the trail of the muse

Within the confines of this post, I shall not make an attempt to convince the reader of a poet’s talent, or applaud his actual or supposed genius. I will simply toss a few darts at the mysteries surrounding an artist’s milieu, culture and his or her sources of inspiration.

During Alexander Pushkin’s novel/opera in verse, Eugene Onegin, before the jaded hero Onegin arrives on the scene, the writer briefly sketches out the ballet performance of Avdotia Istomina, an actual acquaintance of his, whom he once described as “…a soul full of flight,”  in the lead role of Zephire et Flore:

…She soars, glistening, half-ethereal,Astomina statue
to the magic bow in thrall;
a host of nymphs surrounding;
Istomina is gravely poised,
one foot barely touches the ground;
with the other, she slowly circles
round, as if blown by Aeolus,
Twists her waist one way, another,
Spins, taps one foot upon the other.

Further along in the chapter, Pushkin imputes the following thoughts to Onegin:

Diana’s breast or Flora’s cheek,
Are enchanting, friends, I find!
Yet Terpsichore’s foot I’d seek
Far more enchanting, to my mind.*

The romantic vision of a poet with a dainty foot fetish might suffer a momentary displacement, if one imagined the magnitude of the actual pressure exerted on the particular foot in question. Avdotia Istomina, orphaned at a very young age, was rescued and brought to the Imperial Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg at age 6 by a flutist from an Army orchestra. Under Charles Didelot’s strict tutelage (sources say he beat his students regularly), Istomina became the first ballerina in Russia to dance en pointe. As a member of the Imperial Ballet, Istomina appeared on stage before the richest noblemen in the country, and she was a fixture in the literary circles of the capital. Although the career of a dancer was not considered, at the time, a prestigious one, from a historical perspective, she became one of the founders of a unique cultural and aesthetic tradition.

Alexander Pushkin's Drawing

Not content with merely imitating the French ballet corps, Istomina and her classmates, under Didelot, were key to the formation of a “romantic” and uniquely narrative expression: a genuinely Russian national ballet. A number of Pushkin’s works, including several epic fairy-tales, were adapted for ballet, and it was in these performances that Istomina’s career reached its apex. It would likely be impossible for a modern reader to comprehend the context of Pushkin’s poem, The Prisoner of the Caucasus without realizing that it was written with her in mind. Pushkin himself happened to be pining away in exile, where he wrote his brother asking for a description of the ballet, while, in the meantime, she was flitting dramatically across the stage in Chercassian costume.Avdotia Istomina III

Before Pushkin’s own untimely death following a duel, he had begun to sketch out the beginnings of a novel based on some of the circumstances of Istomina’s life, which included the scene of a famous double-duel fought over her charms, during which Count Zavadovsky fatally wounded her jealous lover, Count Sheremetyev, and the Decembrist Yakubovich fired a shot through the palm of the playwright Alexander Griboyedov (alas! this sad souvenir proved to be the identification of Griboyedov’s body at the time of his own tragic demise).


Philip Nikolayev, a writer from our own 21st century, wrote an enigmatic piece (although I do not dare claim to understand it) which appears to mention the unlucky Count Sheremetyev:

(……..A thing that can peer into
pluck out that mental landscape flower by flower), itself, like the pro
and likewise I’ve conversed with Schopenhauer’s microscope my classmate
(who slept nights with a firearm by his head Sheremetyev stole for me 
and probably talked to himself in bed)…..


Pushkin’s novel about Istomina was never completed. Born in the same year as Istomina–1799–he died in 1837–38 years young.  The manuscript was found in his papers, and has been puzzled over by curious critics.

And what of Istomina herself? A number of questions arise in my mind. One of them: what inner fires did this ballerina have access to (beyond the survival instinct), which enabled her firstly to ascend the stage as Flora, and, secondly, through this role and many others, to color, and subtly influence the literature of her generation?

I also wonder whether Istomina might have envied the scribblings of her male contemporaries. If she had been born a few years later, might she have desired to take up the pen herself, just as Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva did? Surely, she must have shed at least a few bitter tears over the duels fought (supposedly) in her honor, but we are missing her voice in this dialogue. Like Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, Istomina had a complicated love-life; her first husband died soon after they married; later, she married the actor Pavel Ekunin.

Partly due to Istomina’s close association with Pushkin and the Decembrists, as well as an injury, Istomina fell out of Imperial favor and her career faltered. She became an actress for a time, and quietly retired with Ekunin, with whom she performed her last dance on stage in 1836. By the time Pushkin’s “Terpsichore” died of cholera at age 49, she had already been forgotten by her formerly adoring fans, although a ballet enthusiast might insist that her legacy lives on in the Alexandrinsky and Mariinsky Theaters in St. Petersburg.

Forgive my indulgence, as I close with a translation of an Anna Akhmatova poem:

Avdotia Istomina

Avdotia Istomina (1799-1848)

Here Pushkin’s endless exile has begun,
And Lermontov’s exile turned out fatal,
The mountain grass has a smell so sweet and gentle,
And only once I managed to discern,
By the lake under the dense shade of a chinara,
In the early evening and ferocious trice
The glare of insatiable dark eyes
Of the immortal lover of Tamara.

–Anna Akhmatova

Sources, among others:

A.S. Kline: Poetry in Translation.*

Philip Nikolayev’s poem.

Pushkin’s Muse.

Akhmatova Poem (Poemhunter)


Posted by Jillian Parker

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