Vasili Popugaev

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Vasili Vasilyevich Popugaev (Russian: Василий Васильевич Попугаев) (1778 or 1779 – c. 1816) was a Russian poet, novelist, and translator. He was one of the leaders of the Free Society of Lovers of Literature, Science, and the Arts.


Popugaev was born in 1778 or 1779 in St. Petersburg, the son of an artist. He was orphaned early and in 1786 was adopted at public expense into the gymnasium at the Imperial Academy of Sciences, where he studied for twelve years but without being graduated.

In 1797 Popugaev began working for the St. Petersburg censor, where in December 1802 he joined the committee drafting new censorship laws. He stayed with the censor until August 1811, first as assistant editor of the second department, then (from 1809) as head of the archives commission.

During some of this time Popugaev also taught Russian language and literature at the Petrischule.

On June 18, 1812, Popugaev entered service in the Department of Communications, where he first performed the duties of chief clerk for the classification of overland communications, then (from 1816) was a translator for the chief of the head office.

Accurate information about Popugaev's further life has not been preserved. According to the memoirs of Nikolai Grech, Popugaev died in 1816, probably in Tver. According to Grech, Popugaev was a "fiery, eccentric poet, a boisterous friend of truth and a persecutor of evil, unstable, hot-tempered, gentle and simple" who often served as "an object of ridicule from people who did not understand him, and which hurt him".


Popugaev's literary career was short, about ten or twelve years, but despite this modest length he was a worthwhile and important writer. He was one of the few bright voices of the political direction that arose during the reign of Catherine the Great, only to stall under Czar Paul but to be renewed with new force at the beginning of the reign of Czar Alexander I.

Popugaev's first literary experiments, such as his story "The Apothecary's Island, or The Distress of Love" (St. Petersburg, 1800) and his early sentimental poems, in the mode that Tynyanov and Lotman would later described as "Karamzinism", do not show distinction in comparison with many of his contemporary poets.

Among Popugaev's works are a separate edition of the novel "The Apothecary's Island, or The Distress of Love" (St. Petersburg, 1800) and Minutes of Music, a collection of poems (St. Petersburg, 1801, first volume; there was to have been a second volume but this apparently was never published).

Popugaev's work is closely associated with the Free Society of Lovers of Literature, Science, and the Arts, appearing in journals and proceeding of the Society and in publications by other members of the Society. Thus in the volumes of the Society's publication Scroll of the Muses (St. Petersburg 1802 and 1808) are found some of Popugaev's poems which attracted interest: "Pygmalion", "Poem in Commemoration of a Generous Act by Angersteyna", "Letter to Born", "To a Friend", and others.

Popugaev also contributed poems and essays to the Society's journal, Telegram, with such works as "The Negro" (translation from Spanish), "The Dignity of the Old Pedagogy in Russia", "On Political Education in General", "On the Public Education of the People and the Impact Thereof on Political Education", "On History as a Subject of Political Education", and "The Effect of Public Education on Industry and Science".

Popugaev also contributed to the N. F. Ostolopova's magazine The Philologist. Some of his poems appear in the anthology Thalia (1807) by Society member Benittskogo. Some works by Popugaev are preserved in manuscript, surviving in the archives of the Society, while others we know only by title.

Popugaev made translations of Volneya, Filandzhieri, Machiavelli, Tacitus, and others ("The General Plan of Legislative Provisions", "The Effect of Education on Laws and Government, "On Feudalism", "The Legal Argument for Infanticide", "On Monarchy", and more). His other original essays include "The Spartans", "The Unhappy Family", "On Poetry", "Discourse on the Colors of the Rainbow", "An Essay on the Prosperity of Folk Societies", and more.

The Society

Popugaev, with Nikolai Grech, Ivan Born and others, formed a literary society which had its first session on July 15, 1801. On November 26, 1803 the group was officially recognized and chartered as the St. Petersburg Free Society of Lovers of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

The Society was originally formed simply as a venue for members to pursue their own literary education and learning, but the interests of some founders – Popugaev in particular, but also Born – also ran toward the socio-political, and some of the Society's lectures took on political overtones. Popugaev was in these early years the soul of the Society: he was its First Secretary, its censor, its most assiduous recruiter of new members, and its most active speaker and worker on the Society's publications. While unquestionably erudite and energetic, yet Popugaev (in the words of Grech) "Inspired the most pure intentions, was indifferent to the judgments of the world and worldly relations, rushed in all directions, began many projects but did not finish anything."

Beginning with a desire to practice diligently at writing poetry and stories of both light and serious content, Popugaev gradually turned to public discourse and rhetoric; he studied and translated Western philosophers, legal thinkers, and writers on in philology, history, and finally, physics, and he wrote essays and reviews on all of these subjects.

Of Popugaev's legacy in literature and in society, we can form some idea. He was a man of serious mind, strict with himself and others, passionate, fond, an autodidact on the literature of the French theorists of freethought and himself a freethinker. His ideal social order was ancient republican Sparta, with its severe laws, especially regarding education. To Popugaev, the highest title was "citizen", the greatest wealth personal freedom, the greatest evils indifference, ambition, tyranny, and slavery.

All these views Popugaev expressed clearly, and sometimes sharply, in his passionate poems to civic motivation. Like other members of the Society, he welcomed the new reign which promised to promote public education, but chastised it for failing to honor its pledge that the strong should abide by the laws, protect the people's happiness, march in the paths of righteousness, and care for the peaceful development of the state. In Popugaev's poems, one constantly hears the call to social activism, education, humanitarianism.

But Popugaev's civic ideals are most clearly expressed in his speeches before the society, and his reports and papers – for example, in a series of articles under the title "On Political Education", especially the last, "On the Public Education of the People and the Impact Thereof on Political Education", where Popugaev advocates the idea of a merging, through education, of the interests of different classes of society and the urgent need to eliminate class selfishness and prejudice and to instill in the minds of the younger generation of future citizens the sanctity of public benefit.

On the issue of education in particular and society in general, Popugaev held the opinion "People can live as they please, but under some enlightened government recognized and approved by the local people". "Public education, modeled on ancient Sparta's, is preferable to nepotism". "Every citizen should know the relationship and responsibilities of his connection with society: customs, laws, and rights are first and foremost relationships of political societies and of politics". To Popugaev, the study of laws should be put in the first place in education, but history, as a matter of education, should serve not so much to enrich the mind with facts and common affairs of the past but should be seen in a philosophical spirit: "[History] must be useful for the citizens of a common polity"; "History must be the mirror of the great issues which, as in a painting, represent the immortal role models and their path to fame – or to judgment."

With regard to Popugaev's political beliefs: He sympathized with cosmopolitanism and was ready to "love, as brothers, all peoples"; but he was also an ardent patriot of the democratic tendency.

Hating slavery and loving liberty, he wrote the story "The Negro", which declares that "The Will is not for sale, and no tyrant may possess it". He praises the Spartans and the heroes of antiquity, the fighters for freedom of the individual. He wrote an essay in two parts, "On the Plight of the Peasants, which is Attributable to Feudalism", the first part being "An Essay on the Prosperity of Folk Societies". However, the other members of the Society felt almost unanimously that the tone of the article was too harsh, even in a time when "The government itself, the Emperor himself, has studied ways to alleviate the plight of the peasants".

Popugaev was an admirer of Alexander Radishchev, whose memory was honored as sacred by members of the Society, and was a great proponent of the much discussed (but never implemented, until after Popugaev's death) Monument to Minin and Pozharsky.

Of course, youth and zeal, as well as the favorable conditions in the early years of the reign of Alexander I, gave Popugaev courage. But it was a courage limited to words alone. The great ideas which Popugaev hoped would "spawn a new light, new views on things and a new model for public governance" ultimately ruined Popugaev: he fell into a controversy which led, on the one hand, to a vague and contradictory theory of the 18th Century and, on the other hand, to a lack of practical experience and political temperament. The Society began to suffer various misunderstandings and problems, and under the influence of Born and Ivan Pnin, Popugaev's vision for the Society was replaced by a purely literary direction and a turning toward the views of Alexander I – all of which could not help but sap Popugaev's zeal.

Not wanting to put up with the Society's new trend and not feeling strong enough to fight it, Popugaev left the Society in March 1811 and appears to have ceased his literary activities, which gradually faded from public memory.

With the departure of Popugaev and other talented members (including Born) and coming of the French invasion of Russia in 1812, the Society suspended operations, not to be resumed until after Popugaev's death.

External links


  • This article incorporates material from the Russian Biographical Dictionary (Russian)
  • Archives of the Free Society of Lovers of Literature, Science, and the Arts at Saint Petersburg State University (Russian)
  • Archives of the Imperial Ministry of Communications
  • Northern Bee, № 125 (1857) (Russian)
  • The News, № 15 (1864) (Russian)
  • Benevolent, Part 33, № 3 (1826) (see also "Compositions by A. E. Izmailov", v. 2, P. 315 (1890)) (Russian)
  • Sreznevsky, B. Notes of A. X. Vostokova about his life in St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg. (1901) (Russian)
  • Vostokova, A. X.. From the memoirs of A. X. Vostokova, Russian Star, v. 97 (March 1899) (Russian)
  • Works of Batiushkov, L. N. Maikova (ed.). St. Petersburg (1887)
  • Pyatkovsky, A. P.. From the History of Our Literature and Social Development. St. Petersburg (1889) (Russian)
  • Kolyupanov, N.. Biography of A. I. Koshelev (1889) (Russian)