This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II will follow on Thursday, 1/30. A version of this piece originally appeared on Gorky Media as part of a series commemorating Russia’s National Day in Memory of Pushkin.
Ilya Vinitsky is a Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. His fields of expertise are Russian Romanticism and Realism, the history of emotions, and nineteenth- century intellectual and spiritual history.
Translated by Emily Wang, Assistant Professor in the Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures at the University of Notre Dame.
At the tail end of 1934, when Gorky and Co. were defending the honor of the USSR’s national poet from bourgeois vulgarity, with the result that the eponymous Moscow café was deprived of its name, the famous Hollywood singer and actress Lilian Harvey (1906-1968) ran a notice in Los Angeles newspapers. Her blue- and brown-eyed white Persian cat, who went by the name of “Pushkin,” had gone missing.
A reward was promised to the person who found him. Other newspapers picked up this small item, publishing it in the weekend bulletin “Snapshots of Hollywood”:
Lilian Harvey laments that her Christmas will be sad unless she finds her runaway four-month-old Persian kitten, Pushkin.
I don’t know whether this kitten with the multi-colored eyes (who, today, might have been named in honor of David Bowie) was ever found, but my attention was drawn to a curious coincidence, dating to the very same period. Newspapers from the end of 1934 to the beginning of 1935 tell us that a certain school in Arizona staged a puppet show entitled Pushkin, starring a kitten with the very same name — though it is unclear whether it was Lilian Harvey’s runaway — along with two of his relatives. English-language culture offers few themes more banal than “three little kittens,” and yet I remained interested in the question of why a 1930s-era American would name a kitten in honor of Russia’s greatest poet.
Moreover, an American magazine article from 1936 plainly states that “the name Pushkin is ideal for a cat.” The tradition has proven quite powerful — in fact, one of my friends in Philadelphia has a cat named Pushkin. On one of the numerous American websites for cat owners, I even found a treatise touting the appeal of Russian names, including the name Pushkin, for cats:
Why choose a Russian name for your cat?
All cats deserve unique names. Choosing the right name for your cat is very important, as it will become a key tool in their training. Cats are clever and they can remember different words; your new cat will learn their name in days and always come to your call.
However, you can make your cat’s training easier by choosing a name that’s easy to remember and pronounce, 2 or 3 syllables long (or that can be shortened) and different from daily words so that your cat doesn’t get confused when you speak. If you don’t live in Russia, then, a Russian name is the perfect option.
Russian names are especially good for Russian cat breeds like the Siberian cat – with the Neva Masquerade variant – the Russian Blue, the Donskoy, the Peterbald or the Kurilian Bobtail. If you have any other kind of cat, though, you’ll realize you can also find a Russian name that’s perfect for them.
Russian is the most widely spoken Slavic language, with more than 150 million native speakers. It is understandable, then, why Russian culture is so rich. You can find inspiration in classic Russian names, which often come from Greek or Latin, but also from Russian literature, folklore, traditions and history.
An online inquiry (“Is Pushkin a cool name for a cat?”) immediately yielded an affirmative response, along with the following explanation:
There was indeed a Russian poet called Alexandr Pushkin, and he’s generally considered to have been the greatest Russian poet. The name is most likely derived from the Russian word pushka, which means “cannon” (presumably the poet’s ancestor made or operated cannons). However, it’s also not very far off the Russian word pukh, which means “fluff”, so that might be another good reason to use it as a name for a cat. And, of course, it sounds a bit like puss-kin too.”
While I liked this explanation, I didn’t find it entirely satisfying. In fact, American newspaper clippings from the 1930s allow the historian to pose the question somewhat differently: when and why did these Pushkin-kittens appear?
Let’s start with what we know. In 1922, prolific Philadelphian author and well-known gourmand Christopher Morley (1890–1957) released a children’s book called I Know A Secret. The 1920s and 30s saw several editions of this delightful book released in America and England, accompanied by Jeanette Warmuth’s delightful illustrations. One of Secret’s most popular stories, “The Scheming Cat,” features a naughty white kitten named Pushkin. The cat’s family has a rule about brushing one’s teeth both morning and night, but our hero decides to try to get around it by brushing twice in a single evening. Instead of using the children’s toothpaste he is supposed to, he brushes with the contents of a small tube his father left in the bathroom — which, as it turns out, contains glue. In the morning, the troublemaker is forced to call the doctor and must ultimately forgo his beloved herring: “Pushkin, with his sharp teeth all glued together, sat and stared at the herring, and his eyes filled with tears of shame.”
Several sources attest to the popularity of this story, including some from 1934. The puppet show about the naughty Pushkin was most likely an adaptation of this very story. The Hollywood actress and singer, therefore, likely named her white cat Pushkin under the influence of the children’s tale about the mischievous kitten in the bathroom. Incidentally, Morley himself loved the kitten he invented so much that he signed his editorial column in the Saturday Evening Post “the Cat Pushkin.”
It’s possible that this ur-Pushkin (or, rather, the tradition that Morley’s fairytale began) also inspired a later children’s fairytale, a Pushkin-themed dilogy — although in this case, the animal named Pushkin was a puppy.
Regardless, it seems that there is no reference to the enigmatic Russian soul — symbolized by the ready use of the poet’s name — in the history of “Pushkin’s” American usage.