Derek Davis: Pushkin’s Journey to Arzrum

This month the JRAS published a special supplement consisting of Derek Davis’ translation and commentary on Pushkin’s A Journey to Arzrum during the 1829 Campaign. In today’s blog Mr Davis writes about the development of his interest in Russian language, literature and, in particular, Pushkin.


The Journal Supplement Journey to Arzrum which has just been sent out is the result of many years’ engagement with Asia, during which Pushkin has been a constant travel-companion (hamrahi/sputnik).

It all started at school, when we were suddenly told we had to broaden our education by taking on an extra subject. The square-jawed Soviet lyotchik (pilot) with his istrebitel’ (fighter) of Gleb Struve’s 1950s primer, the strange new words and impossible consonant clusters (“Do they really say shch?” Answer: “Not quite like that!”) eventually fell into place, leading on to treasures like Pushkin’s lyric “I loved you…” (Ya vas lyubil).  Maurice Baring, a classically educated early doyen of Russian literature, enthused: “could only have been written either in Russian or in Greek”. He meant that the poem, magically and instantly, placed itself on a par with the Greek Anthology’s most cherished gems. People are so carried away by its poignantly intimate lines and delicacy of sentiment that they barely notice, as I did years later, that the lady is formally addressed (vy = vous) from the outset. Pushkin rarely operates on one level.

By 1962 I had a Russian A level, had visited Russia and, armed with Hindi-Russian dictionaries and conversational phrasebook, was at Scindia School, Gwalior, where I taught Shakespeare, Dickens and Gerald Durrell to 13-year-olds who would go on to become public servants, generals, admirals, businessmen and academics. I staged Sophocles’ Antigone in their hemispherical open-air theatre for the school Founder’s Day. Unlike European actors, the cast made light work of the choruses, helped by the continuing tradition of song and dance in Hindi movies, such as Hamrahi (1963) with its catchy hit number Mujhko apne gale laga lo (“Gimme a hug”).

In spare time I quite failed to get ahead with Homer’s Iliad, as Robert Ogilvie at Balliol hoped I would in the land of the Mahabharata. I turned rather to Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin, spurred partly by Commissar Maxim Litvinoff’s wife Ivy’s translation picked up at Sahitya Sadan bookshop in the town, where Baryshnya-Krestyanka (“A Rustic Miss”) had become “Lady-into-Lassie”!

I returned in 1963 deeply impressed with Eurasian language and culture continuities, long predating modern globalisation, and determined to explore the intervening terrain. In 1965 Chris Bayly and I did just that, travelling overland to India via Erzurum and meeting up with Jack Gallagher, then Beit Professor of Commonwealth History, in Delhi. As Chris himself explained, the trip influenced his decision to pursue Indian rather than Russian history.

At college I had already embarked on a first version of Pushkin’s Arzrum, drawn by these interconnections, and was wrestling with questions like: “Did Yermolov’s jaws ache reading Griboyedov because he was roaring with laughter or couldn’t get his mouth round the verse?” Miss N Trubitsyna, who gave Russian lessons in Chalfont Road, wasn’t sure. Yermolov himself would eventually explain: unreadable. But she did help locate Goryachovodsk as Pyatigorsk and with many other things.

During my civil service career I persevered in odd moments with Pushkin, particularly the History of Pugachov (1833). He had to disguise that a friend had lent him the official military correspondence from the archives and did so with a characteristically artful red herring in the preface. Downplaying the History secured his path to publication but at a price: people still suppose Pushkin’s account is incomplete.  I suspected that his much-loved companion novel The Captain’s Daughter (1836) had some commonality with Scott’s Surgeon’s Daughter (1827). If so, this was early Russian and British Indian mutual mirroring – our hero rescuing his bride from the villain (Shvabrin/Middlemas) in the midst of more major conflict.

I did eventually translate a few poems for the late Iain Sproat, who quite liked them. He was pursuing a project for the Gorbachevs, an English collected works. Raisa Gorbachev, concerned that the English did not “get” Pushkin, hoped somehow to break down the barrier. Trained myself in Greek and Latin verse composition, I was more interested in the freer medium of prose. In the hands of masters like Thucydides, Sallust or Tacitus it achieves its own tautness, rhythm and power of expression; Pushkin’s prose ranked with the best.

Translating it presented familiar challenges. I began to wonder, as with Greek and Latin, whether one would ever get sufficient handle on nuance to deploy the ample resources of English to precise effect and pursued similar methods (Liddell & Scott, Lewis & Short etc). Investment in the four-volume Pushkin concordance (Slovar’ yazyka Pushkina) gradually paid off.

An added hurdle is helping the French-oriented cross the Channel. Pushkin, trained in French, actively preferred to devote himself to Russian. Unsurprisingly, he goes more readily into French than English. The opposite is true of Premchand (JRAS Vol 25 pp 269-300), who majored similarly on Urdu and Hindi a century later, because his framework of reference was English. But literary trafic transmanche is more manageable than sometimes allowed.

In retirement I turned back to Arzrum, realising by then that this was a pivotal moment in history which brought British India and Russia face to face in Persia and Ottoman Turkey. It cast the die for an Asian rivalry which would be played back from India to London as Russian inheritance of Napoleon’s “threat to India”.

For Russia, capture of Erzurum in 1829 marked a high point of achievement after which political divisions shaped by the 1825 Decembrist Revolt hardened. Pushkin devoted seven years to ensuring Arzrum was published in almost impossible circumstances. It is not just the fine travelogue regularly reissued as a genre classic. It is a key part of his tribute to his generation. Russia’s ambassador to Persia, A S Griboyedov murdered at Tehran in 1829 – a friend with whom Pushkin had hoped to travel – stands symbolically at their forefront. Pushkin’s messages and hopes for Russia’s future are tucked away more artfully even than usual in the Journey. The commentary explains the circumstances and elucidates the content.

The political developments of 1827-9 were very much at the heart of RAS members’ contemporary interests. A further instalment will cover the Society’s early Russian connections and how Firuza Melville and I renewed these more recently.

Derek Davis


Derek Davis standing with a portrait of Pushkin