24. The end of Pushkin's exile (1826)
Nicholas I pardons him; from Pushkin by Ernest J. Simmons.
No, I don't flatter when in free
Praise of the tsar I use my art.
Still in his dirty travelling clothes, Pushkin entered the Kremlin and was closeted with the Tsar of all the Russia; a man only three years older than himself. There have been many accounts of this famous interview, which lasted over an hour, but the true story was never told in detail by either of the principals. In the excitement of the occasion Pushkin forgot much that took place. Some shreds of the conversation have been handed down as reported by the poet and the tsar, and hence have gained a certain authenticity. The room was cold, and Pushkin stood with his back to the stove, warming his feet while he spoke to the emperor, a breach of etiquette which seemed to annoy Nicholas. The tsar is credited with saying:
`You hate me because I have crushed the party to which you belonged. But, believe me, I also love Russia, I am no enemy to the Russian people; I desire its freedom, but first it must be strengthened.'
Nicholas asked him if he were not a friend of many of the conspirators who had been sent to Siberia.
'It is true, Sire,' Pushkin answered. 'I loved and esteemed many of them, and I continue to nourish the same feeling for them.'
Then Nicholas inquired: 'What would you have done if you had been in Petersburg on the fourteenth of December? 'I should have been in the ranks of the rebels,' Pushkin frankly answered.
This well-known reply, which neither the tsar nor the poet ever denied, ought to set at rest any doubt concerning Pushkin's real sympathy for the cause of the Decembrists. According to Baron Korf, Nicholas also said:
'To my question of whether or not he would change his form of thought and give me his word to think and act otherwise, he replied with many compliments about the 4th of December, but he hesitated for some time to make a direct answer, and only after a long silence did he extend his hand with the promise to behave differently.'
Upon being questioned about his writing, Pushkin complained of difficulties with the censor, and the tsar said: 'You will send me everything you write; from now on I will be your censor.'
Nicholas finally informed Pushkin that he was free, free to go wherever he wished in the empire, with the exception of Petersburg. A special permission was required to visit this city. At the conclusion of the interview the tsar is reported to have led the poet into an adjoining room filled with courtiers. `Gentlemen,' he said, 'here is the new Pushkin for you; let us forget about the old Pushkin.' The poet left the palace with tears in his eyes.
Pushldn's exile was over. He hurried to uncle Vasili's house to break the joyful news. From all accounts he conducted himself well in this audience. As a private citizen he had preserved his dignity before his sovereign and had said nothing of which he was ever ashamed. Apparently Nicholas himself had been much impressed. That evening at a ball given by the French ambassador, he remarked to one of his generals concerning Pushkin: 'Do you know, today I talked for a long time with the most intelligent man in Russia.'
The happy outcome of the interview had not been anticipated in the least by Pushkin. A curious fact indicates that he had been prepared for the worst. Either on the road to Moscow, or shortly before this, he had composed four incomplete verses which may have been intended as a concluding quatrain to The Prophet. One tradition maintains that he lost them on the palace stairs and found them upon leaving the Kremlin. Later he destroyed the manuscript. The story goes that if the tsar had decided to punish him further, Pushkin had planned to hand him the following verses as a last gesture of farewell:
Arise, arise, 0 Russian prophet,
And in thy vestments now dishonored, Around thy humbled neck a halter,
To the tsar ... appear!