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Vergil in Russia: milestones of identity

In 1979, one of the most prominent Russian classical scholars of the later part of the twentienth century, Mikhail Gasparov, stated: “Vergil did not have much luck in Russia: they neither knew nor loved him.” Gasparov mostly blamed this lack of interest on the absence of canonical Russian translations of Vergil, especially when it came to the Aeneid.

There have been several attempts at translating the Roman epic into Russian, four of them 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, 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 the late 19th century and was undertaken by prominent Russian poet Afanasii Fet (1820-1892), who, together with 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 its 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, including incomprehensible Latinisms that rendered the text almost unreadable. Sergei Osherov (1931-1983), a Russian classical scholar who undertook another translation during the era of ‘socialist realism,’ adopted a more liberal approach to the Vergilian text, one that rendered it significantly more readable to audiences but steered away from the poetic intricacies and complexity of the original Latin text.

This is the situation Gasparov was referrring to when he alluded to Vergil’s tepid reception among the Russian reading public. And yet the importance of Vergil to the formation of Russian literary identity remained consistent as Russian writers participated in building their national literary canon.

Russian consciousness formed its connection to Rome (and thus to Vergil) through two venues: one was through the great but pagan Roman empire and its political claim entailing imperial power and expansion. Another was through 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. Vergil came to be seen as the answer to both discourses, encompassing both the imperial rhetoric and the spiritual quest for a Russian Christian soul.

The 18th century Vergilian reception, one surrounding the text of the Aeneid in Russian literature, was mainly concerned with imperial aspirations. The failed attempts of Antiokh Kantemir (1708-1744), Mikhailo Lomonosov (1711-1765), and Nikolai Kheraskov (1733-1807) 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, though it failed to reflect the poetic genius of Vergil in Russian.

As Russian literary figures of the 18th century were experimenting with different approaches to a national epic, a quite influential and popular genre of travesitied epics emerged. In opposition to the courtly attempts to glorify the house of the Romanovs through Vergilian 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.

Portrait of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (1729-1796), after Alexander Roslin and Fedor Rokotov via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]
“Portrait of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (1729-1796), after Alexander Roslin and Fedor Rokotov” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The epic, however, was not the only genre through which Russian literati tried to bring Vergil to Russia. As with most European receptions of the Aeneid, the tragic pathos of Dido’s love and suicide attracted attention at the same time as the epic did in the 18th century. 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 Vergilian reception.

With Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russian literature entered yet another stage of Vergilian 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—Vergil, 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 Vergil two thousand years earlier. At the center of his poem is the confrontation between man and state, individual happiness and civic duty, which Pushkin approaches in ways similar to Vergil.

While the connection of Vergilian 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 literature at the beginning of the 20th century. This articulation was represented by formative thinkers such as Vladimir Solov’ev (1853-1900), Viacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949), and Georgii Fedotov (1886-1951), who saw Vergil not only in a messianic and prophetic light, but as the source of the answers to Russia’s spiritual quest both at home and abroad.

With Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), Russian Vergil entered the stage of post-modernism. Brodsky’s Vergilian allusions are numerous and persist in Brodsky’s poetics through its entire evolution. However, the monumental themes of either imperial pride or messianic mission were replaced by simpler, mundane, and even base themes. Brodsky reshaped Vergil’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 Vergilian texts through the lyric prism of human emotion, Vergil remained a constant presence both in his poetry and his essays, moving with ease between the ancient and modern, emotion and detachment, Russian and English, ultimately providing a remarkable closure to the Russian Vergil in the 20th century.

Image Credit: “Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia” by Jean-Baptiste Wicar. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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