Elisabeth van der Meer explores Russia's greatest poet's subversion of national tropes
In 19th century Russian literature there is usually an abundance of stereotypes: rich landowners, unruly peasants, drunken and gambling officers, miserable clerks, but also reckless Cossacks, exotic Circassians, singing Gypsies, German tutors, French mademoiselles and the odd Finn. These stereotypes quickly set the scene for the reader and create a sense of ‘us’ versus ‘others’. But Russian literature wouldn't be as good as it actually is if it just left it at that. It takes the stereotype and forces the reader look at it again, and at themselves - are we really any better? What would we do if we were in their position? To mark the just-passed 100th anniversary of Finland’s founding as a state, let us explore the links between Finnish national stereotypes and the work of Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin.
Russian - Finnish history
Throughout Russian history Finns have been considered as a rather non-threatening nation, innocent bystanders in their constant battles with the Swedish empire. Before the Finnish War (1808-1809, between Russia and Sweden, but fought on Finnish soil) Finland had been under Swedish rule for 600 years. During the war Sweden surrendered Finland to Russia, leaving the Finns feeling betrayed. Although they were suspicious of the Russians, the predominant sentiment became pro-Russia, helped by the fact that, as a Grand Duchy of Russia, Finland gained autonomy and Finnish culture and language were able to blossom. These events are described in The Tales of Ensign Stål, an 1848 poem by Johan Ludvig Runeberg, known to every Finn:
The Russian host could vaunt the name
Of many a seasoned veteran
Recorded on the scroll of fame
Before our war began.
Barclay, Kamensky, Bagration,
Were household names to every son of Finland.
When they hove in sight,
We could expect a fight.
But Kulnev's name was new to all
Before the flame of war was blown
And he came rushing like a squall,
Scarce dreamed of before known.
He struck like lightning from the blue
So terrible and yet so new,
But ne'er to be forgot, we felt,
From the first blow he dealt.
Pushkin and the Finnish stereotype
Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is still seen as Russia's national poet and his patriotic words still strike a strong chord of pride with many Russians. His legacy has contributed to the Russian identity, just as The Kalevala and the poetry of Runeberg have shaped Finnish identity. What may be more interesting is how his works have shaped the depiction of Finns. In his works we can find three very different examples of Finnish stereotypes in Russian literature. The first (the sorcerer) in the narrative poem Ruslan and Ludmila (1820); the second (the dutiful worker) in one of The Tales of Belkin (1830) - ‘The Undertaker’; and finally the most famous of all (the fisherman), in the narrative poem The Bronze Horseman (1833).
Ruslan and Ludmila
Ruslan and Ludmila is a fairy tale set in ancient Russia. Ludmila, the young wife of the hero Ruslan, has been kidnapped by an evil dwarf called Chernomor during their wedding night. On his journey to find her, Ruslan encounters an old man. It turns out to be a good Finnish wizard who helps him to find Ludmila. The old man, Finn, tells Ruslan his own story: when he was a young shepherd he fell in love with Naina, but she rejected him. To impress her he fought in wars abroad and returned to her with treasures, but again she rejected him. As a last resort he studied sorcery for years and years, but when he finally casts a love spell over Naina, he notices too late that she has turned into an old crone. He rejects her and now the old hag Naina hates Finn and takes sides with Chernomor. With the help of Finn, Ruslan is able to win his bride back and save Kiev in the process.
Pushkin's knowledge of Finnish mythology probably comes from the Russian historian and writer Karamzin, who Pushkin admired. Until Elias Lönnrot wrote down the Finnish myths in The Kalevala in 1835, they were passed on orally, and obviously some legends reached Russia. There are similarities between the good wizard Finn and the wizard Väinämöinen from The Kalevala. Ruslan and Ludmila confirms the popular belief in Russia that Finns “had a way with magic”. This is a story of good and evil, of struggles and unexpected encounters, of having faith that the good will eventually conquer, and of using your powers not for personal gain, but to help others: a typical fairy tale. But if we look simply at the names, it is literally Finn helping Ruslan.
But listen on: there in my homeland
among the lonely fisherfolk
there's lore mysterious and awesome.
Amid thick forests, wild, remote,
a guild of ancient sorcerers
dwells deep in the primeval stillness.
Their minds they constantly apply
to elements of highest wisdom.
Everything bows to their command -
what has been and what is to come.
They wield a terrifying power
over not only death but love.
In ‘The Undertaker’ we find an ordinary, simple Finn. The story takes place in the first decades of the 19th century, when Finland was the Grand Duchy. A Russian undertaker (not to be confused with the jolly type of undertaker that Shakespeare and Walter Scott describe, warns Pushkin) moves to a different part of Moscow and is invited to a party by his new German neighbor, a shoemaker. At the party the gloomy undertaker meets several cheerful Germans and a Finn. This Finn is introduced to the reader by Pushkin in a rather curious and comical manner: “The Shoemaker’s small room was filled with guests, for the most part German craftsmen with their wives and apprentices. There was only one Russian official present, police constable Yurko, a Finn who, in spite of his humble calling, enjoyed the particular favour of the host.”
Compared to the German tradesmen living in Moscow, Yurko the Finn is Russian. This shows different degrees in foreigners, clearly those belonging to the Russian empire were somehow less foreign. Yurko is described as honest, loyal and hardworking, typical Finnish characteristics, but he can eat and drink like a Russian. During the French invasion of Moscow in 1812, Yurko’s yellow sentry-box burned down and he had to build another one. Unperturbed, he has fulfilled his duties for twenty five years. However, the Germans and the undertaker befriend him primarily because he can be useful for them, not because of his good characteristics.
Yurko embodies the way in which Russia saw Finland: as a useful buffer between Russia and Sweden, the innocent bystander in Russia’s conflicts, and a potential ally in wartime, better as a friend than as an enemy. But Yurko has the last laugh as he jokes to the undertaker that he should drink to the health of his clients. This causes the undertaker to have a terrifying nightmare in which his dead clients come to haunt him and reprimand him for ripping off their next of kin in their moments of grief. Pushkin leaves it to the reader's imagination whether or not the undertaker shall better his life.
The Bronze Horseman
The most famous description of Finnish people in Russian literature, “nature’s poor foster child”, comes from Pushkin's well-known poem The Bronze Horseman. The poem is about the great flood of 1824 in Saint Petersburg. The protagonist Evgenii loses his fiancé in the flood, and soon he loses his mind too. He curses the statue of Peter the Great, and the statue suddenly comes to life and chases Evgenii through the streets of Saint Petersburg. Later poor Evgenii is found dead, washed up on some desolate shore.
It is one of the most influential works of Pushkin. In the introduction Pushkin describes Peter the Great as he envisions a new, splendid city on the banks of the Neva, a territory that was recently conquered from the Swedes. That area was at that time sparsely inhabited by mostly Finnish people. Neva is the Finnish word for bog, or swamp. The first impression is that in a place where Finns were merely fishing and making a poor living, the Russians succeeded in building a magnificent city. On the other hand there is the image of the humble Finn, in touch with nature and less impacted by natural disasters; he is timeless and can always continue fishing, whereas Saint Petersburg was not a complete success: it had a hard time fighting the elements and was regularly plagued by floods. One of the themes of the poem is man versus nature, something that Finns are perhaps better at.
A hundred years have passed. We see,
Where swamp and forest stood but lately:
The city, northern prodigy,
Has risen, sumptuous and stately;
Where once a humble Finnish lad –
Poor foster-child in Nature’s keeping –
Alone upon the low banks had
Oft cast his time-worn nets when reaping
The waters’ hidden harvest, – now
Great towers and palaces endow
The bustling banks with grace and splendour…
In his inimitable way gives Pushkin the old Finnish stereotypes his own twist, making them fresh and original: the old sorcerer becomes a friendly helper, the dutiful police constable turns out to like a little joke, and “nature’s poor foster child” is now fishing somewhere else, blissfully unaware of whatever disaster has struck Saint Petersburg...
Alexander Pushkin, Ruslan and Ludmila, translated by Roger Clarke
----------------------, The Bronze Horseman, translated by John Dewey
----------------------, ‘The Undertaker’, translated by Gillon Aitken
The North in Russian Romantic Literature by Otto Boele
The many ways to read The Undertaker by Henri-Dominique Paratte
Imperial Rhetoric and the Finnish other in Russian literature by Tuomas Taavila
I'm Elisabeth van der Meer, Dutch and recently moved to Finland. I have a blog on which I share my enthusiasm for (mainly 19th century) Russian literature and try to make others see what's so great about it. I enjoy digging into specific passages, subjects or characters, trying to find connections and meanings hidden behind the surface. I'm also fascinated by the lives of these great writers, that were often at least as interesting as their works. To me Russian literature is an inexhaustible source for subjects to write about.