You can’t understand Russian without understanding Pushkin, and you can’t understand Pushkin without a basic awareness of the dozen or so languages that influenced him.
Alexander Pushkin (1799 – 1837) was famously interested in everything all at once, and it was from this diversified trove of languages, cultural topics, and written formats that he established the simplified Russian of everyday usage as part of the literary canon — and forever influenced the spoken Russian language too.
Pushkin The Eager Linguist
Before Pushkin, Russian literature was full of stuffy, highbrow words that have all but disappeared from contemporary Russian language. Moreover, Russian wasn’t considered a very prestigious language. At the time, French was the language of the noble and the educated, and many French words found their way into the Russian language because of this.
Pushkin grew up in an aristocratic family, and he, too, was educated in French (and in fact, his first poems were in French). However, he spent a lot of time among common people too, and Russian was their language.
He eventually went on to study Latin and Greek at the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum, and he was self-educated in many others. He learned German when he wanted to read Schiller and Goethe, and he translated many texts from their original language.
When translating texts, he would often find workarounds for the many words he didn’t completely understand, like writing them separately, or paraphrasing them based on context clues, or using another language entirely. Many of his Russian translations are full of French words, suggesting he would lean on his knowledge of other languages to “fill in the gaps.”
His curiosity led him to eventually learn as many as 16 languages. According to multiple sources online, he knew French, Old French, Italian, Spanish, English, German, Ancient Greek, Latin, Old Russian, Church Slavonic, Serbian, Polish, Ukrainian, Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish. The library of his St. Petersburg apartment, which is now a museum, has over 4,500 books in 14 languages.
Pushkin The Dabbler
Amusingly enough, not everyone was that impressed by Pushkin’s polyglot credentials. Vladimir Nabokov, who eventually chose to write in his non-native language of English, said that “when Pushkin tried to teach himself English at various odd moments from the early 1820s to 1836, he never went beyond the beginner’s page.” Nabokov eventually implied that Pushkin only had mastery over French and Russian. However, American writer Edmund Wilson disagreed with him, stating that “Mr. Nabokov does not seem to admit that Pushkin’s competence in languages was considerable.”
All in all, there are various accounts of his multilingual abilities, and the consensus seems to be that he had varying degrees of fluency in each of them. He once wrote to poet Nikolay Ivanovich Gnedich that “ignorance of the Greek language prevents me from starting to complete the analysis of your Iliad.”
His contemporary, Osip Senkovsky, wrote that Pushkin only learned other languages to the extent that they were necessary to read great works of poetry and literature. In other words, he didn’t need to understand every single word — he could comprehend and interpret them more correctly and wittily than people with complete mastery over the language.
Pushkin The Widely Loved
Pushkin is widely considered the father of Russian literature. When the Pushkin memorial went up in Moscow in 1880, Feodor Dostoyevsky famously said that without Pushkin, none of the “great talents” that followed him could have existed (or perhaps flourished) in quite the same way.
Boris Pasternak described Pushkin’s tetrameter as “a measuring unit of Russia’s life, a yardstick, as if it had been patterned after the whole of Russia’s existence.”
A lot of the themes he worked with also became central topics that would surface in Russian literature again and again (like the plight of a low-ranking individual, or an individual clashing with society, or having to choose between happiness and duty).
Pushkin didn’t just elevate colloquial Russian. He also literally added words to the language. Many of the loan words borrowed from other languages were first introduced in his literature, and he might be one of the most-quoted literary figures in Russia. Many Russian proverbs are lifted directly from his work.