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I am definitely going to get into trouble with someone over this post. Because, whether you know it or not, the name Musin-Pushkin in Russian culture is one nasty hot potato. I don’t know how great a statesman and archaeologist Alexei Musin-Pushkin (1744-1817) was, I can’t judge; but in my world his fame is made by the fact that he did, or did not, “discover” the so-called Lay of Igor’s Campaign, a text that is, or is not, the oldest known text in a Slavonic language lacking elements of Church Slavonic.
I’ve surely already sinned against the living and dead, just by having said that. Surely my great and renowned linguistics professor Horace Lunt is turning over in his grave about some detail I have already distorted. If Lunt is paying me no attention, then, perhaps, another of my professors, Edward L. Keenan, who died just a few months ago, has already found something to pick at. Keenan was knee-deep in the Musin-Pushkin controversy, or, more properly, the controversy caused by Musin-Pushkin. Anyway, if neither of them care any more, so be it. But surely still another of my linguistics professors, Olga T. Yokoyama, currently a Distinguished Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of California, Los Angeles, will have reason to find fault. All I can say is, come at me with the criticism folks. But, before I can dig myself out of this, I have no choice but to burrow in a few feet deeper.
The Lay of Igor’s Campaign is a chronicle of events that date back to 1185. Most Russian scholars, who have a deep interest in this being the oldest authentic text pointing the way forward to contemporary Russian literature, culture, history and language, tend to believe that the text was written down perhaps 100 years later, in the late 1200s, based on oral versions that sprang up shortly after the failed military campaign described in the text. Several Western scholars, having no national attachment to the story of the tale, have suggested that the text is a forgery concocted sometime between the 15th and 18th centuries. I don’t know anything about that, frankly. I defer to Lunt and Keenan and the great Russian scholar and humanist Dmitry Likhachyov, who was one of the most convincing voices defending the authenticity of the text. Let their opinions stand, even if they are diametrically opposed.
But enough of that! I am not writing about The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, I am writing about the striking home that was occupied by the man who claimed to have discovered this lost text in a monastery at the end of the 1780s. I don’t care that Musin-Pushkin most certainly lied about that. And I don’t particularly care that Musin-Pushkin, along with a few others, was the first to publish this text and make it available to Russian readers for the first time in 1800. (The impact was enormous, as the text – truly or not – pushed back the veil of pre-history by several hundred years for contemporaries.) I am a little more interested in the fact that this manuscript – found, forged or stolen – was held for nearly two decades in the building that you see pictured here – the Musin-Pushkin palace, as it is called in Russian. I am definitely interested in the fact that The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, along with the thousands of other rare manuscripts collected (?) over the years by the occupant here, was burned to a crisp when much of the building and all of the archive went up in a conflagration in 1812. This fire, if I may put it so, has poured gas on the flames of the Musin-Pushkin/Lay of Igor’s Campaign controversy ever since. It was that “Oops!” moment in history after which no more real research could be done on the text. It had been the only remaining copy, or so said Alexei Musin-Pushkin…
When Musin-Pushkin lived here, this was a three-story building. The top floor you see was added in the Soviet period. The building’s address is currently 2/1 Spartakovskaya Street and it stands looking askance at a tiny square that bears the name of Razgulyai. The first and third pictures in this post were taken with Razgulyai just behind me and to my right. It is relatively common knowledge that this is a historic structure – there is plenty of information to be had in the internet – but there are no markings on the building itself to let passersby know that.
For me it is an odd place to walk past. Stately as it is, it is rather benign these days, wrapped ignominiously in trolley and electrical lines swinging this way and that all around the building. The street now comes much too close to the structure, making it look a little like an eye popping out of a head. But this is the place, right here, where that whole nasty argument began – Was The Lay real or was it not? Sitting in various Harvard University classrooms I listened to Horace Lunt make ironic comments about it; I heard Keenan, a man who loved a fight no less than Lunt, rail on about it. And now, here is ground zero, a rose-colored building in the middle of modern Moscow. The place where the most famous Slavonic text once spent about 20 years on a shelf somewhere inside.
And that, folks, is true, no matter what you believe about The Lay of Igor’s Campaign. Fake or not, the text that gave rise to one of the great, ongoing controversies in Russian literary and linguistic history once briefly collected dust here.