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Pushkin: At Mikhaylovskoye

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Updated: 04.12.2003

Although the two years at Mikhaylovskoye were unhappy for Pushkin, they were to prove one of his most productive periods. Alone and isolated, he embarked on a close study of Russian history; he came to know the peasants on the estate and interested himself in noting folktales and songs.

During this period the specifically Russian features of his poetry became steadily more marked. His ballad "Zhenikh" (1825; "The Bridegroom"), for instance, is based on motifs from Russian folklore; and its simple, swift-moving style, quite different from the brilliant extravagance of Ruslan and Ludmila or the romantic, melodious music of the "southern" poems, emphasises its stark tragedy.

In 1824 he published Tsygany (The Gypsies), begun earlier as part of the "southern cycle." At Mikhaylovskoye, too, he wrote the provincial chapters of Yevgeny Onegin; the poem Graf Nulin (1827; "Count Nulin"), based on the life of the rural gentry; and, finally, one of his major works, the historical tragedy Boris Godunov (1831).

The latter marks a break with the Neoclassicism of the French theatre and is constructed on the "folk-principles" of William Shakespeare's plays, especially the histories and tragedies, plays written "for the people" in the widest sense and thus universal in their appeal. Written just before the Decembrist rising, it treats the burning question of the relations between the ruling classes, headed by the tsar, and the masses; it is the moral and political significance of the latter, "the judgment of the people," that Pushkin emphasises.

Set in Russia in a period of political and social chaos on the brink of the 17th century, its theme is the tragic guilt and inexorable fate of a great hero - Boris Godunov, son-in-law of Malyuta Skuratov, a favourite of Ivan the Terrible, and here presented as the murderer of Ivan's little son, Dmitry.

The development of the action on two planes, one political and historical, the other psychological, is masterly and is set against a background of turbulent events and ruthless ambitions.

The play owes much to Pushkin's reading of early Russian annals and chronicles, as well as to Shakespeare, who, as Pushkin said,was his master in bold, free treatment of character, simplicity, and truth to nature. Although lacking the heightened, poetic passion of Shakespeare's tragedies, Boris excels in the "convincingness of situation and naturalness of dialogue" at which Pushkin aimed, sometimes using conversational prose, sometimes a five-foot iambic line of great flexibility.

The character of the pretender, the false Dmitry, is subtly and sympathetically drawn; and the power of the people, who eventually bring him to the throne, is so greatly emphasised that the play's publication was delayed by censorship.

Pushkin's ability to create psychological and dramatic unity, despite the episodic construction, and to heighten the dramatic tension by economy of language, detail, and characterization make this outstanding play a revolutionary event in the history of Russian drama.

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