By Zara Martirosova Torlone
Oxford (2014) h/b 320pp £65 (ISBN 9780199689484)
In this interesting and thoughtful book, T. traces the history of the reading, translation and discussion of Vergil in Russia in relation to the creation of national identity. In this process, Greece, Rome and Byzantium all played a part, as in the invocation of Moscow as the ‘third Rome’ (after Rome and Constantinople) by the first Tsar (Caesar), Ivan the Terrible, in 1547. Russia straddled Europe and Asia, but in the eighteenth century Peter the Great turned its gaze firmly westwards, building his new capital of St Petersburg on the Baltic Sea. His successor, Catherine the Great, maintained his vision, while also engaging with the world of Orthodox Christianity. It was she who brought the Greek scholar Eugenios Voulgaris to her court in 1771 and made him an Orthodox bishop; he published a translation of the Georgics and the Aeneid into Greek (Homeric Greek, not modern Greek as T. states). Catherine herself was depicted as Dido in some contemporary writing—a tricky comparison, as might be imagined.
At that time interest in Vergil was sustained by a shift of attention from Greece to Rome which contrasted markedly with trends in Western Europe. T. takes us in detail into the work of a series of Vergilian translators and scholars, including the authors of Vergil travesties. Among these is the splendidly-titled Vergil’s Aeneid Turned Upside-down by Nikolai Osipov (1791-6). A substantial chapter is devoted to Pushkin, the greatest of Russian poets; T. explores in detail the Vergilian overtones of his greatest poem, ‘The bronze horseman’, named for the famous statue of Peter the Great by Falconet.
The next chapter looks at the writers who saw Vergil’s work as messianic or prophetic, for whom spiritual visions of national destiny loomed larger than geographical or political concerns. T. then turns to the poet Joseph Brodsky (1940-96), expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972, later the Poet Laureate of the USA: Brodsky’s is a post-modern Vergil, full of contradictions and ironies. A final chapter looks at Russian translations of Vergil from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries.
T.’s book is a welcome exploration of a part of classical reception which has been obscured by linguistic boundaries; throughout the book, quotations are given in Russian and then translated. This is a dense but rewarding addition to OUP’s ‘Classical Presences’ series, now with over eighty titles.
Christopher Stray—University of Swansea