Aleksandr Pushkin isn’t very well known these days, and that’s a shame. He was one of those bigger-than-life people who drag revolutions along behind them wherever they go. Pushkin was born in 1799 and showed huge promise right away — as a writer, poet, and activist. Everything he did was rebellious in the bigger sense of the word.
His biggest contribution to Russian literature was this: he gave it a kick in the pants. Formalism and pedantry had a strangehold on literature that Pushkin simply rejected. He used the vernacular in his work (oh no! the language people actually speak!) in a way that reinvigorated storytelling. Some would say that he single handedly created a new literary language by drawing aspects of all the traditions (including Church Slovanic) into a melodious whole. That is his claim to fame, but there is a downside: Pushkin is notoriously difficult to translate. Eugene Onegin (which was Pushkin’s own favorite work) is very short, but Vladimir Nobokov (yes, that Nobokov, of Lolita fame) couldn’t keep it under FOUR volumes when he translated it into English. Things were especially difficult because Onegin is a novel written in verse. In the end, it’s generally accepted that there will never be a translation that really captures Pushkin’s voice, his unique style and the nuances of his language. Even so, Onegin is very much worth reading. Here’s my favorite passage:
He who has lived and thought can never
Look on mankind without disdain;
He who has felt is haunted ever
By days that will not come again.
No more for him enchantment’s semblance,
On him the serpent of remembrance
Feeds, and remorse corrodes his heart.
All this is likely to impart
An added charm to conversation.
Aleksandr Pushkin. Eugene Onegin, 1:46