This Day In Literary History
On June 8th, 1880, the legendary Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky delivered his famous speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin Monument in Moscow. The monument was a tribute to the memory of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837).
Pushkin, the great Russian poet, novelist, and playwright, is considered to be the founding father of modern Russian literature. Dostoevsky's speech would later serve as a memorial to himself, as he died six months after he gave it.
The Pushkin Monument ceremony was much more than a memorial tribute to the late writer. It served as a philosophical battleground between two bitterly opposed sides vying for control over the future of Russia herself and the character of her people.
Each side was represented by a legendary writer; on one side was Ivan Turgenev, on the other, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Leo Tolstoy, who shared in Dostoevsky's religious fundamentalism, was invited, but declined to attend.
Turgenev was a well educated, non-religious liberal who admired Western culture and promoted it in Russia, hoping to bring his country and people out of the dark ages. He had been living in Paris at the time, and his closest friend was the legendary French novelist Gustave Flaubert.
Dostoevsky, on the other hand, hoped that with his speech, he could promote his opposing philosophy - a blend of fierce, mystical nationalism and devout, fundamentalist Russian Orthodox Christianity, which he believed were the building blocks of the Russian character.
Although Turgenev and Dostoevsky had been friends in the past, their opposing philosophies strained their friendship to the breaking point. In a letter to his wife, written several days before the ceremony, Dostoevsky wrote:
... I am needed here, not just by the Friends of Russian Literature, but by our whole party and the whole idea for which we have been struggling for 30 years now. For the hostile party (Turgenev, Kovalevsky, and almost the entire university) is determined to play down the importance of Pushkin as the man who gave expression to the Russian national identity, by denying the very existence of that identity.... My voice will carry weight and our side will prevail....
While Pushkin unquestionably contributed to the Russian national identity, he was more like Turgenev than Dostoevsky.
Pushkin was an aristocrat turned socialist who defended radical writers and ran afoul of the Tzarist government, which first exiled him, then censored his works. He was a Freemason and a libertarian.
In creating modern Russian literature, Pushkin incorporated both the language of the Russian common man and foreign influences. He had traveled throughout Europe.
He supported the Greek Revolution and joined an organization dedicated to overthrowing Ottoman rule and establishing a free, independent Greece.
At the Pushkin ceremony, Turgenev spoke first, delivering a memorable speech that was warmly received. But Dostoevsky stole the show, delivering a speech that was both a hymn to the Russian spirit and a prophecy of Russian greatness. That night, he wrote another letter to his wife, in which he described the reaction to his speech:
When I appeared on the stage, the auditorium thundered with applause.... I bowed and made signs begging them to let me read -- but to no avail.... At last I began reading. At every page, sometimes at every sentence, I was interrupted with bursts of applause. I read in a loud voice and with fire....
When at the end I proclaimed the universal oneness of mankind, the hall seemed to go into hysterics, and when I finished, there was -- I won't call it a roar -- it was a howl of elation. People in the audience who had never met before wept and threw their arms around one another, solemnly promising to become better, and not hate, but love one another....
Even Turgenev was moved by Dostoevsky's speech. It didn't cause him to change his philosophy, but it did move him to reconcile with his former friend.
Ironically, the works of Alexander Pushkin and the monument to his memory would both survive the Soviet era. His writings weren't banned by the Soviet state, nor was his statue torn down.
Today, his statue in Pushkin Square looks out on the McDonald's restaurant in Moscow, which is reportedly the most frequently patronized McDonald's restaurant in the world.
Quote Of The Day
"It is not the brains that matter most, but that which guides them - the character, the heart, generous qualities, progressive ideas." - Fyodor Dostoevsky
Today's video features a walking tour of Moscow, including Pushkin Square. Enjoy!