Playful Teddy. Not an Easy Hero of Polish-Russian Dialogue

There are few eponyms from which the term vice is derived. Molière’s Harpagon, synonymous with ‘miser’, is the most famous. But the surname “Bułharyn” (Bulgarin) also received this honor.

Where hadn’t he been, whom didn’t he know! Tadeusz Bułharyn (1789-1859) was educated in the St. Petersburg Cadet Corps and in Vilnius, he served under the future Grand Duke Konstantin, but also under General Józef Chłopicki, he knew Adam Mickiewicz and Aleksander Pushkin, drank with the Vilnius free-masons and Muscovian Decembrists, and used his cravat to polish a ring, evidence of the special favor of His Imperial Majesty Nicholas I. But probably most of all, he valued his acquaintance with Count Alexander von Benckendorff, founder of the 3rd Department of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery, i.e. the famous Russian secret police.

Who was he? In writing about his ancestors, he sometimes claimed that the nickname “Bułharyn-Skenderbeg” was inherited by the sword. Let us recall that Skenderbeg is the surname of the 15th-century ruler of Albania, fighting (but also dealing with) the Turks. Yes, part of his family escaped to the lands of then Bulgaria, where they could keep their family name. However, how an Albanian-Bulgarian immigrant ended up in the lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and achieved a small fortune and honors there, Tadeusz did not explain.

More plausible are the roots of the family going back to the tribes of the Volga Bulgars (“Bułhars”), subjugated by Russia from the 16th century onwards. But even from there, it is not easy to get to Volhynia, where the Bułharyns are first mentioned in Adam Boniecki’s armorial [collection of coats or arms]. Or maybe the Lipkas, so the Tatars who settled in Lithuania, who in turn are mentioned in the coat of arms disquisitions by Seweryn Uruski, come into play?

Mińszczucy from time immemorial

We won’t get to the bottom of it. Suffice it to say that in times closer to Tadeusz, the Bułharyn family lived in the Mińsk Voivodeship on the borderlands of the pre-partition Commonwealth. The typical middle nobility, citizens of the Commonwealth, Uniates by faith, with a slight trace of foreignness or originality: legends of Skenderbeg, documented participation of one of the ancestors in the Polish-Muscovite War (1605-1618), or expeditions to Moscow with the intention of enthroning a usurper there... At the same time, they were property owners and possessors of a coat of arms (the mother even came from the house of Buczyński, the Strzemie coat of arms, which was highly regarded in Lithuania). Their Pieryszewo estate allowed him to participate in public life. Tadeusz’s father, Benedykt, was supposedly devoted to the cause of the Constitution, and then the Insurrection – apparently (but maybe it’s also a family legend?) the name of their firstborn was given in honor of the Leader [Tadeusz Kościuszko].
“Napoleon at the Battle of Friedland” – painting by Horace Vernet. Photo: https://www.liveinternet.ru/community/camelot_club/post325714246, Public Domain, Wikimedia
He paid for it not with his head, but with his freedom. According to some sources, after the defeat of the Insurrection, he was sent to Siberian exile, according to others – only to the prison in Vilnius, where he still spent over a year. At the same time – it was not unusual for the nobility of the most distant borderlands, even in the years of repression and the collapse of the country, to gravitate around the strongest political, educational and economic center of north-eastern Europe, which at that time was St. Petersburg. Tadeusz’s mother, Amelia, sent her son to the Cadet Corps there – and whoever may be indignant at this, let them remember how many generations of borderland nobility were educated there, all the way up to the young Józef Czapski a little over a century later. Was a boy supposed to waste his time lodged in Vilnius?

     The beginning of Tadeusz’s career was therefore predictable: he was a cadet, a cornet (slightly lower than an ensign) in the campaigns against Sweden and France in the war of 1806, wounded even at Friedland, for which he was awarded the Order of Saint Anne (third degree). Or for reprimands received for a romance scandal or for writing satires: first, a month’s imprisonment in Kronstadt, then, quite unpleasant service in a dragoon regiment, and finally, dismissal from the army with the fairly low rank of lieutenant.

And then, the first Bułharin about-face took place: almost like his more famous namesake in book ten of the Poem [–Mister Thaddeus by Adam Mickiewicz], he saved himself by crossing over the Nemunas river and joins the ranks of the Polish army. Did he really traverse as far as Spain with supplies for the Legion of the Vistula [Poles serving Napoleonic France], under the orders of Józef Chłopicki? I wouldn’t be so sure of that, but his participation in the epic French invasion of Russia in 1812 is confirmed. Apparently, he was even recommended for the Legion of Honor for heroism at Mozhaysk, but let’s put this with the story about Skenderbeg. Certainly, however, he crossed through the entire route, he was even wounded again – for the Emperor – near Chełm and again in the Battle of Leipzig. However, he was taken prisoner by the Prussians and in 1814 he was extradited to Russia.

Desertion came to nothing

In fact, he should have been sent for penal service as a deserter. However, formally speaking, he was dismissed from the army, and in 1811, when Tadeusz agreed to serve, Napoleon was still formally an ally of the Tsar – it all came to nothing. Tadeusz, deprived of property (a small estate near Minsk did not survive the war of 1812), wandered: he frequented Warsaw and Vilnius, he wrote here, he wrote there – sometimes a note to –The Vilnius Journal and sometimes a satire to –Tabloid News. However, it was impossible to make a living from this, or from managing his uncle’s estate – so in 1819 he moved to St. Petersburg.

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He began modestly, with a reminiscence from the battlefields of Friedland, written in Polish and published in the Polish-language edition of the famous magazine of war veterans –Russian Invalid. However, half a year later, it took off. He befriended the best writers of his time, from the aged Nikolai Karamzin to the future Decembrists, Alexander Bestuzhev and Kondrat F. Ryleev. He meet publishers, translators, and theatrical entrepreneurs – he was as buys as a bee. One could almost imagine a sign “Bułharyn, writer” among the colorful signage of St. Petersburg of that time:

Inscription: Here lives Achmet, Khan of the Kyrgyz,
Ruler of the Polish Affairs Department
Senator. — Inscription: 'This is Monsieur Żoko
I give lessons in a Parisian accent,
He is a court cook, vodka collector,
Bass in the orchestra, and the caretaker of schools.
(...) The inscription: “Women’s costumes here" – further: “Notes”;
There they make: “Toys for children” – there: “Knouts” [whips].

There is no need to imagine: in 1822, under his editorship and management, –The Northern Archive began to appear, a serious fortnightly devoted to “news in the field of history, statistics, travel, jurisprudence and customs.” And from 1825, the largest and most popular Russian magazine of the first half of the 19th century – –Northern Bee – was buzzing on St. Petersburg signboards.

Information buzz

What wasn’t there! News from the world, Europe and Russia. (Edifying) court gossip and information about newcomers, reports from exhibitions and theater premieres, reports about fire-eaters and columns, poems and prose trifles. The circulation – impressive for those times, 10,000 copies – all sold out! There was a lot of content, but also an impressive frequency of publication: initially published three times a week, from 1831 the –Northern Bee was published daily.

Bułharyn was its publisher and editor for more than a decade, almost until the end of his life. And yet, he also contributed to the –Northern Archive, in 1825 he founded the first magazine dedicated to theater –Russian Talia, with one of the Muses in the title, in 1823 –Literary Notes, from 1826 – a supplement to the –Bee intended for children, and in 1841-1845 – the solid –Ekonom monthly, devoted to farming, with particular emphasis on horse breeding and equestrianism.
“Ivan Vejeeghen” by Faddei Bulgarin, 1829. Photo: Public Domain, Wikimedia
And this is only a small part of his employment, because at the same time he wrote epigrams, short stories, humorous sketches, poems, novellas, reminiscences, travel notes and novels. His most popular (and most frequently reprinted) adventure novel bears the title –Ivan Vejeeghen. In the first editions, it still had the subtitle –The Tales of the Russian Gil Blas – and indeed, it is a picaresque romance written on the model of the 18th-century novel by Lesage (in Polish translation by Julian Rogoziński known as –The Cases of Idzi Blas). Kidnappings, burglaries, unfortunate romances, lethargy and miraculous healings multiply there by the dozens, and the “mysterious strangers” who change the course of the action are certainly more than the 3rd Department would like.

Arabic lingua franca

The most impressive thing today is probably his debut novel –Probable Tall-Tales or Travels Around the World in the 29th Century. Never mind that at the time the concept of “time travel” was not yet widely known in literature – but oh what an imagination! OK, “aerostats” rising in the air are an ancient dream, self-propelled vehicles can be imagined by looking at carriages (without a drunk driver), and cast-iron bridges were already starting to be erected then. Parachutes, rapid-fire weapons, even submarines – well, there were already such dreams. The vision of “Earth reversal” (snow in the Sahara, the inhabited Arctic) also don’t require geophysical knowledge either – it’s quite a mechanical concept. But the belief that Arabic would become the language of the elite puts Bułharyn in the ranks of visionaries right next to Houellebecq...

But if so, why is there so much harshness towards Bułharyn? Why did Polish sources, usually so eager to mention Poles who are successful internationally, especially during the partitions, write about Bułharyn in a mutter? (Since a scant note in a pre-war issue of the Polish Biographical Dictionary and a few paragraphs by the incomparable Jan Kucharzewski, no decent monograph has been written about him). And why is he the most popular hero of Russian epigrams, the entertainment of the elites of the time that was even more destructive than being tagged on Twitter?

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These epigrams would really suffice for an anthology. Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Nikolai Nekrasov wrote about Bułharyn. The most caustic writings are anonymous, although a few of them are attributed to Pushkin – and not without reason, they are so great. Epigrams are extremely difficult to translate because of their brevity and idiomaticity, and footnotes slay the beauty of the original. Most of them are not worse than what Mickiewicz wrote about Jan Czyński (“He’s half Jewish, half Polish / half civilian, half soldier / half Jacobin, half student / but a whole scoundrel”).

The poet’s commentary on the rumors spread by Teddy, that Peter I bought Pushkin’s great-grandfather, the famous Abyssinian Hannibal, for a barrel of rum, can be translated roughly as:

You say for a barrel of rum?
Indeed, for pennies.
You, writing safely at home,
Sell your pen for more…

Great perspectives for a career

The whole trouble is that dear Tadeusz really, really needed to become known.

That he took up journalism and publishing is not the problem. And not even that he forged a monopoly for –Northern Bee for publishing foreign news (potentially upsetting and unorthodox), and then – for publishing the first reports from theatrical premieres and the first book reviews (how could anyone compete with this?).

And the fact that he had uncontrollable outbursts of anger – and that in the temperamental 19th century would somehow pass. And the fact that he immoderately criticized all of the more independent writers of Nicholas’s poor Russia – my God, maybe these were simply his views? And the fact that in the –Bee he eagerly reviewed newly opened taverns, tailors and confectioneries in St. Petersburg, as long as he could count on remuneration from the owner – after all, the world of advertising and reportage was not separated by such an iron curtain as it is today. And that his novels were all written in the same vein – tastes change.

The problem is that, uncertain of his fate, with a soiled service record, Bułharyn recognized that he would not be able to keep going without protection. And he applied for the highest, or almost the highest, protection – for the grace of cooperation with the aforementioned 3rd Department of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery. Hence, Monsieur Eugène-François Vidocq, a famous criminalist, informer and head of the secret police of the Napoleonic era, in Pushkin’s first association...
Caricature of Bułharyn. Photo: By Unknown artist. From the album of A.E. Izmailov –Monument of Friendship, http://www.nasledie-rus.ru/podshivka/pics/6110-pictures.php?picture=611007, Public Domain, Wikimedia
It was thanks to Aleksander von Benckendorff’s grace that he obtained privileges for the –Northern Bee. It was at his instigation that he wrote bitterly about Pushkin. But most of all, it was on his behalf that he prepared, like the most famous Polish literary figures in the world of Communist Poland, such as Kazimierz Koźniewski, exhaustive reports on the literary life of contemporary St. Petersburg and detailed analyses of the works of his younger colleagues in terms of their unorthodoxy.

I kindly inform you

His enthusiasm was bottomless. He kindly reported that Pushkin “challenged the faith in the order of Heaven and the order of the Throne.” He demanded the calling of a special commission of inquiry to which he would testify about the quasi-Masonic Martinist lodge. He pointed to all competing print titles as centers of unorthodoxy, from Turgnieniew’s –Patriotic Notes to a Moscow bimonthly devoted to horse riding.

In Nicholas’s Russia, it was impossible to write about it openly. It was impossible even to slap Bułharyn in the face, and the majority probably believed that he had no sense of honor. Some of the stories told about him – such as the one that he personally reported to the police on the young writer Orest Somov, associated with the Decembrists, who took refuge in his apartment after the failure of their uprising – are probably as implausible as the adventures of young Ivan Vejeeghen. But the real intrigues, denunciations and acts of bootlicking were enough for him to become the favorite hero of caricatures and rhymes, entered – for safety – only into the guestbooks of trusted ladies.

And when we reflect on the image of Poles in the Russian imagination of the mid-19th century, for example on the malice of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (who, by the way, also knew Bułharyn and also experienced his harsh reviews) towards Polish nobles – it is worth taking into account the achievements of this great-grandson of Skenderbeg. From which, of course, there is a more timeless moral: involvement in public affairs is important for a writer – but one shouldn’t overdo it.

– Wojciech Stanisławski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–Translated by Nicholas Siekierski
Main photo: Jan Tadeusz Krzysztof Bułharyn, also Faddiej Vieniediktowicz Bulgarin, Russian: Фаддей Венедиктович Булгарин. Photo: I.Friederik – The Complete Works of Bulgarin, Vol. 3, Public Domain, Wikimedia
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