How Pushkin Became a Cat, Part II

This is Part II of a two-part series. Part I may be found here.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.

Why did Christopher Morley, author of the children’s story collection I Know A Secret, choose precisely the moniker “Pushkin” for his hero? Scholars of his work have not observed that Morley was interested in either Russia itself or Russian literature. Perhaps the name he gave his naughty kitten had no connection with the Russian writer at all, but rather took shape based on the phonetic model for funny children’s nicknames, along with “baby-talk” modes of addressing children: Munch-kin, Pussy-cat, puss-puss-puss-push-push-push, Push-kin. Sometimes, it turns out, this last variant is simply a fun nickname, in no way “instantly summoning,” as the devoted Gogol put it, “an intimation of Russia’s national poet.”

Similarly, in this phonetic context, Morley’s kitten is the direct ancestor (a grandfather thrice removed) of the charming kitty Pusheen, created by Claire Belton in 2010. (The cat’s name comes from the Irish word puisin – “kitten.”) Pusheen has gained fame as a Facebook emoji, even becoming a remarkably popular commercial product.

As we can see, the year 1934 — so significant in Soviet culture and in the history of Russian Pushkin studies — concluded under the sign of Pushkin. This was the case not only within the USSR, but also in the country Alexis de Toqueville considered Russia’s antipode, a country that, like its counterpart, was fated “evidently by the mysterious will of Providence to somehow take the fate of half the world into its hands.”

Initially, it may have seemed that the coincidence of two distinct usages of Pushkin’s name was symbolic, “accidentally” parodying the “eternal” theme of the two Pushkins — serious and frivolous. The first Pushkin, of course, is more interesting hermeneutically, but the second feels lighter and freer. In no way linked to the Russo-Soviet emblem with its cultural weight, he brushes his teeth amusingly and purrs tenderly. He gets into trouble, but, casting aside his minor fright, eats the herring laid out for him, only to run away — as his namesake once did — wherever his free spirit might take him.

Postscript: To round out the picture, I should mention that, in 1934, the Russian Consolidated Mutual Aid Society of America (ROVA in Russian) — its members evidently longing for their homeland — acquired a parcel of land in New Jersey, near the city of Cassville, where it established a park and laid the foundation for a monument to A. S. Pushkin. Completed in 1941, the figure of the poet holds in his hand a scroll engraved with words from his poem “Exegi monumentum.” As I detailed in my earlier piece, this poem was continued by the Soviet poet Demyan Bedny in order to annoy the “Pushkinists,” who had created such a ruckus at the intersection of Gorky Street and the square graced with the poet’s bronze effigy. The New Jersey monument also includes Pushkin’s verses — albeit below a face that only distantly resembles his.

И долго буду тем любезен я народу,

Что чувства добрые я лирой пробуждал,

Что в мой жестокий век восславил я Свободу

И милость к падшим призывал.


And for this I will be long beloved by the people,

For with my lyre I awakened fine sentiments,

For I have glorified Freedom in my harsh century

And called for pity for the fallen.

The English-language version of the article, first published in Russian, is dedicated to the blessed memory of a British descendant of Christopher Morley’s cat, known as PUSHKIN THE PONTIFICAL PUSS, who greeted Pope Benedict XVI during the Birmingham Oratory in 2010. After befriending the Pope, the cat eventually co-authored the Pontifical Puss: Tails of an Oratory Cat, “a ghostwritten memoir with a foreword written by Her Royal Highness The Princess Michael of Kent” [I thank Peter Scotto for referring me to this glorious pet’s life and oeuvre, — I.V.].

Pushkin meets Pope Benedict XVI in 2010