Can Russia's Pushkin survive the ad men?

Even Shakespeare, or a dictator, could never command such mammoth cult worship.

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Russia's most beloved poet, Alexander Pushkin, has prompted an extraordinary outpouring of emotion, commercialism, worship, and events.

His dusky face adorns tattoos, ketchup labels, vodka bottles, billboards, shopping bags, chocolate wrappings. His verses hang in shop windows.

The occasion June 6 has been used to maximum advantage by Moscow's publicity-conscious Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. City Hall spent millions of dollars to stage theater, opera, balls, bands, plays, poetry recitals, folk songs, and art exhibits. The Russian bard's life and works have been dissected in endless articles, new books, and TV programs.

Even foreign stars got into the act. Spanish tenor Placido Domingo appeared on Red Square this past Sunday to sing from an opera based on a Pushkin story, "The Queen of Spades." Brooding heart-throb Ralph Fiennes stars in a new film version of Pushkin's masterpiece "Eugene Onegin."

But as the celebration continues, literary figures ponder this remarkable reaction. Was the celebration clever marketing by profiteers out to make a buck? Could another writer have prompted such mass adoration? And does poetry still hold a special place in the hearts and minds of what are some of the planet's best-educated people?

"He is the most-loved figure in Rus-sian history and culture," answers Vladimir Gusev, head of the Moscow Writers Union. "At a time when we feel we are living in bedlam, he emerges as a sane person who opens the door and brings in sunlight."

Indeed, well before anyone uttered the word "Pushkinmania," adulation of this icon bordered on canonization. Ask enthusiasts - and there are maybe 146 million among Russia's 147 million people - about Pushkin and you will get a starry-eyed response. They will enthuse about the elegance of his verse, his love of his homeland, and his individualism.

It seems that Pushkin offers something for everyone. He presents few intellectual barriers - and is more accessible than the dark Dostoyevsky or philosophical Leo Tolstoy. Pushkin was even co-opted by the Communists, who emphasized his sympathy for the 1825 Decembrist uprising.

For romantics, there is his life story, which reads like a novel itself. A nobleman with an Ethiopian forebear, Pushkin was alternately adopted into the csar's court and sent into internal exile for his liberal writings. He died tragically in 1837, after a duel provoked by rumors that his wife was unfaithful.

Lovers of literature lament the early loss of the man who transformed the Russian language, marrying spoken and written words. Scholars say it is impossible to properly translate his verse, thus explaining perhaps Pushkin's lack of appreciation abroad.

But ask anyone here - from a taxi driver to a schoolchild to a banker - and you will find they can recite at least a few passages from "Eugene Onegin" or the epics "Ruslan and Lyudmila" and "The Bronze Horseman."

At a time when the nation is drifting in search of a post-Soviet ideal, people seek familiar reference points. That's where Pushkin comes in.

"He is a pillar of Russian culture," says Andrei Pushkov, a commentator for the ORT television channel, which was saturated in recent days with Pushkinia. "This [200th celebration] is part of a quest for Russian roots and dignity."

This icon survived even 70 years of Communist repression. The Soviets realized that Pushkin was too universal to ban and made his works compulsory reading at school. Add to this institutional support a long tradition in Russia, where elite poetry was incorporated into folk songs.

With the repression of religion during the Soviet period, poetry assumed a function of spiritual life. It also played a political role, as a subtle form of criticism by dissident writers such as Ossip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. Muscovites will recount the days in the 1960s when poets such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko filled stadiums for readings.

But times have changed. Modern-day poets lament the toll taken by the collapse of the economy, end of censorship, and the invasion of mass Western culture. Paradoxically, freedom of speech has been accompanied by declining interest in poetry.

"Since the 19th century, poetry was part of the struggle against autocracy. It was a hiding place from officialdom, where orthodoxy was questioned," Mr. Pushkov says. "This is no longer the case."

Proof of his words are falling poetry sales. Book venders report that science fiction and detective novels are more popular. Verse has been supplanted by the Internet, rock music, and pulp fiction.

The one exception is Pushkin. The number of books by or about the great man has ballooned during the last two months with the release of dozens of new editions, says Nelli Gurvich, who oversees literature sales at the leading bookstore, Dom Knigi. "But generally, interest in poetry has decreased the past five years. The public has practically stopped buying works by new poets."

Economic factors are partly to blame, she says. Poetry is expensive to publish, with the end of state subsidies. A new capitalist stress in society to make money leaves less time to read and write. Full-time poets are poor.

But all is not lost, says Mr. Gusev, a poet in his own right. He reports many people write verses in their spare time. Each day about a dozen manuscripts land on his office desk, products of self-publishing by poets.

Few of these books reach the marketplace; they generally circulate as gifts among small circles of devotees.

"It's a mystery where they get the sponsors," Gusev muses, eyes wandering over his shabby office, then finds the answer himself. "Poetry still holds a special place here. A poet is more than just a poet in Russia."

No sooner does the divine word touch his keen hearing than the poet's soul starts like an eagle that has been roused. 'The Poet' (1827 - translated by Dmitri Obolensky)

Moscow: those syllables can start A tumult in the Russian heart. 'Eugene Onegin' (1833 - trans. by Babette Deutsch)

The sky breathed autumn, sombre, shrouded; Shorter and shorter grew the days; Sad murmurs filled the woodland ways; As the dark coverts were denuded; Now southward swept the caravan Of the wild geese, a noisy clan; And mists above the meadows brooded; A tedious season they await Who hear November at the gate.

'Eugene Onegin' (1833 - trans. by Babette Deutsch)

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