November 01, 2019

Mud and Stars

Mud and Stars
Portrait of Alexander Pushkin. Orest Kiprensky

Sara Wheeler’s new travel essay book views Russia through the lens of its most famous Golden Age writers. Traveling from one end of the country to the other, she treads in the footsteps of their lives and works, offering not just beautifully crafted descriptions of the country, but intimate portraits of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and others, beginning with Pushkin. The book’s first few pages are excerpted here. The book is out November 5.


Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was a lubricious, bawdy, impetuous, whoring gambler who seldom missed an opportunity to pick a fight. He never had a proper job, even though he was for a while nominally at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a department of the Chancery. He lived mostly off his father. He had a tortured relationship with both the civil service and the authorities. The government of Alexander I, the tsar who had defeated Napoleon and was by European standards a medieval figure, was becoming increasingly reactionary, and an incontinent loudmouth like Pushkin had no chance. One prince, a high-level civil servant, recorded in his diary after a dinner in January 1822, “Listened to Pushkin at table . . . he tries to convince everyone he meets . . . that only a scoundrel would not wish a change of government in Russia. His favorite conversation is based on abuse and sarcasm and even when he tries to be polite there is a sardonic smile on his lips.” Pushkin was opposed to landowners, supported the abolition of serfdom, and indeed when he got going — according to the princely dinner companion — “began to pour abuse on all classes of the population.” He announced “that all noblemen should be hanged, and that he would tighten the noose round their necks with pleasure.” It is a testament to the respect in which literature was held that the government didn’t kill him. Of course, three generations later Pushkin’s dream of an egalitarian world came true in Russia. But they shot writers then.

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