Archive for November 15th, 2010

Aleksandr Etkind: Memory, exile, and a four-line revenge

Monday, November 15th, 2010
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Cooling his heels in the backwaters of empire

I stopped in briefly to hear Aleksandr Etkind‘s talk in Piggott Hall, “From Gogol’s Khlestakov to Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich: Imperial Intellectuals, Provincial Officials, and their Literary Hybrids.”  The Cambridge professor with two PhDs is known for his big, fat books (500 or 600 pages is typical).

However, the small man with dark, bright eyes and a thatch of salt-and-pepper hair read quickly from a paper, in a heavy Russian accent, barely moving his lips — hard to follow.

In a show-and-tell, Etkind passed around the newsletter it took a million euros to make“East European Memory Studies,” the written counterpart to the website, “Memory at War:  Cultural Dynamics in Russia, Poland and Ukraine” (which contains another review of Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder here — we wrote about it over the weekend here).

One remark Etkind emphasized, and I have thought about since:  historian V.O. Klyushevsky‘s contention that “The history of a Russia is the history of a country that colonizes itself.”

The Bloodlands, and Klyushevsky’s remark about self-colonization, brought to mind Aleksandr Pushkin‘s colorful fall from favor.  After he had angered the government with his mildly revolutionary activities, he was sent to sticks — the very places where self-colonization would take place. I recalled visiting Pushkin’s modest digs in Odessa, where he hunkered down to begin Eugene Onegin; Etkind’s remark reminded me of what a backwater the Odessa was — a century  before it was Isaac Babel‘s haunt, and still a grimy, tough provincial city. (Kishinev even more so, though I didn’t have a chance during my brief stay to investigate Pushkin’s traces.)

Pushkin was initially pleased he had not been sent to Siberia, and did not realize he was exiled till several years had gone by without his recall. He passed the time  shooting wax bullets into patterns on his bedroom wall and twirling a heavy iron cane wherever he went to strengthen his trigger hand (it didn’t work; he died in a duel anyway). And he also wrote pornographic, blasphemous, lyric and politcal poems.  But he also began his masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, in Odessa.

Alas, these activities were not enough to keep him fully engaged. In 1824, he began a love affair with the wife of the governor general, the Countess Vorontsova in Odessa.  The aggravated count begged the authorities to get rid of the poet.  Pushkin was sent to the Dniester area to investigate crop damage.

Pushkin’s irritated report was brief, and registered his scathing resentment at wasting his short time.  He wrote it in verse, a four-line poem:

The locusts flew and flew over the plain.
They landed on the ground.
Ate everything they found.
And then the locusts flew and flew away again.