JANUARY 8 marks the bicentennial of an event known to all lovers of Russian poetry. This was the day, in 1815, that the renowned poet Gavrila Romanovich Derzhavin attended a public examination at the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum, a select institution established on the grounds of the imperial family’s residence outside St. Petersburg.
What makes the event so iconic is that Alexander Pushkin, the greatest poet of the next generation (and arguably all succeeding generations), still a schoolboy, recited his own verse for Derzhavin, then considered the greatest living Russian poet. By all accounts, the recitation sent Gavrila Romanovich into raptures. Much later, in a line of poetry addressed to his fellow alumnae, Pushkin wrote “The old Derzhavin took note of us/And, one foot in the grave, gave us his blessing.”
Pushkin’s classmate and close friend, Ivan Pushchin, wrote in his memoirs: “At our public examination, Derzhavin crowned our young poet with his sovereign blessing.† All of us, his comrades, were proud of this triumph. At the time, Pushkin recited his ‘Recollections at Tsarskoye Selo.’ This magnificent poem touches on everything vital to the Russian heart. Pushkin read with extraordinary verve.”
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