By 1880, however, the famed novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky had set the stage for Pushkin’s transformation into an imperial metaphor. In a wildly popular speech on the occasion of the unveiling of the Pushkin monument in the center of Moscow, Dostoevsky heralded Pushkin as the exemplary Russian, a great “reconciler,” who incarnated in his poetry the spirit of his own nation and the spirit of foreign peoples.
In 1899, the tsarist government staged an elaborate, empire-wide celebration of the centennial of the poet’s birth, attempting to harness Pushkin’s status as a metaphor of Russia in service to the state. During Pushkin’s lifetime, even as the poet himself suffered racial slurs, his contemporary Nikolai Gogol held him up as a model for “the Russian as he would be in 200 years.”
Ironically, now that Gogol’s 200 years have all but passed, a growing wave of Russian nationalism is spurring ugly instances of xenophobic violence. A major Russian monitoring center recently reported a rise in hate crimes against dark-skinned people from the former Russian republics and against African students.
Pushkin remains a mirror in which Russians profess to see reflected back at them their fondest aspirations and best impulses. The country would do well to take a good look into that mirror today.