I wish to thank the early readers of this article, John Bowlt and Serhy Yekelchyk, for their helpful advice, as well as the anonymous reviewers for their valuable suggestions.
The Bronze Horseman Rides Again: The Stalinist Reimaging of Alexander Pushkin's Mednyi vsadnik, 1928–53
Article first published online: 16 JAN 2013
Copyright 2013 The Russian Review
The Russian Review
Volume 72, Issue 1, pages 24–44, January 2013
How to Cite
SWIFT, M. (2013), The Bronze Horseman Rides Again: The Stalinist Reimaging of Alexander Pushkin's Mednyi vsadnik, 1928–53. The Russian Review, 72: 24–44. doi: 10.1111/russ.10679
- Issue published online: 16 JAN 2013
- Article first published online: 16 JAN 2013
In this article I explore how book illustrations played a crucial role in the emergence of Alexander Pushkin's Mednyi vsadnik (The Bronze Horseman, 1833) at the heart of Stalin-era literary culture and public education. A contested part of the Soviet canon in the 1920s, The Bronze Horseman made a remarkable come-back in the 1930s thanks to the Stalinist campaigns to exalt Pushkin in fanatical jubilee celebrations of 1937 and 1949, reclaim Russian classical literature and rehabilitate heroes from the national past such as Peter the Great. This article looks at how six illustrated versions of the poem by five different artists reflected, and were manipulated to reflect, Stalin-era cultural messaging. I discuss how editors and publishers strategically re-positioned the modernist Bronze Horseman illustrations by World of Art leader Alexander Benois, recasting them as children's literature. I go on to examine the complicated relationship between three new socialist realist illustrated versions of The Bronze Horseman in 1949, by Igor' Ershov, Mikhail Grigor'ev and Mikhail Rodionov, and competing values placed on Siege of Leningrad commemoration, the ban on Leningrad exceptionalism and the 1949 Pushkin jubilee itself. Finally, I comment on the pivotal role played by the Stalinist era in the inception of The Bronze Horseman as illustrated literature for mass consumption and a core part of the public school curriculum.
The six editions of A. S. Pushkin, Mednyi vsadnik, which I discuss in this article are the two Stalin-era versions illustrated by Alexander Benois (Moscow-Leningrad, 1936; and Moscow-Leningrad, 1945); and four other editions, by Aleksei Kravchenko (Moscow, 1936); Igor’ Ershov (Leningrad, 1949); Mikhail Grigor'ev (Leningrad, 1949); and Mikhail Rodionov (Leningrad, 1949).
David Brandenberger and Kevin Platt employ the term “usable past” to denote the careful selection process whereby certain figures were admitted to a Stalinist pantheon of heroic precursors. See Kevin M. F. Platt and David Brandenberger, eds., Epic Revisionism: Russian History and Literature as Stalinist Propaganda (Madison, 2006), 4.
David Brandenberger, National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity 1931–1956 (Cambridge, MA, 2002), 78; Karen Petrone, Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades: Celebrations in the Time of Stalin (Bloomington, 2000), 113.
Maurice Friedberg, Russian Classics in Soviet Jackets (New York, 1962), 17, 19.
A. Chegodaev, Puti razvitiia russkoi sovetskoi knizhnoi grafiki (Moscow, 1955), 34.
Ibid., 65. Since the exhibition departed from tradition and displayed works according to the author they illustrated—rather than the artist who had created them—the dearth of Socialist Realist depictions of Pushkin's work meant that the “father of new Russian literature” presided over a virtual blank space.
E. Z. Gankina, Russkie khudozhniki detskoi knigi (Moscow, 1963), 7. All translations from Russian are mine unless otherwise noted. There was a strong interest in book illustration among the miriskusstniki (World of Art-ists) in general, from Konstantin Somov's illustrations to Alexander Blok's Balagan in 1909 to Ivan Bilibin's multiple illustrated versions of Pushkin's Tale of Tsar Saltan (1905, 1928, 1937). After the Revolution, former miriskusstniki such as Mstislav Dobuzhinsky became well known as book illustrators and were commissioned for works like Dostoevsky's White Nights (1923).
If we compare Benois’ eerie Bronze Horseman series to his contemporaneous set of children's book illustrations, the highly-praised Azbuka (Alphabet) of 1904, it becomes all the more evident that the former series was conceived for the adult reader. The Azbuka, which Catriona Kelly has described as “shot through with nostalgia for the world of pre-Emancipation Russian country life,” was not republished until 1990. See Catriona Kelly, Children's World: Growing Up in Russia 1890–1991 (New Haven, 2007), 49.
Editions of The Bronze Horseman for the juvenile reader were aimed at the middle and senior student (srednego i starshego vozrasta), in other words, the twelve- to seventeen-year-old.
Benois’ reputation as a retrospectivist was supported not only by the period details portrayed in his 1904 illustrations, but also by their format in the polytype style of the 1830s. The small size of the original drawings was intended to reproduce the pocket-size effect of the almanacs of the 1820s. See Aleksandr Benua, Moi vospominaniia v piati knigakh, books 4 and 5 (Moscow, 1980), 396.
The intriguing publication history of Benois’ illustrations to The Bronze Horseman is treated at length by A. L. Ospovat and R. D. Timenchik, “Istoriia odnogo izdaniia,” in Pechal'nu povest’ sokhranit' (Moscow, 1987), 215–55.
The Bronze Horseman monument was erected by Catherine the Great as a tribute to Peter the Great and unveiled in 1782. It was designed by Etienne-Maurice Falconet and stands on Senate Square, known as Decembrist Square in Stalinist times, in central St. Petersburg.
Alison Rowley, Russian Popular Culture and the Picture Postcard, 1880–1922 (forthcoming, University of Toronto Press), 14. My thanks to Dr. Rowley for sharing portions of her book manuscript with me.
Chegodaev, Puti razvitii, 61.
The connection between poet and tsar is emphasized by the mirror imaging of hand gestures (see fig. 4).
O. S. Murav'eva, “Obraz Pushkina: Istoricheskie metamorfozy,” in Legendy i mify o Pushkine, ed. M. N. Virolainen (St. Petersburg, 1994), 118, 123.
Megan Swift, “The Petersburg Sublime: Alexander Benois and the Bronze Horseman Series (1903–1922),”Germano-Slavica 42 (2009–10): 5.
Petrone, Life Has Become More Joyous, 123, 79.
Stephanie Sandler, Commemorating Pushkin (Stanford, 2004), 87. Pushkin anniversaries were celebrated in 1880, 1889, 1921, 1924, 1937, 1949, 1987 and 1999.
Chegodaev, Puti razvitii, 33.
Gankina, Russkie khudozhniki, 27.
Chegodaev, Puti razvitii, 64.
Petrone, Life Has Become More Joyous, 119.
Since Benois created the first full-length illustrated edition of The Bronze Horseman, pre-1936 readers of the illustrated work would have associated images of the work with him, and hence with Mir iskusstva, which he co-edited with Sergei Diaghilev. After many years as a leading editor, writer, artist, and curator, Benois emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1924. Kravchenko exhibited with the miriskusstniki in 1911, although he had a more acceptable biography by virtue of his birth in a peasant family.
Lisa A. Kirschenbaum, Legacy of the Siege of Leningrad: Myth, Memories, and Monuments (New York, 2006), 142, 141.
Steven Maddox, “Healing the Wounds: Commemorations, Myths, and the Restoration of Leningrad's Imperial Heritage, 1941–50” (Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 2008), 216–17.
Kirschenbaum, Legacy of the Siege, 143–45.
See O. A. Kudriavtseva, Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo A. S. Pushkina: Materialy dlia vystavki v shkole i detskoi biblioteke k 150- letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia poeta (Moscow-Leningrad, 1949), 30; and Sandler, Commemorating Pushkin, 116.
Further evasions of the ban on Leningrad exceptionalism can be cited, such as the children's book by G. Fish, Sovetskaia byl' (Moscow-Leningrad, 1950). This collection includes a story about the heroism of the Leningrad scholars and scientists who guarded the seed bank and who, despite starvation conditions (and contrary to American rumors), managed not to consume the seeds.
Kirschenbaum, Legacy of the Siege, 146.
Beginning in the late 1950s, Ershov went on to establish himself as a children's illustrator.
In fact Benois did show one post-flood moment in the third and final version of his series, published in 1923, but it is an eerie moment in which passersby notice that the Bronze Horseman is missing from its pedestal.
L. Kon, “Novinki Detgiza (Rekomendatel'nyi obzor),” in Nedelia detskoi knigi, ed. S. Liubimov (Moscow-Leningrad, 1950), 143.
In the Stalinist era Russian classics accounted for an increasingly large percentage of the output of the State Children's Publishing House, from 9 percent in 1933 to 15 percent in 1940 (Friedberg, Russian Classics in Soviet Jackets, 72).
The publication data available in Maurice Friedberg's work on the Soviet publishing industry focuses on 1955–58, when the average print run for a book was seventeen thousand (ibid., 155).
Brandenberger, National Bolshevism, 79. Brandenberger cites an entry in Kornei Chukovsky's diary, where the well-known children's author refers to party functionary V. I. Mezhlauk's 1936 demand for “Pushkin for the masses.”
Friedberg, Russian Classics in Soviet Jackets, 68.
Dora Shturman, The Soviet Secondary School, trans. Philippa Shimrat (London, 1988), 55. Seven years of public school education became the mandate as of 1930.
Gankina, Russkie khudozhniki, 54.
G. L. Abramovich and F. M. Golovenchenko, Russkaia literatura: Uchebnik dlia 8-go klassa srednei shkoly (Moscow, 1936), 88.
See G. Abramovich and F. Golovenchenko, Russkaia literatura: Uchebnik dlia 8-go i 9-go klassa srednei shkoly (Moscow, 1938–39), 120; A. Zerchaninov, N. G. Porfiridov, and N. L. Brodskii, Russkaia literatura, uchebnik dlia 1 klassa pedagogicheskikh uchilishch (Moscow, 1946), 397; and N. Pospelov, P. Shabliovskii, and A. Zerchaninov, Russkaia literatura, uchebnik dlia VIII klassa srednei shkoly (Moscow, 1948), 263.
Pospelov et al., Russkaia literatura (1948), 265.
A. A. Zerchaninov and N. G. Porfiridov, Russkaia literatura, uchebnik dlia 1 kursa pedagogicheskikh uchilishch (Moscow, 1953), 347.
S. M. Florinskii, Russkaia literatura: Uchebnik dlia VIII-go klassa srednei shkoly (Moscow, 1959), 153.
Zerchaninov et al., Russkaia literatura (1946), 395.
Pospelov et al., Russkaia literatura (1948), 262.
See Swift, “The Petersburg Sublime: Alexander Benois and the Bronse Horseman Series (1903–1922),”Germano-Slavica 27 (2009–10): 17.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 2006), 22.
N. M. Barsova-Shestakova, “Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo,” in Pushkinskie dni 1949, ed. A. A. Zhokov (Moscow, 1949), 130–32.
S. A. Smirnov, “O podgotovke i provedenii v shkolakh g. Moskvy 150-letiia so dnia rozhdeniia A. S. Pushkina,” in Pushkinskie dni 1949, 134.
Kudriavtseva, Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo A. S. Pushkina, 3, 23.
Marcus Levitt, Russian Literary Politics and the Pushkin Celebration of 1880 (Ithaca, 1989), 158.
Barsova-Shestakova, “Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin,” 11.
A reprint edition of Benois’ original 1904 series was published by Khudozhestvennaia literatura in 1964.
Aleksandr Benua, Aleksandr Benua razmyshliaet: Stat'i, pis'ma, vyskazivaniia (Moscow, 1968), 712.