In August my research took me to Pushkinskie Gori, or Pushkin Hills – an area in north-western Russia that is a place of pilgrimage for Pushkin lovers.
The Pushkin family estate, Mikhailovskoe, is located there.
The Trigorskoe estate, where Pushkin spent countless hours reading and writing among friends, is there.
The estate of Pushkin’s great-grandfather Hannibal – god-child of Peter the Great – is there.
And the monastery where Pushkin is buried is there.
Is it possible to see all this – and shoot it – in two days?
With local Pushkinist and experienced tour guide Victor Gigorievich, yes. He’s been guiding tours of this area for decades. He lives and breathes Pushkin, and, despite his age, the breath of life in him is full-strength. Already at our first meeting he was chomping at the bit to talk about Pushkin, and a simple question led to a 15-minute history lesson. I can’t say I didn’t love it.
Our first stop, naturally, was Pushkin’s family estate. Mikhailovskoe sits on a short hill overlooking the marshy point where the gentle Sorot River empties into the modest and blue Lake Kuchanye.
Pushkin referred to this area as his “country study.” It took him two days by horse and carriage to get here from St. Petersburg. This bucolic area of weedy meadows and small villages provided him with the perfect backdrop for his novel, Evgeniy Onegin.
The place Eugene found so confining
Was quite a lovely country nest,
Where one who favoured soft reclining
Would thank his stars to be so blest.
The manor house, in proud seclusion,
Screened by a hill from wind’s intrusion,
Stood by a river. Far away
Green meads and golden cornfields lay…
(Ch. 2, Verse 1)
When Pushkin wrote these opening lines to the second chapter of Eugene Onegin, he was living in exile at Mikhailovskoe. At age 25, he had been banished from the capital for two years for writing blasphemous anti-Orthodox verses.
The house itself is simple and small. It has been burned down and rebuilt so many times that at this point it’s simply a replica. Pushkin used Mikhailovskoe as the model for Onegin’s home in the country, and he shared the life he created for himself at Mikhailovskoe with Onegin:
Long rambles, reading, slumber’s blisses,
The burbling brook, the wooded shade,
At times the fresh and youthful kisses
Of white-skinned, dark-eyed country maid…
(Ch. 4, v. 39)
On the way to our next stop, the Trigorskoe estate, our tour guide Victor commandeered the driver and led us down another long and curvy road towards “the site of the ancient and non-existent village of Savkino.” I greeted this last-minute addition to the itinerary as a potential threat to the higher-priority locales on my agenda.
After a short walk to the top of a hill, I realized immediately it was worth the effort. The low hill, Savkino Gorki, empty save for a small wooden chapel and stone cross, just barely looms over the expanse below. This was one of Pushkin’s favorite places; he would walk the kilometer up the river from Mikhailovskoe and perch here to write. At one point he tried to buy the land, but that didn’t pan out.
A few kilometers upstream from Mikhailovskoe and the Savkino hill is the estate at Trigorskoe, where Pushkin used to hop through the back-porch windows to spend evening after evening with the Osipov family members. The owner of the house, Praskovia Osipov-Wolf, had eight children from two marriages. They became his close friends and audience. He wrote more than 100 works while in exile, and many of these he read to his friends at Trigorskoe before publishing. He even had his own study there where he could write.
The house and family became the model for the Larin family in Evgeniy Onegin. Praskovia’s son, Alexei Wolf, became the prototype for Lensky, and it was in their green-walled ballroom at the front of the house where Lensky and Evgeniy had the tiff that resulted in the fatal duel. Since the middle of the 19th century, the house has been referred to simply as “the Larin house.”
The only unpleasant thing about Pushkinskie Gori was getting there. The six-hour drive along the two-lane E95 from St. Petersburg to Pskov was as frightful a drive as one can imagine. Drivers, including mine, were constantly in the act of passing: bobbing into the middle of the road, waiting for the all-clear, and then making a run for it. Thankfully the highway on that stretch is wide enough for the inevitable times when a car has to squeeze through the middle, with traffic flying by on either side in both directions.
I hope to go back to Pushkinskie Gori in the dead of winter, when the hills and forests lie hardened under a crunchy layer of wet snow. When Pushkin was there, the thick ice on Lake Kuchanye allowed him to walk or sled in a straight line from his back porch at Mikhailovskoe to the edge of his family’s Petrovskoe estate across the water.
When I do return in the winter, I may try to avoid that highway and head down along the backroads – in a sleigh!
Note: Quoted text is from James E. Falen’s translation of Eugene Onegin for Oxford World’s Classics.