Written in 1828, Pushkin's narrative poem Poltava ushered in a new period in the poet's creative life, one in which Pushkin's task was to become a national bard (or, using the romantic terminology of the day, a national “genius”) whose poetry expressed Russia's innermost “spirit” and uncovered the metaphysical import of the nation's historical destiny. Pushkin (whose career already included two political exiles and the authorship of a number of scathing epigrams directed against Alexander I and several prominent statesmen) recognized that in order to ascend to a new artistic phase he had to find a new voice and a more mature literary persona. However, “maturity,” which for the ancients was synonymous with political freedom, presented a considerable problem for the generation whose early youth coincided with the Napoleonic wars and the romantic revolution in poetry, but whose coming of age fell during the post-Napoleonic reaction. How could a spirited youth “mature” without capitulating before such mundane demands as financial security and social advancement and, consequently, without turning into a philistine? More specifically, how could Pushkin reach the next phase of his career without renouncing his politically compromising youth? In this essay I argue that Poltava is Pushkin's answer to these questions.
Named after the historical battle that launched Russia as a European power, Poltava was, I suggest, the product of both Pushkin's long-standing wish to compose a national epic celebrating Peter's “young Russia,” a Russia no longer fettered by its “Byzantine” roots and with a glorious future, and his more recently developed desire to create for his homeland what Hannah Arendt has called a “foundational narrative”—that is, a narrative that not only announces the advent of a “new world order,” but also legitimizes this new order by linking it to some prior historic or legendary event. Furthermore, if Poltava seems to “waver,” as many critics have suggested, between the Byronic narrative poem and the historical novel as popularized by Walter Scott, I argue that the poem's idiosyncratic form indicates that Pushkin was not yet sure whether he was standing on the threshold of an Augustan or Neronian age. Pushkin's acquaintances among Moscow Slavophiles made him for the time being more attentive to the positive parallels between Russian and Roman history than to the darker ones. In essence, then, Pushkin's glorification of Peter and Peter's empire meant to serve a higher goal: that of spreading culture and enlightenment throughout the Slavic lands.