The Decembrists

December 14, 1825 marks an event of crucial importance in the history of Russia in the 19th century.  On that day a group of idealistic military officers attempted a coup d’état with the goal of establishing a constitutional rule in a British model.  The occasion was a crisis of the transition of power during the interregnum between the death of Tsar Alexander I and the ascension to the throne of Tsar Nikolas I.  The Decembrist Rebellion, as it came to be known, was ruthlessly suppressed by the authorities.  Many of its leaders, including several of Pushkin’s lyceum classmates were publicly executed.  Others, sent to Siberia.


Pushkin, whose sympathies laid squarely with the Decembrists, was prevented from taking part in the rebellion only because of his compulsory seclusion at Mikhailovskoye. The fate of the rebels tormented Pushkin’s imagination and the sketches of the gallows fill the margins of his notebooks. 


The Decembrist Revolt by Karl Kolman

Sergey Rachmaninoff, Arion - Anton Belov and Susan McDaniel
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Arion is a mythical Greek poet and the inventor of the dithyramb, a hymn sung in honor of Dionysius.  According to the myth, he was rescued by a dolphin after being thrown overboard by mutinous sailors.  In this poem, written for the anniversary of Decembrists’ execution, Pushkin draws parallel between the myth and the fate of his friends who participated in the Decembrist Rebellion of 1825.  Note that in deviation from the mythological story, the sailors are in fact the poet’s friends, rather than captors.

Нас было много на челне;
Иные парус напрягали,
Другие дружно упирали
В глубь мощны веслы. В тишине
На руль склонясь, наш кормщик умный
В молчанье правил грузный челн;
А я — беспечной веры полн, —
Пловцам я пел... Вдруг лоно волн
Измял с налету вихорь шумный...
Погиб и кормщик и пловец! —
Лишь я, таинственный певец,
На берег выброшен грозою,
Я гимны прежние пою
И ризу влажную мою
Сушу на солнце под скалою.

There were many of us in the boat:

Some pulled the sail,

Others powerfully pushed

Their oars into the deep.In silence,

Upon rudder leaning, our wise captain

Without speaking guided our heavy vessel;

But I, full of careless faith

To sailors sang…

Suddenly the depth of waves

Was rumpled strongly by the noisy wind…

The captain and the sailors perished!

Only I, a mysterious bard,

On the shore was brought by the storm.

The same old hymns I now sing,

And my wet robes

I dry on the sun beneath a cliff.

The Prophet


In September 1826 Pushkin was finally released from his exile, but not before a personal audience with the Tsar, who at the time was awaiting his coronation in the old capital.  Pushkin reportedly composed the Prophet on his way to Moscow.  He envisioned the poem as one of a four-part group dealing with the spirit of the Decembrist Rebellion.  The remainder of the cycle was destroyed by the poet for reasons of safety.  Though the imagery of the poem is based on the Biblical book of Isaiah (Chapter VI), it is clear that by the “prophet” Pushkin means the poet, i.e. himself.    

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Prophet - Anton Belov and Susan McDaniel
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Isiah's Vision 

by Gustave Dore

Духовной жаждою томим,
В пустыне мрачной я влачился, —
И шестикрылый серафим
На перепутье мне явился.
Перстами легкими как сон
Моих зениц коснулся он.
Отверзлись вещие зеницы,
Как у испуганной орлицы.
Моих ушей коснулся он, —
И их наполнил шум и звон:
И внял я неба содроганье,
И горний ангелов полет,
И гад морских подводный ход,
И дольней лозы прозябанье.
И он к устам моим приник,
И вырвал грешный мой язык,
И празднословный и лукавый,
И жало мудрыя змеи
В уста замершие мои
Вложил десницею кровавой.
И он мне грудь рассек мечом,
И сердце трепетное вынул,
И угль, пылающий огнем,
Во грудь отверстую водвинул.
Как труп в пустыне я лежал,
И бога глас ко мне воззвал:

«Восстань, пророк, и виждь, и внемли,
Исполнись волею моей,
И, обходя моря и земли,
Глаголом жги сердца людей».


Tormented by the spiritual thirst,

I stumbled through a gloomy desert,

And a six-winged seraphim

Appeared to me at the crossroads.

With his fingers as light as dream,

He touched my eyes,

My eyes became all-seeing,

Like those of a frightened she-eagle.

He touched my ears,

And they were filled with noise and ringing.

I heard the trembling of the sky,

And the flight of the heavenly angels,

And the underwater movement of the sea-creatures

And the sprouting of a single vine.

And he touched my lips

And extracted my sinful tongue

Vain and evil-speaking;

With his bloody right hand

Into my silent mouth he placed

A wise serpent’s forked tongue.

And with his sword he split open my chest

And took out my beating heart,

And a coal burning with fire

He placed instead into my open breast.

I was laying in the desert like a corpse... 

And the God’s voice called to me:

“Arise, oh prophet, see and hear! 

With my will be filled. 

And traversing the seas and the lands

By your words burn the hearts of men!”