The publication of Pushkin's Boris Godunov gave rise to a heated polemic in the criticism of the time. In May 1831 one of the first negative responses to the tragedy--and an especially severe one--appeared in the form of an anonymous pamphlet, On Alexander Pushkin's Boris Godunov, subtitled A Conversation between a Landowner Passing from Moscow through a Provincial Town and a Private Teacher of Russian Literature, Practicing in the Same. (1) Contrary to literary custom at the time, A Conversation did not appear in the pages of a journal, but came out in a separate edition from the printing house of Moscow University and was cleared for publication by the Moscow Censorship Committee. The characters in the pamphlet--a landowner, Petr Ivanovich, and a teacher of Russian literature, Ermil Sergeevich--engage in a discussion of the merits and demerits of Pushkin's latest literary production. The provincial teacher gives a critical reading of Boris Godunov to the Moscow landowner, who agrees, for the most part, with the teacher's vitriolic remarks. The general stylistic mode of A Conversation is one of parody or pastiche. The teacher, who does most of the talking, is a bit of a caricature; his turns of phrase are often grotesquely pedantic and he is not averse to parading his Latin on occasion. The laconic and straightforward landowner is running late and is therefore obliged to rush along his grandiloquent interlocutor.
Although the characters are presented in a somewhat ironic vein, their criticisms are apparently meant to be taken at face value. The critical part of the pamphlet consists of what afterwards became the stock repertoire of judgments on the imperfections of Pushkin's tragedy. The play is disparaged for its lack of believable characters, for its vagueness of genre and lack of a coherent structure, for historical inaccuracies, and for various stylistic flaws. But along with these literary observations, A Conversation also contains some elements of political denunciation, namely, hints at Pushkin's political disloyalty and allegations of his lack of respect for monarchic ideals.
Curiously, A Conversation appears to have been the first book (i.e., a separate edition rather than an article) ever published on Pushkin. It was also the subject of the first article (a short review) ever published by the young Vissarion Belinsky. But these two circumstances, as I will try to show, do not yet exhaust its significance for Russian literary history.
The fact that the pamphlet was among the earliest critical responses to Boris Godunov, its unusual format, and, most importantly, the bluntness of its accusations, made A Conversation something of a reference point for subsequent criticism of the play. Reviewing the critical reception of Pushkin's tragedy, B. P. Gorodetskii notes:
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Indeed, the anti-Pushkin party greeted the pamphlet with approval and praised its author for his wittiness. "G. Z--ia," in the journal Garland (Girlanda), mentions the pamphlet favorably, with only a slight caveat:
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And Bestuzhev-Riumin in The Northern Mercury (Severnyi Merkurii) notes: "V ikh [Uchitelia i Pomeshchika] suzhdeniiakh my sperva ozhidali naiti mnogo provintsializma, no vmesto togo nashli mnogo stolichnogo ostroumiia." (4)
At the other end of the literary spectrum, among Pushkin's partisans, A Conversation aroused righteous indignation. The young Belinsky, in his reviewing debut in The Leaflet (Listok), equates the anonymous author with the notorious graphomaniac Aleksandr Orlov and calls the pamphlet "idle schoolboy talk":
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Thus, many people noted and reacted to A Conversation, but almost no one, either in the polemics at the time or in subsequent literary scholarship, has suggested who its author might have been. (6) There seems to be a clue, however, in the passage from Belinsky. …