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After 200 years, Pushkin's poetry still rouses Russians

MOSCOW -- It was a quiet day in the maternity ward of Moscow City Hospital No. 1 when the spirit of Alexander Pushkin blew in on a spring breeze.

With television cameras running, the hospital did its part for the impending 200th birthday of Pushkin, a poet who is, in some ways, the most important man in Russia today."I've gotten married," recited Lena Novoydarskaya, a radiant soon-to-be mother, suddenly transformed into Tatyana from Pushkin's epic poem, "Eugene Onegin."

"You are kindly requested to leave me," intoned the woman next to her, sitting on one of eight steel-frame beds in a 160-year-old room.

"I know in your heart there is . . . ," a dark-haired woman in a pink nightgown continued.

" . . . pride and direct honesty," finished the next woman, whose red lipstick matched her robe.

Just as it did 100 years ago on the occasion of the poet's centenary, Russia has gone Pushkin-crazy in a frenzied buildup to the anniversary Sunday.

It is impossible to walk a block in Moscow without running into Pushkin's image on a poster or billboard. "Honor," proclaims one -- just that single word beneath a portrait of Pushkin and two giant pistols, a reminder of the duel in which Pushkin died in 1837 at the age of 37.

Pushkin is in theaters, on candy wrappers and T-shirts, embroidered onto linen. His bust has been sculpted into vodka bottles, to say nothing of the monuments that have long adorned nearly every Russian city. His portrait can be found in virtually every school in Russia.

And now, thanks to Yevgeny Gorelets, he is being recited every day on national television.

Gorelets, a free-lance television producer, had the notion earlier this year of filming ordinary Russians reading verses from "Eugene Onegin," which consists of 389 stanzas of 14 lines each, plus a few longer segments.

He realized he didn't have time for the entire poem, which fills a substantial book, so he chose 148 key stanzas and began roaming around Moscow and the surrounding countryside filming people as they recited them.

The national channel ORT has been running Gorelets' segments each day at the end of its newscasts. Each segment shows 14 people, each reciting a single line.

"Pushkin somehow transforms people," Gorelets said.

His serial documentary is a testament to the universal appeal of Pushkin in Russia.

It would probably be fruitless to search for a Russian who hasn't read Pushkin's poetry -- it is required reading in Russian schools. But what is truly surprising is how difficult it is to find a Russian who doesn't love Pushkin.

"Pushkin is Pushkin," explained a middle-aged construction worker named Mikhail -- he wouldn't give his last name -- who was laying asphalt on a Moscow street. "You read his poetry and it touches your emotions."

Pushkin, Yeltsin once said, "is our everything."

It is hard to comprehend the hold that Pushkin has on Russia. A descendant of Russian aristocracy and an African servant, he was a bit of a dandy and lived a life that seemed straight out of his poetry. He was wildly popular during his life and has remained so almost continuously ever since, through revolution, war and vast social change.

The Soviet government was initially indifferent to Pushkin but eventually jumped on his bandwagon, seizing on a few "revolutionary" letters as proof of his political correctness. Today's Russian government has happily used his birthday as a means of binding a nation at risk of being fractured by political, ethnic and social division.