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20 July 2016

‘The best of these was Derzhavin…’: Gavrila Romanovich Derzhavin (1743-1816)

In 1924, introducing the first Oxford Book of Russian Verse (Oxford, 1924; 011586.f.70), the British travel writer, wit and man of letters Maurice Baring noted that the first author represented in it was Gavrila Romanovich Derzhavin. Like Baring, Derzhavin had had a distinguished military career (he had won renown while serving in Catherine the Great’s army during the Pugachev rebellion), but was also a man of wide cultural interests, well-read and fluent in French. It was this which caused Baring to describe him as ‘a master of the French classical manner, in whose work the elements of real poetical beauty entitle him to be called the first Russian poet’. True, poets had begun to emerge in Russia as French literary influences spread during the reign of the enlightened Empress, but none equalled his gifts, leading Baring to remark that ‘the best of these was Derzhavin’. In selecting and editing the poems for the first anthology to make Russian verse available in the original to a wider public, Baring considered that Derzhavin represented the true beginning of the country’s poetic tradition.

Title-page with frontispiece portrait from Derzhavin's 'Sochineniia'
Title-page with portrait from G.R. Derzhavin Sochineniia (St Petersburg, 1851)

Although Derzhavin’s family claimed descent from Morza Bagrim, a member of the Golden Horde  who settled in Moscow in the 15th century, accepted baptism and became a vassal of Grand Prince Vasilii II, his own circumstances were comparatively humble. He was born in Kazan on 14 July 1743 to a father who was little more than a modest country landowner, and who died before Gavrila grew up. Educated at the Kazan gymnasium, he served as a private in the army but rose through the ranks to achieve a still more distinguished career in the civil service, appointed as Governor of Olonets and of Tambov, personal secretary to Catherine the Great, and finally Minister of Justice (1802) in the government of Alexander I.

Title page from an early edition of Derzhavin’s works
Title page from an early edition of Derzhavin’s works (St Petersburg, 1808) 1509/3064

When dismissed from this post the following year (he opposed the new Tsar’s liberal views), he was able to retire to his estate at Zvanka near Novgorod and devote himself to literature. He also had an establishment on the banks of the Fontanka in St. Petersburg where he hosted meetings of the Lovers of the Russian Word (Beseda liubitelei russkogo slova), a conservative literary society which met from 1811 and (ironically in view of major influences on Derzhavin’s work) attempted to cleanse the Russian language of Gallicisms and promote folk traditions and Old Church Slavonic as a more acceptable foundation for national culture.

Title-page of 'Title page of 'Irod i Mariamna' with a handwritten inscription and the 'ex libris' stamp of a former owner
Title page of Derzhavin’s play Irod i Mariamna (St. Petersburg, 1809) 1609/4532

The reasons for the society’s opposition to French influences were entirely comprehensible in view of the turbulent political climate of the times; indeed, one of Derzhavin’s most celebrated odes was a ‘lyric-epic hymn’ on the driving of the French from Russia in 1812 (St. Petersburg, 1813; 1601/452. (2.)). However, the influence of the classical drama of Racine and Corneille persisted in his five-act tragedy Irod i  Mariamna (‘Herod and Mariamne’) , although the Anacreontic verses which he had penned earlier, are part of a tradition found in other areas of European literature, notably in German, at that time.

  Title-page of 'Anakreonticheskiia piesni' with a bust of Anakreon and a lyre
Title-page of Derzhavin’s anacreontic poems, Anakreonticheskiia piesni (St Petersburg, 1804) 1160.k.11

Derzhavin’s work was soon translated; in 1793 August von Kotzebue  published a German translation of his poems in Leipzig (, and the British Library also holds a Latin version of his hymn to the Deity: De Deo. Carmen Rossiacum illustris Derzavini Latinis elegis explicuit Stanislaus Czerski (Vilnius, 1819; 11426.ccc.17. (6.)). It also possesses a translation of the same ode ‘translated from the Russian of Derzhazin [sic]’. It appears in an album compiled by Sir John Bowring, a scholar and diplomat with an interest in Slavonic languages and literature, and is described as ‘Printed for Mr. W. Stokes, teacher of memory. For the use of his pupils’.

Printed broadside with a translation of Derzhavin's 'Ode to the Deity'
Derzhavin, Ode to the Deity, translated by Sir John Bowring (London, [1861]) 1872.a.1(77)

Derzhavin’s own memory, though honoured in his native country, has not fared so well outside it. After his death on 20 July 1816, the literary society which he had done so much to foster was dissolved, although it was resuscitated in the 1850s, and for modern readers Opinion, the anti-Semitic tract which he wrote when commissioned by Tsar Paul to investigate famines in Belorussia, makes unpalatable reading with its proposals to deny autonomy to Jewish communities in the Russian empire and enforce their resettlement in colonies on the Black Sea. As an innovator, though, his use of broken rhythms would prove to be a powerful influence on subsequent writers of Russian verse, and he did much to promote awareness of the potential of the Russian language as a rich literary medium and ensure its place in the world of European literature, despite his prophetic view that although French was a language of harmony, Russian was one of conflict.

Susan Halstead Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences), Research Engagement