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Block I Illinois Library Illinois Open Publishing Network


Vol. 9 (2021)

Konstantin Batiushkov "An Evening at Kantemir’s" (1816): Translation, Introduction and Notes by Marcus C. Levitt



Konstantin Batiushkov’s “An Evening at Kantemir’s” (Vecher u Kantemira, 1816) is unique as a work of literature, a document of Russian intellectual history, and a cultural and artistic manifesto. The “Evening” takes its cue from the popular Enlightenment genre of “dialogues with the dead,” although Batiushkov brings together people who were contemporaries rather than widely separated historical figures, as was usual.  In it, the poet Antiokh Kantemir (1708-44) challenges Montesquieu’s argument from The Spirit of Laws that Russia’s harsh climate has resulted in its alleged lack of civilization.  Batiushkov was rewriting history with hindsight, and one of the charming aspects of the work is its slightly humorous and lightly ironic play with anachronism, as Batiushkov presents Kantemir as marvelously prophetic of the later successes of Russian literature. Typical is his interlocutor’s statement that “It is easier to believe that the Russians will storm Paris” than that Russia could produce a Lomonosov. Batiushkov himself was with the troops that took Paris in 1814, and the recent Russian victory was surely on readers’ minds as they read this piece.  “An Evening at Kantemir’s” attempted to integrate the “new” Russian literature with the eighteenth-century “classicist” literary and Enlightenment tradition. It also illustrates Batiushkov’s faith in poetry as a fundamental way to advance the cause of national progress.