Skip to main content

Lomonosov's "Ode" and Pushkin's "Fountain of Bakhchisarai"

Information and Questions for Reading

Once again we have two distinct works, from different periods and reflecting different ideologies. I hope this difference lets their specific traits emerge even more clearly as you compare them.

Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765) might best be described as "the Russian Benjamin Franklin." He was both a literary figure and a scientist - and he combined these interests by writing an ode on the usefulness of glass, for example. His importance in the rise of Russian literature as a system and a world-class phenomenon is more important than his importance as a writer per se (and he's not read very often today, except to educate students in the history of Russian literature). Very briefly: until Lomonosov, Russian poets wrote the way they saw Polish or (sometimes) Romanian authors do. Polish (like French) has fixed word stress (in Polish, the penultimate syllable of a word is always stressed; in French, the final syllable), and this makes it less interesting where stresses fall in a line of poetry: the lines count syllables rather than stresses. Russian, on the other hand, has unpredictable stress (like English or German), and Lomonosov discovered that if he wrote verse in Russian on the model of German poems or hymns it sounded pretty good. This "Ode on the Seizure of Khotin" was the first poetic effort he shared widely - and he definitely meant it to impact the way others were writing.

From our point of view, the interesting question is why he decided to write the poem he meant to impress everyone on this topic. It's clear why he chose to write a panegyric (and remember, he was writing in the age of royal or imperial patronage: there was no other way to make a living as a poet or a part-poet, so he had to please the Empress), and while he may have chosen the topic of this military success because it was the latest news as he went to write it also shows that Russia's push to the south and therefore opposition to the largely Muslim people living there was a current and ongoing topic. There were several factors at play: to oversimplify dreadfully, these included resentment for the Mongol era, rivalry with the Ottoman Empire (the Turks), who held the lands to the south of Russia, the desire to gain warm-water ports, and sometimes the argument that Russia was the natural protector of Christian peoples within the Ottoman Empire (including Armenians, Georgians, and farther west the Bulgarians, Greeks, etc.). Russia only began to call itself an empire when Peter I the Great declared it one, earlier in the 18th century. How do we define an empire?


1) Our translation reproduces the rhythm and rhyme of the original and should feel recognizably like a piece of "Western" poetry. How is that different from reading works like the Igor Tale or Zadonshchina (even given that it's all in translation)?

2) How does our poet present the various Muslim players in this story?

3) How does the poet present Anna, the Empress of Russia? How does he advise her various conquered peoples to approach her (and how does his own posture as a poet and artist serve as an example)?

4) We also see the poet trying to integrate elements of Russian Orthodoxy with elements of Classical Greek mythology (Apollo, the Muses) - is this an uneasy fit? What would you predict for a literature that begins to include heterogeneous religious references?

5) What do you know about Ivan IV ("the Terrible"), and how do you react to seeing him appear here as a sort of saint / hero, out of the clouds above the battle?

6) What do you know about Peter I ("the Great"), and how does Lomonosov's treatment of him (and Ivan) underline or complicate his presentation of the Empress Anna?


Alexander (Aleksandr) Pushkin (1799-1837) is the star of Russian literature, its Shakespeare and Milton all in one. There were interesting poets writing before Pushkin (Derzhavin is worth your attention, in case this is an interest), but for a variety of reasons Pushkin has been The Source to later writers. Let me know if you have any questions about his biography, which has been exhaustively treated by scholars for the last 150 years.

Pushkin was exiled to the south of Russia (where things were hotter militarily) for writing poetry the court did not approve of: over the years, he wrote things that were too freedom-loving (or Masonic: while in the south, he joined a Masonic lodge), or too disrespectful of religion ("The Gabrieliad," in which the Immaculate Conception is treated with a Voltairean humor and skepticism), and although none of this could get into print through the censorship every time one of the manuscripts surfaced he would be in trouble all over again and have to explain himself. On the other hand, his time in the South brought him into contact with all kinds of interesting places and people - and he was introduced to the work of Byron (more on this next time).

"The Fountain of Bakhchisarai" was written in 1821-22 and first published (as a separate book) in 1824. It is now considered one of Pushkin's slighter works (though to be fair the competition is very hard!), but it was a big hit when it appeared: mellifluously written, intriguingly plotted, readable in terms of the novels and poems Russians already knew but also perceptibly new. (Indeed, for the later Pushkin his early success was a bit of a drawback, since people wanted more of the kind of thing he had done already.) The poem is set in Crimea, where Pushkin had visited the "Fountain of Tears" in 1820; the name "Bakhchisarai" has a vividly Tatar sound to a Russian. Crimea (Russian Крым, Crimean Tatar Кырым)


1) Any further thoughts on what it's like to read a story in poetic form rather than in prose (or prose-poetry)? This genre is what is called in Russian a "poema," a long poem, and typically these long poems have a strong narrative element (versus the shorter lyric).

2) What Gothic elements do you see in the poem?

3) What Romantic elements do you see?

4) Do you know Byron? (We'll talk more about him next time, but he has fingerprints all over this piece too.)

5) Who all does Pushkin manage to orientalize in this poem?

6) How is Maria presented? How does she compare to Zarema?

7) How is the harem presented?