Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit cutbankonline.org/submit/web. To submit to our print edition, please see cutbankonline.org/submit/print.
This is going to sound crazy, but I’m writing this in order to make 100% sure that you are dead.
You don’t have to tell me, like, personally. Maybe just publish a new poem. Or turn up as a reality TV contestant. Or let yourself be photographed on the Bronze Horseman statue in St. Petersburg. Things are pretty crazy in your old country right now. (Or maybe you’re alive and you already know that.) I think it might help if you turned up, even just for a minute. Just long enough for someone to film a Vine.
Here’s why I’m suspicious: you don’t seem dead. When I lived in St. Petersburg for a summer in 2009, I visited your apartment. Granted, the fact that they let me into your house—along with anyone else with 40 rubles to spare—is a pretty red flag that you’re not around to complain about it. But the whole place looked like you’d just stepped out to run an errand. Papers shuffled on your desk. Books with broken spines. A letter-opener you’d been chewing on as you read, still showing the bite-marks. Your blood still on the couch. Okay, so blood doesn’t look good, either, but you’re supposed to have been dead for 177 years. Am I crazy for thinking that couch-blood might be fresher than that? (Are you okay, wherever you are? Are you hurt?)
I’m looking for you because--well, I don’t really know why. I’m looking for you to figure out why I’m looking for you. What I know for sure is that you’ve affected my life a lot more than most dead people. Certainly more than most dead people I don’t even know that well. You’re not my ancestor or my muse or my hero. Twenty-nine is a few too many duels for me to understand. (How much validation of your honor did you need?) Truth be told, I don’t even “get” poetry. So your hold over me doesn’t make sense.
One time at a party in grad school—the kind of party where this joke would play big, where people were already tipsily debating the differences between illuminated manuscripts—I dismissed you as only my second favorite duel-losing Alexander, after Hamilton. Ha ha ha! Get it? Oh, it killed.
I do love Alexander Hamilton, actually. That wasn’t just a (hilarious) joke. But my love for him isn’t mysterious. I live in the country he helped build. I went to the college he founded. I feel a (mostly unearned) kinship of ideals and background with him. And I love him the way you’re supposed to love a dead cultural icon. I read doorstop biographies and spout anecdotes from them to polite, long-suffering friends. (Did you know that Ben Franklin taught Hamilton’s wife to play Backgammon? You’re welcome!) I occasionally visit his grave—but only because I live 20 minutes away by subway. Every year I mean to throw a party for his birthday and then forget. And that’s how you’re supposed to pay tribute your historical dead.
At least, it is for Americans. But Russia is different. Or you’re different. Or I’m different with you.
The first time I ever heard your name was in the first of my Russian Studies major’s required language classes. (Yes, at Hamilton College.) My new professor mentioned you and stopped mid-sentence to make the class—ten of us, each fiddling with a first-day nametag on which we’d clumsily copied our name in Cyrillic without understanding the letters, like ABBA singing in English—stand up while he slowly emphasized your full name. Aleksander Sergeyevich Pushkin. He beamed at us for a moment, reverent. Then he let us sit down and finished his sentence.
At the time, I thought it was just him. A particularly big fan. But then you were everywhere. You turned up in every class, every semester, for four years—literature, history, language, folklore, politics. You had written a poem; you had inspired an opera; you had caused Nabokov to throw a fit; you had married a beautiful woman; you had died in an affair of honor (yours and hers); you had cemented Peter the Great’s legacy; you had borrowed from ancient themes of birds and magic circles. I was never asked again to stand for your name—but I always got the impression that if I had, my professors would have understood.
Is it just me, or is this a doubly impressive ubiquity for a poet to have achieved? People don’t really go into poetry for fame and fortune anymore. How did you do it? How did you hook us all?
This happens all over. My girlfriend took an introductory Russian language class at her college, too, and guess what it was called: “Russian Through Pushkin I.” How about that! After just a few classes spent learning the alphabet and verb declension, they jumped straight into translating The Bronze Horseman. Now she knows how to say “hello,” “thank you,” and “There, by the billows desolate, He stood, with mighty thoughts elate, and gazed, but in the distance only a sorry skiff on the broad space of Neva drifted seaward, lonely.”
I didn’t encounter the poem until later in my study of the language, but when I did, I had to memorize the prologue. I remember reciting it in the language lab, filming myself on iMovie, staring at the bottom of the monitor in concentration. The moss-grown miry banks with rare hovels were dotted here and there where wretched Finns for shelter crowded; the murmuring woodlands had no share of sunshine, all in mist beshrouded. “You look so sad!” my professor said, reviewing the footage. “Cheer up! You’re young and alive and there is Pushkin!”
It’s a beautiful poem, of course. You know that, don’t you? You know you’re brilliant. You make me wish I understood poetry. You make me wish I understood Russian.
In the years since that summer I spent in St. Petersburg and since graduating from college, I’ve plummeted from semi-fluency in Russian to barely remembering a few disassociated words and phrases. I hate this fact. But I still know, with a kind of linguistic muscle memory, the entire prologue to The Bronze Horseman. And when I want to feel like there’s hope for me yet, that maybe I’ll crack open those old books and be bilingual after all, be the person I wanted to be when I was eighteen and chose my major—in those moments, I close my eyes and recite your poem. Here cut—so nature gives command—your window through on Europe; stand firm-footed by the sea unchanging! Like a promise; like a prayer; like ABBA singing “Dancing Queen.”
But before all this backsliding, I was in your city for a summer, and in your house, and in the restaurant you ate in on the morning of your death.
I took a Saturday and didn’t tell anyone where I was going while I retraced the steps of your last day. I don’t know why I was so secretive about it. When I go to Alexander Hamilton’s grave I tell everyone; I invite people along. I think I just didn’t know what I was doing with you. I couldn’t—I can’t—explain why I wanted to go and see where you had your last cup of coffee, see where you were shot. So I snuck off to do it. Is that weird?
Probably. I made a lot of weird decisions that summer. Some of it was culture shock, but only some. I was nineteen when I got to St. Petersburg and I had never lived in a City before. I had never ridden a bus that didn’t stop at the end of my driveway and take me straight to school. I had almost never had alcohol before, either, and it was legal for me to buy it there. I spent a lot of that summer drinking canned gin & tonics (with grapefruit flavoring added) in parks, and worrying that I was spending too much money (I wasn’t), and worrying that I wasn’t writing enough (I wasn’t), and doing mental acrobatics to convince myself that I was happy being with my college boyfriend and only felt the way I did about our relationship because I missed him. I learned a lot of Russian and also a lot about public transportation.. I translated one of your stories for class. I toured gorgeous art and architecture. I saw statues of you everywhere. I developed a crush on one of my fellow ex-pat sutdents. He posed with another girl, the two of them lounging on the huge stone statue of a book of your poetry by the Neva. I took their picture. It’s blurry—you can see the chiseled words, but not that they’re yours.
In two months, I wrote two sentences. Did you ever have writer’s block? I don’t know why, but I think probably not.
So while I was being unproductive and confused and figuring things out far from home, after seeing your seemingly freshly-vacated apartment and its bloody couch, I decided it was important to understand what happened to you. So I followed you to your death.
I paid too much for a coffee with milk at the cafe you ate in before your duel. (I messed up the order the first time, and shame at the waiter’s mocking smile made my cheeks burn the whole time I was there. Coming and going, I walked past the stairs you had used to come and go. They were under plexiglass. “By these steps, the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin...” the plaque began.
I saw you, in the cafe. I jumped. But you know where this is going, you’re laughing at me already--it was the wax statue of you, the one they’ve set up sitting by the window. You were—it was—staring into the middle distance, ignoring us all..
The thing is, I kept seeing you after I left the cafe. Walking the streets, I imagined you walking them. (Or did I really see you? Were you there? Do you remember me?) You were on your way to shoot--you thought, perhaps--a frenchman for wooing your wife. It would be your twenty-ninth duel. I started to daydream about saving you. I ‘d grab your arm and muscle you into a bookstore. I’d jump escalators in the metro and hang from your lapels. “You don’t have to do this,” I’d say. Ne nado, ne nado. But even in my fantasies, I worried you wouldn’t understand my accent.
You received your fatal wound—maybe—outside of town, across a set of train tracks, in a park with an obelisk on the spot where you fell. None of that was there then, of course. But it is now, and crossing the tracks reminded me of Stand By Me in a way that made me feel younger and in more danger and most of all more American than ever. There were two little boys hitting each other with sticks in the park. And there were locals, suspicious locals, staring in bald judgment as I lurked around the sacred spot, camera in hand. I was ashamed, again, of being the outsider I was--too immature and overwhelmed to write or speak.
Distracted by embarrassment, I lost the thread of you. I stopped seeing you. I guess it should have been a relief, like snapping out of something crazy, but I was disappointed. I felt like I’d finally been on to something.
My professor had said that I was young and alive and there was Pushkin. It suddenly seemed like none of those things could be true unless they all were.
I kept looking all day, zoning out all across the city. I must have looked like your wax dummy. And I felt like I was looking for you not as a timid tourist on a bookish pilgrimage but as a PI might search for a client on the lam. I’d barely hung my shingle when I got my first case--this dame blew into my office in a dress she’d been poured into and a pillbox hat. “The name’s Mother Russia,” she said, holding back tears, “and I think something terrible has happened.” You’d survived twenty-eight other duels; why should this one have killed you? I took the case.
I guess I’m still looking for you. A lot has changed since I tried to hunt you down in St. Petersburg. It’s been five years and I’ve figured out a lot about myself and my writing. I chose my other duel-losing Alexander, I guess, and moved to Brooklyn where I can be close to him. But I still think about you all the time. I still recite your words whenever I need to feel like it’s still possible for me to change and grow, like I’m not cemented yet. And I still wish I’d found you that summer, assuming you were really what I was looking for.
I guess I just realized that in all this process of flailing in the dark--standing on command, incanting verses whose meaning I’ve forgotten, stalking your ghost—I never tried just asking you where you are. Maybe you’re not even hiding. Maybe you just don’t know anyone’s looking for you.
So. I’d appreciate it if you’d show yourself. Until then, I’ll just keep up my phonetic hoping. Ay, ships of every flag shall come by waters they had never swum, and we shall revel, freely ranging.
Let’s hang out sometime. I’m young and alive and there is you.
Olivia Wolfgang-Smith earned her MFA in Fiction from Florida State University. Her work has been longlisted for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and published in Necessary Fiction, The Common, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. She is the Social Media Editor of The Common. She lives in New York and is originally from Rhode Island.