Pushkin's legacy

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
Since the Pushkin Prizes Trust's foundation in 1987, more than 15,000 children from 250 schools across Ireland have participated in the writing competition. A sister organisation exists in Scotland and, since 1988, the trust has been working in St Petersburg through contacts made via the Pushkin Lycee and the Pushkin English-speaking school. Last year Pushkin Prizes broadened its scope to embrace art forms such as sculpture and an understanding of the natural world.

For the past 15 years, overall winners have taken away prizes of books, but this year has seen a retreat from the emphasis on prizes, something that could inhibit children with little or nothing - those, the Duchess, says who are "crucified by examinations". She says: "We have moved to awards that can come through their own sense of achievement." The word "prizes" will soon be dropped and the organisation will be known simply as the Pushkin Trust.

The trust's inspiration, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is widely described as the father of modern Russian literature, and had a life as turbulent as it was productive. A prolific writer of poetry and prose, one who depicted people at all social levels, he was exiled for six years in 1820, his work considered an incitement to revolution.

He was restless, plagued by debt, and the subject of scandalous rumours.

Late in 1836 he challenged a guards officer, to a duel, was shot in the stomach and died a few weeks later.

It was a short life but Pushkin left a great artistic legacy. Most of his surviving manuscripts lie in Russian museums, although the Duchess's library in Northern Ireland contains some of his writings. These, though, do not feature on Baronscourt days. His relevance to the children, the Duchess says, is as a creator of fairy tales. Since 1987 the trust's achievement has, she says, been to "push deeper roots into the system and into teachers' lives - and the way they teach themselves. It's become more central to the classroom experience."

Besides the obvious prerequisite - funding - what sustains it is, she says, the enthusiasm of the artists and environmentalists involved. "They have a dynamic quality and have struck so many sparks." A team of regional leaders across Ireland help formulate the annual themes. "They know what will work; what teachers will take on," says the Duchess.

The Russian operation is smaller but attempts to reach all social strata.

In a school set amid a grim concrete tower block suburb, some children show, the Duchess says, "amazing energy and poise - we could feel the sense of life and creativity".

There were 25 Baronscourt days in 2003. Extra ones can be arranged for schools with difficulties such as Edenbrooke, now piloting the enriched curriculum, with its early years emphasis on oral skills, structured play, self-esteem and social awareness.

The trust has pound;200,000 funding for the next three years - drawn from bodies including the Esme Fairbairn Trust, Co-operation Ireland, which encourages cross-border work and the Arts Councils of Northern Ireland and the Republic. The trust has been supported from the outset by the education departments of Belfast and Dublin. It keeps in close touch with donors by circulating details of its work and inviting them to the awards ceremony.

Individual patrons include the poet Seamus Heaney, whose wife, Marie, is a trustee.

There is now a need to expand beyond Baronscourt, says the Duchess.

"Schools come all the way up from Dublin. We would like to do days at Limerick and nearer Belfast; and more regularly."

Pushkin once declared that with enthusiasm everything is possible. But what resonance can a 19th-century Russian poet have for children from backstreet Belfast? The Duchess tries to connect them to her ancestor by telling the story of his childhood. "As a little boy he was educated by his nanny - he would run to her hut in the woods and she would tell him fairy tales of their land," she says. "He was captivated by the stories; and the sparks and flames from the fire; the shadows on the wall."

Pushkin's creative reaction, she feels, makes Russia and Ireland close in spirit. He would have felt at home in a log cabin at Baronscourt, sitting in front of an open fire and called upon to imagine all sorts. Meanwhile, his creative gene lives on - the Duchess has just had published a small collection of prose poems, Feather from the Firebird. "I feel I am now one of the children." she says.

The Pushkin Trust publishes anthologies of children's writing. To order, and for more details of the scheme, see: www.pushkinprizes.org.uk

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