kicked out of odessa -- 11/23/21

Today's selection -- from Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King. Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, 1799-1837, is kicked out of Odessa by his lover's husband:

"There, amid an angelic choir of widows and ingénues, dark-haired foreigners and fine-featured Russians, is a woman seven years [older than Alexander Pushkin], someone with whose likeness he decorated [his] manuscript more often than any other -- [Count] Vorontsov's wife, Lise.

"When exactly Lise and Pushkin first met is uncertain, but the small size of Odessa's high society and the necessarily public life of the governor-general's wife meant that they would have encountered one another at some point early in Pushkin's stay. He had taken rooms in the Hôtel du Nord, located on Italian Street, but soon moved to another hotel nearer the sea, at the corner of Deribasovskaya and Richelieu streets, where he could take in the fresh air and recuperate after his sojourn in Bessarabia. (A desperate need to breath the rejuvenating air was one of the reasons he had adduced for requesting a transfer to the coast.) From there, he regularly made his way to a calendar of events that packed the long warm social season.

"Lise enjoyed creative socializing, and the galas, balls, and suppers she organized were renowned across the empire. 'It was difficult to leave Odessa,' complained a contemporary Russian visitor, 'since I did not want to absent myself from the company of the count and countess, the likes of which are not to be found in other parts' ...

"A visitor to the Vorontsov palace might have descended into the residence's grand salon around nine o'clock in the evening. A band would already be playing as the guests, some masked and others in fancy dress, perhaps in the tunic and trousers of a Russian coachman or the lace apron of a Swiss peasant, turned quadrilles on the parquet floor. Suddenly, a giant sugarloaf might glide onto the dance floor, out of which would pop an old man doing a lively jig. Amid the dancers, dressed in the brocaded and corded coatee of a Hussar cavalryman, was the Countess Vorontsova herself, welcoming the guests who had just arrived from their country estates or from the streets leading off Nikolaevsky Boulevard: General Lev Naryshkin, Vorontsov's cousin, and his wife Olga; her family, the Potockis, the great Polish-Russian landholders; Baron Rainaud, a French hotelier (and Pushkin's landlord); the Shcherbinins and the Blarembergs, the Pushchin's and the Raevskys. 

Elizaveta Ksaverevna Vorontsova, wife of Mikhail Vorontsov, Governor General of Novorossiysk and Bessarabia

"With his newfound commercial success and a rebounding reputation -- 'The Fountain of Bakhchisaray' was on its way to publication, and printers were clamoring for rights to further editions of 'The Captive of the Caucus' -- Pushkin's natural swagger only increased. He may have met the countess in the autumn or early winter of 1823, perhaps at a seasonal ball or at one of the governor-general's twice weekly entertainments, over a session of parlor games or whist. Pushkin fell for her as quickly as Vorontsov had done just a few years earlier.

"His affections, by all accounts, were returned. Lise was known to enjoy the flirtatious interactions that even a provincial city such as Odessa had raised to a high art. Pushkin's witticisms and impromptu verses were a striking contrast to Vorontsov's business-like bearing. More important, the governor-general, following established form among Russia's noble class, had himself already taken a mistress, Olga Naryshkin, nearly a decade younger than Lise. Olga was married to a prominent general, but the affair was a public secret.

"In the bitter winter of 1823-1824 with the edges of the Black Sea encrusted in salty ice and the winds howling down unpaved streets from the flatlands beyond, the poet and the countess developed a relationship that soon became the scandal of Odessa society. The affair was probably consummated in early February, when Vorontsov was away in Kishinev, an encounter that Pushkin noted in the marginalia of the Evgeny Onegin manuscript as a 'soupé chez C.E.W.' -- ' had supper with Countess Elise Woronzoff,' using the French initials of her name.

"As winter gave way to spring, and with the return of the governor-general to the city, the couple began meeting at a country villa owned by Baron Rainaud, the prominent hotelier. Rainaud had constructed a bathing area in the seaside cliffs bordering his rural estate. The hideaway, detached from the city but still close enough for the two lovers to slip away to throughout the season, produced one of the more plainly erotic of Pushkin's short verses:

Love's refuge is ever filled

With a coolness, murky and damp.

There the waves, unabashed, 

Never silence their prolonged roar.

"The affair was apparently not the first for Lise. Like many couples of the era, she and her husband had settled into an arrangement that allowed both partners a considerable degree of sexual license. The problem was Pushkin's insistence on flouting a relationship that was intended, by social convention, to remain decorously unspoken. As one of Pushkin's biographers has noted, the poet bent to the common temptation of despising those one has injured. His weapon of choice was the epigram. 'Half milord, half shopkeeper' was one quick summary he gave of Vorontsov's character. 'Half hero, half ignoramus' was another.

"Those ill-considered lines -- which circulated widely in several different versions -- clearly reflected Pushkin's public attitude toward Vorontsov. It was a careless and dangerous way of behaving. Vorontsov was not only his lover's husband -- and by rights deserving of some public respect, even though now a known cuckold -- but also Pushkin's boss. After all, the poet's only reason for being in Odessa was to serve on the governor-general's staff. A dismissal without a recommendation for further employment meant that Pushkin would be in genuine exile, wandering about the Russian plains without promise of aid or station, and still prevented from returning to St. Petersburg. But Vorontsov was in a bind too. Since the tsar had banished Pushkin, the sovereign's express permission was necessary to remove him from the governor-general's care. 'Deliver me from Pushkin,' Vorontsov wrote to the Russian foreign minister, Count Karl Nesselrode, in the spring of 1824. 'He may be an excellent fellow and a good poet, but I don't want to have him any longer, wither in Odessa or Kishinev.'

"Suddenly, in one of those miraculous and disastrous occurrences for which Odessa was already becoming famous, a new calamity descended on the city and provided the vehicle of Vorontsov's unexpected deliverance: an infestation of locusts... Like Richelieu during the plague crisis a decade earlier, Vorontsov reckoned that more information about the relative size of each year's locust brood could contribute to devising a better strategy for dealing with the expected attack. In May, the governor-general officially ordered Pushkin to proceed through several rural districts and survey the extent of the locust egg population, assess the efficacy of efforts to destroy the eggs before they hatched later in the summer, and offer his conclusions in a written report.

"It was a shocking assignment. Pushkin had never penned a single official document throughout his time in government service. Rustication, to count locust eggs no less, was clearly a calculated rebuff. Pushkin protested in writing. He was a littérateur of some renown, he said. He was a self-confessed failure as a government official and would make a hash of the job. He had an aneurysm that might pop at any moment. None of that persuaded Vorontsov. Pushkin was soon dispatched on his mission against the tiny invaders."



Charles King


Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2011 by Charles King


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