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Virgil in Russia

By Zara Martirosova Torlone


In 1979 one of the most prominent Russian classical scholars of the later part of the twentienth century, Mikhail Gasparov stated: “Virgil did not have much luck in Russia: they neither knew nor loved him . . .”.   This lack of interest in Virgil on Russian soil Gasparov mostly blamed on the absence of canonical Russian translations of Virgil, especially the Aeneid.  There have been several attempts at translating the Roman epic into Russian, four of them most notable and significant. In the 18th century Vasilii Petrov (1730-1778), the court poet of Catherine the Great was the first poet to undertake this monumental task. His translation, however, although highly praised by Catherine and the newly established Russian Academy, was ridiculed by the educated elite as a feeble shadow of the great Roman poem. Another attempt at translating the whole epic did not happen until late nineteenth century and was undertaken by a prominent Russian poet Afanasii Fet (1820-1892) who together with a Russian philosopher Vladimir Solov’ev (1853-1900) attempted to finally bring the Aeneid to the Russian reading public. While this translation was received much more favorably, it still did not acquire the desired canonical status. Valerii Briusov (1873-1924), one of the founders of Russian Symbolism and an accomplished translator, devoted most of his life to yet another translation of the Aeneid, but also fell short of the mark because the final version of his translation exhibited many ‘foreignizing’ tendencies replete with incomprehensible Latinisms, which rendered the text almost unreadable. Sergei Osherov (1931-1983), a Russian classical scholar, who undertook another translation during the era of ‘socialist  realism’ took a more liberal approach to the Virgilian text, one that rendered it significanltly more readable by a wider audience but steered away from the poetic intricacies and complexity of the Latin text.

This is the situation Gasparov was referrring to when alluding the failure of Virgil to provoke interest in Russian reading public. And yet the importance of Virgil for the formation of Russian literary identity remained consistent as Russian writers partcipated in building their national literary canon.

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Russian consciousness formed its connection to Rome and thus to Virgil through two venues: one was through the great but pagan Roman empire – that was the political claim that entailed imperial power and expansion. Another was via Byzantine Rome and the piety associated with its Orthodoxy. Even Catherine the Great who prided herself on her secularism and association with Voltaire and Montesquieu, had in mind the leadership of Russia as the religious and political ideal of a unified ecumenical Orthodoxy under which all the Orthodox East would be politically united.

Virgil came to be seen as the answer to both discourses and to encompass both the imperial rhetoric and the spiritual quest for a Russian Christian soul.

The eighteenth century Virgilian reception was mainly concerned with the imperial aspirations as the initial reaction to the text of the Aeneid in Russian literature. Antiokh Kantemir’s (1708-1744), Mikhailo Lomonosov’s (1711-1765), and Nikolai Kheraskov’s (1733-1807) failed attempts at a national heroic epic were encouraged by the Russian ruling family but failed to elicit any interest in the reading public. In the same way Vasilii Petrov’s first unfortunate translation of the Aeneid reflected the tendency to glorify and idealize the ruling monarch as a way to promote national pride but was found lacking in adequately reflecting the poetic genius of Virgil in Russian.

As Russian literary figures of the eighteenth century were experimenting with different approaches to a national epic, there emerged a quite influential and popular genre of travesitied epics.  In opposition to the courtly attempts to glorify the house of the Romanovs through Virgilian reception, Nikolai Osipov wrote his burlesque Aeneid Turned Upside Down (1791-6) where following the European examples of French Paul Scarron and German Aloys Blumauer he made Aeneas speak the base language of the Russian everyday man and cast his adventures in a less than heroic light.

Epic, however, was not the only genre through which Russian literati tried to bringVirgil to Russia. As with the most European receptions of the Aeneid, the tragic pathos of Dido’s love and suicide attracted attention already in the eighteenth century at the same time with the epics. Iakov Kniazhnin’s ((1758-1815) play Dido (1769), which stands at the very beginnings of Russian mythological tragedy, offered his readers an unusual and politicized interpretation of Book 4 of the Aeneid combined with French and Italian influences on his Virgilian reception.

With Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) Russian literature entered yet another stage of Virgilian reception. The courtly literature was long forgotten and so were the monumental attempts at epic grandeur. Pushkin refrained from any open allusion to or evocation of Virgil limiting them usually to a few passing jokes. Instead he penned his own diminutive epic of national pride, the Bronze Horseman in which he conteplated the same issues pondered by Virgil two thousand years earlier. At the center of his poem is the confrontation between the man and a state, individual happiness and  civic duty, which Pushkin approaches in ways  familiar to the readers of Virgil.

While the connection of Virgilian reception with Russia’s ‘messianic’ Orthodox mission manifested itself intermittently in secular court literature and even in Petrov’s translation, the specific and pointedly deliberate articulation of that mission occured in the literature at the beginning of the twentieth century and is represented by such formative thinkers as Vladimir Solov’ev (1853-1900), Viacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949), and Georgii Fedotov (1886-1951), who saw Virgil in messianic and prophetic light and as the source of answers for Russian spiritual quest both at home and abroad.

With Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) the Russian Virgil entered the stage of post-modernism. Brodsky’s Virgilian allusions are numerous and persist in Brodsky’s poetics through its entire evolution. However, the monumental themes of either imperial pride or messianic mission become replaced in Brodsky by simpler, mundane, and even base themes. Brodsky reshaped Virgil’s Arcadia into a snow covered terrain and his Aeneas is a man tormented by the brutalizing price of his heroic destiny. As Brodsky reconfigured different episodes from the Virgilian texts through the lyric prism of human emotion, Virgil remained a constant presence both in his poetry and his essays as the poet moved with ease between ancient and modern, between emotion and detachment, between Russian and English, providing a remarkable closure to the Russian Virgil in the twentieth century.

Zara Martirosova Torlone is an Associate Professor of Classics and on the Core Faculty at the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University (Ohio, USA). She received her B.A. from Moscow State University, Russia and her Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York. Her publications include Russia and the Classics: Poetry’s Foreign Muse (2009) and Vergil in Russia: National Identity and Classical Reception (2014). She has edited a special issue of Classical Receptions Journal, entitled ‘Classical Reception in Eastern and Central Europe’ to which she also contributed an essay on Joseph Brodsky’s reception of Virgil’s Eclogues.

Classical Receptions Journal covers all aspects of the reception of the texts and material culture of ancient Greece and Rome from antiquity to the present day. It aims to explore the relationships between transmission, interpretation, translation, transplantation, rewriting, redesigning and rethinking of Greek and Roman material in other contexts and cultures. It addresses the implications both for the receiving contexts and for the ancient, and compares different types of linguistic, textual and ideological interactions.

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