Derzhavin: A Biography

Derzhavin: A Biography


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Hamka s Great Story presents Indonesia through the eyes of an impassioned, popular thinker who believed that Indonesians and Muslims everywhere should embrace the thrilling promises of modern life, and navigate its dangers, with Islam as their compass.
Hamka (Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah) was born when Indonesia was still a Dutch colony and came of age as the nation itself was emerging through tumultuous periods of Japanese occupation, revolution, and early independence. He became a prominent author and controversial public figure. In his lifetime of prodigious writing, Hamka advanced Islam as a liberating, enlightened, and hopeful body of beliefs around which the new nation could form and prosper. He embraced science, human agency, social justice, and democracy, arguing that these modern concepts comported with Islam s true teachings. Hamka unfolded this big idea his Great Story decade by decade in a vast outpouring of writing that included novels and poems and chatty newspaper columns, biographies, memoirs, and histories, and lengthy studies of theology including a thirty-volume commentary on the Holy Qur an. In introducing this influential figure and his ideas to a wider audience, this sweeping biography also illustrates a profound global process: how public debates about religion are shaping national societies in the postcolonial world."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780299224202
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
Publication date: 10/16/2007
Series: Wisconsin Center for Pushkin Studies Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939), called by Vladimir Nabokov (in 1939) “the greatest Russian poet that the twentieth century has yet produced,” was also an outstanding memoirist and biographer.
Angela Brintlinger is associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the Ohio State University. She is the author of Writing a Usable Past: Russian Literary Culture 1917-1937 and coeditor of Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture

Read an Excerpt


A Biography

By Vladislav Khodasevich
Copyright © 2007

The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-22420-2

Chapter One IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY, during the reign of Grand Prince Vasily Vasilievich the Dark, the Tatar murza Bagrim came from the Great Horde to serve Muscovy. The grand prince christened him into the Orthodox faith and subsequently rewarded him with lands for his conscientious service. From Bagrim, according to the book of the Russian nobility, were descended the Narbekovs, the Akinfovs, and the Keglevs (or Teglevs). One of the Narbekovs received the nickname Derzhava (which means orb). He began his service in Kazan. It was he who was the progenitor of the Derzhavin family. The family possessed fairly good estates located along the shores of the small river Myosha, between the Volga and Kama rivers, about 35 or 40 versts from Kazan.

Over the course of time the lands came to be divided among heirs, sold, and mortgaged. Roman Nikolaevich Derzhavin, born in the year 1766, was to receive only a few scattered plots. On these estates the peasants numbered not hundreds and not dozens but only a few individuals.

Back in the year 1722, in the time of Peter the Great, Roman Nikolaevich entered the army and served, by turns, in various garrison regiments. His rank, like his income, was not great, although he was trusted by his superiors and loved by his fellow soldiers. He was not an ingratiating man but rather quite modest-indeed, perhaps something of a failure. At thirty-six he married a distant relative, Fyokla Andreevna Gorina, née Kozlova, a widow without children. The marriage did not add to his income: Fyokla Andreevna was almost as poor as he himself, and her villages were as scattered as his own. Yet even these wretched estates caused the Derzhavins to carry on incessant lawsuits with their neighbors. And these were lawless times. Every so often fights would ensue. For instance, a landowner named Chemadurov once enticed Roman Nikolaevich to his home, got him drunk on strong mead, and then-with no regard for his rank or title-beat him mercilessly with the help of relatives and servants. Roman Nikolaevich was laid up for several months, and after that the Derzhavins and the Chemadurovs remained enemies from one generation to the next for over one hundred and fifty years. Only in the eighties of the last century did their discord come to an end.

Following his marriage it is not known exactly where Roman Nikolaevich lived-possibly in Kazan itself or in one of his nearby villages. Almost precisely nine months after the wedding, his firstborn appeared. This event occurred on the third of July in the year 1743, on a Sunday. The infant was named in honor of the Archangel Gabriel, whose day is celebrated on the thirteenth of that month.

From birth he was quite weak, small, and skinny. He was subjected to a severe cure: according to the custom of that time and place, the child was baked into a loaf of bread. He did not die. When he was about a year old, a large comet with a six-rayed tail appeared in the sky. Ominous rumors circulated about it, and the people expected great calamities. When the comet was pointed out to the infant, he uttered his first word:


* * *

Soon Derzhavin's father was transferred to the city of Yaransk, in Vyatka province, and then to Stavropol, on the Volga, about one hundred versts from Samara. These little towns were wretched, merely groups of small wooden shacks. Life was also wretched-a remote, garrison-style life. In addition, their income was small and their family was growing. Within a year after the first, a second son was born, and then a daughter, although she did not survive for long.

The Derzhavins were people of limited education. Fyokla Andreevna was actually only semiliterate: it seems that she could do no more than sign her name. There was no talk of the arts or sciences in the house. Indeed, if not for their noble status, they might not have taught the children anything at all.

In those days, however, a certain level of education was obligatory for children of the nobility in view of their future service. This required level of knowledge was not at all high, but it was extraordinarily difficult to acquire. In all of Russia there were two or three educational institutions in Moscow and Petersburg. Few could actually place their children there-due to the long distances, the lack of vacancies, and so on. For this reason noble minors were granted deferments and permitted to be instructed in their own homes. Of course, this instruction had to be approved by the government, and it was thus necessary to present the children to the provincial administration for examinations or-to use the vocabulary of those days-for inspections by a predetermined date. The first such inspection was to take place at seven years of age, the second at twelve, and the third at sixteen. Government service was to begin at the age of twenty.

If they were relatively prosperous, the inhabitants of the capitals could send their children to boarding schools (which were, however, bad and few in number), or they could hire teachers. For provincials, especially poor ones like the Derzhavins, both alternatives were completely inaccessible. And thus, early on the problem of the boys' education became for them its own form of perpetual torment. As soon as he turned three, they began to teach Ganyushka his letters. This was not all that difficult: they found some "churchmen"-that is to say sacristans and sextons-to be his first teachers. From them he learned how to read and write. His mother-as mothers are wont to do-resorted to incentives: using toys and candies, she tried to give him a taste for reading religious books, such as the Psalter and the lives of the saints. For the first inspection this was sufficient, and Derzhavin passed it successfully.

As time passed, the situation became more difficult. The knowledge of the "churchmen" was already exhausted, and the boy continued to grow. When he was eight, fate took the family to Orenburg. At that time the city was being rebuilt in another location. For labor the government brought in a great number of convicts. One of them, the German Joseph Rose, found a different kind of work: he opened a school in Orenburg for noble children of both sexes. There was nothing surprising in this: both in those times and in later years foreign teachers were recruited, more often than not, from amongst the riffraff. The most noble Orenburg families gladly began to send their children to be schooled by Joseph Rose. There was no other school. Derzhavin found himself there as well.

In his institute Rose was both the director and the only instructor. By nature and habit he was a criminal and by education-an ignoramus. He subjected the children to assorted excruciating and even "indecent" punishments. He taught them only one subject-the German language, the grammar of which he himself did not know. There were no textbooks. The children copied and committed to memory foreign words and dialogues written by Rose himself-with, it is true, great calligraphic artistry, something he also demanded from the students. Be that as it may, Derzhavin somehow learned to speak, read, and write German from him. This was an important acquisition: the German language was in those days the foundation and sign of an education. Only later did French supplant it.

The boy was gifted and bright by nature. But life itself also forced him to become inquisitive very early on: whether he liked it or not, it was necessary for him to acquire knowledge, to gather it like crumbs wherever he could find it. Calligraphic exercises led him to pen-and-ink drawing. There were no teachers and no patterns. Using ink and ochre, he began by copying bogatyrs from cheap popular prints. He gave himself up to this activity "both day and night," between his lessons and at home. The walls of his room were papered and hung with Russian folk heroes. At the same time, he managed to acquire some knowledge of sketching and geometry from a geodesist who was working with his father, engaged in some kind of land surveying.

After two years in Orenburg, the family moved once again to their Kazan estates. In the autumn of 1753 Roman Nikolaevich made up his mind to undertake the long journey to Moscow and then to Petersburg. He had two reasons for this. First of all, he suffered from consumption, the result of an old riding injury, and he planned to retire from the service; this had to be taken care of in Moscow. His second reason was that he wanted to see to the future of his eldest son by registering him in advance, according to the laws of the time, in the cadet corps of the army or in the artillery. This required a trip to Petersburg, and Roman Nikolaevich took the boy with him. But in Moscow his efforts to receive his discharge dragged on. Roman Nikolaevich used up all his funds, and he had no money left for the trip to Petersburg. Thus, he had to return to his native lands without making arrangements for his son. At the beginning of 1754 the decree confirming Roman Nikolaevich's retirement came through, and in November of the same year he died.

He left his widow and children in a most sorry state. There was not even enough money to pay a fifteen-ruble debt that remained after his death. The estates, as before, provided no income: the neighbors continued to take the law into their own hands, simply seizing pieces of the Derzhavins' lands or building mills by the dozen and flooding the Derzhavins' meadows. Now all the vagaries of the legal struggle fell to the widow. She had neither money nor protectors, and in the offices of Kazan their adversaries prevailed. With her small sons Fyokla Andreevna went from judge to judge. Holding the orphans by the hand, she would stand at doors and in entryways for hours, only to be driven away without a hearing. She would return home and weep. Gavriil saw all of this, and "his mother's suffering from injustice remained eternally etched on his heart."

Meanwhile, the time of the second inspection was approaching. Despite the difficulties it caused, Fyokla Andreevna hired two teachers: the garrison schoolmaster Lebedev and the cadet Poletaev. Neither one was very well versed in the sciences. In arithmetic they were limited to the primary operations and in geometry to sketching figures. However, for the inspection this would do, and in 1757 Fyokla Andreevna set off for Petersburg with her sons, planning to present them for inspection and then to enroll them in one of the educational institutions there.

They stopped in Moscow to register the boys' papers at the Heraldry Office. But it turned out that Fyokla Andreevna did not have the necessary documents to demonstrate either their noble status or her late husband's service record. While the bureaucratic entanglements continued, the condition of the roads worsened, and the money ran out as well. Again Petersburg was out of the question. Fortunately, a kind relative turned up in Moscow. With his help they received a new deferment for the minor Gavriil Derzhavin, to the age of sixteen, and returned to Kazan, having put off the trip to Petersburg until the following year.

But Derzhavin was not destined to study in Petersburg. The following year a grammar school opened in Kazan-a kind of colony or outpost of the new Moscow University. Derzhavin enrolled in the grammar school. Many subjects were taught there: Latin, French, and German languages, and also arithmetic, geometry (but no algebra),music, dancing, and fencing. The teachers, however, were no better than the garrison schoolmaster Lebedev and the cadet Poletaev. As before, there were no textbooks. They studied "faith-without a catechism; languages-without grammar books; numbers and geometry-without proofs; melodies-without sheet music; and so forth." The teachers quarreled and sent denunciations of each other and of the director, Veryovkin, to Moscow. Veryovkin himself was a Moscow University graduate, a young man who was not overly learned but who was energetic and knew how to put on a good show for the authorities. He tried to compensate for the deficiencies in teaching with ceremonial speech days, on which the students performed Sumarokov's tragedies and Molière's comedies and declaimed rote speeches composed by the teachers in four languages. Prayer services were conducted and cannon were fired. In allegorical representations cardboard figures of Lomonosov and Sumarokov (who were both still alive then) clambered up a rocky Parnassus so as to extol the empress Elizaveta Petrovna, as instructed by a cardboard Jupiter. Sometimes the best students, including Derzhavin, were sent off on strange missions: to conduct excavations in Bolgary, an ancient Tatar city, or to lay out a new plan for the city of Cheboksary. Veryovkin sent grandiose reports to Moscow about all of this to the head dean, Ivan Ivanovich Shuvalov. In 1760 Derzhavin was informed that for his successes in geometry he had been enrolled in the corps of engineers. He began to dress in the corps of engineers uniform, and from that time forward he was attached to the artillery section during school festivities.

Suddenly, three years after enrolling in the grammar school, Derzhavin had to leave without having obtained any particular knowledge. In Petersburg Shuvalov had made a mess of the Kazan pupils' papers, and instead of the corps of engineers, Derzhavin turned out to have been enrolled as a soldier in the light guard of the Preobrazhensky regiment, with a leave granted only through the first of January 1762. By the time the Preobrazhensky regiment sent Derzhavin's "passport" to the Kazan grammar school, this term had already expired. There was no way out: without warning Derzhavin the schoolboy had become a soldier. He had to leave for Petersburg immediately. His mother collected the money for his journey and an extra hundred rubles for his future life. It was February 1762. Derzhavin was not to reach Petersburg until March.

Chapter Two "OH, LAD! YOU'VE OVERSTAYED YOUR LEAVE!," laughed the regimental duty officer, Major Tekutev, looking at his passport. And in a thunderous voice he ordered Derzhavin to be led to the regiment's courtyard.

At first he was threatened with arrest for his tardiness. In the office Derzhavin did not lose his head and forced them to look over the entire file. He had the right to demand an assignment to the corps of engineers and a leave until he reached the age of twenty. However, for that he would need both money and patrons. He settled for avoiding punishment and being enrolled in company three as a private. Because of his poverty, he was unable to rent an apartment as a nobleman ought. He had to take up lodging in the barracks.

He dressed in the uniform of the Preobrazhensky regiment. This consisted of a short, dark-green jacket with gold tabs on the collar, along the lines of a Holstein uniform. From beneath the dress jacket peeked a yellow camisole. The trousers were also yellow, and for the head a powdered wig-with a thick braid bent upward and ringlets pasted on with a thick tallow pomade-stuck out over the ears.

These were severe times for military men. Emperor Peter III had been on the throne for only three months, acting the willful tyrant, abruptly reforming the army along the Prussian-Holstein model, and preparing for a pointless attack on Denmark.

From the first day the junior officer (called the aide-de-camp in those days) began to teach Derzhavin the rifle manual and front-line maneuvers. Derzhavin's thoughts were focused elsewhere, the life of a soldier seeming to him a calamity and an insult. However, thanks to his natural diligence and the persistence with which he had long ago become accustomed to approaching all activities, in this training, too, he wanted to catch up with his company comrades, who had begun their service before him. Using the one hundred rubles that his mother had given him, he took it into his head to pay the aide-de-camp for additional lessons. Soon he was so proficient in the exercises that he was chosen to participate in the inspection details of which Peter III was such a great enthusiast.

Service was no laughing matter, and it occupied the whole day. In addition to the line drills and the inspections, he had to stand sentry duty in the regiment courtyard or at the palace cellars. (At the beginning Derzhavin was not put on sentry duty inside the palace.) The soldiers were continually detailed for work duties, such as snow removal, canal cleaning, and the conveyance of provisions from stores. Finally, the officers made them run their errands. There were no holidays.


Excerpted from Derzhavin by Vladislav Khodasevich Copyright © 2007 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Illustrations....................ix
Note on the Translation....................xiii
Translator's Introduction....................xv
A CHRONOLOGY: Life of Gavrila Derzhavin....................xxvii
Derzhavin: A Biography Author's Preface....................3
Chapter 1....................5
Chapter 2....................11
Chapter 3....................36
Chapter 4....................75
Chapter 5....................104
Chapter 6....................127
Chapter 7....................155
Chapter 8....................182
Chapter 9....................201

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