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Vasily Zhukovsky is the guy who came before Alexander Pushkin. Talk about getting thrown into the shadows. If you’re a baseball fan, call him the Wally Pipp of Russian literature. Or, if American music is your thing, call him the guy who set the stage for Bob Dylan. These are all silly comparisons, of course, intended solely to get a grin or a groan, either of which is fine. The fact of the matter is that Zhukovsky was the greatest Russian poet for awhile, until Pushkin came along… He had only recently surpassed the previous “great Russian poet” Gavriil Derzhavin, thus taking over that coveted place. Of course, there wasn’t much in it at that time. The stakes were raised, a tradition was solidified, a national literary heritage was established once Pushkin came on the scene. The writers who preceded him were stepping stones, of a sort. Still, having said all that, Zhukovsky was, and remains, one of the great Russian writers. He had every right to wear the laurels of “the greatest” in his time. Listen to this lead-in to an article in a Tula online encyclopedia: “Vasily Andreevich Zhukovsky went down in the history of Russian literature as a poet, prose writer, journalist, publisher, editor, critic, artist and educator.” I’ll bet he did windows, too.
Zhukovsky was born in the village of Mishenskoe in the Tula region on January 29, 1783. He was the illegitimate son of a provincial landowner (Afanasy Bunin) and a Turkish slave houseworker (Salha – I don’t find her true last name, although she apparently told her son she was from a family of pashas from the Silistra region of Turkey. When forcefully christened, she was given the name of Yelizaveta Dementyevna Turchaninova). Zhukovsky’s last name and patronymic were “lent” him by a neighbor friend. Despite the uncomfortable circumstances of his birth, his father’s wife (and other family members) welcomed him into the family. He was given a good education in Tula and, later, from the age of 14, in Moscow. While still in Tula, he attended school while living with his aunt, who often organized literary and artistic salons, thus awakening in the boy his earliest interest in the arts. In 1817 he was appointed to teach language and literature to the children of the Russian royal family. He was tutor to Alexander II. He continued to work in this capacity until 1841, at which time he moved to Germany where he married the 18 year-old daughter of one of his friends and sired a son and a daughter. He died April 12, 1852, in Baden Baden.
Zhukovsky’s first published poem was “With Thoughts at a Tomb” in 1797. Throughout his early years as a student in Moscow, he published many other poems, most of them exhibiting the popular youthful sentiment of melancholy. After completing his education at the Moscow University Pansion, the future poet returned to the village of his birth for a full six years (1802-1808). Here he did not publish much, but clearly used his time to work on his craft. As noted in a Tula website, he wrote a letter to his friend Alexander Turgenev at this time, relating that he was continuing a program of self-education, studying world and Russian history, while also acquiring other “serious and weighty” knowledge. During this time he translated and adapted several works from European languages, and tried his hand at prose, also adapting the works of others, including Mikhail Karamzin’s short story “Poor Liza.” Zhukovsky considered the great Karamzin to be his mentor.
The first half of the second decade saw Zhukovsky fight in the war against Napoleon only to be mustered out when he fell ill with typhus. At this time he experienced an unhappy love affair that was blocked by the mother of his intended. Both young people suffered long and terribly from their failure to unite. Although it came too late to solve his romantic sufferings, Zhukovsky’s place in the world was settled in 1814 when he wrote “Missive to Emperor Alexander.” This work came to the attention of the Empress Maria Fyodorovna (whom, incidentally, my wife Oksana Mysina played in Vitaly Melnikov’s great film Poor, Poor Pavel) and she reportedly declared on the spot that she wanted this poet to come to St. Petersburg. The poet, indeed, picked up and went to the Russian capital, leaving behind his unhappy love, but not before writing her a beautiful, heart-wrenching letter of farewell.
“I will never forget that all the happiness I have in life is due to you, that you always offered the best intentions, that all the best in me was bound up in my affection for you, that, in sum, I owe to you the most beautiful act of my heart, which was compelled to sacrifice you… I shall try to be worthy of you in my thoughts and feelings! Everything in life is a tool for the marvelous!”
These years – roughly the second decade of the century – were arguably Zhukovsky’s peak as a writer. His value as a translator was enormous, especially when you take into account the fact that his translations of Shakespeare, Schiller, La Fontaine, Goethe, Homer and dozens other major writers, made these works available to the Russian reader for the first time. Consider that Zhukovsky introduced Russia to the world. So good were his translations of classic literature that great numbers of them are still published and read by readers today. It is no wonder that Zhukovsky has always been one of my favorite “characters” in the pantheon of Russian writers.
The bust shown here stands in the courtyard of the former Lugin Palace (now the Leo Tolstoy Pedagogical University in Tula), a place that is connected to many of the great cultural figures in Tula. Sculpted by the prolific Moscow sculptor Alexander Burganov, it was unveiled on February 14, 2014. I’m not often happy with Burganov’s work, but I am pleased that he chose to show Zhukovsky in his youth. The usual depiction of Zhukovskys is as a rather rotund, balding, aging man. This likeness (we can hardly know if it really is a likeness, of course) allows us to see Russian literature in its youth, which is precisely where it was when Zhukovsky came along to help it mature.