What great Russians did in isolation

"Pushkin in Mikhaylovskoye" by Boris Scherbakov, 1969

"Pushkin in Mikhaylovskoye" by Boris Scherbakov, 1969

Pushkin Estate
In quarantine or in exile – Alexander Pushkin, Joseph Brodsky, and Vladimir Lenin spent the free time on their hands very differently.

Alexander Pushkin at Boldino: His most productive time

Pyotr Konchalovsky. Portrait of Alexander Pushkin (1932).

On September 3, 1830, Alexander Pushkin arrived at his family estate of Bolshoye Boldino in the Nizhny Novgorod region. He was due to take ownership of the village of Kistenevo, which his father had presented to him on the occasion of his impending wedding. Alexander Pushkin and Natalia Goncharova had announced their engagement back in May 1830, however, the wedding kept being postponed throughout the summer, and now another impediment had arisen: a quarantine across Russia because of a cholera outbreak. On September 30, Pushkin wrote to Goncharova: “I’ve been notified that there are five quarantine zones set up from here to Moscow, and I will have to spend 14 days in each. Do the maths and imagine what a foul mood I am in!”

The quarantine, which had been established by the order of Interior Minister Count Zakrevsky, paralyzed trade and all travel within Russia. A year later, Pushkin wrote: “...Quarantines brought manufacturing and cargo traffic to a halt, ruined contractors and carriers, ended the revenues of peasants and landowners, and nearly caused riots in 16 provinces.” Although Alexander Sergeyevich, as a member of the nobility, was obliged (under Zakrevsky’s order on measures against the cholera epidemic) to accept a public position proposed by the local marshal of nobility and help in the fight against cholera, Pushkin flatly refused. Instead, in October 1830, having learned that cholera had reached Moscow, he tried to make his way to the capital to be with his bride, but when he learned that Goncharova had been evacuated from the city, he returned to Boldino.

Still, Pushkin managed to appreciate the benefits of isolation. “How charming the local village is! Just imagine: endless steppe all around; not a neighbor in sight; ride as much as you like, write at home as much as you like, no one will be in the way,” he wrote to his friend Pyotr Pletnev. But the forced seclusion did have an impact on the poet’s looks and daily routine. He wrote to his bride: “I have grown a beard; as the proverb goes: a mustache and a beard are praise to a young man. When I go outside, they call me an uncle. I wake up at seven o’clock, drink coffee and lie till three o’clock. I have been writing a lot recently and have already written a heap of things. At three o’clock I go riding, at five I take a bath and then dine on potatoes and buckwheat porridge. Then I read till nine o'clock.”

Bolshoye Boldino. Pushkin Family manor, now Alexander Pushkin Museum

The quarantine period was perhaps the most fruitful in Pushkin’s writing career. He finished Chapters 8 and 9 of ‘Eugene Onegin’, presenting a retrospective of his work in the final chapter; wrote ‘Belkin’s Tales’, largely based on his observation of peasants’ life. He also wrote ‘The Little Tragedies’, as well as many lyric poems. This period in his life became known as the “Boldino Autumn”, an expression that has entered the Russian language to denote a productive period spent in isolation.

Also, from the pulpit of the local church, Pushkin delivered a lecture about cholera for the peasants of his estate. According to a contemporary account by Pyotr Boborykin, the lecture went as follows: “Cholera was sent to you, brethren, because you do not pay the levies and you drink a lot. If you continue in the same way, you will be whipped. Amen!” The lecture, apparently, was the only thing he agreed to do “for society” after Minister Zakrevsky had sent an order to him personally. Pushkin returned to Moscow only on December 5, when the cholera epidemic was over and the quarantine was lifted.

Vladimir Lenin in Shushenskoye: An exile like a honeymoon

Soviet historians were prescribed to describe Lenin’s stay in Shushenskoye as a real exile. But in reality, he led a very comfortable life there.

In 1895, the 25-year-old Vladimir Ulyanov was already a famous revolutionary, with a new Marxist doctrine to his name. He had set up and led a ‘League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class’, a political organization that carried out revolutionary propaganda, but within a month, its key members, including Lenin, were arrested. Lenin spent more than a year in prison awaiting trial, and in 1897, he was exiled for three years to the village of Shushenskoye in Siberia, near Minusinsk, now in Krasnoyarsk Territory.

In Shushenskoye, Lenin rented a 14-meter room in the house of Zyryanov, a well-off peasant, who ran all the drinking establishments in the village. Lenin had the status of an exile and had no right to work, so he was paid an allowance of 8 rubles and 17 kopecks per month. As Nadezhda Krupskaya, who later joined Lenin in exile, wrote, this money was enough to pay for “a clean room, meals, and to have his clothes and linen washed and mended, and at a generous rate at that”. The food, according to Krupskaya, was “somewhat rustic”: a working woman “would chop purchased meat in a trough, where they prepared feed for the cattle, into cutlets for a whole week”.

Twice a day, a police officer came to check up on Lenin, but soon it was agreed that Lenin would be “supervised” by the owner of the house, Zyryanov, which in effect meant no supervision. Soon, Lenin was allowed to go hunting. In a letter to his mother, Vladimir Ilyich wrote that he had been hunting and that the local mountainous area was rich in wild goats, squirrels, sables, bears and deer. Obviously, Lenin went hunting with a rifle. In 1899, he bought himself a new centerfire rifle by August Francotte and had it delivered by courier from Moscow to Shushenskoye.

The house Vladimir Lenin lived in, Shushenskoye, Krasnoyarsk region

In July 1898, Lenin married Nadezhda Krupskaya, who, too, had been sentenced to exile in connection with the League of Struggle case. Now she was allowed to serve her exile in Shushenskoye with her husband. Thus, a punishment turned into a honeymoon. Krupskaya, too, received an allowance, so the two of them could afford all the food they wanted. In addition, Krupskaya’s mother helped them with money. The young couple could even afford hiring a 13-year-old peasant girl as a servant. They ordered books from the capitals. Krupskaya wrote to Lenin’s mother and sisters: “I’m not yet used to seeing Volodya looking so healthy. In St. Petersburg, he always looked rather ill.”

It must be said that, in addition to enjoying life, Lenin also worked in exile. It was there that he wrote ‘The Development of Capitalism in Russia’, which, upon his return to the capital, brought him a substantial fee of 250 rubles, and more than 30 other works. During the exile, Lenin corresponded with other revolutionaries; obviously, his correspondence was not censored, because he managed to establish a whole network of contacts with the then Social Democrats.

Lenin and Krupskaya did not have much contact with the local population. Krupskaya had brought Lenin a pair of skates, and he, as Krupskaya reported to Lenin’s mother, “taught this unusual pastime to all the local kids, having made a skating rink on the Shusha”. By the end of the exile, Lenin already enjoyed such a degree of freedom that he and Krupskaya saw the 1899 New Year at a party in Minusinsk at the apartment of another exiled revolutionary, Gleb Krzhizhanovsky. The party was quite big, about 16 people. Krupskaya wrote afterwards: “That was an excellent change of scene and that will last us long. Everyone was amazed at how healthy our life in the country has made us look.” Lenin and Krupskaya spent another year in Shushenskoye and already in 1900 returned to the central provinces, where, having rested and gained strength, they continued their revolutionary activities.

Joseph Brodsky in Norinskaya: “I refuse to overdramatize it”

Joseph Brodsky in an open field

On March 13, 1964, the poet Joseph Brodsky was convicted of “parasitism” and sentenced to five years of exile “with mandatory labor”. He was sent to the Arkhangelsk region, where on April 10, he was assigned to work at the Danilovsky farm and to live in the village of Norinskaya. Brodsky chose the village himself: he liked its name, which sounded like the surname of the wife of his best friend Yevgeny Rein, Galina Narinskaya.

Brodsky’s trial was a show one: of course, he was not the only person in the country not to have had official employment for a long time, but the authorities thought he presented an ideological threat. Brodsky did not preach anti-Soviet ideas. What he did was much worse: he lived, wrote poetry and communicated with others as if the USSR did not exist at all. That was why, through the efforts of the KGB’s Leningrad directorate, Brodsky was “isolated” from his circle of contacts.

First, Brodsky lived in a room for three months, then he moved to a separate house, a hut belonging to a local resident, Konstantin Pesterev. His duties as a farmhand included: preparing fertilizers, clearing plough land of stones and stumps, making poles for hedges, sowing winter crops, loading grain, and much more. Earlier, Brodsky, who was 24 at the time, had done some factory work and served on a geological expedition, but he was really bad at farm work and unable to keep up with more experienced local hands. Even grazing calves was an unmanageable task for him: the cattle would just disperse, as if sensing that the shepherd was a useless city dweller. Later, he managed to get a job as a traveling photographer with Konosha Consumer Services Plant: Brodsky had learned photography from his father, a military photojournalist. To get to work in the town of Konosha from the village, Brodsky rode a bicycle, sent to him by his friends. Generally speaking, parcels from his friends and family - with money, groceries, books - were a great help for the poet. Several times during the exile, Brodsky was allowed short trips to Leningrad.

Joseph Brodsky in Norinskaya

Paradoxically, in exile, Brodsky enjoyed better living conditions when at home in Leningrad, where he shared “one and a half rooms” in a communal apartment with his parents. Having heaps of time alone with himself, he wrote a lot: more than 150 poems, including the cycle ‘New Stanzas to Augusta’, dedicated to his beloved Marina Basmanova. Their relationship ended shortly before the trial; Brodsky even tried to kill himself. Nevertheless, Basmanova visited him in exile and during one of his brief trips to Leningrad, he even tried to go to Moscow to see her, but his friends managed to talk him out of it: the breach of his regime could have led to a more severe punishment.

In a 1982 interview, Joseph Brodsky spoke of his exile: “It was a very productive time. I wrote a lot. Including some lines that I remember as a kind of a poetic breakthrough.” In conversations with Solomon Volkov, he described the 18 months spent in Norinskaya as “a best, if not the best, period in my life”. Throughout Brodsky's exile, various cultural figures, both Soviet and foreign, wrote letters and spoke out in his defense. A decisive role in that campaign belonged to the famous socialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre, who issued a warning to the Soviet government.

In September 1965, the term of Brodsky’s exile was reduced to the time already served, and he returned to Leningrad. Contrary to the image of “an exiled hero” and a victim of the Soviet regime that his friends and the media tried to impose on him, Brodsky used to say: “I was lucky... Others... had it much worse.” Even many years later, already in the West, recalling that period, Brodsky said: “It was not all that interesting... I refuse to overdramatize it.”

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