Readings — From the September 2008 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
From two 1824 letters by Aleksandr Pushkin to Aleksandr Kaznacheev. The first is in response to an assignment to investigate the extermination of locusts that Pushkin refused to undertake; the second concerns his resignation from the Russian Foreign Ministry, where he worked for seven years. The letters are included in Pushkin: Documents Toward a Biography 1799–1829, published last year in Russia by Iskusstvo. Count Woronzof, the deputy authority of the province of Bessarabia, was Pushkin’s boss. Kaznacheev was the head of Woronzof’s chancellery. Pushkin later admitted to a friend that he lied about his aneurysm in order to gain his freedom. Translated from the Russian and the French by Simona Schneider.
Esteemed Aleksandr Ivanovich,
Bureaucratic procedure is entirely foreign to me. I don’t even know if I have the right to respond to His Highness’s orders. Whatever may happen, I trust in your indulgence and must dare to give an honest explanation of my situation.
For seven years I was remiss in my duties: I did not author a single paper, I did not communicate with any superior. These seven years, as you well know, were totally wasted. Complaints would be inappropriate on my part. I set obstacles in my own path and chose a different goal. For God’s sake, don’t think that I looked upon poetic creation with the childish vanity of a rhymester or as a sensitive man’s respite: it is simply my craft, an honest type of industry, which earns me my livelihood and independence. I think Count Woronzof won’t wish to deprive me of either the former or the latter.
I’ll be told that because I receive 700 rubles a year I am obliged to serve. You know that it is possible to be part of the book trade only in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, as the journalists, censors, and booksellers are there; I constantly have to decline the most advantageous offers for the sole reason that I am located far away from the capital. It suits the government to compensate me for my losses in some way, and thus I receive those 700 rubles not as a functionary’s salary but as the allowance of an exiled prisoner. I am prepared to refuse them if I cannot be in control of my own time and occupation. I’m going into these details because I value the opinion of Count Woronzof, as I do yours, as I do the opinion of any honest person.
I know this letter is enough to destroy me, as they say.
(If the Count orders me to send in my resignation, I am ready; but I feel that I am losing a lot and am not expecting to gain anything.)
One last word: you perhaps are not aware that I have an aneurysm. For eight years already I have been carrying death with me. I can show evidence from any doctor. Is it really not possible to leave me in peace for the remainder of my life, which surely won’t be prolonged?
Please accept my deepest respect and heartfelt devotion.
Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin
Esteemed Aleksandr Ivanovich,
It quite annoys me that my notice should cause you so much pain, and the grief you describe touches me sincerely.
As for the anxieties you have about my leave-taking, I believe them to be unfounded. What would I regret—my failed career? That’s an idea to which I have had the time to reconcile myself. Was it my earnings? My literary pursuits can bring me more money, so it is only natural that I sacrifice my services to them. You speak to me of protection and friendship. Two incompatible things; I cannot nor do I want to claim to have Count Woronzof’s friendship, and even less so his protection: nothing I know of degrades more than patronage, and I hold this man in too high regard to want to abase myself in front of him. On this matter I have democratic prejudices, entirely worthy of the prejudices of aristocratic pride.
I am tired of relying solely on the good or bad digestion of this or that boss; I am sick of being treated with less consideration in my own father land than the first scalawag Englishman who struts about his platitudes and his gibberish in our midst.
I aspire only to independence—please excuse the word in favor of the thing itself. Through courage and perseverance I will achieve it. I have already overcome my repugnance to writing and selling my verse for a living—the biggest step is behind me. If I am still writing under the capricious influence of inspiration, then I regard the verses, once written, as nothing more than merchandise priced by unit. I don’t understand the consternation of my friends. (I don’t really know who my friends are.)
I have no doubt that Count Woronzof, who is a sensible man, will know how to show me in the wrong in public opinion—a very flattering triumph and one that I will let him enjoy as he pleases, since the opinion of this public worries me as much as the blame or admiration of our newspapers.