Though his name may not carry much weight in English speaking circles—his virtues “lost in translation“—no Russian writer stood as high in his time as Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). In his short life of 37 years, Pushkin—the great grandson of a captured African prince—authored two of his country’s most revered and influential works, the play Boris Godunov and the novel in verse Eugene Onegin. Like a character in that latter work, the erudite nobleman poet met his death at the hands of a supposed romantic rival “on a winter evening,” writes Phoebe Taplin in The Telegraph, when he “travelled by sleigh from Nevsky Prospekt to the Black River area of St. Petersburg, then filled with woods and dachas, where Georges D’Anthès fatally wounded him in the stomach.”
Pushkin wrote as passionately as he lived—and died. (That final duel was the last of twenty-nine he fought). His work remains viscerally compelling, even in translation: into other languages, other genres, and other media, as in the animated film above of a short poem of Pushkin’s called Rusalka, or “The Mermaid.” Animated in a masterful hand-painted style by Russian artist and filmmaker Alexander Petrov, the film tells the story of a monk who falls in love with a beautiful and dangerous mythical water spirit. You can read a paraphrase, translation, and interpretation of the poem here. I recommend watching the ten-minute film first. Though presented in Russian without subtitles, you will—even if you don’t speak Russian—find yourself seduced.
Petrov, who painstakingly paints his images on glass with oils, has also adapted the work of other dramatic writers, including another fellow Russian artist, Dostoevsky. His take on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea won an Academy Award in 2000, and most deservedly so. Petrov does not adapt literary works so much as he translates them into light, shadow, and sound, immersing us in their textures and images. His Rusalka, just like the poem on which it’s based, speaks directly to our imaginations.
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