Commentary - Secret lives, rotting books

Alexander Pushkin was born 200 years ago this year. Hugh Barnes reports from Moscow on a financial c

In a well-known piece of misinterpretation, Vladimir Nabokov referred to Alexander Pushkin as "the least political writer in the Russian language". Nabokov delivered his judgement from the unlikely vantage point of New York Public Library, almost half a century after he left Russia for exile, never to return. Wistfully, he spent the 1950s gathering material for an iconoclastic four-volume edition of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. Nabokov regretted that the bulk of his research was second-hand, but his quarrel with the Soviet Union precluded access to the original manuscripts. So he rewrote Pushkin's novel in his own style - a scandalous rewriting as it turned out, and an object lesson in the value (and neglect) of primary sources.

It was not simply a linguistic quirk or childish prank that led Nabokov to speak in Pushkin's voice; there are important resemblances between the lives they led as fugitive writers and readers, and these resemblances will no doubt be celebrated in this year of anniversaries (Pushkin was born in 1799, Nabokov in 1899). For a start, Pushkin's banishment from St Petersburg between 1820 and 1826 was very like the self-exile of Nabokov 100 years later. Both men were affected by a kind of willed nostalgia, and they shared a distaste, too, for the bourgeois hypocrisy of metropolitan wits and grovelling professionals, the toadies, the middle-class journalists and critics, such as F V Bulgarin and Edmund Wilson who derided Pushkin and Nabokov for taking pride in their aristocratic origins.

Such a distaste is the ironic flip side to a view held by Elaine Feinstein in her new book, Pushkin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20), which re-creates the legend of the non-political poet. Utterly professional, and seeking to open the window on to Pushkin's genius for those who are not readers of Russian, Feinstein nevertheless inherits the anti-historical view of Pushkin - a view which can perhaps be traced back to Nabokov's father, a leader of the Kadets in the Duma and an opponent of the Bolsheviks, who was assassinated in Berlin in 1922.

His martyrdom cast a shadow of nostalgia across his son's life. Exile for Nabokov became a site of prolonged filial trauma and his Russia became, in Mikail Bakhtin's phrase, a "chronotope", a place permitting us to range through time and space, to see the past in the present. A similar skewed nostalgia impelled Gogol to write Dead Souls in Rome, or so he thought, because he could see Russia only "from a beautiful distance".

Nabokov enjoyed the splendid isolation of New York Public Library precisely because of his disdain for archival research as a low-class or devilish pursuit, and this disdain inspired a series of more or less spiteful disputes with Russian scholars, personal in origin but literary critical in implication.

Nabokov blamed the Soviet Union for destroying Pushkin scholarship. Yet today its collapse poses a far more dangerous threat for Pushkin studies in a country where a funding crisis could lead to the very destruction of the manuscripts themselves. Tatiana Krasnaborodko, co-curator of the Russian Institute of Literature (Pushkinsky Dom) in St Petersburg, fears that the manuscripts will soon deteriorate unless radical steps are taken to improve the condition of the archive.

To pre-empt such an emergency, she and her colleagues began to publish facsimiles of the poet's working notebooks four years ago, with the help of a British consortium led by Tim Plumridge of Cambridge. The appearance on a shoestring budget of these graphic and immediate - albeit secondary - texts has revolutionised Slavonic studies worldwide, making it possible for the next generation of Nabokovs to consult such manuscripts in any corner of the world. Except that now the money has run out, with the Boldino notebooks, Pushkin's miraculous outpourings of the autumn of 1830, still unsaved and unreproduced.

The work of an archivist is - in an obvious sense - historical, drawn to the signs of history, to documents and manuscripts, to letters and cancelled readings. But it is not, as has often been implied, the intellectual equivalent of trainspotting. The importance of the Russian project lies in the redrafting of mistakes which turn the impudent game of politics - the subversive strategy of what Nabokov called the wonderful machinery of Onegin - into the pieties and illusions of a Pushkin heritage industry.

New research in St Petersburg shows that Onegin is, in its small way, politically adventurous and revolutionary, and that the device of time rearrangement is used to disguise the poet's role in the Greek war of independence and his involvement with the Philike Hetairia (a secret political organisation opposed to Ottoman rule). As a result, we now know that under the leadership of Prince Alexander Ypsilantis, a Phanariot who had served in the Russian army and lost an arm in the battle of Dresden, Pushkin crossed "the torrid boundary of Asia" to link up with the Greek army coming from the Morea. "Arpachai! Our border!" he writes in the notebooks. "I galloped towards it with an inexpressible feeling because it seemed awkward for me to avoid taking part, and thus it happened I was present in the campaign, half a soldier, half a traveller."

In Greece he was reborn because Eden and Elysium were on earth and at hand on the island of Lesbos, where his brief residence "in distant parts" is mentioned by the English secret agent Wyborn in another unpublished source.

There is ample evidence in the Gennadius Library in Athens, whose director Haris Kalligas recently gave me access to a unique collection of materials, that Pushkin saw his journey to Lesbos as one of escape. In undertaking the trip illicitly, without the permission of A K Benckendorff (the head of the secret police) and without a passport, Pushkin was thus laying claim to one of the aristocratic prerogatives of which he had been stripped (in Russia freedom to travel was one of the marks of differentiation between the land-bound peasant, the legally restricted merchant and the "unmarked" landowner). Like his famous predecessor in passportless travel, the hero of Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, he dreamed of uninhibited motion and adventure.

Pushkin's secret life - his reclusiveness, his retreats - was neither dark nor shameful; indeed, he thought of it as the very opposite, and was fully prepared to describe it, or a version of it, in a letter he wrote to his friend Vasily Davidov. "I am informing you of events which will have consequences of importance not only for our land, but for all Europe," he wrote in the spring of 1821. His involvement in the Greek campaign was secret by virtue of its being the obverse and denial of his Nabokovian persona, and not because it resembled the sinister secret lives led by the Decembrists, for example, who went in for a different species of political conspiracy in the Babylon of Alexandrine Russia.

Yet his involvement in Greece has, I think, to be understood in relation to the kind of clandestine activities that Soviet scholars used to characterise as kruzhkovaia semantika - the secret code of a "first circle", or what Pushkin's friend Kiukhelbeker once called a "little jargon of the coterie".

Archives and original manuscripts make it possible for us to understand the jargon of Pushkin's little coterie as a way of representing a particular moment in history as unprecedented and uniquely troubling. Or as the novelist L P Hartley once put this question of rethinking cultural differences in relation to chronologies of past, present and future: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Even Nabokov, the self-regarding prankster, would concede that.

Hugh Barnes is a novelist and critic

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium