Can Russia's Pushkin Survive the Ad Men?

Article excerpt

Even Shakespeare, or a dictator, could never command such mammoth cult worship.

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Russia's most beloved poet, Alexander Pushkin, has prompted an extraordinary outpouring of emotion, commercialism, worship, and events.

His dusky face adorns tattoos, ketchup labels, vodka bottles, billboards, shopping bags, chocolate wrappings. His verses hang in shop windows. The occasion June 6 has been used to maximum advantage by Moscow's publicity-conscious Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. City Hall spent millions of dollars to stage theater, opera, balls, bands, plays, poetry recitals, folk songs, and art exhibits. The Russian bard's life and works have been dissected in endless articles, new books, and TV programs. Even foreign stars got into the act. Spanish tenor Placido Domingo appeared on Red Square this past Sunday to sing from an opera based on a Pushkin story, "The Queen of Spades." Brooding heart-throb Ralph Fiennes stars in a new film version of Pushkin's masterpiece "Eugene Onegin." But as the celebration continues, literary figures ponder this remarkable reaction. Was the celebration clever marketing by profiteers out to make a buck? Could another writer have prompted such mass adoration? And does poetry still hold a special place in the hearts and minds of what are some of the planet's best-educated people? "He is the most-loved figure in Rus-sian history and culture," answers Vladimir Gusev, head of the Moscow Writers Union. "At a time when we feel we are living in bedlam, he emerges as a sane person who opens the door and brings in sunlight." Indeed, well before anyone uttered the word "Pushkinmania," adulation of this icon bordered on canonization. Ask enthusiasts - and there are maybe 146 million among Russia's 147 million people - about Pushkin and you will get a starry-eyed response. They will enthuse about the elegance of his verse, his love of his homeland, and his individualism. It seems that Pushkin offers something for everyone. He presents few intellectual barriers - and is more accessible than the dark Dostoyevsky or philosophical Leo Tolstoy. Pushkin was even co-opted by the Communists, who emphasized his sympathy for the 1825 Decembrist uprising. For romantics, there is his life story, which reads like a novel itself. A nobleman with an Ethiopian forebear, Pushkin was alternately adopted into the csar's court and sent into internal exile for his liberal writings. He died tragically in 1837, after a duel provoked by rumors that his wife was unfaithful. Lovers of literature lament the early loss of the man who transformed the Russian language, marrying spoken and written words. Scholars say it is impossible to properly translate his verse, thus explaining perhaps Pushkin's lack of appreciation abroad. But ask anyone here - from a taxi driver to a schoolchild to a banker - and you will find they can recite at least a few passages from "Eugene Onegin" or the epics "Ruslan and Lyudmila" and "The Bronze Horseman." At a time when the nation is drifting in search of a post-Soviet ideal, people seek familiar reference points. That's where Pushkin comes in. "He is a pillar of Russian culture," says Andrei Pushkov, a commentator for the ORT television channel, which was saturated in recent days with Pushkinia. …