Our Notes & References
The first complete poetic French translation of Pushkin’s poem that “raised him to the summit of Russian Parnassus” (Terras). This is also the first separate book edition in French, and the second illustrated book by Pushkin in France.
Strikingly illustrated by an original Russian female artist, and this copy inscribed by the translator: a politically-engaged playwright and one of the main figures of the feminist theatre movement in France.
Only 500 copies printed: scarce, especially on the market, as we could not trace any example at auction outside Russia, including France. Worldcat locates only 5 copies: 2 in the US (NYPL and Pennsylvania) and 3 in France (Université Côte d’Azur, Strasbourg, BnF).
Aleksandr Pushkin’s (1799-1837) first complete book, Ruslan and Ludmila was published in 1820 and sold out almost immediately. In 1823, a French translation of an extract appeared in the Anthologie russe by Dupré de Saint-Maure: this was Pushkin’s very first appearance in Western Europe. The full French translation of the poem was published in prose in 1847, as part of the Œuvres choisies de A. S. Pouchkine, translated by H. Dupont. This translation however has been criticised, for example by Vasilii Shults in his bibliography of Pushkin’s works in French: “The French could hardly appreciate Pushkin from these translations. H. Dupont, a former professor of literature at the St. Petersburg Institute of Railway Transport, did very mediocre translations for it […] In some places there is a misunderstanding of the real meaning of words, which results in an inaccurate presentation of the poet’s thought” (our translation).
The first French translation in verses would appear only in 1898 with our edition, at a time a friendship between France and Russia (rulers of both empires had just visited each other). Vera Starkoff was a pseudonym for Teresa Ephron (1867-1923), a Jewish woman born in modern-day Poland (or Vilnius, according to some sources). She studied in Geneva and lived in Paris from 1889, where she became a playwright: “after Olympe de Gouges, George Sand and Louise Michel, [Starkoff] is one of the first women to write for the theatre” (Auffret, our translation).
Inspired by Tolstoy, Zola and Ibsen, she wrote multiple plays in which she advocated for the workers’ rights and expressed her convictions as an ardent feminist and libertarian. Among her transgressive works are the tellingly titled L’Amour libre (1902), Le vrai Tolstoi (1911) and Le Bolchevisme (1922). Starkoff was also responsible for one of the first Universités populaires, or adult education institutions, where she performed her plays and works of like-minded authors. She was an active member of the Women’s Fraternal Union (L’Union fraternelle des femmes) and was initiated into Freemasonry in 1901.
Beside Ruslan and Ludmila, she translated works by the socialist Nikolai Chernyshevskii and the Ukrainian-Russian activist Vladimir Korolenko.
To illustrate her translation, Starkoff chose “une artiste très personnelle” as she puts it in her preface: “son art ingénu et puissant a rendu d’une façon remarquable l’esprit de ce conte dans quatre dessins et une couverture du livre”. Indeed, Egoroff drawings depicting mystical characters and animals appearing through turbulent graphic patterns surprise with their compositional complexity and early avant-garde qualities. They are remarkable for their striking character, resembling dark, symbolist visions not entirely dissimilar to fantastic artists such as Odilon Redon or Felicien Rops, while the 4th plate echoes later book illustrations by another great Russian female artist, Natalia Goncharova. Egoroff also integrates some elements of the traditional Russian iconography, which she was normally practicing. Marie Egoroff (also Mariia Kirillovna Egorova) was indeed a member of the “Paris Ceramic Workshop of Russian Artists”, which belonged to her husband Egor Alekseevich Egorov (1832-91), a porcelain and faience painter and a son and grand-son of noted Russian painters. Interestingly, the great painter Ilya Repin spent some time in Egorov studio during his 2-year stay in Paris in the 1870s.
Marie Egorov exhibited her own works in 1894, three years after the death of her husband, and reviews of this exhibition associated her with spiritualists and “Les Occultistes parisiens”.
Next to her lyrical explanation of Egorov’s enigmatic drawings, Starkoff delivers in her 10-pp. long preface a short biography of Russia’s best poet, as well an analysis of his most important works. She also gives comments on her translation, sometimes referencing Russian encyclopaedias and explaining some of the Russian words and mythological names she kept for the French audience, such as Kochtczei (“l’immortel un personnage fantastique”) and isbouchka (“habitation de paysan”).
Inscribed by Vera Starkoff on the half-title “hommage à la Fronde [?], 17 juin 99”; blue ink tamp to half-title badly inked “Bibliothèque de la….”.
Vladimir Boutchik, Bibliographie des œuvres littéraires russes traduites en français, #865.
Vasilii Shults, A. S. Pushkin v perevode frantsuzskikh pisatelei, St Peterburg, Gratsianskii, 1880.
Séverine Auffret, Le Théâtre de Combat de Véra Starkoff, l’Université Populaire de Caen, 2009.
À propos de la Première Exposition de Marie Egoroff // Tout-Paris, Le Gaulois, n° 536, mardi 4 décembre 1894.
Tomasz Kaczmarek, La Voix des femmes dans le théâtre français de contestation sociale au tournant du xxe siècle, Université de Łódź, 2017.
Séverine Auffret et Georges Vayrou, “Une militante à (re)découvrir : Véra Starkoff (1867-1923)”, Cahiers d’histoire. Revue d’histoire critique, 143, 2019, 103-117.