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Saturday, June 5, 1999 Published at 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK

Pushkin fever sweeps Russia

The bard's giant image looks down over Moscow

By BBC Moscow Correspondent Robert Parsons.

It is a curious fact of Russian life that a people so brutalised by centuries of hardship and misrule identify so closely - one might say intimately - with their poets.

A recent opinion poll asked people here which Russian they thought had made the biggest contribution to world history.

The BBC's Andrew Harding: "You can barely move without running into another monument of the country's greatest literary hero"
Alexander Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet, came second, sandwiched between Peter the Great and Lenin.

It has to be said that Russia this year has Pushkin coming out of its ears. It is the 200th anniversary of his birth and the country is being swamped by a deluge of Pushkin publications, celebrations, recitals and kitsch.

[ image: Revered as one of Russia's greatest heroes]
Revered as one of Russia's greatest heroes
Flags bearing lines from his poems flutter in the wind, his portrait seems to adorn almost every shop window and his towering features, framed by those famous lamb-chop whiskers, glare down from the gable-ends of blocks of flats.

It is, in a way, disturbingly reminiscent of the recent Soviet past, with the difference that the murals then were of Brezhnev, Lenin and Marx.

The kitsch merchants have been hard at work - if you're so inclined you can buy lacquered boxes portraying scenes from the poet's fairy tales, matryoshka dolls that open out to reveal layer after layer of Russian poets and little Pushkin busts to place on your mantlepiece.

Advertiser's delight

But a stall-keeper told me business was disappointing.

[ image: The poet sells everything from chocolates to vodka]
The poet sells everything from chocolates to vodka
Maybe Russians aren't so gullible. Maybe. Maybe not.

The last few weeks have provided a sure sign that the entrepreneurial spirit here is alive and well. Pushkin is being used to advertise everything and anything - from, so I'm told, women's underwear, to chocolates, cigarettes and bottles of vodka.

Not that there's anything new in that. One of Moscow's hundreds of Pushkin exhibitions shows that 19th century manufacturers had already cottoned on to exploiting the poet's name.

There was Pushkin cough mixture and, like now, the inevitable Pushkin vodka.

The assault on our senses is relentless.

On the street, in the newspapers, on the radio. On television there is even a daily count down - just one day left to Pushkin's birthday, and so on.

A joke doing the rounds now has Pushkin's father saying to his newly pregnant wife, "Just nine months to Pushkin's birthday!"

On the anniversary itself on Sunday, 6 June, the main television channel is to run a solid six-hour block on Pushkin.

Poet fatigue

But there are signs that even Russians are tiring of the unending diet.

[ image: Ever present: Those famous lamb-chop whiskers]
Ever present: Those famous lamb-chop whiskers
A friend told me of finding a six-year-old child and a teacher crying outside her local school.

Concerned that something serious might have happened she asked what was wrong. The girl, it seems, had told the teacher that if she said another word about Pushkin she would run away.

And yet there can be no doubting Russians' reverence for their favourite bard.

In a country that likes to deify its heroes, he is one of the brightest stars in the firmament.

There can scarcely be a man or woman in Russia who cannot at least manage a line or two of Pushkin's poetry. There are some who can recite his entire colossal opus.

Schools hold marathon competitions to find the best performers of his poetry. It's not unusual to see a child barely four feet tall take the stage and recite from Pushkin by heart for 20 minutes or more.

Few would question either that Pushkin's place in literature is deserved. He was the inventor of the modern Russian language, the man who bridged the gap between the stylised literary Russian of the past and the vernacular.

The grandson of an Ethiopian slave called Hannibal, who rose to become an adviser to Peter the Great, Pushkin was the first Russian to make a living from his writing.

You can't sell your inspiration, he once said, but you can sell your books.

He was also the first Russian to write about love and sex.

British film slated

But if he is the people's poet, he is also claimed by the literary elite - which guards his legacy with a ferocious tenacity.

[ image: Ralph Fiennes as Pushkin in a new British film]
Ralph Fiennes as Pushkin in a new British film
It reserves a pitying contempt for foreign interpretations of the great master's work - including the recent British film production of Eugene Onegin, shown at Cannes last month and now appearing in Moscow.

Reviews here have mocked its historical anachronisms: the singing for instance of a Soviet propaganda song - proof, they say, that Russian culture simply does not translate.

Yet within Russia, Pushkin remains hard to pin down. He is everything to every man.

When Stalin's hacks marked the 100th anniversary of his death in 1937, they portrayed him as a people's poet who fought the tyranny of tsarism.

Yet you don't have to look very hard to find Pushkin the Supporter of Autocracy or Pushkin the Dissident.

No wonder that Russia's contemporary rulers - still struggling to find a new state ideology - are so keen to hijack him as one of their own.

As the race hots up for next year's presidential elections, Pushkin is becoming part of the battleground.

The Kremlin has locked horns with Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow and a leading contender, over the purchase of a note handwritten by the poet himself.

Pushkin, renowned for his sense of humour, would have enjoyed the spectacle.

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