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Theses Doctoral

Pushkin for President: Russian Literary Cults in the Transition from Communism

Pinkham, Sophie Charlotte

This dissertation examines commemoration of Russian poet Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin from the late Soviet period to the present, as a study of the nature and function of literary commemoration in a time of social, political, and economic instability. Since its inception in the late nineteenth century, the Pushkin cult has been Russia’s largest-scale government-sanctioned literary cult, showing remarkable endurance through the transitions from imperial to Soviet rule and then from Soviet to capitalist rule. In the post-Soviet context, Pushkin-related commemoration and the resulting debates address a key question in Russian culture: can old literary “heroes” continue to play a central role in national identity in a society that no longer grants central political importance to literature? If they do retain a broader political and social significance, how are they used to navigate nostalgia, on one hand, and a sense of cultural exhaustion, on the other? Scrutiny of the Pushkin myth today demonstrates how postmodernism and irony have been turned to the re-stabilization of an authoritative discourse about identity, which nonetheless continuously provokes parody and satire.

I also examine the recently formed “cult” of Sergei Dovlatov (1941-1990), a late Soviet prose writer who was unable to publish his work at home and immigrated to the US, under government pressure, in 1979. Pushkin is central to Russia’s image of Dovlatov, who spent time working as a tour guide at the Pushkin estate museum in Pskov oblast in the 1970s and wrote a satirical novel about the experience, which I analyze alongside real-life accounts of the estate museum. Dovlatov achieved huge posthumous popularity in Russia almost immediately after his death, and is now the object of a distinctively post-Soviet literary cult, which I discuss in relation to the evolving Pushkin cult. In this way, I illuminate the peculiarities of Russian writer cults during a period when the social status of literature declined dramatically. I conclude that the Dovlatov cult serves as a vehicle for a carefully circumscribed variety of Soviet nostalgia, one that admits the many failings of the Soviet Union while also recalling many of its aspects with fondness and regret. As with Pushkin, the Dovlatov cult is used to create the impression of reconciliation among discordant political epochs and ideologies.

My study of the Pushkin and Dovlatov cults is organized around two types of literary commemoration, both of which have deep roots in European culture: the jubilee, or anniversary celebration, and the literary house museum. I begin with a detailed study of the almost-forgotten 1999 Pushkin jubilee, the first large-scale post-Soviet Pushkin celebration. My analysis of the jubilee and the reactions it provoked from the press and the intelligentsia shows that while the jubilee was widely derided, it unintentionally united diverse factions of the press and intelligentsia, who banded together to defend Pushkin against exploitation by Russia’s new political elite. However, many writers also saw the jubilee as a confirmation that the possibilities of Russian literature had been exhausted: I explore some literary responses to this fear in my second chapter. I then move to Pushkin house museums, showing how they express different aspects of the Pushkin myth and Russian “national idea.” I show how the recently founded Dovlatov House museum, like the Dovlatov cult more broadly, parodies the Pushkin cult while also reinforcing many of the basic practices and purposes of Pushkin worship.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Reyfman, Irina
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 19, 2019
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