Famous travelers to Türkiye: Alexander Pushkin, poet of prejudice

Lord Byron, who has already been featured in this series, created a new type of character somewhat modeled on himself – that of the Byronic hero. Unlike traditional literary heroes who evince virtue as they struggle against wrongdoing or fate, the Byronic hero is a disillusioned unprincipled egoist. In English literature, the Byronic hero features in the works of two of the greatest authors of the 19th century, the sisters Emily and Charlotte Bronte. Heathcliff of the former’s “Wuthering Heights” is the most extreme form of the Byronic hero. Self-obsessed, he displays a savagery of behavior to all who cross him. The far softer type is that of Edward Rochester in “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte. He is a far more attractive character than Heathcliff, but he still manifests the Byronic hero in being amoral and disenchanted with the world.

In Russian literature, the Byronic hero features in the work of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), the subject of this installment of the “Travelers to Türkiye” series. His character of Eugene Onegin is an example of this literary type. Pushkin’s Onegin is so well depicted because Pushkin grew up in what he calls “intolerable” circumstances, being unloved by his mother, fearing his father and feeling like an outsider in some measure due to his partial African ancestry. These ingredients helped to form him into a real-life Byronic hero himself.

In the earlier piece on Byron, the question of whether this series of famous visitors to Türkiye was to include a traveler who was opposed to the people and place was raised. Byron was not such a figure, but Pushkin was. Pushkin’s upbringing created a bitter man who sought to assuage his outsider status in nationalistic Russian feelings, often blinding him to the state of non-Russian people.

Ironically, such a person can produce great literature, such as his masterpiece Eugene Onegin, a verse novel containing his eponymous Byronic hero. Although this work is not particularly well-known outside of Russia, it is truly one of the masterpieces of world literature. It is relatively short, yet to give some idea of his worth, the Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov wrote four volumes of exegesis upon it. In Eugene Onegin, Pushkin’s shifts in tone evince a scarce literary skill. He both mocks and creates pathos for the same characters. Moreover, unlike much 19th-century male-authored literature, rather than a bland, invariably blonde heroine, Pushin makes the dark-haired Tatania, who, rather than Onegin himself, is the real hero of the work, a sympathetic figure who achieves transcendence.

Yet, as this series is on travelers to Türkiye, this piece will examine Pushkin’s 1830 travelogue “Journey to Azrum,” the city much more commonly known as Erzurum, eastern Türkiye. Unfortunately, as a piece of literature, it is as disappointing as Eugene Onegin is great. During Pushkin’s journey in 1829, Russia was making one of its periodic attacks on Ottoman territory, this time from the northeast.

“Alexander Pushkin on the Black Sea” by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky. (Getty Images Photo)

Pushkin in eastern Türkiye

In “Journey to Azrum,” upon nearing the traditional Ottoman-Russian border in Anatolia, Pushkin says he espies a “white, snow-capped mountain” in the distance. Upon being told that it is Ararat, Pushkin gushes: “How powerful an effect a few vowels can have! I glanced at the biblical mountain and saw the ark moored to its summit in the hope of life’s renewal – and the raven and the dove flying forth from it, symbols of punishment and reconciliation.”

At the border, Pushkin is euphoric regarding the Arpaçay. This river divides Russia from the Ottoman Empire, as being “as good as Ararat,” as up to that point, he had never “set eyes on foreign soil.” He then crosses the river on horseback. This positive tone is soon to sour, however. On the road to Kars, he soon starts to carp about the food, the local people and the local conditions. Despite finding Kars more to his liking, his smug pleasure in tricking a Turkish officer who has asked for his papers with a page of poetry is tasteless. After all, there is no reason why this Turkish official should be able to read Russian. Out of Kars, he crosses the country until he reaches the camp of the Russian invaders.

He accompanies them as they move westward, engaging in skirmishes with the Ottomans. Although Pushkin is excited by the conflict, the landscape leaves him cold; he describes it as “dreary.” Finally, he reaches Hasankale with the troops. He then sees the famous Çobandede Bridge and bathes in the hot springs, though it makes him feel ill. Further on, the mountains surrounding Erzurum do not impress him either. Yet, he seems to appreciate the view from them. He declares that “from the height of the mountain, in a hollow, Arzrum with its citadel, its minarets, its green roofs glued together, opened up before us.”


When Erzurum capitulates to the Russians, Pushkin enters the city, noting that “Turks gloomily surveyed us from their flat roofs.” He feels honored to be welcomed by a pasha, who is learning that Pushkin is a poet and praises him as one of “the lords of the earth.” Pushkin declares himself “delighted” by this. Nevertheless, his bitterness soon resurfaces again. Having looked at the city, Pushkin declares:

“I know of no expression more meaningless than the words: Asiatic luxury. This saying probably came into existence at the time of the Crusades, when poor knights, having left their castles’ bare walls and oak chairs, saw for the very first time red divans, colorful carpets, and daggers with colored gemstones on their hilts. Nowadays, one can say, Asiatic poverty, Asiatic swinishness, and so on … In Azrum, you cannot buy for any money what you can easily find in a grocer’s in any small town of Pskov province (in Russia).”

Even though the countryside he passed, Pushkin has already noted that “the inhabitants had fled,” he does not seem to consider that the Russian invasion had severely disrupted the economic situation in Erzurum and the surrounding region. As for “swinishness,” this is not an attitude encountered by other travelers so far in this series. They met instead with the fabled Turkish hospitality. However, hospitality is extended to the welcome guest by a host. In contrast, Pushkin entered the city amid a hated occupying army, so, astonishingly, he expected to be treated with courtesy.

Unlike Byron, who sees serenity in Turkish cemeteries, Pushkin regards the one at Erzurum as a bland place. He also asserts that “the mosques are low and dark,” which is especially odd considering that Erzurum is home to the old lofty Grand Mosque with its soaring portal. Of his trip to the hammam, he once again manifests his sullenness, claiming that “I cursed the filthiness of the towels, the wretched service and so on.”

Like Byron in Epirus, Pushkin stays in a local palace. But in his case, it has “been pillaged.” He blames its former occupant, the Ottoman commander who has fled, for its loss of furnishings. However, not only would this commander have had every right to try to keep this property from the invaders, but one suspects perhaps the arriving Russians had some hand in the looting. Also, strangely, Pushkin seems to regard its being requisitioned as a headquarters for a frenetic Russian commander carving up conquered territory as progress.

Additionally, Pushkin tells of a visit there by the Pasha of Muş, who wants to be installed as the Russian puppet ruler of Erzurum. This pasha is emotionally affected by one of the palace rooms as it turns out his father had been executed in it by the old Ottoman governor. Pushkin exclaims, “Here are truly Oriental impressions for you!” as if such a tale was almost beyond his comprehension. However, suppose this is indeed a case of barbarity. In that case, it is worth remembering that the Russian Gen. Alexey Yermolov, the cruel conqueror of the Caucasus admired by Pushkin, did not earn his nickname “the butcher” by being benevolent.

With a Russian officer, Pushkin visits the house of another pasha who had been captured by the Russians and tells them he is worried about “the safety of the harem he had left behind.” From the outset, Pushkin treats this as if the pasha’s only concern is sexually motivated. In contrast, the pasha in question was almost certainly concerned about the state of his home.

“Alexander Pushkin with His Wife at the Ball” by Nikolai Pavlovich Ulyanov. (Getty Images Photo)

At the house, despite being politely received by the pasha’s aged father and reassured by him that all is fine, the Russian officer rudely insists that he has come to interview the harem women. In the context of the time, this would have been scandalous in the extreme and demonstrates the cultural insensitivity of the Russian invaders. Failing to deter them, the older man attempts to preserve the household’s honor by getting the pasha’s mother, fully veiled, to pretend to be one of the pasha’s wives. However, the Russians see through the pretense, and in the end, one of the harem’s women gets interviewed. At this time, Pushkin spots another group of women from the harem in the window. His final comment on them is that “all of them had pleasant faces, but there wasn’t a single beauty among them” while “the woman at the door … was probably mistress of the harem, the treasury of hearts, the Rose of Love – at least, that’s what I imagined.”

Pushkin’s two subsequent comments are astounding. Firstly, and without a trace of irony, he relates that he and the officer “returned extremely satisfied with our diplomacy,” as if such a peaceable term could in any way encompass such an aggressive violation of the mores of another culture. The second is that he exclaims, “I saw a harem: few Europeans have succeeded in doing that!” His direct observation had, however, not escaped him from the Orientalist cliches of seeing the harem as purely a place of physicality.

Toward the end of his stay in Erzurum, he learns of an outbreak of the plague in the city. In the bazaar, a beggar who is seemingly infected with it pathetically touches him in the hope of some help. Rather than feel some sympathy or perhaps offer him some aid, Pushkin, as he relates, “pushed the beggar away with a feeling of indescribable revulsion and returned home extremely unhappy with my stroll.” Still, his fascination with this disease overcomes his wariness to the degree that he visits the Russian-run plague camp. But, he says, “I did not dismount and took the precaution of standing with my back to the wind.” A plague victim is brought to him to look at. After voyeuristically examining him, Pushkin states, “I turned my attention to the two Turks who led him under the arms, undressed him, and touched him as though the plague were nothing worse than a cold.” Pushkin admits here to feeling “ashamed” of his antithetical behavior. This is the only part of his writing on Erzurum in which any genuine admiration for its local inhabitants is given.

As Pushkin prepares to leave, it becomes clear that the Russians are about to be driven out of this occupied territory. On his return to Russia, Pushkin expresses his pleasure to return to his “dear fatherland.” He was still only 30 years old and would not have been able to foresee then that his death was not far off in the future. Much like characters in his literary work, in a strange case of life-initiating art, Pushkin was to fall victim to a duel fought over a woman, his wife, in 1837.

Note on Russian literature

The question of how a writer can produce this highly prejudicial work that contains such a lack not only of empathy but even basic understanding for a people under unwanted occupation and yet other works of great literary merit deserves to be looked at.

The answer has something to do with a core element in Russian literature. More than any other main European nationality, the great Russian writers seem obsessed with their own country. “Mother Russia” casts her influential shadow over the work of all of her literary sons and daughters, and in the cases of the exceptionally talented, that shadow is deep. Thus, the great Russian writers consciously deal with Russian themes, characters and landscapes. They can penetrate deeply into what they regard as the Russian soul, potentially leaving simplistic prejudicial depictions of non-Russians, as in this case with Pushkin. This explains how Pushkin could write so severely on the Turks of Erzurum, but it would seem to preclude any claim for Russian literature of universality. Indeed, however, the great works of Russian literature are universal; otherwise, their popularity worldwide, especially among those for whom the Russian elements have no special or direct familiarity and yet who feel it speaks directly to them, would be inexplicable.

The reason is sure that, despite the feeling of the great Russian writers for the uniqueness of the Russian people and their cultural traditions, the truth is that our common humanity plays a much more significant determining factor in character formation than culture does. Therefore, while the Russian writers consciously and brilliantly delineate Russian characters, they inadvertently produce universal types of human beings relatable across cultural barriers. Nevertheless, the Russian-blinders of the writers themselves can prevent them from being able to do the same with people of other cultural backgrounds, rendering stereotypes instead.

Before closing, one further point about Pushkin ought to be noted. It is that Pushkin, according to at least his account, prevents an atrocity. Before reaching Erzurum, Pushkin is in an area in which Turkish prisoners of the Russians are being held. He relates that:

“Out of the woods came a Turk, pressing a bloody rag to his wound. Some soldiers approached him to finish him off with their bayonets, perhaps out of humanity. But he disturbed me beyond all measure; I interceded for the poor Turk and managed to lead him, exhausted and dripping with blood, to a small group of his comrades.”

Despite it being highly dubious that “humanity” has anything to do with the intentions of the Russian soldiers, if Pushkin’s account is valid, his saving of one real Turkish life perhaps more than counterbalances his prejudicial treatment of the Turks in his writings, and this at least can be held to his credit. Added to his brilliance in his other works, these factors will hopefully encourage readers to try Pushkin if they have not yet done so, although it is suggested that they leave “Journey to Azrum” well alone.

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