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Pushkin: Exile in the South

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Updated: 04.12.2003

For his political poems, Pushkin was banished from St. Petersburg in May 1820 to a remote southern province. Sent first to Yekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine), he was there taken ill and, while convalescing, travelled in the Northern Caucasus and later to the Crimea with General Rayevsky, a hero of 1812, and his family. The impressions he gained provided material for his "southern cycle" of romantic narrative poems: Kavkazsky plennik (1820-21; The Prisoner of the Caucasus), Bratya razboyniki (1821-22; The Robber Brothers), and Bakhchisaraysky fontan (1823; The Fountain of Bakhchisaray).

Although this cycle of poems confirmed the reputation of the author of Ruslan and Ludmila and Pushkin was hailed as the leading Russian poet of the day and as the leader of the romantic, liberty-loving generation of the 1820s, he himself was not satisfied with it.

In May 1823 he started work on his central masterpiece, the novel in verse Yevgeny Onegin (1833), on which he continued to work intermittently until 1831. In it he returned to the idea of presenting a typical figure of his own age but in a wider setting and by means of new artistic methods and techniques.

Yevgeny Onegin unfolds a panoramic picture of Russian life. The characters it depicts and immortalises - Onegin, the disenchanted sceptic; Lensky, the romantic, freedom-loving poet; and Tatyana, the heroine, a profoundly affectionate study of Russian womanhood: a "precious ideal," in the poet's own words - are typically Russian and are shown in relationship to the social and environmental forces by which they are molded.

Although formally the work resembles Lord Byron's Don Juan, Pushkin rejects Byron's subjective, romanticised treatment in favour of objective description and shows his hero not in exotic surroundings but at the heart of a Russian way of life. Thus, the action begins at St. Petersburg, continues on a provincial estate, then switches to Moscow, and finally returns to St. Petersburg.

Pushkin had meanwhile been transferred first to Kishinev (1820-23; see Chisinau), Moldova) and then to Odessa (1823-24). His bitterness at continued exile is expressed in letters to his friends - the first of a collection of correspondence that became an outstanding and enduring monument of Russian prose.

At Kishinev, a remote outpost in Moldavia, he devoted much time to writing, though he also plunged into the life of a society engaged in amorous intrigue, hard drinking, gaming, and violence. At Odessa he fell passionately in love with the wife of his superior, Count Vorontsov, governor-general of the province. He fought several duels, and eventually the count asked for his discharge.

Pushkin, in a letter to a friend intercepted by the police, had stated that he was now taking "lessons in pure atheism." This finally led to his being again exiled to his mother's estate of Mikhaylovskoye, near Pskov, at the other end of Russia.

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