Academic journal article Pushkin Review

Tragedy and Ethical Evaluation in Pushkin's Poltava

Academic journal article Pushkin Review

Tragedy and Ethical Evaluation in Pushkin's Poltava

Article excerpt

Alexander Pushkin's Poltava concludes with a paean to the subtle traces of human lives a century after their ends. All that "goes on four feet, two feet and three feet ... and is most feeble when it walks on four" passes to dust, thereafter existing in this world only as a shade of past events, perhaps exerting a presence in history or legend and then, possibly, in myth. (1) The barely discernible remains of the Swedish king's camp at Bender, three steps descending into the belly of the earth, say little about his worthiness as Peter's foe. The field at Poltava and its trees silently memorialize the warriors who fought and died in the battle. A monument built by the labor of hands commemorates the two "martyrs," Colonel Iskra and the Judge General Kochubei, concealing the deleterious longing for vengeance against Mazepa that motivated their loyalty to Russia. As for the Hetman himself, the final stanza of Poltava claims that


   Mazepa had long been forgotten;
   Only during solemnities on holy ground,
   Annually unto this day, menacing,
   The cathedral thunders anathema on him. (2)

The church renews its curse on the Hetman each year to condemn his betrayal of Russia, not his appalling mistreatment and ultimate abandonment of Maria. Her place in cultural memory resembles Mazepa's; she is paradoxically both forgotten (lost in "impenetrable darkness") and remembered only in songs about a "sinful maiden" occasionally sung by a blind, aged rhapsodist.

The theme of memory at the poem's conclusion discloses the centripetal force of a tragedy that draws the individuals in its orbit toward the disintegration of identity. Russia as a nation, however, benefits from their suffering and loss. Pushkin's preface to Poltava remarks that Russia rose into modernity and established itself as a world power after the battle, while his narrator claims that one hundred years later nothing remains of the poem's heroes except an allegorical sum of moral judgments. These summaries explain the characters' roles in the intrigues leading up to the decisive engagement, and they reflect the narrator's general tendency to cast political allegiances and shifting loyalties as a struggle of good vs. evil. The five dramatic dialogues embedded in Poltava contrast the narrator's rhetoric and intensify the poem's tragic gravity by providing more complex ethical conflicts. In those scenes the narrator falls silent and the interlocutors speak for themselves, without the filter of an ideologically charged lens, expressing motivations that do not fit securely within their reduction to the hagiographic, demonological and poetic symbols evoked in the poem's closing lines.

Discourse between the opinionated narrative voice in Poltava and the characters' direct speeches (particularly, but not exclusively, in the dramatic dialogues) reveals a profound dilemma, in which civic duty clashes with morality. The narrator, who does not always represent Pushkin's own views, considers loyalty to Russia the epitome of virtue and accordingly evaluates the characters through the refraction of national history, which he relates in a mostly factual but biased manner. He thereby serves as a chorus in relation to the dialogues, which, along with all but two of the monologues, depict the heroes struggling with a discordance of moral versus civic correctness. Consequentially, the very nature of civic correctness appears questionable and beyond clear definition, while the characters' personal interactions set strong examples for morality and immorality.

Traditional wisdom suggests that Pushkin's historical novella in verse consists of two distinct storylines--one political, historical, or epic and the other private, romantic, or domestic. Such readings focus on Mazepa's schemes prior to the battle, on the one hand, and his relationship with Maria, on the other. Faddei Bulgarin, in his 1829 review of Poltava, planted the seeds for this trend, accusing Pushkin not only of grossly distorting history but also of fabricating a romance that was implausible due to the lovers' age difference. …

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