Drew spent this past summer in Russia.
For those who don’t know, the greatest of Russian poets — the Russian Shakespeare, the poet Russians refer to as “our everything” — is Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin. Pushkin, who had Ethiopian roots, was known for his distinctive hairstyle: a thick head of curly brown hair and prominent, bushy sideburns. Even though Pushkin died nearly 180 years ago, he is still very much alive in the Russian consciousness. I write all this because I myself have a thick head of curly brown hair and prominent, bushy sideburns (though mine pale in comparison with Pushkin’s), and I can’t tell you how many times Russians compared me to Pushkin during my two month stay in Moscow this summer. I remember, for instance, walking past two older ladies near my apartment complex, only to hear one excitedly whisper to the other, “Alexander Sergeyevich!” (This particular first name/patronymic combination is associated with Pushkin to this day.) Another time, when I entered a room a girl about my age stared at me for a couple of seconds before declaring “Pushkin!”
It’s difficult to imagine an America in which we afforded nearly as much respect and admiration to Walt Whitman, say, as the Russians do to Pushkin. One time, while studying a Pushkin poem at the kitchen table, I began to recite aloud a section for my “хозяйка” (“khozyaika”, or host mother), who promptly finished the line for me without so much as glancing at the page. And this story is by no means unusual. It is not uncommon for Russians to celebrate Pushkin’s birthday by gathering and reading his poems, an event I was lucky enough to witness this past summer.
Why so much about Pushkin? More important than our apparently similar hairdos (I doubt I’ll ever forget the Russian word for sideburns, бакенбарды/bakenbardy) is what the cult of Pushkin reveals about Russian culture. Namely, it’s been my observation that educated Russians tend to value art, culture, and knowledge for the sake of knowledge much more than their American counterparts. At a time when the American media often portrays Russia as a country of backwards, nationalistic reactionaries, it’s important to keep in mind the other side of Russian culture, the side that knows countless lines of Pushkin by heart and is, in many ways, more advanced than we are.