The Return of Pushkin’s Rusalka

Pushkin’s last verse drama, Rusalka, first written two years after the Little Tragedies (Mozart and Salieri and the three other miniature dramas), in his most mature blank verse, has hitherto been taken as a near-complete fragment. The main lines of the plot are familiar from the operas and operettas popular in Russia and elsewhere in Europe from those that swept St Petersburg in the first decade of the nineteenth century to Dvořak’s Rusalka of 1901. In Pushkin’s storyline a wandering prince gets a village girl pregnant and abandons her, and she throws herself into the river. Years later the prince passes by again and a water-sprite appears to him – the daughter of his former beloved, now queen of the water-sprites, who has sent her daughter to meet the prince in order to take her revenge by enticing him to the bottom of the river. In this version, which breaks off as the approaching dénouement becomes apparent, Pushkin recreates the world of Russian folk romance, with extraordinary realistic vividness, and just as vividly haunting in its eerie effects. But examining Pushkin’s manuscript in the mid-1970s, the actor-director Vladimir Retsepter suddenly became aware that Pushkin had revised and completed the work, though not making a fair copy. His revision was breathtakingly simple and profound: by switching the position of one scene and cutting seven lines he transformed his miniature drama from a blood revenge tragedy to a bloodless moral tragedy, leaping ahead at a stroke to the Ibsen-Chekhov era. In the revised version the prince does not meet the water-sprite sent to drown him, but after being made aware of his beloved’s death which he has caused, is found by a search-party sent out by his wife and returns to his loveless home and marriage.

In the first of two essays accompanying the dual text – D. M. Thomas’s English translation first published in 1982 being revised by the translator both stylistically and to accord with Pushkin’s revised text – Vladimir Retsepter tells an absorbing literary story which begins with Pushkin’s first editor, his friend and literary executor Vasily Zhukovsky, in a hurry to publish in order to help Pushkin’s family after his death, failing to understand Pushkin’s manuscript revisions, and ends with his own battle with the Soviet and the post-Soviet academic literary establishments to take Pushkin’s revisions seriously in the absence of a fair copy. In a second essay he traces the two stages in the composition of Rusalka and considers the revolutionary nature of Pushkin’s revisions. This new text is now generally accepted as the latest state of Pushkin’s manuscript and therefore of no lesser status than the hitherto canonical text.

The facsimile reproduction of Pushkin’s manuscript included in this edition clearly shows his revisions marked in pencil and in ink. Each facsimile page is accompanied by a full-page interpretive drawing by the well-known Russian artist Mihail Chemiakin, who lives and works in the United States, and his further drawings, sketches and motifs decorate the book throughout.

Vladimir Retsepter is Artistic Director of the Pushkin State Theatre Centre, St Petersburg, founded in 1992 with the aims of encouraging the performance of Pushkin’s drama both in Russia and abroad, organising Pushkin festivals, and developing a series of monographs and editions, the Pushkin Premiere series, in which The Return of Pushkin’s ‘Rusalka’ was published in 1998.

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‘A sensational, performable extension of Pushkin’s dramatic oeuvre – Pushkin’s answer to Shakespeare.’ – British East-West Journal

‘A welcome addition to the small library of translations which give the reader an insight into the world of Russia’s greatest poet.’ – Diana Myers, Times Higher Education Supplement