Shakespeare vs. Pushkin – On Not Reading National Poets, or: A Tragedy in Two Acts

To be or not to be – who has not heard, used, or abused this phrase, written down over 400 years ago? Who cannot conjure up a spontaneous image of the Bard, or name at least one of his plays? Shakespeare has performed a feat that few other writers have achieved across the globe: he has been elevated to a symbol of national culture. But when did you last stop and ask yourself what the point of having a so-called national poet really was?

Aye, there’s the rub. Shakespeare is all around, but the Upstart Crow appears in the form of mugs, scarves and tote bags, coasters and Buzzfeed quizzes. Hungover students from around the world are never more than a click away from knowing which Shakespearean character most resembles their taste in cheese. This may sound fun, but can turning literature into consumerist collateral truly count as national culture? What does this appropriation of Shakespeare into everyday culture tell us, other than that we have arrived in a time of stifling contempt for intellectual fervour? To be able to quote Shakespeare is a sign of culture; to study literature is to fall prey to snowflakery – spot the double-standard. It is a dilemma which, in essence, is symptomatic of one of the greatest ills of modern Western culture: if it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense.[1]


Yet in selling out our idea of what constitutes sophistication, we also work to reveal the brittleness of any concept that stakes a claim to possessing national importance – be it literature, history, or identity. None of these terms mean anything by themselves, but live (and die) by the significance that we inscribe in them. It is lamentable that modern Western inscriptions should primarily focus on profitability; yet at the same time, and ironic as it is, the willingness to pervert a cultural heritage like this also bespeaks the liberty to do so – which is a boon (and bane) that should never be taken for granted.

Take Russia, for example. The further the country spirals towards its ‘Stalin light’ form of Putinism, the stronger its concomitant (Alexander) Pushkin cult gets. The Russian national poet’s lifespan is puny compared to Shakespeare’s – he was born in 1799 and killed in a duel in 1837 – but both years’ centenaries mark nationwide celebrations of the greatest pomp imaginable, be it in late Imperial Russia in 1899, the Soviet Union in 1937, or Yeltsin’s ill-fated post-perestroika Russia in 1999. The common thread that unites all these celebrations is their eagerness to appropriate Pushkin as a symbol for Russian exceptionalism and a vehicle for a national ideology aimed at tackling Russia’s age-old inferiority complex.

The inevitable side effect of such all-encompassing idolatry is a loss of playfulness that ultimately also leads to a loss of the critical spirit. When the worst of nationalist rhetoric meets the worst of literary criticism, it produces a literary figure as untouchable as the real (or imagined) Tsar. To lift a writer on a pedestal of infallibility is to kill him – and Pushkin would be the first to agree. Exiled several times for his political poems and engaged in a lifelong battle against censorship, Pushkin is the embodiment of, not the antidote to, a healthy intellectual irreverence for all kinds of national self-delusion. Late Soviet writers have dared scrape away at the Pushkin myth before, but the current cultural climate once more stifles dissident voices.[2] An exception is the opposition channel, which, following its ousting from all official TV providers in 2014, used a Pushkin flashmob on public transport to promote freedom of speech:

Shakespeare and Pushkin lived in very different times and have produced an entirely different body of works, but they are studies in one and the same dilemma: whither Culture? To barter national poets as the embodiment of national enlightenment seems to run the risk of paying lip service to one of two extremes: a nationalist hero rhetoric tinged by totalitarianism or a commercialised veneer of fake sophistication, as shameless as it is reprehensible.

Should we stop reading Shakespeare and Pushkin then? To quote Hamlet, Act III, Scene III, Line 87: no. But perhaps one way of freeing them from the shackles of ideology and mammon would be to stop reading them as national poets, and read them as manifestations of the critical mind instead.

[1] I would like to thank Blakroc for providing the inspirational soundtrack to this article.

[2] Andrei Sinyavsky’s Strolls With Pushkin (1968) and Andrei Bitov’s Pushkin House (1971) are wonderful examples for works that eagerly chipped away at the Soviet Pushkin cult.

About Anne:

Anne Liebig is a 3rd year PhD student in Russian studies at the University of Edinburgh. Hailing from East Germany, she has always felt a close kinship to the literary realms from beyond the Iron Curtain. When she is not writing, Anne can be found teaching German, kickboxing, or imbibing copious amounts of wine.

Twitter handle: akuninesque

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