Yuri Tynyanov, The Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar

Information and Questions for Reading

Yuri NIkolaevich Tynyanov, 1894-1943, scholar, literary critic, and writer, published his first works in 1921 (when he was 27). He had multiple sclerosis and died in Moscow at the age of 49. The illness sidelined him in some ways from the most exciting parts of what was going on around him, but on the other hand seems to have kept him safe from risks that many of his peers faced – so that he died in his own bed.


Tynyanov is best known as a member of the Russian Formalist circle (some of his early work was done with Roman Jakobson, later most famous as a linguist), and group of literary scholars and critics who had a tremendous influence on literary theory and world literary scholarship. If you ask professors from other programs or departments whether they've heard of Tynyanov, they will have heard (if they have heard) of his work as a Formalist sscholar; in particular, he wrote the very influential and still-cited book Archaists and Innovators, looking at the ongoing phenomenon of traditional and avant-garde literary schools, focusing on the early 19th century: both the archaists and the innovators of the time produced really important Russian writers.


Tynyanov is also the author of three historical novels based on the lives of Russian writers: Pushkin, Kiukhlya (the title based on the hard-to-say nickname of Wilhelm Küchelbecker, who attended the Lyceum with Pushkin and wound up spending time in prison in the Peter-and-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg before being sent into exile for his participation in the Decembrist events), and Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar, from which we will read this large excerpt.


Aleksandr Sergeevich Griboedov, the hero of the novel, is an important figure in 19th-century Russian literature both as a poet and as a dramatist, thanks to his only surviving major work, the play Woe from Wit, which he finished writing in 1824 but was not able to publish in his lifetime. Woe from Wit (Горе от ума) is a wonderful work, combining superbly witty aphorisms (many of which have become proverbs still used by literate Russians) with sharp condemnation of upper-class society of the day. The style of the verse play (with its irregular meter and variable though effective rhyme schemes) places Griboedov among the writers Tynianov calls "Archaizers," though the politics of the play do not. Griboedov's dates are 1795-1829; the last few months of his life are the topic of this novel.


If you like this, you might enjoy Tynyanov's povest' Lieutenant Kijé, translated by Mirra Ginsburg and published in 1990 in one volume with Young Vitushishnikov. You may have heard of Lieutenant Kijé in its musical and film incarnation, with music by Sergei Prokofiev. (“Kijé” is pronounced “Kizhe” in English – the French spelling has been adopted widely, much as the spelling “Tchaikovsky” is used in English rather than “Chaikovsky”). (And if you really like this, let me know: I might be encouraged to translate the whole thing.)


IMPORTANT: The first part of the text I’ve given you is a story told by an old man in the Russian army to a group of other soldiers and (low-ranking) officers. It follows a long part of the text about the ways the Decembrist participants were demoted, sent off to fight as simple soldiers, and oppressed once they were demoted. (Then, as you see, it skips ahead about 60 pages to the main section of the translation. This is confusing, but I wanted you to hear Samson's back story.)


I have left the page numbers in the translation because they let me easily refer to the original novel if you have any questions about particular words or sentences. I hope you can ignore the numbers as you’re reading, unless you want to ask about something. Once the next section begins – you’ll know from the jump in page numbers – the translation continues without a break from that point to the end of the novel.




1. You’ll notice (I hope) that this is a Modernist novel – Tynyanov plays with the writing style, often using sentence fragments and also juxtaposing different stylistic levels of Russian: literary language, everyday speech, and here and there examples of the ossified language of the Russian bureaucracy (a topic he also explores in “Lieutenant Kijé”). How does the formal or informal quality of the writing impact the information the reader is given?


2. As always in these readings: how do the Russians come off, compared to the Persians and other Muslim characters we see? How does class emerge differently in the different cultures?


3. Here for the first time in a while we get a wide mix of nationalities, especially the Christian peoples from south of Russia, Armenians and Georgians (and the odd ethnic German). Does this in turn complicate the presence of Islam and of Muslims in the text?


4. A question about that first section (the story of Samson Yakovlich) in particular: how does Samson come off from this story? How do the Persians come off, to the extent that we see them in it? What do we think of Samson Yakovlich as we begin reading the later part of the novel? How does that later part change our impression of him?


5. Unlike Tolstoy, who admires Hadji Murat for his adherence to his own religious rituals and moral codes, Tynyanov seems less interested in religion. How does Islam appear in the text? How does Russian Orthodoxy (with the added complication of the old man who is an Old Believer)?


6. “Vazir-Mukhtar” means ambassador plenipotentiary. What is the effect of giving the title in Persian rather than Russian?


7. How does the reflection of world history and diplomacy (portraits of Napoleon; the diplomatic machinations of the English) frame the relations of Russians and Muslims in this narrative?


8. The story shows us world political relations with Muslims, rather than the Muslims inside Russia. How does this compare with the other things we have read?