“Service, Not Servility”: On Alexander Griboedov and Yuri Tynianov

April 27, 2021   •   By Anna Aslanyan

Woe from Wit: A Verse Comedy in Four Acts

Alexander Griboedov

The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar

Yuri Tynianov

“FATE HAS FLUNG me here with its iron hand and is driving me on,” Alexander Griboedov wrote to a friend in 1819. The young Russian diplomat was on his way to Persia, having received an appointment from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His real passions, however, were poetry and music, and when his secretarial duties allowed, he worked on a play that was to become his magnum opus. “In its first outline,” he said on finishing it in 1824, “this stage poem was far greater and possessed of a far higher meaning than it is now, appearing as it does in a trivial dress I was forced to put on it.” Still, the comedy became a sensation, widely read in St. Petersburg and Moscow, though banned from the stage.

That Woe from Wit (Gore ot uma) enraged the censors is no surprise. The protagonist, Chatsky, a young man recently back in Moscow after his travels, brings with him incendiary ideas. Surrounded by fogies of all hues — landowners treating their serfs like objects, officers laughing at their own jokes as they rattle medals awarded to them for fictitious battles, toadies willingly debasing themselves to amuse their higher-ups — he rails against their prejudices, mocking their jingoism, philistinism, and sycophancy. Chatsky’s motto, “Service, not servility: There I draw the line” (in Betsy Hulick’s translation), and his sharp tongue alienate him from a society that thrives on corruption, and soon a rumor goes around, declaring him mad. 

Nearly two centuries on, this satire of social mores remains a rich source of quotations. No other literary work has introduced so many “winged phrases,” including the title, into the Russian language. As the critic Yuly Aikhenvald wrote in 1910, “Griboedov’s style is a stiletto.” Translators have long been trying to balance on this knife’s edge, from the time of Nicolas de Benardaky’s 1857 prose version, titled simply Gore ot ouma, to the 1993 staging, in London, of Anthony Burgess’s freewheeling Chatsky, or The Importance of Being Stupid, which strives to outdo the classic with added multilingual flourishes: “How ghastly every wise man’s prospects are — / Woe comes from wit, or góre ot umá.”

Betsy Hulick’s recent translation is, like the original, rhymed and intended for the stage. Well aware of the comedy’s status in Russian culture, she says in her foreword, “I cannot set wings to new English proverbs,” and yet some of her renditions — “What’s love indeed? A game of blind man’s bluff,” for instance, or “It’s better practice, nine times out of ten, / deferring to the views of other men” — roll right off the tongue. Even if one occasionally stumbles over “not in sync,” “a big if,” and similar anachronisms in the midst of the more dated dialogue, the fluidity of the text has been preserved with minimal losses.

The play, however witty, owes its long-lasting fame to more than clever bon mots. Its principal theme, the conflict between the freethinking individual and the reactionary establishment, has not lost its relevance since the golden age of Russian letters. The Soviet historian of literature Yuri Tynianov explored this period, a time when “liberty and love […] made poetry […] so enticing and voluptuous,” in his scholarly works, before turning to fiction to reinvent the historical novel in the modernist key. Using meticulous research to fuel his imagination, he endowed his characters with emotional lives rarely found in archives. The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, first published in 1928, is a fine specimen of this technique.

The novel covers the last year of Griboedov’s life, beginning in early 1828, when he returns to St. Petersburg with the Treaty of Turkmenchay, the result of his negotiations at the end of a war between Russia and Persia. At first, he is received in the capital as l’homme du jour. His comedy is still the talk of the town; a tragedy he is composing is highly praised by his friends. Among them is the period’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, who says of his own relationship with the powers that be, “One has to throw them a bone.” As for the affairs of the state, Griboedov submits to his superiors a project for founding a trading company in the Caucasus. Alas, they have other plans for him, promoting him to the post of minister plenipotentiary and sending him back to Persia to ensure that the terms of the treaty are fully implemented. Although he knows what a dangerous mission it’s going to be, he accepts.

On the way to Persia, Griboedov stops in Georgia, the southern outpost of the Russian Empire, still hoping to find support for his project. Unsuccessful again, he nevertheless sees the Caucasus as his future and marries a Georgian princess. The “peacock uniform” of vazir-mukhtar (as his ambassadorial rank is called in Persia) feels increasingly stifling, and Griboedov thinks of retiring from service. But first he must see the treaty through, and so he sets out for Tehran to confront “his final fear.”

The last chapters of the novel, their fictional component aside, present facts that continue to cause historical debates. The treaty was extremely humiliating for Persia. One of its clauses gave Armenians living there the right to return to their homeland, now part of the Russian Empire. Wishing to take advantage of it, a eunuch from Fath Ali Shah’s harem and two wives of the shah’s son-in-law sought asylum in the Russian legation. The shah demanded that they be handed back to him, but Griboedov refused. When word of this insolence spread through the city, a fanatical mob stormed the Russian legation. The minister and his men held out to the end and were torn to pieces. Historians have often wondered whether the tragedy could have been avoided. Should Griboedov have been more circumspect when dealing with the Persians? Less trustful of the British, who were pursuing their own interests in the East? One thing is clear: extraditing the fugitives would have defused the situation, but as a man of honor and duty, Griboedov couldn’t betray his compatriots.

Some commentators interpret Tynianov’s title as suggesting that Griboedov the writer died when he finished his great satire. However, the novel is too subtle to allow for such a straightforward reading. The text is full of fragmentary hints, deftly preserved in all their ambiguity by the translators, Anna Kurkina Rush and Christopher Rush, who leave the reader to decode the author’s messages. “A hard death befell the men of the twenties, because the age had died before them,” a sentence appearing in the prologue, is the first clue. “Time was suddenly shattered” for these people when a reactionary regime took hold in Russia, following the suppression of the Decembrist revolt in 1825, an attempt to reform the country undertaken by a group of liberally minded aristocrats.

As Nicholas I crushed the revolutionaries, Griboedov, who was close to many of them, was arrested and questioned but soon released. No evidence was found of his membership of the two secret societies behind the plot, though the fact remains that he shared the Decembrists’ beliefs to a large extent. Woe from Wit was undoubtedly influenced by the movement, stemming from the same confrontation between the old and the new. Yet for all his kinship with the Decembrists, Griboedov had his reservations about their prospects. “A bunch of ensigns,” he said of the uprising, “took it into their heads that they could change the ways of the Russian state.” His skepticism was justified. Much as they wanted to liberate the serfs, the rebels had no program and no practical means of putting their idealistic plans into practice. A crucial scene in The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar has Griboedov talking to an exiled Decembrist, who lambasts his economic project as a vehicle for colonial exploitation. In his turn, Griboedov challenges the revolutionaries’ utopianism: “And you would say to the poor Russian peasant: ‘our lesser brethren […] would you care to work for nothing — temporarily, only temporarily, of course?’” Russia finally abolished serfdom in 1861. Woe from Wit was first published uncut in 1862.

Like the Decembrists, Griboedov was born in the wrong era. Knowing that the rule of the old had outlived itself, both in politics and in art, the progressives were unable to change the imperial order. The main cause of this impotence, a chasm separating the aristocracy from the people, is captured by Tynianov in a memorable scene set in a fairground, where Griboedov stops the crowd from beating up a thief. “Things were being decided not in those offices with the little watercolors,” he realizes, “but right out here in the runny mud, here in the street.” The commoners submit to his authority, but his very appearance prompts sniggers: “Who does his lordship think he is?”

Who indeed? His comedy banned, his project rejected, his friends exiled, at 34 Griboedov is embittered and exhausted, overcome by ennui. He dismisses his tragedy as “second rate” and dreads the day when his talents degenerate into “a quirky little cough and the caustic wit of old age.” In Woe from Wit, fate proves even more skillful at mockery than Chatsky, and so a critical mind is labeled unsound. In the novel, Griboedov anticipates a similar future for himself, when the public, having had their fill of his “stinging witticisms,” will perceive him as “a crank […] an unfulfilled man: the author of the infamous comedy and of the famous project.” He spends his last hours settling accounts with his conscience, reproaching himself: “You bragged that you would revolutionize literature, return it to its folk roots.” When thoughts of escape creep into his mind, Griboedov waves them away, burns his papers, and prepares to meet his destiny.

Tynianov died in 1943, leaving unfinished what would have become his next major work, a novel about Pushkin. For all his fascination with Griboedov, in The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar he lets the greater of the two poets have the last word. The novel ends with a scene borrowed from Pushkin’s writings. Out for a ride in the Caucasian mountains, the poet chances upon an ox cart, asks the travelers what they are carrying, and is told, “Griboed.” “He had nothing more left to do,” Pushkin muses. “He had made his mark: he left us Woe from Wit.”

His friend’s death, “instantaneous and magnificent,” brings out the fatalist in Pushkin. “Let’s surrender ourselves to providence,” he concludes, as if inviting us to ponder the problem of free will. Tynianov’s hero is driven by fatalism and honor in equal measure, a point made so powerfully we can’t help ascribing the same motives to Griboedov the historical figure. Whatever the score in the game he played with fate, what ultimately prevailed was poetic justice. Griboedov did achieve a revolution: not by returning Russian literature to its old roots but by giving it new impetus. His masterpiece expressed the ideals of liberty and progress in words “both meaningful and merciless,” which spread their wings and soared high above the centuries, propelled by their creator’s wit.

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Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator. She contributes to The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, and other UK-based publications, writing about books and arts. Her popular history of translation, Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of History, is out with Profile in May.