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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pushkin Is Everyone's Favorite Political Tool




Alexander Pushkin is now the darling of the Russian political establishment.


As preparations for the 200th birthday party this weekend for Russia's greatest poet sweep the capital, where seemingly each tiny shop is plastered with posters bearing Pushkin's profile, the political parties are using the Pushkin-mania to blow some wind into their own sails.


They are distributing books of Pushkin's works to children, reciting his poetry and donating money to spruce up his family estate.


On Monday, the Moscow regional headquarters of Mayor Yury Luzhkov's political movement Otechestvo, or Fatherland, organized festivities to present a new edition of a four-volume set of Pushkin's work published by the Khudozhestvennaya Literatura printing house. Fatherland bought 40 sets and presented them to 10 Moscow schools, the Morozov Children's Hospital and several city orphanages.


"We were singing romances and giving children the books, there were even tears in their eyes," Fatherland spokesman Gennady Ivanov said enthusiastically.


But Fatherland was not rushing to do too much, Ivanov said. The city government was funding so many programs related to Pushkin's birthday, he said, that the mayor's political movement "wanted to do just a few quality things."


Spreading the word of Pushkin was a popular idea with another party: Our Home Is Russia, or NDR, led by the former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was dismissed in March 1998.


The party started getting ready for the literature giant's birthday well ahead of time, said Tatyana Piskaryova, an NDR spokeswoman. When Chernomyrdin was still in power, his party financed the publication of a complete 22-volume set of Pushkin's works, accompanied by academic commentary.


"We consider Pushkin a symbolic figure, that is why it was important to us," Piskaryova said.


She couldn't say how much NDR spent to publish the books. They were sent to every Russian region, except Chechnya, for the local party organization to distribute them to schools.


The party also donated $10,000 to Pushkin's Mikhailovskoye family estate in the Pskov region, the NDR spokeswoman said.


The party of the so-called "young reformers" seemed less anxious to jump on the Pushkin bandwagon.


"I don't think we are doing anything," said a spokeswoman for Right Cause, a movement uniting such liberal-minded politicians as Boris Nemtsov, Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar.


The Communists didn't miss their chance to pay tribute to the poet, who during Soviet times was celebrated as a bigger rebel against the tsarist regime than the experts now say he was.


The Moscow Communist Party committee held a conference in April at the Pushkin Institute, where party leader Gennady Zyuganov gave a fiery speech on Pushkin and the need to maintain the purity of the Russian language.


Two weeks ago, the Moscow party chief, Alexander Kuvayev, pulled in a full house at a House of Culture in an industrial region of the city for an evening of Pushkin poetry.


"He read some poems himself, I don't remember which ones, but he is the type of man who remembers more than a couple of verses by heart. There were at least 800 people there. The hall was packed," said Anton Vasilchenko, spokesman for the Moscow party committee. "It's not every day you get to hear the first secretary speak on such a subject."


Alexander Lebed's party requested that he be allowed to receive a medal from a charity foundation at the State Pushkin Museum, said Yelena Potyomina, the head of research at the museum. But the administration turned down the request.


"We would love to see Lebed here, but we are trying to stay away from all the political games," she chuckled. "When Luzhkov helps us, it's not Luzhkov, the head of the Fatherland political movement, but Luzhkov, the head of the Moscow city administration."


Molding Pushkin to fit the political needs of the day is nothing new. The poet himself, who moved from the free-spirited rebellion of his youth to fairly conservative pro-monarchy views in his 30s, provides a rich opportunity for interpretation.


He was friends with many members of 1825 December rebellion. And according to legend, he answered "Yes" when Tsar Nicholas I asked him if he would have joined the Decembrists if he had been in St. Petersburg on the day of their uprising.


But he was also extremely proud when the tsar himself offered to be his censor, Potyomina said, although it was the tsar's marks that prevented Bronze Horseman from being published during Pushkin's life - the poet was unwilling to change the lines to fit the tsar's tastes.


Celebrations of Pushkin anniversaries have always been a reflection on the times, Potyomina said. During the centennial celebration in 1899, she said, it was the universities who took charge of heralding the poet.


For the 150th anniversary, the Stalin state used Pushkin as a great national symbol.


"Now, those who have the money rule," she said.


The leader of a fringe nationalist group said this year's pompous celebrations are nauseating.


"Hands off Pushkin!" said Eduard Limonov, a writer and the leader of the National Bolshevik Party. "Pushkin has been so soiled, just like an old bill. He is being stuffed down our throat like potatoes. It is disturbing."


And as always, it seems to be Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the beleaguered nationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, or LDPR, who dedicated the most extravagant political show to Pushkin.


Last year, Zhirinovsky played Mozart in "Mozart and Salieri," a play by Pushkin. Konstantin Borovoi, a liberal State Duma member, was Salieri.


"I was the prompter for Vladimir Volfovich [Zhirinovsky]. The monologues were really long, and although his memory is just great, he is a politician and he cannot remember everything," said Artyom Chetsov, an LDPR party worker. "He was so good, everyone said that if something doesn't work out for him as a politician, he could always make ends meet as an actor."


During this weekend's celebrations, Zhirinovsky will participate in everything, Chetsov said with a zest so like his boss'. "He will go to the church services, to the charity dinners, and to Pskov, of course."