Understanding Russian Folk and Cultural History through Alexander Pushkin

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Understanding Russian Folk and Cultural History through Alexander Pushkin

Unit Author

First and Last Name

Randy Martin

Author's E-mail Address


School District

Albuquerque Public Schools

Unit Overview

Lesson Plan Title

Understanding Russian Folk and Cultural History through Alexander Pushkin

Essential Questions

  1. Who was Alexander Pushkin, and why is Pushkin so popular with Russians?

  1. What does the fame of Pushkin tell us about Russian culture? How does it compare to American culture from the same time period?

  1. What does Pushkin’s folktale, The Mermaid, tell us about Russian life, religion, culture, and traditions?

Lesson Summary

Students will analyze differentiated primary and secondary sources related to the life and work of Alexander Pushkin in order to better understand the pre-revolution folk culture of Russia. These differentiated sources will include text, videos, and works of art.

Subject Area(s)

Social Studies

Grade Level


Student Objectives and Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will better understand life in Pre-Revolutionary Russia through the life and biography of Alexander Pushkin.

  1. Students will comprehend the important role that Alexander Pushkin plays in Russia’s language and history.

  2. Students will be able to compare and contrast Russian cultural history and American cultural history.

  3. Students will better understand the superstitions, beliefs, customs, and traditions of pre-revolutionary Russia through the poetry of Pushkin.

CCSS Standards

Key Ideas and Details:

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.


Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

Craft and Structure:

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.


Describe how a text presents information (e.g., sequentially, comparatively, causally).


Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author's point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.


Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.


  1. Have the students do a KWL (see attached worksheet) about what they already know and want to know about Alexander Pushkin and Russian cultural beliefs and traditions, leaving a space to add what they learned for later (15 minutes).

  1. Have the students perform a “close reading” of the article “Prominent Russians: Aleksandr Pushkin” (attached), making special note of the time in which he lived, his family ancestry, the people he knew and interacted with, his political views, and his death (30 minutes).

  1. Show the YouTube video, “Alexander Pushkin Biography”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNAxMcL-ryQ, and have the students add to their notes from the reading of the article (8 minutes).

  1. Discuss the essential question, “Who was Alexander Pushkin, and why is Pushkin so popular with Russians?” This may be journaled or debated orally (20-30 minutes).

  1. Citing the text and video, have the students discuss the essential question, “What does the fame of Pushkin tell us about Russian culture vs American culture?” The students should be able to make note of the status of Russian Orthodoxy vs American Protestantism, the fact that Pushkin was of African ancestry while America held African slaves, and the important role that poetry plays in Russia. After this discussion, have the students make a “Double Bubble/Venn Diagram” thinking map comparing and contrasting American culture and Russian Culture. This thinking map could be done individually, in pairs, or as a whole group (45 minutes).

6. Show the animated video, “Rusalka” by Aleksandr Petrov (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js6biCftfks) that animates an interpretation of Puskin’s poem, “The Mermaid” (10 minutes). As the video plays, have the students take notes about the following:

  1. Movements and actions of the old man/monk

  2. Prayer corners

  3. Homes

  4. Décor

  5. Food

  6. Clothing

  7. Weather

  8. Traditional attitudes towards women

  9. Belief in mythological spirits and creatures (especially in the forest), including the Rusalka

  10. The elderly sacrificing themselves for the young

  11. Love and relationships

  12. Religion

  13. Personal relationships

  1. Following the video, have the students read the text of “The Mermaid” (attached), as well as Pierre Radulescu’s interpretation of the poem in the blog from blogspot.com (attached). (20 Minutes).

*For struggling readers and ELLs, the attached alternate translation of the poem may be used.
8. Have the students make note of any differences

between the text and video interpretations of the

poem and begin a discussion or journal writing

exercise of the final essential question, “What does

Pushkin’s folktale, ‘The Mermaid’, tell us about

Russian life, religion, culture, and traditions?” Make

sure that the students cite the text and their notes

from the video (20 minutes).

  1. Have the students complete their KWL by adding

information to the “what I learned” section. This KWL chart, combined with the journaling and discussions serve as the assessment for the lesson (20 minutes).

Approximate Time Needed

(Minutes, Days, Hours, etc)

Approximately 180 minutes (3 hours)

Prerequisite Skills Needed

How to create and complete a Double Bubble Map or Venn Diagram

Materials and Resources Required for Unit


  1. KWL (attached)

  2. Double Bubble (attached)

  3. Venn Diagram (attached)


  1. Prominent Russians: Aleksandr Pushkin (attached)

  2. Poem: The Mermaid by A. Pushkin (attached)

  3. Alternate translation/text of The Mermaid by A. Pushkin (attached)


  1. Alexander Pushkin Biography https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNAxMcL-ryQ

  2. Rusalka https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=612&v=Js6biCftfks

Technology Hardware and Software

Computer with internet access, speakers, and a projector


Student Assessment

KWL Chart, Journal Entries, and Discussions

Prominent Russians: Aleksandr Pushkin

Source: http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/literature/aleksandr-pushkin/

June 6, 1799 – January 29, 1837

Image from allart.biz

Aleksandr Pushkin is considered Russia's greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. Pushkin was the first to use everyday speech in his poetry, fusing Old Slavonic with vernacular Russian. This blend gave his works their rich, melodic quality.

Aleksandr Pushkin was born in Moscow on 6 June 1799 into a cultured but poor aristocratic family, with a long and distinguished lineage. On his father's side, he was a descendant of an ancient noble family; his mother was a great granddaughter of Gannibal, the legendary Abyssinian, who served under Peter the Great. Pushkin's mother took little interest in the upbringing of her son, entrusting him to nursemaids and French tutors. Pushkin got acquainted with the Russian language through communication with household serfs and his nanny, Arina Rodionovna, whom he loved dearly and was more attached to than to his own mother.

In 1811, along with 30 other distinguished young men, Pushkin was admitted to the Lyceum, an exclusive school for the nobility, located outside St. Petersburg in Tsarskoe Selo. It provided the best education available in Russia at the time. An unofficial laureate of the Lyceum, in no time, Pushkin drew the acclaim of his teachers and peers for his poetry. His first publication appeared in the journal The Messenger of Europe in 1814. In 1815, at the public examination at the Lyceum, the audience was swept by his poem "Recollections about Tsarskoe Selo," which was highly praised by Gavriil Derzhavin, the most influential poet of the time. At the Lyceum, Pushkin formed rock solid friendships with many other students, and cherished this "Lyceum brotherhood" for the rest of his life.

After graduating from the Lyceum in 1817, Pushkin was given a sinecure in the Collegium of Foreign Affairs in St. Petersburg. The next three years he spent easily sailing through life, welcome both in literary circles and at bacchanal Guard parties. Despite this frivolous lifestyle, Pushkin nevertheless was still committed to social reform. Like many of his Lyceum friends, he became associated with members of a radical movement, responsible for the Decembrist uprising of 1825, but Pushkin himself was never a part of the plot. Between 1817 and 1820, his ideas were vocalized in "revolutionary" poems, namely his "Ode to Liberty," "The Village" and a number of poems about Emperor Alexander I and his conservative minister Arakcheev. At the same time, Pushkin took up his first large-scale work, "Ruslan and Ludmila," a fairy tale in verse.

"Ode to Liberty" angered the Russian Emperor, and he banished Pushkin from St. Petersburg for six years. Pushkin left for Ekaterinoslav on 6 May 1820. Soon after his arrival there, Pushkin traveled around the Caucasus and the Crimea. He was then transferred to Chisinau, Moldova, for three years. In the meantime, Pushkin fell under the spell of George Byron's work, and eventually became the leader of the Russian Romantic Movement. He wrote a series of narrative poems, featuring exotic southern settings and tragic romantic encounters: "The Prisoner of the Caucasus" (1820-1821), "The Bandit Brothers" (1821-1822), and "The Fountain of Bakhchisaray" (1821-1823).

With the aid of his influential friends, in July 1823 Pushkin was transferred to Odessa, Ukraine, where he engaged in going to the theater, social outings, and love affairs. His literary creativity thrived, as he completed "The Fountain of Bakhchisaray," began "The Gypsies" and the first chapter of "Eugene Onegin," his big-name novel in verse which provided a dazzling yet insightful portrait of a world-weary young member of the nobility who fails to appreciate a woman's love until it is too late and she is married to another person.

Image from www.a4format.ru

After postal officials intercepted a letter which revealed his thinly-veiled support of atheism, Pushkin was exiled to his mother's estate of Mikhaylovskoye in northern Russia. The next two years, from August 1824 till August 1826, he lived at Mikhaylovskoye under surveillance. However unpleasant Pushkin might have found his virtual imprisonment in the village, the years at Mikhailovskoye saw the maturation of his talent, as he moved away from the sensuous flavor of his southern poems toward a more austere and incisive form. While at Mikhaylovskoye, he completed "The Gypsies," wrote the dramas "Boris Godunov" and "Count Nulin" and the second chapter of "Eugene Onegin." His sweeping historical tragedy, "Boris Godunov," was published in 1831. It was based on the controversial reign of Boris Godunov, the Russian Tsar from 1598 to 1605.

When the new Emperor, Nicolas I, allowed Pushkin to return to Moscow, the poet openly abandoned his revolutionary sentiments. When the Decembrist Uprising took place in St. Petersburg on 14 December 1825 (the failed conspiracy organized by a group of aristocrats to overthrow the legitimate Emperor Nicolas I and to replace him with their protégé, the Emperor's brother Konstantin), Pushkin, still at Mikhailovskoye, was not involved, but greatly sympathized with the rioters, many of them being his Lyceum friends. In the late spring of 1826, he sent the Tsar a petition that he be released from exile. After the uprising had been suppressed and many of its participants sentenced to the death penalty, Pushkin's friends among them, Pushkin's activity was subjected to a meticulous investigation to establish his plausible connection with the rioters. After a very detailed interview with the Emperor himself, Pushkin was ecstatic to find out his appeal had been allowed, however, with the Emperor personally censoring all of his works.

Later, Pushkin was to discover that his freedom was not entirely unconditional. Count Benkendorf, Chief of the Gendarmes, let Pushkin know that without prior permission he was not to make any trip, participate in any journal, or publish - or even publicly read - any of his works. He was questioned several times by the police about poems he had written.

Image from dic.academic.ru

Meanwhile, Pushkin, still light-hearted and at the stage of matrimony, engaged in searching for an appropriate wife. He sought no less than the most beautiful woman in Russia for his bride. In 1829, he found her in Natalya Goncharova, and plighted his troth to her in April of that same year. She finally agreed to marry him on the condition that his ambiguous situation with the government be clarified - and it was. As a wedding gift, Pushkin was given permission to publish "Boris Godunov" after four years of waiting for approval. He was formally betrothed on 6 May 1830.

Financial arrangements in connection with the recent acquisition of part of the family stead required that he visit the neighboring estate of Boldino in east-central Russia. Pushkin had only planned go be there for a few days but to his dismay, he got stranded by an Asiatic cholera outbreak for three months. These three months in Boldino, however, turned out to be the most fruitful period of his life in terms of creativity. During the last months of his exile at Mikhaylovskoe, he did produce two more chapters of "Eugene Onegin", but in the four subsequent years he had only written "Poltava"(1828), his unfinished novel "The Blackamoor of Peter the Great" (1827), a narration about his Abyssinian ancestor Gannibal, and chapter seven of "Eugene Onegin" (1827-1828). During the autumn at Boldino, Pushkin wrote the five short stories of "The Tales of Belkin"; the versed tale "The Little House in Kolomna"; four "little tragedies": "The Avaricious Knight," "Mozart and Salieri;" "The Stone Guest", and "Feast in Time of Plague"; fairy tales in verse, the last chapter of "Eugene Onegin" and a great number of poems.

Pushkin finally married Natalya Goncharova on 18 February1831 in Moscow. In May, the Pushkins moved to Tsarskoe Selo, to settle for a more frugal life and enjoy the peace and tranquility of the countryside. They never found what they wanted, as a cholera outbreak in St. Petersburg drove the Emperor and his court to take refuge in Tsarskoe Selo in July. In October of 1831 the Pushkins moved back to St. Petersburg to an apartment where they spent the rest of their lives.

Natalya's beauty immediately made a sensation in high society, the Emperor himself being one of her admirers. Because of her popularity, Pushkin was forced to spend more time in the capital than he wished. On 30 December 1833, Nicholas I made Pushkin a Kammerjunker, a low court rank usually granted to the youngsters of high aristocratic families. Pushkin was deeply offended and all the more convinced, that, apart from being worthless in terms of career, the rank was merely an excuse for his wife to frequent court balls.

Pushkin could ill afford the expense of gowns for Natalya for court balls, required for performing court duties. His troubles further increased when her two unmarried sisters came to live with them in the autumn of 1834. In addition, in the spring of 1834, he had taken over the management of his father's estate and agreed to settle the debts of his heedless brother. His financial situation was so aggravated that he applied for a substantial loan to cover his most pressing debts, and for the permission to publish a journal. He received the loan and a little later, in 1836, was permitted to publish a quarterly literary journal, The Contemporary. The journal was not a financial success; in addition, it got Pushkin involved in endless editorial and financial debates and in trouble with the censors. Short visits to the country in 1834 and 1835 resulted in the completion of his fairy tale in verse, "The Tale of the Golden Cockerel"(1834) while in 1836 he completed his novel, "The Captain's Daughter," about Pugachev's peasant uprising of 1773-1775, and a number of his finest lyrics.

Pushkin returns from duel. Etching by P.Borel, 
1855 (Image from www.a4format.ru)

By the mid 30s, many critics began to refer to Pushkin's works as outdated and obsolete, which was a disastrous thing for Pushkin to hear; it dispirited him immensely. In addition to that, his family life had hit the rocks as well. In 1834 Natalya Pushkina met a handsome French royalist émigré in Russian service. Young d'Anthes had been pursuing her for two years, and eventually, his claims became so open and unabashed, that in the fall of1836, it led to a scandal. Pushkin challenged d'Anthes to a duel. He retracted the challenge, however, when he learned from rumors that d'Anthes was "really" in love with Natalya's sister, Ekaterina Goncharova. On 10 January 1837, their marriage took place, but Pushkin refused to attend the wedding or to receive the couple in his home. After the marriage, d'Anthes resumed pursuing Natalya Pushkina with doubled tenacity. A duel between Pushkin and d'Anthes finally took place on 27 January 1837. D'Anthes fired first, and Pushkin was mortally wounded. He died two days later, on 29 January.

Thousands of people of all social levels came to Pushkin's apartment to express sympathy and to mourn him. Fearing a public outcry over the senseless loss of this great figure, the authorities falsely declared that a funeral service would be held in St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, with admission only granted to members of the court and diplomatic society. The real service, however, was held in secret a day before it was announced, and Pushkin's body was smuggled out of the capital in the dead of night.

Pushkin was buried beside his mother at dawn on 6 February 1837 at Svyatye Gory Monastery, near Mikhaylovskoye. This place, with exquisite Pushkin family estates snuggled in the picturesque landscapes, has become a Mecca for all those in love with Pushkin's works and literature in general.

Written by Ekaterina Shubnaya, RT

Aleksandr Petrov: Rusalka (1997)

Posted by Pierre Radulescu at


Ivan Kramskoi, Rusalki, 1871, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

This movie is of great beauty, and you can be conquered by the visual wizardry even if not understanding quite well what's going on there. The images are oil paintings on glass, witnessing a rare mastership, and you are like caught by a spell. Yes, Русалка (Rusalka), the ten minutes animation created by Aleksandr Petrovin 1997, binds its viewers, so beautiful it is.

To understand the plot, that's a bit difficult. There is an old monk living in total reclusion. There is a young apprentice who falls in love for a beautiful girl. She appears always emerging from the waters of the river nearby. The hermit notices what's on the way and rememorates some troubling events from his own youth, apparently related to this girl (which sounds weird so far, due to age difference). Prayers are too weak to help, and the hermit has to sacrifice himself to save the boy: the girl is a rusalka, a malefic spirit who kills males falling for her. Even if you don't realize that it's a spell the movie is talking about, you are caught by it: the movie itself is a rusalka.

Some viewed in this movie only the Christian lesson: the old monk makes the supreme sacrifice to save the soul of the apprentice, teaching him (and through the movie also teaching us) the ultimate lesson. I think there are more valences in this movie, and maybe we should start methodically, with the title.

Rusalki belong to the Slavic mythology (to their pagan, pre-Christian universe) and the first challenge is to translate the word. Says Michael Leader (in his fascinating blog, Wild Tyme), it has been translated as Water or River Nymph (a literal description), asMermaid (a cultural equivalent), or it was left as Rusalka (retaining the Russian word, providing a sense of language over understanding). And Michael Leader concludes, this in itself is a microcosm of the decisions facing translators when they deal with cultural properties.

Let's try an explanation for what a rusalka means. She is a spirit of the waters; long time ago she committed suicide after being abandoned by her lover. So a rusalka is a drowned maiden. She is not properly dead, rather in an intermediate realm, and she looks for revenge; only after that she might be fully received in the underworld, to rest forever. She is powerless when leaving the water; however there's a special week in June when all rusalki keep their power also on land. That's a dangerous week for all of us males, as she looks for revenge on anyone.

Is a rusalka that malefic? I said so above, but on second thought I would say she's rather ambivalent. A rusalka is beautiful, so beautiful that any male falls for her, and hopefully one day love will reciprocate and she will respond other way than killing.

Coming back to the remarks of Michael Leader, he actually talks about the poem of Pushkin, which this movie is based upon. It comes that reading the verses of Pushkin will offer us the clue. Well, it's not that simple: Pushkin wrote two poems, with the same title, Rusalka, quite different each other.

Pushkin created his first Rusalka in 1819 (you'll find the verses at the end of this post). It is the story of an old hermit passing his days in continual prayer, who falls in love for a rusalka. The attraction proves fatal: the old friar ends by drowning. What remains is a gray wet beard flowing over the waters.

In the 1830's Pushkin came back to the subject and started working on a large dramatic poem that remained unfinished. This second Rusalka would be the inspiration for the opera of Dargomyzhsky. The story is more elaborated here. A young prince sacrifices the love of a beautiful maiden in order to make a suitable marriage. The maiden drowns herself and becomes a rusalka. Years are passing and the prince will encounter one day a girl who is the daughter of his long forgotten love: now herself a little rusalka. And he realizes that his love story was the only happy period of his life and nothing else matters any more. From now on the prince would spend most of his time alone in the forest of the Dnieper banks.

And we can ask ourselves: is the rusalka looking for revenge, or just for being again together with her lover? It is this ambiguity that marks the genius of great writers.

The movie of Aleksandr Petrov unifies somehow the stories from the two poems. The old monk is the prince who in his youth betrayed his love. He hopes now to find solace through prayers and mortification. The novice who stays with the hermit will have to learn the way to God through his own trials and errors.

The story calls in mind somehow the movie of the Korean Kim Ki-DukSpring, Summer, Fall, Winter... Spring. Like there, it is the large water, and the small shrine, hidden in the woods: an old master, his novice, the way toward purification going through the sins of the youth and the remorse and repentance of a whole life. At the end of the movie we realize that each monk in turn went through the same cycle: sin, repentance. Time is circular, we are to follow the same cycle of life. There is no history, just a present that comes again and again, with each new generation.

There is this circularity of time that marks also the movie of Aleksandr Petrov. The old monk sees in the novice his own image from long time ago. He is just entering the cycle of life, this novice, and the old monk wants to protect him.

So let me give you my understanding of the movie:

As the novice starts to respond at the love games of rusalka, the hermit has a flashback, the remembrance of his sins of youth. He realizes that the girl in the river is his own love that he betrayed long time ago (an interesting detail: the sledge from today's hut appears also in the flashback; to say nothing about the fox who runs at the beginning of the movie, a witness of this circularity of time, of this endless repetition of sin and repentance).

The monk falls asleep while praying and in his dream he ascends Jacob's Ladder to find advice from Heaven. The Blessed Virgin is handing him the Lamb of God, and the monk realizes that he got the Stigmata of Jesus: the heavenly advice is to offer himself to sacrifice in order to save the novice. And that's what he's doing: going to the river, throwing himself inside the waters to save the novice, dying, together with the rusalka, who is now revenged. The novice remains alone, taking care of two graves: monk and rusalka have finally found their solace.

Title:     The Mermaid [from The Russian Of Pushkin]
Author: George Borrow

Close by a lake, begirt with forest,

To save his soul, a Monk intent,
In fasting, prayer and labours sorest
His days and nights, secluded, spent;
A grave already to receive him
He fashion'd, stooping, with his spade,
And speedy, speedy death to give him,
Was all that of the Saints he pray'd.

As once in summer's time of beauty,

On bended knee, before his door,
To God he paid his fervent duty,
The woods grew more and more obscure:
Down o'er the lake a fog descended,
And slow the full moon, red as blood,
Midst threat'ning clouds up heaven wended--
Then gazed the Monk upon the flood.

He gaz'd, and, fear his mind surprising,

Himself no more the hermit knows:
He sees with foam the waters rising,
And then subsiding to repose,
And sudden, light as night-ghost wanders,
A female thence her form uprais'd,
Pale as the snow which winter squanders,
And on the bank herself she plac'd.

She gazes on the hermit hoary,

And combs her long hair, tress by tress;
The Monk he quakes, but on the glory
Looks wistful of her loveliness;
Now becks with hand that winsome creature,
And now she noddeth with her head,
Then sudden, like a fallen meteor,
She plunges in her watery bed.

No sleep that night the old man cheereth,

No prayer throughout next day he pray'd
Still, still, against his wish, appeareth
Before him that mysterious maid.
Darkness again the wood investeth,
The moon midst clouds is seen to sail,
And once more on the margin resteth
The maiden beautiful and pale.

With head she bow'd, with look she courted,

And kiss'd her hand repeatedly,
Splashed with the water, gaily sported,
And wept and laugh'd like infancy--
She names the monk, with tones heart-urging
Exclaims "O Monk, come, come to me!"
Then sudden midst the waters merging
All, all is in tranquillity.

On the third night the hermit fated

Beside those shores of sorcery,
Sat and the damsel fair awaited,
And dark the woods began to be--
The beams of morn the night mists scatter,
No Monk is seen then, well a day!
And only, only in the water
The lasses view'd his beard of grey.

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