Tag Archives: Catherine the Great

Yakov and Yekaterina Knyazhnin gravesite, St. Petersburg

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There aren’t many of us left who can make sense of this one. Look at the first photo above. Even if you know Russian extremely well, you may not be able to make out that the name on this monument is Yakov Borisovich Knyazhnin (1742-1791). I wouldn’t have been able to read it had I not been informed about it by the map at the entrance to the Lazarevskoe cemetery (18th-century necropolis) at the Alexandro-Nevskaya Lavra in St. Petersburg. You see that map directly below – Knyazhnin’s grave marker is No. 49. Note that the No. 49 stands under the left of two columns. That is because this precisely is the monument to Knyazhnin, one of the most important playwrights and poets of the late 18th century in Russia.
The monument on the right, however, is also of interest to us (see second photo immediately below). It commemorates the life of Knyazhnin’s wife Yekaterina (1746-1797), who was not only the daughter of Russia’s first great playwright Alexander Sumarokov, she was, according to many sources, the first woman to have published poetry in Russia. It’s a hard story to follow on short-notice research, and I do not claim to present the gospel truth here. But it would appear that some of her work, usually with the support of her famous father, perhaps sometimes with the aid of her husband, did make it into print during her lifetime. Some claim these were actually poems written by Sumarakov, and, naturally, there are claims that her work was “edited” by her father and her husband. It was once believed that several of her songs were put to music by the Russia-based German composer German Raupach, but that apparently has been disproved. One can also find conjecture that Knyazhnina published several of her poems under pseudonyms – not at all unexpected for the late 18th century. We do know that she published a poem, “Oh, You, Who Is Always,” in the March 1759 issue of the literary journal The Busy Bee. This is the one that marks her as Russia’s first published woman writer.
Both Knyazhnin and his wife took it on the chin from Ivan Krylov, Russia’s first great writer of fables. In a comedy called Pranksters, Krylov satirized Knyazhnin as Verse-Stealer (Rifmokrad) and Knyazhnina as Babbler (Taratora). Supposedly it was Knyazhnina who insulted Krylov and pushed him to attack her family, although the details of the incident are not readily available to an internet-searcher. Most sources simply state that the attack was “probably” due to some personal insult.
The couple was originally buried in the Smolenskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg, but were moved to the 18th-century necropolis in the 1950s, where their monuments are crammed in tightly and rather forlornly among other prominent personages of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

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Yakov Knyazhnin doesn’t get a whole lot of respect in the historical record. Krylov’s attack on him as a verse-stealer didn’t help, although it is common knowledge that writers in the 18th century freely borrowed from others, particularly if the source was in a foreign language. Krylov himself, for God’s sake, honed his pen by copying/translating the fables of de La Fontaine. Pushkin called him “imitative.” Knyazhnin, like Sumarokov before him, leaned heavily on the great writing of Europe to provide him inspiration. Sometimes he called his work a translation, other times he took authorship for himself. In fact, Knyazhnin was highly educated and spoke French, German and Italian. His profession was translator.
His first play was apparently the melodrama Orpheus (1763), while his first genuine literary success was the tragedy Didon, written in 1767 (some sources 1769), eight years after his wife’s first published poem, by the way.
The 1770s were an eventful decade for the fledgling writer. While giving in to a passion for cards and losing enormous sums of money, he also wrote several works that were popular at the time – the tragedy Vladimir and Yaropolk  (a reworking of Racine’s Andromaque, 1772) and the comic work Misfortune from a Carriage (1779).  However, he was plunged into disgrace when he embezzled 5,773 rubles. He was originally condemned to death, but that sentence was commuted to a demotion to the rank of simple soldier. Catherine the Great,  also a prominent playwright of the time, took pity on the disgraced soldier, overturned his sentence and gave him the rank of captain. This was in 1777. He wisely chose to get out of the service while he could and retired immediately, throwing himself into literary work, translating Voltaire’s epic poem Henriade (1777) as well as several tragedies by Corneille and Claude Crebillon. He penned another tragedy, Rosslav, which I remember reading with some pleasure in grad school, in 1784. It was another hit, if we can speak of plays as “hits” in those years.
Over the last decade of his life, Knyazhnin turned out numerous works of note. They included three “serious” works, The Mercy of Titus (1778), Sofonisba (1786), and Vladisan (1786), and numerous light works – either comedies or comic operas – The Miser (1782?, music by Vasily Pashkevich), The Fisherman and the Spirit (1781), The Braggart (1784/5), The Honey-Mead Maker (1783), The Failed Mediator (?), Odd Fellows (1790), Mourning, or The Widow Consoled (?), and The Woman who Faked Insanity (?).
Knyazhnin, labeled as a Russian classicist, had the reputation of writing works on patriotic themes while remaining a bit of a freethinker. This became particularly apparent in his last work, the tragedy Vadim of Novgorod (1788/9), in which his sympathies lay not with the ruler Ryurik, but with the rebel Vadim. The play is sprinkled with attacks on the notion of tyranny and tyrants, which could not possibly have pleased Catherine. Understanding this well, Knyazhnin originally gave Vadim of Novgorod to a theater for staging, but changed his mind and stopped the production. When it was published after his death, Catherine had the copies hunted down and destroyed. Fortunately, she could not get to all of them, and the play text, like most of what he wrote, has come down to us.
One Russian source sums his work up this way: “One of Knyazhnin’s merits was that he developed what was, for his time, an excellent style, and, relative to Sumarokov, light, attractive versification. Knyazhnin, thanks to his translations, introduced the most relevant current works of Western literature into his cultural sphere. Additionally, his use of blank verse for the first time in Russian literature was innovative.

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Alexander Radishchev House, Tomsk

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There are few things I love more than facts that cannot be proved. What could be more lifelike? Anyway, the picture you see above shows the so-called Radishchev House in Tomsk. Legend, and some documents, apparently, have it that the prominent writer, economist, lawyer and philosopher Alexander Radishchev – the author of the incendiary travel notes Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow – spent time here on his way to Siberian exile in 1791. Some say he actually stopped at another building, but, be that as it may, it is this structure on today’s Bakunin Street (Yefremovsky Street when Radishchev was or was not here) that bears the plaque and bears the name of the great man in the hearts and minds of this city’s people. If you love Russian culture as I do, surely you have a similar soft spot in your heart for Radischev. He was one of the first Russians to openly and publicly and pointedly stand up and say, “Wait a minute! All is not quite what you say it is!” For that Catherine the Great – about whom I’ve written earlier in this blog – arrested the man, burnt his famous book, and sent him to Siberia. So much for standing up and speaking the truth in Russia. His crime was to open his eyes and see that the splendor of St. Petersburg and Moscow were not even vaguely matched in the dirty, rundown, Godforsaken, poverty-stricken, uneducated villages and towns that lie between those two great cities. Radischev had the ingenious idea of getting into a carriage, making the trip, and writing about what he encountered. Naturally, since the actual state of affairs did not match the version of reality that the Empress chose to believe, and insisted on foisting on her subjects, the author had to be dealt with. Not quite “off with his head!” but six years “out of sight and out of mind” in the Siberian town of Ilimsk from 1791 to 1797. If the prevailing stories of the days spent in transit in Tomsk are true, Radishchev occupied a room or rooms on the low, ground floor of this building. According to Tomsk historian and architect Pavel Rachkovsky, only this floor today remains more or less untouched from the late 18th century. The church that rises behind the building in the background was not there in Radishchev’s times.

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If you really want to get a feel for what Tomsk might have looked like when Radishchev was passing through, you will come at the structure in question from the south side, heading up from the north bank of the small Ushaika River. Bakunin Street – ulitsa Bakunina in Russian – provides an extraordinary glimpse into the past. It is still a rolling, bumpy, uneven cobbled road lined by many old, wooden buildings. Only the occasional Honda or Hyundai, or a pedestrian in a parka on a chilly, windy day, suggests we have not traveled back to the 19th century, if not the 18th. In the sequence of shots below, you see the Radishchev House looming in the distance as we make our way up the road. For the record, Radishchev’s further fate was not particularly happy. He was returned to St. Petersburg in 1797 by Catherine’s successor and much unloved son, Pavel the First, and was given the opportunity to try to institute several legal reforms. Pavel’s position was always tenuous, however, and he was assassinated in 1801. Radishchev, perhaps sensing that the noose figuratively was about to be thrown around his neck again, committed suicide in 1802.

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Catherine the Great’s “Hotel Palace,” Moscow

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This structure is officially called the Petrov Way Palace, as in way station. It was built at the request of Yekaterina II, whom we know better as Catherine the Great. Legend has it, and I usually prefer legend over dry, misleading facts, that Cath wanted to have a place to powder her nose and fluff up her dress before making her grand entrance into Moscow after long, grueling trips from St. Petersburg. The structure’s modern address is Leningradsky Prospekt, 40, which, as you may discern, is on the direct road leading from Moscow to St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and back. At the end of the 18th century, when the palace was built by architect Matvei Kazakov, this was outside of Moscow proper. These days it is surrounded by roads and modern high rises just down the pike. And these days the palace once again houses a hotel and spa for those willing to pay the price of royal luxury.

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If you are wondering why I am posting  about a Russian tsar on this art-inspired site, you don’t know the work of my longtime friend and colleague Lurana Donnels O’Malley, the West’s leading scholar on the playwright Catherine the Great, author of The Dramatic Works of Catherine the Great, and editor/translator of Two Comedies by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. (I had the pleasure of editing the latter book for the now-defunct Russian Theatre Archive series.) Catherine wrote some 14 plays, including dramas, historical plays and satirical comedies, and about nine librettos for operettas. This made her not only the first head of state, but also the first woman, to engage in literary activity in Russia. There is evidence that the Empress had help in her writing from several trusted assistants (O’Malley singles out Ivan Elagin, Alexander Khrapovitsky and Grigory Kozitsky), and this would make sense since her Russian, though quite good, was not native. She, of course, was born and grew up in Prussia, coming to Russia as a young woman to marry the future Tsar Peter III, for whom this palace is named. Scant honor, one must say, since Catherine helped assassinate Peter in order to become Empress outright.

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Every time I drive by Catherine’s way station on my way to or from Sheremetyevo airport, I can’t help but wonder if she engaged in some of her literary activity while holed up briefly in this small haven. Having not yet arrived in the Kremlin (or just freed of its intrigues, if she was on her way back to St. Petersburg), and thus not swamped with important government duties, might she have taken the leisurely opportunity here to write a scene or two for her plays? Or might she have dashed off here some of those famous letters she wrote to Voltaire? They make for intriguing questions as you race past this beautiful structure in the flow of traffic.

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