CHISINAU, Moldova — Count Vorontsov, governor general at Odessa in 1823, was clearly annoyed with Alexander Pushkin, a young subordinate, who was having a love affair with Vorontsov’s wife. Vorontsov decided that as a punishment Pushkin should be sent away to prepare a lengthy report on the effects of locusts in Bessarabia.
Pushkin resigned. In his official report to St. Petersburg, Vorontsov was scathing of his former employee. He wrote, ” . . . he was surrounded by a society of political and literary fanatics, whose praises might turn his head and make him believe he was a great writer, whereas he was only a feeble imitation of Lord Byron, an original not much to be commended.”
Today, while one can perhaps understand Vorontsov’s anguish, his literary assessment seems as wide of the mark as one can get. Pushkin is considered a central figure in Russian literature — in the pantheon with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky but conceivably their superior in terms of expressing the Russian soul. And, as a universal figure, Pushkin’s renown straddles borders. For example, on both sides of the Moldovan-Transdniestrian fault line, there remain roads and parks named in his honor.
Pushkin was born in 1799 in Moscow. His great-grandfather, a favorite of Peter the Great, was of Ethiopian extraction, a fact reflected in Pushkin’s appearance. Pushkin was brought up in the atmosphere of French culture then favored by the Russian nobility, and attended the Imperial Lyceum near St. Petersburg. A precocious talent, he was writing verse in his early teens, heavily influenced by French writers and by Byron. In 1817 Pushkin entered government service.
Russia at that time was hardly a liberal state. The czars ruled autocratically but there was significant discontent in educated circles. Pushkin, despite liberal sympathies, was far more of a dandy than a political activist. One poem, though, “An Ode to Liberty,” got him into serious trouble with the authorities. Given the choice of exile, in the form of an administrative transfer, to Siberia or southern Russia, he went south, staying for four years. Three of them were spent in Kishinev, now Chisinau.
At that time, Kishinev was a frontier post but not really a backwater. It had a lively society of Russian Army officers and their families, merchants and assorted Balkan emigres. Its Masonic Lodge, which Pushkin would join, was well known in the Russian Empire for its freethinking. Many of the officers then stationed in Bessarabia would later participate in the liberal-inspired but ill-fated Decembrist uprising.
When Pushkin first came to Bessarabia, a rich Odessa merchant, who had retired to Kishinev with his family, took him in. The merchant lived in the main cottage and for three months Pushkin stayed in a smaller and separate annex that by today’s standards seems very cramped. Today, both are part of Moldova’s Pushkin Museum, dedicated to the poet’s memory.
The museum was established on Feb. 10, 1948. Because of that late date, some 111 years after the already-famous poet’s death in a duel, the museum does not possess anything in the way of genuine Pushkin manuscripts or letters. Most of those are jealously guarded by the Institute of Russian Literature in St. Petersburg. But what the museum lacks in authenticity, it makes up for with enthusiasm with the stated purpose of “preserving the memory here of Pushkin for future generations.” Period furniture is on display, as are facsimiles of Pushkin manuscripts using archival paper from the period. They also sponsor parties on anniversaries associated with Pushkin, as well as those of Moldavian writers.
Pushkin enjoyed a full social life in Bessarabia but did find time to write. “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” and “The Bandit Brothers” were completed during his exile. In Kishinev, Pushkin began “Eugene Onegin,” the verse novel regarded as his greatest masterpiece. And, some of his personal experiences in Bessarabia also saw treatment in verse, notably in “The Gypsies,” completed in 1824. So, despite their lack of resources, the Pushkin Museum in Moldova has every reason to keep the flame burning for, in their words, “Pushkin’s stay in Kishinev saw the bright start of his actuality in literature.”