Kelly takes an interesting approach here, by focusing on the life, works, and legacy of Alexander Pushkin, as a window into the changing role of literature in Russian society over time. It is thus very different from the chronological summary of Russian writers that one might have expected from the title. But as the author notes, other books (such as Victor Terras’s Handbook of Russian Literature) already cover the whole field fairly well, and it would have been difficult indeed to squeeze any kind of meaningful summary into 200 small pages.
Although some important writers are barely mentioned if at all, the book does manage to cover many important aspects of Russian history, including gender roles, the multi-ethnic empire, and religion. She pays the most attention to how the “Pushkin myth” has evolved over time, and how through all the tumult of Russian history, with only brief lapses, he has retained a remarkable level of influence in both official and unofficial culture. Moreover, Pushkin’s literary successors, whether they sympathized with him or not, have all had to deal with this legacy in their works.
I enjoyed the book very much, although I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read at least some Pushkin before. It was especially interesting for me to read this as I was moving to Moscow for the year to teach English. Today I went to Pushkin’s apartment on the Arbat, which is packed with artifacts, paintings, books, and a docent in every room, despite the fact that the poet only lived there for a couple months.