portrait from this collection of sketches was the portrait of the friend of his incarceration, the nurse of his Tatyana. The kind friend of his wretched youth, this “darling in her dotage,” can be glimpsed in his poems as some kind of vision from what is in reality a world that was foreign to him.” She remained in his works as a romanticized, happy character, without a private life, and outside of the social context so important to Russian literature.
The attitude of several of Pushkin's friends toward his nurse is also bound up with the Mikhaylovskoye solitude of the poet. His friends knew about her basically from his poems, and imitated him, their care for her exaggerated. Delvig wrote to Pushkin just after he had left Mikhaylovskoye: “My soul, your nurse's situation frightens me. How could she bear this altogether unexpected parting from you?” It's impossible not to mention this loss of a sense of proportion: after all, she is a servant, not his mother, wife, or lover.
Pushchin, however, recalled with vexation how Arina, during a visit by him to Mikhaylovskoye, closed the dampers of their heating-stoves too early and nearly poisoned the two friends with carbon-monoxide fumes. Naturally, the poet, returning to Moscow, had no more need of his nurse. He was in a state of euphoria: a meeting with the tsar, carousing in the capital, new plans for his life. In 1827, Praskovya Osipova sent Pushkin a letter with a poem in it that Yazykov had sent to Vulf. It was dedicated to Pushkin's nurse:
Vasilyevna, my light, shall I forget thee?
Those days when, in love with country freedom,
Both glory I abandoned for it, and science,
And Germans, and that city of professors and boredom—
Thou, beneficial mistress of that shelter
Where by bleak fate Pushkin is unwhelmed,
Despising people, rumors, their caresses, betrayals,
Performing rites at the altar of Camena—
Ever in greetings heartfelt, kindly
Wouldst thou meet me, and salute me …
It is clear that Yazykov's love for Arina derives from his friendship for Pushkin; had she not been Pushkin's nurse, there would never have been any poems about her virtues. He addressed her as Vasilyevna, but of course she was Rodionovna. Somebody clued him in, and Yazykov changed the line to “My light, Rodionovna, shall I forget you?” Delvig published this poem in his Severnye Tsvety (Northern Flowers) in 1828. The name was not that important: she was a “nurse in general,” a romanticized heroine of the people. She could never have read those poems, and most likely would never have had a notion of what they were writing about her.
Pyotr Vyazemsky told Pushkin on July 26, 1828, “Give Olga Sergeyevna my hand in greeting, and Rodionovna a bow from the waist.” Pushkin evidently couldn't pass on the bow, because he wasn't to see his nurse, and she was to die in five days. Pushkin's friends wrote one another on the subject of her death; for instance, Orest Somov wrote to Nikolay Yazykov about the departed. Meanwhile, Pushkin's relatives, whom she had served faithfully and truly all her life, were more restrained in their expression of feeling or gratitude towards their servant.
Anna Kern, who visited Mikhaylovskoye for well-known reasons in 1825, left the following line in her memoirs of Pushkin: “I think he never loved anyone truly except his nurse, and then his sister.” Kern wrote about this more than a quarter of a century later, and to say that Pushkin loved nobody was for her to equate her fleeting affair with him to his serious passions, including the one for his wife. But we have to think that whomever Pushkin loved, he loved truly.
4. The “Generalized Nurse”
One of the laws of idealization seems to be the purging of bothersome information from the image, followed by its generalization, simplification, and then romanticization. That is why two nurses turned into one, and various characters from literature (typical of a family at that time) found a single prototype. “A kind of collective my nurse,” said Nabokov, and, in another place, “the generalized nurse.” The menials in service to the young master at Mikhaylovskoye totaled 29 souls, including “the widow Irina Rodionovna,” as she is called in the serf register. And everything “folkloric” that Pushkin absorbed during his exile (if he actually came into contact with common folk in any way at all) was written into the “composite” Arina Rodionovna.
In Pushkin's biographies, his nurse overshadows yet another servant, one devoted to Pushkin no less, and perhaps more, than she—her daughter's husband, Nikita Kozlov, who was originally a lamplighter to the poet's father. Kozlov was unlucky. Veresayev was the first to turn his attention to him: “How strange! He was a person evidently passionately devoted to Pushkin, loved him, took care of him, perhaps no less than Arina Rodionovna; accompanied him throughout the whole of his independent lifetime, but who is nowhere to be mentioned: neither in Pushkin's letters, nor in the letters of the people closest to him. Not one single word about him, either good or bad.” Nikita rescued Pushkin from utterly serious and risky situations; saved him from search, carried the wounded poet home in his arms, and, along with Aleksandr Turgenev, lowered the coffin with Pushkin's body in it into his grave.
Help me to dress, Nikita:
The metropolis is abuzz…
If we overlook these two accidental lines, then the loyal Kozlov passes unnoticed through the poet's works.
Nadezhda Pushkina, in a letter to Kern, informs her: “From time to time Alexander writes two or three words to his sister; he's at Mikhaylovskoye now, close to his 'darling little nurse,' as you call her so lovingly.” There is some evidence that he called his nurse “mama,” while she would say to him: “Batyushka, why do you always call me 'mama'? how could I be your mother?” But the fact is that he called his mother maman, in French, while mama, mamka, or mamushka, as he called his nurse, is quite acceptable as an expression in Russian for “wet-nurse, a woman breast-feeding another's child; [or] a senior nurse, a kind of supervisor of young children,” according to Vladimir Dal. Later on, the tendency among Pushkin's biographers to replace his mother with his nurse became more categorical: “Let's recall Arina Rodionovna—the nurse who was dearer to Pushkin than his mother.”
Idealization always has a dark side, an antithesis. If someone gets idealized, somebody else has to get anathematized. This shows up especially clearly in the Soviet tradition. The class-based approach: aristocrat-mother versus the representative of the people, his nurse. In the process of idealization, his nurse got better and better and his mother worse and worse; the nurse gets more and more frequent mention, and his mother less and less. The poet's nurse became his sublimated mother.
A paltry number of Pushkin's letters to members of his family has survived; in fact, he hardly wrote to them at all. He wrote his father three letters, his father and mother one letter, his father, mother and sister one letter, his sister five letters—all basically just notes. And personally to his mother—none. However, when his mother died, Pushkin went to her funeral and bought the grave next to hers for himself. And since one's mother correlates to one's motherland, which must be loved, in official Pushkin studies the people's nurse is invested with parental functions, becomes a surrogate mother for the poet. However, you can find this in Pushkin himself: at the author's whim, Tatyana calls to mind not her mother's grave, but her nurse's—a fact that Anna Akhmatova drew attention to.
Where now there is a cross and branches' shade
Over my poor nurse.
The next tendency in Pushkin studies was the liquidation of the role of the poet's aristocrat-grandmothers, and the inclusion of his grandmothers' features in the image of his nurse. We'll just note that his grandmother Maria Hannibal is the one usually discussed, since Pushkin was just two and a half years old when his other grandmother died, his father's mother, Olga Chicherina. Her sister Varvara liked Pushkin, and gave him a whole hundred rubles to buy nuts when the boy set off for the Lyceum. There is almost no mention of the grandmothers in the poet's biographies. His grandmother Maria Hannibal served more than once as material for a model of the ideal nurse. For instance, his poem “The Dream” (a fragment beginning with the words “Allow the poet with a rented censer”), evidently part of an unfinished poem begun in 1816, includes these famous lines:
Shall I fail my mamushka to mention,
On mysterious nights a-wonder,
When in mobcap and antique garb
She'd fend away the ghosts with prayer,
Bless me zealously
And in a whisper start a tale for me
Of men dead, and Bova's hero-deeds…
And I in terror never stirring,
Scarcely breathing, snug beneath my blanket,
Feeling neither legs nor head.
The simple lamp of clay beneath the icon
Dimly limned the deep wrinkles,
Great-grandmother's mobcap, costly antique,
And wide mouth with two teeth gnashing—
All instilled unwilling fear into my soul.
Traditionally, ever since Bartenev, this fragment has been considered to be describing his nurse. Boris Tomashevsky's interpretation in the ten-volume Academy edition of Pushkin is that “Here Pushkin describes either his grandmother M. A. Hannibal or his nurse, Arina Rodionovna.” However, the line “Great-grandmother's mobcap, costly antique, “ affords us the opportunity to be more precise: in the poem, Pushkin combines the two of them together (on the one hand, mamushka, on the other, an object of worth).
Gradually, yet another generalization crystalized: it turned out that the poet's muse was none other than his nurse. Thus M. Shevlyakov writes further: “Pushkin embodies his muse in the person of his dear nurse.” This assertion is based upon the poet's lines:
Confidante of olden, magic times,
Friend through fancies playful, sad;
I knew you in my springtime's days,
Primal days of dream and of delight;
I'd wait for you. In evening's quiet
You'd appear a jolly beldame
Looming over me in your jacket,
Big eyeglasses, and your playful rattle.
You rocked my infant cradle,
Charmed my youthful ear with melody,
And in my coverlet you left a whistle
That you'd bewitched yourself.
This poem, about which much has been written, by tradition is ascribed to 1822 (when the poet was in Kishinev), and for a long time was considered to be dedicated to Arina Rodionovna, the “jolly beldame” seated before the poet in her jacket. However, the end of the poem was sometimes omitted in quotation:
Whirled by th'unruly wave, your cloak
Just ashroud your half-ethereal form;
All in locks twined in a chaplet round
Your sweet-scented head, my lovely;
White bosom beneath yellowed pearls
Flushed and trembled softly.
Half-ethereal form, ringlets, fragrance (that is, expensive French perfumes or lotions—they were all from France alone in those times), decolletage (the boy remembered for years seeing the half-undraped bosom), and finally, eyeglasses and pearls ornamenting a breast—could that have been a serf woman? That was Maria Hannibal, his aristocrat-grandmother, who played a major role in the education and upbringing of her little grandson Alexander. She was divorced (at that time termed “in departure”) from her husband, Osip Hannibal, and, naturally, her life's interests were concentrated in her favorite grandchildren.
5. Nurse's tales and tales of a nurse
Undoubtedly Pushkin loved his nurse, but Pushkin scholars have loved her even more. The glorification of the “people's nurse” was not just the contribution of the Soviet school of Pushkin. Pushkin created a romantic, poetic myth, and the poet's notion was extended by his friends. Close on their heels, the first Pushkin scholars extolled Arina, expressing thoughts consonant with the official national ideology. According to Bartenev, “Arina Rodionovna skillfully told fairy tales, spewed out proverbs and sayings, knew folk beliefs, and indisputably had a great influence on her nursling, unextirpated either by later foreign tutors or by education in the Lyceum at Tsarskoye Selo. Just imagine that: foreigners and the Lyceum trying to extirpate everything Russian and good in Pushkin, and his nurse saves him.
However, if we're to speak seriously, it's impossible to clarify what his nurse's real contribution was to the poet's upbringing. Contemporaries noted that she was loquacious, garrulous. Annenkov wrote:
A union of geniality and querulousness, an affectionate disposition towards youth with a pretended sternness, left an indelible memory with Pushkin. He loved her with a kindred, unchanging love, and in the years of his maturity and glory would talk to her for whole hours.”
Common sense gets lost in the hyperbola of Annenkov's esteem for Arina Rodionovna: “The whole of the Russian fairy-tale world was known to her intimately and she passed it on with extraordinary originality.”
It's known for sure that Pushkin wrote down seven fairy tales, ten songs, and several folk-expressions from her words, although he heard much more from her, of course. However, it's not clear if Pushkin copied down the plots of songs about Stenka Razin from his nurse's words or took them from Chulkov's collection, which he had read. Lotman turned his attention to this fact. The argument about from where Pushkin had borrowed the plots of certain fairy tales—from Arina Rodionovna or from the Brothers Grimm—continues. But political victory during the Soviet regime was definitely not on the side of the Brothers Grimm.
That same Annenkov introduced into tradition unhistorical exaggerations like “the famous Arina Rodionovna.” He went even further: “Rodionovna was one of the most typical and noble figures of the Russian world.” And, it turns out, Pushkin “let the venerable old lady into all the mysteries of his genius.” The contribution of genius is defined thus: he is the poet “who glorified her name to all Rus.”
Slavophiles picked up on Arina Rodionovna because she helped them bring the poet into their camp. Ivan Aksakov said, in 1880, at a Pushkin celebration, “So that's who was his first inspiration, the first Muse of the great artist and first truly Russian poet, that simple Russian country woman… From her stories as if at the breast of an earth mother he greedily drank in the clear stream of the people's speech and spirit.” This was said before Freud had ever published a line. The sprouting of Russian populism—the guilt and misfortune of the Russian intelligentsia—was embodied in this 19th-century passion for her.
After the October coup d'etat, the myth of his nurse was used for the political adjustment of Pushkin's image as a poet of the people. It is irrefutable that, from among all of the people of servile rank, the poet's nurse was closest to him. As far as mythologization goes, it's always characterized by an immoderate widening of spheres of influence. “The significance of Arina Rodionovna for Pushkin is exceptionally great and well known, but not yet completely apprehended, not summed up… “ wrote Ulyansky in his Academy monograph, Pushkin's Nurse.
He called her “a worthy representative of our people,” a typical formulation of the Soviet era. Boris Meylakh wrote of Mikhaylovskoye: “Here the poet's close acquaintance and intimacy with the people came to pass.” Pushkin donned a peasant shirt on one occasion and went to a fair, as Semevsky wrote. This fact is presented now as if it were the poet's usual method for getting close to the common people. That same Meylakh later on substituted “direct relations” for the words “acquaintance and intimacy,” at the same time widening its territory as well: we discover that the poet, while in exile at Mikhaylovskoye, “had direct relations with the Pskov peasantry.”
Down through the years, his nurse's role has been growing among Soviet Pushkin scholars. Arina Rodionovna is settled into all of Pushkin's biographies, has taken up residence in all the textbooks of Russian literature—from primary school to higher education. His nurse has become one of the pillars of the ideological adaptation of Pushkin himself. In an editorial in Pravda in 1937, following the postulate that Pushkin's Decembrist friends had made him into a revolutionary poet himself, his low-born nurse is placed in opposition to his aristocratic parents, bringing our poet closer to the people. Now, thanks to his nurse, Pushkin has been brought closer and made more understandable to the common Soviet people. A year after the hundredth anniversary of Pushkin's death came two more solemn anniversaries: the 180th anniversary of Arina Rodionovna's birth and the 110th of her death.
The nurse is an example for other people; she is “a remarkable model of the beauty of soul, the wisdom and the spiritual qualities of our people.” Finally, she became a genius herself: Arina Rodionovna—”the poet's good genius.” When Stalin was called “the inspiration of the Soviet people,” the nurse became “the inspiration and the source of certain of the poet's creative ideas.” In official Soviet mythology, Arina Rodionovna was ranked with other folk heroes such as Aleksey Stakhanov, Dzhambul, Pasha Angelina, and the like. The Soviet Army Song and Dance Ensemble would sing, their mighty voices threatening their enemies with: “Why do you fall silent at the window, my old one?”
Either the myth simply marks time on the spot, repeating what was said by Annenkov, or it picks up torque, acquiring parodic overtones. In dozens of research papers, the woman undergoes apotheosis. It has even been said in complete seriousness that “under his nurse's influence, he loved the Russian language and the Russian people from childhood.” “The nurse, missing her 'beloved friend,' as she called Pushkin, would often go to the nearest post station in hopes of hearing of him from people passing on their way from St. Petersburg.”
All sense of proportion got lost: “The poet's original acquaintance with the people, with the folklore, along with his mastery of the Russian folk language, was through her.” And even this: “If Pushkin, as he once resolved to say, grew up 'without griefs or troubles' in his childhood, he owes it to his nurse, Arina …” In her cult she acquires the idealized features of the heroine: “For the poet, his nurse was the embodiment of the soul of the people, a 'representative' of the people, as one would say now.” She appears as a preceptor, the bearer of higher wisdom, the poet's teacher, his guru.
Her literary talents have grown, too. She's “the talented teller of fairy-tales, absorbing into herself all the wisdom of folk poetry.” Pushkin did the writing, but his nurse's glory keeps on growing: “From the second half of the 1820s the name of Arina Rodionovna herself became famous … But her name obtained wide popularity after the third chapter of Eugene Onegin came to light in 1827.” It is especially interesting to read this since Pushkin, as is known, soon began to lose his popularity, and here it seems that his nurse was becoming popular in his place.
That synthesized folk wisdom, so to speak, wasn't introduced into the literature by accident. Pushkin studies became a kind of hagiography, as it has remained to this day. The topics of “Pushkin and the People,” and “Pushkin and the Motherland,” along with his patriotism, were decreed to be fundamentals of literature, while his nurse became the initiating element for the construction of such models. And here the name of Rodionovna becomes entirely apropos.
It goes without saying that etymology has nothing to do with it, since “Rodion” supposedly comes from the Greek rodon, a rose. But the unconsciously similar sound of one word in particular is superimposed on the other: Rodionovna – rod (kin) – narod (people) – rodina (motherland). “Figuratively speaking, the land nourishes the peasant like a mother nourishes her child. The land to a certain extent controls its inhabitants, almost like a mother does her child.” In this construction, Arina is exactly the right figure necessary for Pushkin's formulation as Russian national poet No.1, without whom he is incomplete.
Speculation about the folkloric element in his works became an integral part of scholarship on Pushkin. Certain Slavophile notions proved useful in this context. Included in the Soviet understanding of his folkloric element was: (1) the writer's origins, (2) the folklore bases of his works, and (3) his expression of interest in the same things as the mass of the people. In the first case, Pushkin was in trouble—he was an aristocrat; in the second, however much you juggle it around, his work is a long way from folklore (The Queen of Spades, say, is not derivable from Russian folklore); and the third was just made up, verbal trumpery necessary to the ideologues. It was about then that a literary joke appeared: the iznarodovanie of literature.
Arina, for that matter, helped Pushkin escape the Revolution, saved him, the nobleman, the class enemy, with her simple peasant background. She was the one who helped the poet to answer to all three points: his origins were corrected by intimacy with the common people, and she led his work in the proper direction, giving him her folklore, that is, a popular basis. Finally, in naming his nurse close to him in spirit, they came to a conclusion: he expressed her interests, symbolizing the interests of the whole of the Russian people. An envoy of the people, his nurse became the symbol of the whole of Russia, whose greatest son is Poet No.1.
Meanwhile, the voices of some Western Pushkin scholars long ago sounded a note of skepticism. Vladimir Nabokov wrote: “She is the tremendous favorite with demophile Pushkinists. The influence of her folk tales on Pushkin has been enthusiastically and ridiculously exaggerated. It is doubtful that Pushkin ever read Eugene Onegin to her, as some commentators and illustrators havebelieved.” Soviet critics, who had to exaggerate Pushkin's obligatory sympathy for the wide masses, according to D.J. Richards and C.R.S. Cockrell, naturally attached especial importance to Arina in her role in the making of the poet, sometimes to such an extent that she looked as if she was bearing almost the whole of Pushkin's patriotism on her feeble shoulders. John Bayley formulated an even stricter role for his nurse: “The representative of the people, canonized in Pushkinian hagiography.”
Reading Soviet works one thinks that a similar approach could not be called otherwise but the misrepresentation of Pushkin and the essence of the literary process in general. One of the cleverest people in the history of Russia, who from childhood began his comprehension of the treasure of world literature, who studied in the best educational institution of the empire and his whole life was in intimate contact with outstanding writers, philosophers, and politicians—that brilliant intellectual came to know his language, folklore, and his very people through one old woman who couldn't remember the letters necessary to write the word nurse.
It is well known that, with Pushkin, the authorial “bio” and the lyric “I” of his heroes are often very close, almost merging. But these aren't the same thing, anyway. The literary myth of the ideal nurse, as in many other cases (the poet's wife, Madonna Natalya; the noble bandits Pugachev and Dubrovsky; Peter the Great, the idol on a bronze horse), set the tone. After him stretched the work of the first Pushkin scholars. The romanticized nurse of the First Poet of Russia entered into the literature. Then the literary heroine came to life, gradually pushing aside the poet's other nurses, his grandmother, his mother, and all the rest of the serfs in his biography, and, as a result, now represents the entire Russian race for Pushkin scholars.
As Apollon Grigoryev has it, Pushkin “is our everything”; similarly, the poet's nurse in his biographies became Pushkin's everything, replacing his family, and, periodically, his friends and society. In winter, as a Pushkin scholar informs us, his nurse even replaced his heating stove: “In the house at Mikhaylovskoye on a frosty winter evening … only his nurse's love kept him warm.” Although the Soviet regime is in existence no longer, the nurse who is the proper one from the point of view of the official mythology fills up not only mass literature on Pushkin, but, with the rare exception, research articles too. The circle has closed: the literary image became biographical, the great nurse became an important part of the mythologization of the great people's poet—now they are national icons.
As evidence of his nurse's influence, role, and importance his later poem, “Once again I visited” (1835) is adduced:
Here's the little house, disgraced,
Where I lived with my poor nurse.
The old one's here no longer—no more behind the wall
Can I hear her heavy steps,
Nor her painstaking patrol.
The continuation after these lines serves as the most important argument of the nurse's defenders:
I shall not at evening 'neath the storm's noise
Attend her stories rote-learned
By me from childhood, but heart-pleasing still,
Like ancient songs or pages
In a favored old book, in which we know
Where stands each word.
Her simple speech and counsel
And love-full reproaches
Would cheer my weary heart
With quiet delight…
“What other proofs and references to the role which the illiterate Arina Rodionovna played in the life of the great poet are necessary?” the scholar inquires emotionally. “And didn't Pushkin himself give the answer to those memoiristes who spoke of 'exaggerations'?”
Pushkin really did give an answer to Pushkin scholars: he himself crossed out these lines.
Poetical evidence is used in the capacity of documentary evidence, while his nurse is just an image in the poems. He's the one who carried out the historical role played by the illiterate Arina Rodionovna. More simply put, Pushkin's nurse told him fairy tales, and his biographers themselves made up fairy stories about her. And the more they praised his nurse, the more vivid became the point that the authors did not want to make: they were misrepresenting Pushkin, the artistic level of whose works was ostensibly appreciated by kindly but illiterate servants. Besides, it became clear that the remaining “broad environment of the people” around the poet played no role, since only his nurse herself was a genius. The people kept silent.
6. A Visual Mythology
On February 17, 1918, Trigorskoye was looted and burned to the ground. On February 19, Mikhaylovskoye was robbed and then burned. Or, as it was written in Soviet guidebooks, “After the Great October Socialist Revolution, a genuine, caring master came to take over the Pushkin lands—the people.” A woman who witnessed it wrote:
From a distance I could see how two peasants and a woman were carrying off bricks and ironwork from the charred ruins of the museum-home … I found shards of a marble bust, pieces broken with axes from the marble base of a billiard table, in the snow. I took a piece of the long-suffering temple of his smashed-to-smithereens death mask as a souvenir.
The outbuilding where Arina lived was supposedly restored in 1920 by Red Army soldiers, a difficult thing to believe. “I summoned the leader of the engineer company, Turchaninov,” recalled the chief of staff of the Independent Bashkir Brigade of the Red Army, “and gave the order: the engineer company was to proceed to Mikhaylovskoye and restore the nurse's cabin.” The chief of staff was recalling this in the 1930s, when for well-known reasons they had begun the restoration of what the peasants had looted.
In 1949 the house was again “raised from the ashes.” The design of the premises in which Arina had ostensibly lived was planned and executed by the best architects and decorators of the Soviet Union. The outbuilding was renamed “The Nurse's Cabin.” In the place where at one time a “tumbledown shack” had stood was raised the literary studio of the Great Custodienne of Russian folk spirit, folklore, and language, the poet's Muse and the creator of his genius. In the noble house, reconstructed as a museum, the maid's room was renamed “The Nurse's Room.” On the walls, as it says in the guidebook, hung “a literary exposition telling of Arina's friendship with Pushkin.”
Let's note how the order of the names has changed, and now the nurse is the one with friends. Arina's cabin in Kobrino, as some sources have affirmed, was discovered to be genuine, its old framework of logs from the 18th century. It was said that the nurse's distant descendants lived there, but it wasn't said that they had abandoned it and managed to move to Leningrad. A village teacher-enthusiast had settled in the house, preserving it from ruin. A sign was hung on the cabin: “Here lived Pushkin's nurse, Arina Rodionovna.”
For the 175th anniversary of Pushkin's birth in 1974, an ethnographic museum was founded, representing in a general way the house-furnishings of a poor peasant family. “Portraits” of Arina by various artists were hung on the walls. In an audio recording, a voice “reminiscent” of the nurse's recounted her fairy-tales. It goes without saying that all the furnishings of this “nurse's genuine house” were purest window-dressing: whatever and however it could or must have been, one would have to say what a museum of visual mythology it now was. By accident, we overheard some children who had entered the museum asking their elderly guide: “Are you Arina Rodionovna?”
Of late even the authenticity of the nurse's cabin has come under suspicion. A part of the showplace is “The Arina Rodionovna Reading-Cabin.” That's an interesting idea, a reading-room named after someone who never read anything, because she couldn't. There were suggestions for a monument to Arina, and one was erected in Kobrino, and another one in Pskov, where Arina Rodionovna, apparently, had never been at all.
In Kobrino's neighboring museum at the noble estate of Suyda, the patrimony of the Hannibals, Arina is ranked one of Pushkin's relatives on a memorial sign, along with his father, mother, and sister, at the behest of the ideologically-inclined directorship.
It is understandable that a serious defect diminishing the role of Pushkin's irreplaceable preceptor remains the iconography—or, more precisely, the absence of any such. Arina's portrait had never been done in her life, but it was desirable to have such a thing. Attempts have been made to affirm that this or that depiction of a woman was a portrait of the nurse. In the Pushkin Museum in St. Petersburg, a portrait of an unknown woman by an unknown artist is passed off as Arina Rodionovna's portrait with a significant degree of possibility. A high-relief portrait in walrus ivory of a woman (which somebody had given as a present to Gorky, who passed it on to the museum) was made by a local carver something like twelve years after her death, and would also scarcely bear any relation to the real nurse.
There is no description of her appearance, if we don't take into account Maria Osipova's “extraordinarily venerable elderly lady, with a plump face, gone gray.” If Pushkin's nurse was so intimate with him, why didn't he—a man who drew people even not very close to him in his manuscripts—draw her profile? There is a woman's profile sketched by Pushkin and much discussed in this context, in fact. The drawing is in a manuscript next to the poem “Foreboding” and a draft of “Fatigued by Life's Emotion.” Perhaps “Pushkin Weeps for his Nurse in his Drawings” is what they should call it. But then again, maybe not, we would add.
The myth required feeding. In newspapers and later in the Vremennik Pushkinskoy komissii (The Journal of the Pushkin Commission ) articles appeared in which the assumption was made that Pushkin's drawing of an old and a young woman, next to the lines of the first song in Poltava, depict Arina Rodionovna at two different ages. Moreover, N.Granovskaya wrote: “In the first portrait she was drawn, probably, the way the poet saw her for the last time on her death-bed—in front of us is the face of an old woman with already stiffened features, with lowered eyelids. Next to it is rendered a portrait of the young Arina Rodionovna; it is more distinct: the expression on the young woman's face is lively and impassioned.” Nikolay Izmaylov contradicted Granovskaya: “Isn't the drawing of a girl in a headdress a portrait of Kochubey's daughter (who hadn't yet appeared in the manuscript of the poem), which was given some features resembling Maria Rayevskaya (Volkonskaya)?” But then a decade and a half later Granovskaya published a book in which her assumptions are presented as reliable facts: “The poet immortalized her young image … As if removing the wrinkles from his nurse's face, Pushkin imagined Arina Rodionovna as she would have looked in maidenhood.”
Illustrations in Pushkin's biography and selected works depicting his darling-in-her-dotage looking like a queen appear in profusion, but they are merely the imaginings of artists, and nothing more. The nurse becomes one of the main heroines of Eugene Onegin, since her portrayal appears so often among the illustrations of the various editions of the novel. Later there appeared oil paintings, bas reliefs, and sculptures of the nurse, but we don't know at all how the real woman who served the poet looked.
7. Obstacles to Idealization
Starting in the 30s of this century, differing views on Arina Rodionovna were silenced from the center, but critical voices rang out anyway at the dawn of Pushkin studies. Lev Pavlishchev, Pushkin's nephew, in his Memoirs, however muddled they may have been considered, was one of the first to declare that the poet's biographers and friends had unduly inflated the role of the illiterate peasant Arina in the development of Pushkin's childhood impressions.
Some of the poet's biographers who had immoderately praised her began to contradict themselves with the passage of time. Pavel Annenkov himself, after his eulogies, suddenly calls himself to order, commenting on the nurse's stories: “They are striking in general with their cunning and the intricacy of their plots, which are sometimes difficult to comprehend.” Or: “It looks as if the kindly and limited old woman, Arina Rodionovna, played something like the role of a unconscious mystical agent in the life of her nursling.” And further: “it was not her weak and enfeebled hand that showed the poet the road on which he found himself.” Valeryan Maykov wrote: “Let's be impartial and not exaggerate the influence of Arina Rodionovna on Pushkin …” Vikenty Veresayev, who likes details, although he called her “famous” in Annenkov's wake, only discusses her in passing in his book Pushkin's Companions, citing Pushkin's and Yazykov's lines.
Arina could hardly have understood exactly what her master was writing, and what significance these texts had. But any evidence of her role crosses over into immoderate generalization, and for that reason at times looks like parody. Ulyansky wrote: “Pushkin often would read her his works, and was interested in her opinion. It's a pity that her judgements of the poet's works have not been carried down to us.” However, this idea was merely borrowed from Annenkov. “Unfortunately, we know nothing about what his nurse thought about the poetry-writing pastime of her nursling.” So what then does her genius consist in? However, we should add that the ability to listen is also a talent, although one characteristic to a greater extent of dogs and cats rather than people.
At a critical moment of Pushkin's life, when the gendarmerie officer was taking him to Pskov, his nurse, according to the story, wept, and was comforted by her master. In the morning she appeared at Osipova's in a disheveled state, sobbing. “'What, did the officer take away any papers with him?' we asked the nurse. 'No, my dears, he took no papers, and left no mess anywhere in the house; a little later I myself did destroy something…' 'What, in fact?' 'That damned cheese, the one that Alexander Sergeyevich liked to eat, but as for me, I just can't stand it, and the odor from it, from that German cheese, is so foul…'” This quote is famous, but it testifies about Arina Rodionovna's level of understanding of what was going on with the poet.
Pushkin, as a Lyceum student, mentioned a woman in his humorous poems, one who is sometimes named as Arina Rodionovna in the literature.
Leaving off book-study,
In a leisure hour of mine
At a sweet old woman's
I drink a fragrant tea.
It goes without saying that this was not her, since further on it says that he kissed her hand and she read him the newspapers, fishing out rumors from them. And the main thing is that tea wasn't what his nurse liked to drink. Many of Pushkin's acquaintances, in recalling her, stress Arina Rodionovna's passion for strong drink. Pushchin's recollections are: “We never even noticed the second cork flying to the ceiling; we even treated his nurse to some bubbly…” Nikolay Yazykov's “Epistle to Nurse” commemorates a drinking-bout:
You whipped us up an intricate repast,
Serving us yourself with vodka and home-brew
And honeycomb, and fruit, and wine set
On the dear antique table all a-groan.
Nikolay Yazykov's poem “On the Death of A. S. Pushkin's Nurse” isn't a grieving for a person's passing, either, but a recollection of three parting friends (Aleksey Vulf, Pushkin, and himself):
The dinnertable was laid
In richness of wines and country brews,
And you, come to join us!
We feasted. You did not shy
From our lot—and betimes
Were given back your springtime
By your enspirited dream;
You loved to hear our chorus,
Living sounds of foreign lands,
Speeches puffed-up and rebuffed
And glasses ringing upon glasses.
Already the night had snuffed its lights,
Skyscape reddening with dawn;
I recall some words about retiring
That you told us long ago.
In vain! The tokay had its way,
The bold carousing grew still louder.
Sit you down, sweet old one,
And drink some brew with us! (1830)
The sweet old one has just died, and the poet invites her to a drinking bout. Towards the end, Nikolay Yazykov notes that the nurse was “eloquent as wine.” Inspired by her strong liqueurs, Yazykov wrote more lines about Pushkin's nurse than Pushkin himself. “This was an extraordinarily venerable elderly lady,” we have to repeat our quotation of Maria Osipova, “with a plump face, gone gray, who loved her nursling with a passion …” The following part of the phrase is cut from some editions: “… but with one little sin—she loved to drink.” The nurse's Soviet biographer explains her inclination towards alcoholism in a Marxist-Leninist spirit: “That sin was an echo of the primordial feature of the entire village of Suyda and the harsh conditions of slave life.”
I discussed this issue with a Freudian colleague of mine, and his point of view is probably worthwhile bringing up. According to the psychoanalytical conception, oral gratification is given to the poet not by his mother but by his mamushka, that is, his theoretical wet-nurse, who, in the absence of a real wet-nurse, remained for him in his adult years synthesized in the image of Arina Rodionovna. The difference is that the expert liqueur-maker treated him now not to milk or tea, but to moonshine. Almost a classic case of the Oedipus complex, in which, however, the mother is replaced by the wet-nurse and the son gets his gratification not directly but aslant, correspondingly repaying not his mother, but his nurse, with his love.
During the Andropov-Gorbachev Soviet campaign against alcoholism, it was not just vineyards that got the axe in the country. An instruction came out to review the classics in secondary-school and third-level textbooks from the point of view of the temperance struggle. After the vineyards, they began axing lines of poetry. An instruction was issued by the Ministry of Education for the editors of Rodnaya rech' (“Native Language”) textbooks and readers. From Pushkin the following was to be excised:
Let's take a drink, dear friend
Of my meager youth;
Drink from sorrow; where there's a mug?
My heart will be the lighter.
But it was a fiasco: the Soviet Radio kept on playing the popular classic romans with those very words, performed by famous singers, and children at school would sing these four particular lines during recess. They soon stopped broadcasting the romans over the radio.
Another aspect of Arina's activities was also kept under wraps, even though it was important for Pushkin. When the poet reckoned Natalya on the list. It goes without saying that it isn't worth looking at this with modern eyes. For example, Pushkin's friend Aleksey Vulf practically openly maintained a harem, and Sergey Sobolevsky boasted that he had 500 women.
Ivan Pushchin, after visiting the Mikhaylovskoye hermit on January 11, 1825, recalled: “We went into the nurse's room, where the seamstresses had already gathered. I immediately noticed among them one little figure, acutely different from the others, without informing Pushkin, however, of my conclusion … However, he instantly saw through my naughty thoughts, and grinned meaningfully. I needed nothing else: I in my turn winked at him, and everything was clear without a single word
… Amid her young crew the nurse pompously walked around with a stocking in her hand.”
These girls, when they got pregnant, would be sent off out of their master's way, and the poet himself simply explained: “I have no children, only bastards.” In February 1825, Pushkin sacked his housekeeper, Roza Grigoryevna. In a letter he explained: “Otherwise she would have been the death of Nurse, who has already begun to grow thin!” Pavel Shchegolev suggests that the reason for the conflict with his housekeeper was that Pushkin was having an affair with the serf-girl Olga Kalashnikova, and his nurse was helping him with it. Shchegolev exclaims:
Oh, that Arina Rodionovna! Through the idealistic fog surrounding her image you can see other qualities. Loyal not from duty but out of love for her lords and masters, the serf-slave, winking and nudging, indulging her masters' whims, made their satisfaction her rule. She couldn't refuse her irrepressible nursling in any matter.
A Don Juan complex—erotomania, putting it plainly—is usually explained by Freudians by the fact that the Don Juan is not satisfied with his mother and fails to find her in another. Pushkin's interest from his youth in women much older than he (Karamzina, Golitsyna, Osipova, Sobanskaya, Khitrovo, and others) from this point of view corresponds to his filial love for Arina Rodionovna. And she, as the go-between, carried out the whims of her master, selecting and supplying him with girls when the poet couldn't fall asleep.
Let's be fair: certain Pushkin scholars, even in the difficult Soviet years, stayed moderate on the subject. “He listened to Arina Rodionovna's fairy tales and wrote them down, he wrote down the songs and the fairy tales of other singers and storytellers,” only once, in passing, does the distinguished folklorist Mark Azadovsky mention the nurse in his researches into Pushkin's folklore interests. Others made the reservation that the poet gathered his folklore materials “of course, not from the words of Arina Rodionovna alone.”
In a commentary to the post-Soviet Russian publication of an edition of Pushkin's Lyceum verses—the so-called experimental first volume of a future collection of his works—a bit more is said about the French education of the poet, and about what “could have become the source of the boy's interest in the Russian literary language and—to a certain extent—in the folkloric tradition: Pushkin's grandmother Maria Hannibal and his nurse, eventually poeticized by him, Arina Rodionovna.” The hyperbole seems to be diminishing: could have become a source of interest in the Russian language, to a certain extent—not to folklore, but indefinitely—to the folkloric tradition. In first place, as we see, is his relatively intellectual grandmother, Maria Hannibal—similar formulations could never have escaped in the past from the Institute of Russian Literature. And even the poeticized-by-Pushkin nurse (if we don't indulge in wishful thinking) seems to sound a bit ironical.
Today the myth of Arina Rodionovna is still essential to many people; it is part of a person's upbringing in Russian culture and in a particular spirit. Our task was not to destroy that myth but to understand it. But anyway a question as simple as a swallow of water arises which the author directs at himself, but which can summon indignation in the nurse's partisans: is it necessary to waste fast-fleeting time considering her in such detail? It seems to me that if the nurse didn't play such an important role in the poet's life, it would be better to write less about her in his biographies—and that in modest tones.
Translated by Thomas Moore
Edwin Mellen Publishers