Conjuring the Truth

Yuri Tynianov’s ‘Real’ Pushkin

by Anna Kurkina Rush (Author)
©2023 Monographs XVI, 468 Pages


This is the first single volume in either English or Russian on the representation of Pushkin in Yuri Tynianov’s novels. It demonstrates the percipience and originality of Tynianov’s concept of Pushkin’s personality and assesses Tynianov’s contribution to the Soviet historical novel. The approach re-orients the angle of investigation from the study of his novels as historical biographical works with their adherence to chronology and factuality to their study within the generic frameworks of other genres, which allowed Tynianov to create a new, artistically viable form of novel. The author investigates how and why an esteemed Formalist scholar, initially strongly anti-biographical, turned to biographical fiction; contextualizes the significance of his choice of genre and hero in the Soviet literary process of the 1920–30s; and examines theoretical approaches that enabled him to create an illusion of authenticity unprecedented in Pushkin novels. Building her analysis on the theoretical conclusions, she investigates Tynianov’s artistic methods of interpreting the formative influences on Pushkin while focusing on the Formalist techniques of enhanced literariness. Exploration of each of Tynianov’s novels demonstrates what Tynianov believed to be true about the origins and originality of Pushkin’s genius, the nature of historical understanding, and Pushkin’s own historical thinking. Appraising the mythopoeic techniques that Pushkin’s forebears, family and the poet himself employed as means of reconstructing their origins, Rush demonstrates how Tynianov explodes some of the myths of self-representation in which Pushkin’s paternal great-grandfather – and his offspring after him – indulged throughout their lives, and reveals how these myths paralleled Pushkin’s anxieties concerning race and class. The study reveals the ways in which Tynianov, while grappling with and overrunning the monumentalizing national Pushkin myth, subverted the generic expectations of the historical novel, broke away from established tradition and elevated his novel to the level of «serious» literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on the Text
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Part I ontexts: Theory, History, Culture
  • Part II Individual Case Studies
  • CHAPTER 1 Küchlya: The Knight-Errant of the Unfulfilled Dream
  • CHAPTER 2 The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar – A Novel of (Failed) Survival
  • CHAPTER 3 In Search of Self: Pushkin as a Novel of Education, Artistic Production and Engagement with History
  • CHAPTER 4 Personal Myths and ‘Acceptable’ Ancestry in Pushkin and The Gannibals
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

←viii | ix→


The ancient Romans used to say habent sua fata libelli et balli [books and bullets have destinies of their own]. It is decidedly true as far as this book is concerned. Its progress has not been straightforward, and it ricocheted a number of times in seemingly unpredictable directions according to its own, inexorable logic. It was conceived as an extensive commentary to my and my (then future) husband Christopher Rush’s translation of Yuri Tynianov’s novel Pushkin, which was first published by Angel Books, London, in 2007 as Young Pushkin and a year later by Overlook/Rookery Press, New York. The bulk of the translation had been completed long before then, in 1999, the year of Pushkin’s bicentenary, which made me reflect a great deal on portrayals of Pushkin in critical biographies and in fiction, and on the extent to which the facts and fictions of his life could, by this stage, be separated. The project was also an excellent starting point for pondering the numerous problems we had encountered while rendering into English Tynianov’s prose, so notoriously resistant to translation. I spent the next year as a postgraduate in London studying Translation and Linguistics at the University of Westminster, and a couple of years later, while teaching Russian Literature at the University of St Andrews, I embarked on doctoral research of the novels Pushkin and The Gannibals by Yuri Tynianov. Despite some critical attention to Tynianov’s creative writing in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, research on Pushkin in English-speaking countries had been limited to articles and book chapters, while The Gannibals, Tynianov’s tentative approach to the writing of Pushkin’s novelistic biography, extant in drafts and unpublished until 1966, more than twenty years after Tynianov’s death, had been almost entirely overlooked. Even in Russia the scope and depth of published critical studies of the Pushkinian theme in Tynianov’s novels had been cursory.

Two things became clear: first of all, that Tynianov was unquestionably a writer worthy of deeper research – challenging, endlessly fascinating, unashamedly high-brow, unpredictable and absolutely unignorable as an ←ix | x→avant-garde novelist, and that his theoretical studies are a gift that keeps on giving, intellectually speaking. Secondly, I realized that I would continue to translate his novels. Columbia University Press brought out our translation of Tynianov’s Death of Vazir-Mukhtar in 2021, and in the same year Academic Studies Press published our translation (with Peter France) of Küchlya: Decembrist Poet, hitherto untranslated into English. While working on the translations, I came to appreciate even more the singularity of Tynianov’s writing style and was astonished by how undeservedly little attention his fiction has received in comparison with his scholarly work. I went deeper into Tynianov’s method of writing fictional biographies and researched more on his earlier novels about Küchelbecker and Griboedov; this writing became two more chapters of the present book.

There are a few people in the publishing world whom I must thank for making our translations of the Tynianov novels available to Anglophone audiences: Antony Wood of Angel Books, Christine Dunbar of Columbia University Press and Igor Nemirovskii of the Academic Studies Press for commissioning and editing, and their teams for producing and promoting these books. Small portions of Chapters 2, 3 and 4 have previously appeared as parts of my introduction to Young Pushkin (vii–xiv), my translators’ note for The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar (xiii–xviii) and my introduction to Küchlya (vii–xiv) in the corresponding editions. I am very grateful to Peter Steiner, Patrick O’Meara, Ludmila Trigos, and in particular, Angela Brintlinger and Sibelan Forrester for their expertise, enthusiasm and support for the latter two of my translation projects. I salute you!

I am forever indebted to my wonderful and knowledgeable co-translators, Christopher Rush and Prof. Peter France, who were a joy to work with and who taught me a lot about dedication and professionalism. I would like to thank Peter France additionally for his gift of time in producing translations of a number of poems by Derzhavin, Zhukovskii, Küchelbecker and a few fine versions of Pushkin’s lyrics specifically for this book. I would also like to thank Alan Bostick warmly for his gift of friendship, and for chatting to me about Russian literature and asking crucial questions.

It is my greatest pleasure to thank my PhD supervisor, my learned mentor and former Head of Russian at St Andrews University, Dr Roger ←x | xi→Keys, whose sharp pencil produced a number of tiny scribbles all over the pages of the original thesis and improved it enormously, while keeping me focused on the topic and spotting where I was skating on thin ice.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the Moscow Museum of Pushkin in Prechistenka for their gracious permission to reproduce Dmitrii Terekhov’s drawing of Pushkin. Special thanks are extended to the editors at Peter Lang – to Hannah Godfrey who commissioned the book in the now distant 2013 and Laurel Plapp for picking it up years later where I’d left off and shepherding me unswervingly through the process of revision and publication. Warm thanks are also due to the peer reviewers for their most valuable and encouraging comments and suggestions, and to the PL team for dealing with the final typescript, twice the size of that originally proposed.

My debt, both intellectual and personal, to my co-translator and husband, Chris, is too great to be expressed. While checking, commenting on and correcting what we translated together, he also wrote numerous books of his own and held the fort as an indulgent, fun dad to our children, Jenny and Sam. It is to the three of them that I dedicate this book with affectionate gratitude.

A. K. R.

July 2022

Edinburgh, UK

←xi | xii→ ←xii | xiii→

Note on the Text

The system of transliteration employed in this work is that of the Library of Congress (without diacritics). I have preserved the Anglicized spelling of the names Alexander, Maxim and Maximilian in the body of the book, as more familiar to the English reader, and the German spelling of the surnames Küchelbecker, Eisenstein and Engelhardt. Yuri Tynianov’s name is spelled as it currently appears in the Consonance that stores all metadata for new books nationwide. For consistency’s sake, the spelling ‘Yuri’ is used throughout the book when referring to other individuals with the same name.

The Russian editions of the cited novels are the widely available canonical ones: Kiukhlia. Rasskazy (Moscow: Pravda, 1982); Smert’ Vazir-Mukhtara. Rasskazy (Moscow: Pravda, 1984) and Pushkin (Moscow: Pravda, 1981). All longer quotations from Tynianov’s novels are provided in the original Russian; the English translations are my own from the following editions: Tynianov, Yuri, Küchlya: Decembrist Poet, tr. Anna Kurkina Rush, Peter France and Christopher Rush (Boston: Cherry Orchard/Academic Studies Press, 2021); Tynianov, Yury, The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, tr. Anna Kurkina Rush and Christopher Rush (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021); Tynianov, Yury, Young Pushkin, tr. Anna Kurkina Rush and Christopher Rush (London: Angel Books, 2007). Page numbers of the quotations from Tynianov’s original Russian texts are provided in brackets. Smert’ Vazir-Mukhtara is abbreviated as DVM.

Tynianov’s Kiukhlia was first published in book form, with the subtitle A Tale of a Decembrist [Повесть о декабристе], by the publishing house Kubuch, Leningrad, on 1 December 1925. Smert’ Vazir-Mukhtara was serialized in the literary journal Zvezda 1–12 (1927), and 1–6 (1928); the book edition saw the light of day in early 1929 (Leningrad: Priboi). The first two parts of Tynianov’s novel Pushkin were initially published in serial form in the Leningrad journal Literaturnyi sovremennik: Part One (‘Detstvo’) in 1–4 (1936), and Part Two (‘Litsei’) in 10–12 (1936) and 1–2 (1937). Part ←xiii | xiv→Three (‘Iunost’ ’) appeared in Znamia 7–8 (1943). The text of the first two parts was the last published during the author’s lifetime – Part One within a collected edition of Tynianov’s works by Goslitizdat, Leningrad, in 1941, and Part Two in a separate edition by GIKhL, Leningrad, in 1938. Part Three came out when Tynianov was gravely ill, so he could neither revise and prepare his manuscript for publication, nor read proofs. The first complete book edition of Pushkin, edited and annotated by Boris Kostelianets, saw the light of day in 1956. Having conducted archival work and studied Tynianov’s original manuscripts, Veniamin Kaverin and Evgenii Toddes arrived at a new reading and drastic re-editing of Part Three of the novel, publishing their version in 1976 in a separate edition of Pushkin (Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia literatura), which differs considerably from both the first journal publication and the first complete book editions of 1956 and 1959.

Within this book, text cited from The Gannibals is from its first publication: ‘Vstuplenie’ in Veniamin Kaverin, ed., Yuri Tynianov. Pisatel’ i uchenyi (Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1966), 204–11, and the opening chapters of the novel in Nauka i zhizn’ 10 (1968), 120–6. The Gannibals has not been translated into English or analysed in its entirety. Ludmila Trigos’s translation of the Introduction to The Gannibals was appended to Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy et al., eds, Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 377–83.

All references to Pushkin’s works in prose are supplied parenthetically (volume and page number), e.g., (V, 37) and refer to the 1977 edition of A. S. Pushkin Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh (Moscow: GIKhL, 1959–62), unless otherwise specified. All references to Eugene Onegin in English are cited from Stanley Mitchell’s translation (London: Penguin, 2008) and referred to by canto and stanza, e.g., (V, 17). Most of the English translations of Pushkin’s poems are from the four volumes of Pushkin’s Lyrics, Roger Clarke, ed. (Richmond: Alma Classics, 2018–22) with the names of translators in parentheses. Square brackets in footnotes refer to the original publication of works cited in more modern editions.

Translations from the Russian sources are mine, unless otherwise specified. Some of the translations by other translators have been modified and/or edited.

←0 | 1→


Yuri Tynianov belonged to the Pléiade of Russian post-Revolutionary ‘Renaissance men’ who evinced an amazing breadth of cultural interests. He was a leading Russian Formalist scholar of the 1920s, an original historian of literature, an inspiring lecturer, an elegant critic, energetic polemicist and persuasive essayist, an innovative screen-writer, a theoretician of the cinema, and a literary editor and translator. For the general reading public, however, he remains the revered historical novelist with a particular interest in Pushkin and his times.

Born in 1894 on the outskirts of the Russian Empire in Rezhitsa (nowadays Latvian Rēzekne), the son of a Jewish doctor, Tynianov had personally experienced the pre-revolutionary policy of anti-Semitic alienation, and there is a sense in which his Jewish origins seem to have been a compelling factor in his assimilation into the majority culture through his studies of its literature.1 Instead of religion, which used to give their ancestors their sense of identity, Russian Jewish intellectuals strove for personal affirmation by scholarly appropriation of the core figures of Russian culture in order to move from the cultural periphery to its centre. So, Viktor Shklovskii, the founder of the OPOIAZ group, the progenitor of what would be called the Russian Formal school, culturally ‘appropriated’ the modern-day hero Maiakovskii. Eikhenbaum took on Lermontov and Tolstoi, while Tynianov focused on the national icon – Pushkin – and on Griboedov and Küchelbecker. In his Autobiography,2 Tynianov wrote that he was born ‘some six hours’ journey from the birthplaces of Solomon Mikhoels and Marc Chagall,3 and eight hours from the birthplace of Catherine ←1 | 2→I’.4 His mention of such geographical proximity (within the Jewish Pale of Settlement) is significant inasmuch as it is indicative of the cultural figures with whom he felt an affinity and demonstrates his fascination with the fluidity and relativity of the notion of Russianness and the variegated cultural forces (particularly extraneous ones) that shaped it.5

Having lived in his childhood years on the edges of the empire, Tynianov was in a position to appraise it afresh and, like Joseph Brodskii at a later period, could claim that he ‘found [himself] looking at this empire as if at a tangent. That is, it is precisely this element of estrangement which is necessary for the writer.’6 Perhaps the love for the Russian culture that nurtured Tynianov, along with his fresher and more sober view of it,7 provided him with the perspectival distance which is vital for enhanced understanding, as Bakhtin argues:

In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding – in time, in space, in culture. For one cannot even really see one’s own exterior and comprehend it as a whole, and no mirrors or photographs can help; our real exterior can be seen ←2 | 3→and understood only by other people, because they are located outside us in space and because they are others.8

One feels something of this sense of productive distance from Russian culture in reading the Formalists: their combativeness, as Robert Maguire pointed out, was perhaps more than a consciously assumed critical position, more even than a reflection of the general mood of the immediate post-revolutionary years. It may well answer to something more personal.9 ‘Distance’ remains a persistent theme in Tynianov’s creative writing: his sense of being ‘marked out and set apart’, his self-awareness as an Other in Russian society and its active agent, his need to penetrate the core of Russian spiritual life from outside and afar.

Tynianov’s acute interest in Pushkin was boosted by his active participation, while a student of history and literature at Petersburg University (1912–18), in Semion Vengerov’s celebrated Pushkin seminar, which championed ‘supreme knowledge’ [максимализм знания]. In this forum for free expression of literary hypotheses and ideas, students underwent complete immersion into the Pushkin era and engaged in meticulous studies of the extant sources. The seminar was attended by a number of future renowned Pushkinists: Iulian Oksman, Georgii Maslov, Viktor Zhirmunskii, Sergei Balukhatyi and Sergei Bondi, though Tynianov was, arguably, the most gifted of Vengerov’s talented students. There Tynianov also struck up a life-long friendship with Boris Eikhenbaum and Viktor Shklovskii and became actively engaged in the literary group OPOIAZ (Society for the Study of Poetic Language; 1915–19), which viewed the development of literature as an immanent process independent of sociological influence. During its most productive years, OPOIAZ had the appearance of a kind of committee of which Viktor Shklovskii was president, Boris Eikhenbaum his aide-de-camp and Yuri Tynianov the secretary. They saw themselves more ←3 | 4→as a creative movement than as proponents of a purely critical doctrine, and they were closely associated with a poetic group, the Futurists, and a group of novelists, the Serapion Brothers.

As an academic (1921–9) and literary historian at the State Institute of the History of Arts, Tynianov concurrently published scholarly research on the problems of parody and stylization, verse language, literary evolution and studies of particular authors (Gogol, Dostoevskii, Küchelbecker, Griboedov, Nekrasov, Tiutchev and, above all, Pushkin). By the mid-1920s he had become one of the central figures of the Russian Formal school, a heretically un-Marxist literary group, though the Formalists were apolitical inasmuch as they could afford to be in their dangerous times. They strove to create a dynamic scholarly discipline [наука]10 which came to signify the study of common laws and generalities in disparate works of literature, as well as the regularities of their evolutionary transformation. They combated the academic routine of preceding generations of ‘beardies’ [бородачи], which was a metonymical allusion to the emblematic attribute of their teachers, as well as a figural representation of the latter’s academic conservatism and respectability. This also implied the revisionist and reformist impulse of Formalist literary studies, which, like the Petrine reforms, were keen to eliminate ‘the beard’ as the symbol of the backward and the obsolete.

Tynianov’s novelistic endeavour began in his early thirties when the State Institute of the History of Arts where he was lecturing at the time was ‘reformed’ by the authorities11 after the People’s Commissar for Education, Anatolii Lunacharskii, officially denounced it as isolationist and reactionary; soon after a full-scale campaign was launched against the Formalists by the more materially oriented Research Institute of Comparative History and Literatures of East and West.12 Tynianov took ←4 | 5→his colleagues by surprise by publishing his first novel Küchlya [Кюхля] (1925), a historical-biographical work dealing with Pushkin’s little-known and long-forgotten Lycée friend, Wilhelm Küchelbecker. The choice of the Pushkinian theme and of a protagonist close to the great Russian poet was emblematic of the Formalists’ spiritual affinity with Pushkin’s circle. Like the Silver Age artists before them, they were keen to re-mythologize the experience of twentieth-century Russia in terms of an apparent cyclical return of the early nineteenth century with its European war and social upheavals, its flourishing of romanticism and utopian idealism.

Although separated by a hundred years, the members of OPOIAZ and Arzamas13 were united by a sense of continuity in the perception of their cultural mission, their anti-academism, their non-dogmatism and their conceptual approach to literature. The innovative science-building ‘triumvirate’ of the new age – Tynianov-Shklovskii-Eikhenbaum – bore a striking similarity to the Pushkin-Viazemskii-Zhukovskii trio as psychological and cultural types, among whom Tynianov can be viewed as the Pushkin figure – flighty, witty, temperamental and fun-loving. Shklovskii, like Viazemskii, was the live wire, ‘a fighting cock’, an expert in the art of literary fisticuffs and general guiding spirit. Eikhenbaum, who clearly identified with Zhukovskii, possessed the latter’s integrity and respectability, which increased the group’s credibility and prestige, gained it prominence and enabled it to exert influence on young writers.14

Tynianov’s acute identification with Pushkin began in his youth with his self-conscious emphasis on the similarities in their appearance, as well as his sartorial dandyism and theatricality of manners. As time went by, ←5 | 6→Tynianov seemed to have grown into Pushkin, not just in appearance, but also in character, mind, interests and inclinations.15 Like the poet whom he worshipped, Tynianov possessed impeccable literary taste; he was a virtuoso impersonator and a public reader; he made fine drawings in the margins of his notebooks and excelled at the composition of impromptu epigrams, mirroring Pushkin’s very habits and practices. Tynianov’s experience of verse translations of Heine and essay-writing made the transition to a different genre not just possible, but seemingly effortless. Not only did Küchlya represent Tynianov’s successful rite of passage into the realm of authorship, but it was also his first foray into writing about Pushkin in imaginative prose. The novel won him the sobriquet of the founding father of the Soviet historical novel – an ironical definition considering that he was a product of the pre-revolutionary system of education and the intellectual and artistic ambience of Russian Silver Age, and therefore liable to be branded a ‘fellow-traveller’ of the hegemonic class.

Later, when the atmosphere around Tynianov became more sinister and the political climate more dogmatic, his fiction seemed to provide a private escape route from grim reality into the world of creativity and the historical past from which he could comment on the present.16 From 1928 on, feeling the academic ground slip from beneath his feet, he reverted to traditional academic history of literature, while becoming increasingly preoccupied with writing prose fiction. Tynianov was forced to abandon theory; what replaced this, his novels, reflected his personal intellectual odyssey as well as the disillusionment of the wider intelligentsia at the very moment when the trap of historical circumstance was being sprung.

The end of the 1920s, much like a century earlier, marked a watershed between a time of hope and revolution and one of stultifying reaction as the new regime grew increasingly restrictive of freedom of expression and ←6 | 7→conscience. The self-identification of Tynianov’s immediate literary milieu with the ‘literary aristocrats’ of Pushkin’s circle of writers compelled them to ponder the writer’s role in society in critical periods of radically changing cultural values. Tynianov’s second novel, which came out in 1927, capitalized on this feeling and focused on the post-1825 period and the themes of disappointment, betrayal, unrealized potential and wasted talent. The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar [Смерть Вазир-Мухтара] described the tragic events of the last year in the life of Pushkin’s fellow writer, Alexander Griboedov, the author of the tellingly named comedy Woe from Wit.

While the reviewers of Küchlya praised Tynianov for his fortuitous choice of protagonist, idealistic and enthusiastic, and thus well suited to reflect most strikingly the illusions of the Decembrist ideology, his second novel was condemned for its dark mood – the author was accused of historical determinism and pessimism, ‘strange and inappropriate in our literature’,17 and his technique was pronounced erroneous, resulting in distortions of historical perspective. The application of the requirements of conventional historical fiction to Tynianov’s prose led to its being severely condemned, even by his own pupils. Hailing Tynianov as ‘almost a genius as literary scholar’, his pupil Lidia Ginzburg, for example, censured his novel as a failure.18 In his 1935 book on Tynianov, Lev Tsyrlin chided the author, among other things, for his ‘distorted’ notion of historicism. Tynianov, in his opinion


XVI, 468
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (May)
Conjuring the Truth Tynianov studies representation of Pushkin in Soviet literature Russian Formal school Anna Kurkina Rush
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. XVI, 468 pp.

Biographical notes

Anna Kurkina Rush (Author)

Anna Kurkina Rush holds a PhD from the University of St Andrews. She previously taught English at the University of Vladimir and Russian at George Watson’s College, Edinburgh, and the University of St Andrews. An acclaimed translator from and into Russian, she translated into English numerous works, mostly hitherto untranslated, including all Yuri Tynianov’s novels – Pushkin, The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar and Küchlya – and, into Russian, a historical novel about Shakespeare. She is currently an independent researcher and lives in Edinburgh. At present she is editing a book entitled Futilities of Facts, a companion to Tynianov’s modernist novel The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar (1928), and is editing and translating a volume of Tynianov’s seminal scholarly essays Pushkin and his Contemporaries.


Title: Conjuring the Truth
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