Pushkiniana: “that’s a story”


Our Moscow guide speaks excellent English, with a delightfully idiosyncratic vocabulary. He speaks of “impudent” paintings and “violet” buildings in the skyline. As we approach the White House, he quips, “the closer you get to the government, the more forbidding the signs.”

He’s studied English all his life, but he acquired his marvelous vocabulary from an elderly Englishman who hired him to teach him Russian in the early 1990’s, when the USSR had dissolved and Russia was opening up to Western businesses. The Englishman would doze off shortly into the lesson. Then he would wake up from his nap and say, “Well, that’s enough for today; let’s go have a drink.” They would drink and converse about everything under the sun–in English. So the Englishman never learned any Russian: “He paid me to learn English,” our guide said, chuckling.

imageHe is also full of anecdotes, like the one he told in front of the church where Pushkin was married (there is the church, here is the steeple). Pushkin was of course brilliant, literary, intellectual, etc…, but he was also very short and not very attractive. He made the mistake of falling for a beautiful, shallow woman, who cared only about fashion and dancing at balls. Pushkin didn’t like dancing, because he was shorter than all the women. Despite their incompatible interests, he proposed to the beautiful young lady’s family, they accepted, and she was dragged reluctantly to the church.

Pushkin was normally very superstitious, but he ignored three signs that the marriage would be a disaster:

  1. the wedding candle blew out;
  2. as they were relighting it, he dropped the ring,
  3. as he was reaching for it, he bumped into his best man, an American named Tolstoy, who dropped the wedding crown.

Though he went through with the marriage, Pushkin was worried enough to consult a gypsy fortune teller, asking her to explain the meaning of these signs. She told him that in 7 years, he should beware of the white head, which would give him trouble. Pushkin was too impatient to wait seven years, so every time a blonde man flirted or danced with his wife, Pushkin challenge him to a duel. And there were many blonde men who flirted with his beautiful wife, who was happy to receive their attention. One was Russian, who was wise enough to refuse the duel, saying, “I’m not stupid enough to risk taking the life of Russia’s most beloved and famous poet.” But a blonde Frenchman had no such qualms: he accepted the challenge to a duel. And that was the end of Pushkin.

And despite the ill-fated, premature end of Pushkin’s marriage, and despite the fact that every Russian child learns this story in school, our guide said, every Russian couple today wants to get married in the church where Pushkin got married.

So that’s a story, as our other guide (at the Kremlin) said. But who knows?

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