Pushkin is an extraordinary phenomenon, and, perhaps, the unique phenomenon of the Russian spirit, said Gogol. I will add, ‘and a prophetic phenomenon.’ …No, I will say deliberately, there had never been a poet with a universal sympathy like Pushkin’s. And it is not his sympathy alone, but his amazing profundity, the reincarnation of his spirit in the spirit of foreign nations, a reincarnation almost perfect and therefore also miraculous, because the phenomenon has never been repeated in any poet in all the world…
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (from his Pushkin Speech delivered on June 8, 1880.)
By Dostoyevsky’s time, 43 years after Pushkin’s death, he had been long considered one of Russia’s greatest, if not the greatest literary figure. He created the modern Russian prose and verse, elevating the vernacular language with the classical and empowering its faculties, making his work a living, breathing entity through which both the great writers and its readers can find an endless wellspring of meaning, appeasement and inspiration.
He was a critic of the attitude the nobility had adopted at the time, one which looked towards Europe for cultural reference, and often neglected their own identity. He sought to break free from those cultural oppressors that were a limitation for Russian language development and expression, making it something of both idiosyncratic and universal features. As Dostoyevsky stated in his Pushkin speech, he possessed an all-embracing understanding not only of his own nation, but that of others.
It is just enough to read part of To a Poet, which I had originally found in Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time, to realize the magnitude of his genius:
You are a king. Live alone. Take a free road,
And follow where your free mind leads you,
Bring to perfection the fruit of well-loved thoughts,
Ask no reward for noble deeds accomplished.
Rewards are within you. The supreme judge is yourself;
None will ever judge your work more sternly,
Discriminating artist, does it please you?
According to one biography, Pushkin’s mother sent him periodically his share of fruit jams and liqueurs, and since these are usually accompanied with bread rolls, I decided to make a twist on the Russian plait and rogaliki. The dough is made of varied nuts and seeds and cashew ‘cheese’ for a tart flavor, and the filling is made with toasted almonds, pecans and strawberry jam. Additionally, I also prepared a grape and an orange-apricot jam. Surrounded by Gennady Spirin‘s majestic illustrations of his tales based on Russian folklore and with a Russian Caravan tea blend, his birthday celebration was a splendorous occasion, which I concluded with the only single work of poetry which so complexly and sharply poses formidable moral questions (paraphrasing Anna Akhmatova), Little Tragedies.
Day faded; on the table, glowing,
the samovar of evening boiled,
and warmed the Chinese teapot; flowing
beneath it, vapour wreathed and coiled.
Already Olga’s hand was gripping
the urn of perfumed tea, and tipping
into the cups its darkling stream —
Eugene Onegin, Chapter One