Alexander Sergevich Pushkin (1799-1837)
Russian writer-regarded as the founder of Russia’s written language
Alexandre Sergevich Pushkin’s great-grand father, Abraham Petrovich Hannibal was the son of an African ruler; possibly from Chad, possibly from what is now Eritrea. At the age of eight he was either abducted or sent to the court of the Turkish Sultan in Constantinople. He might have stayed there had it not been for the desire of the Russian Emperor, Peter the Great, to copy Western fashions. Peter was a great moderniser. For example, he banned his nobles from wearing beards in the “old” Russian style. He had seen black pages at the court of Louis XIV (16th) of France and in aristocratic circles in England, so it was only a matter of time before he acquired one. It is generally viewed, that, as part of his modernising project, Peter used Abram’s education and career to demonstrate that anyone, “even from among wild men, such as Negroes” could be trained to give valuable service to sovereign and state.
Bought from the Sultan, Abraham arrived in Russia and was baptised with Tsar Peter standing as his godfather. Peter visited France in 1717, and at the same time Abraham was sent to study there, as one of Peter’s emergent and foreign educated officer class. He returned as a highly trained officer of artillery, and a new name, Hannibal. A respected military engineer, he was promoted under successive rulers and lived on into the reign of Catherine the Great, dying only 18 years before A.S. Pushkin was born.
Hannibal had eleven children. His third son Osip Abramovich married Marya Alexeevna. Osips share of Abraham’s inheritance was the estate of Mikhailovskoe (5000 acres and about 200 serfs) His daughter with Marya Alexeevna was Pushkin’s mother Nadezhda.
Pushkin’s father who was a captain in the Chasseur Guards, became a civil servant in 1800, and retired in 1817. He came from a family of boyars (nobles) who flourished in the times of Ivan the Terrible, but whose fortunes declined under Peter the Great. Sergei Lvovich inherited Boldino, the family estate, which supported 1200 serfs and which provided a steady income that might have kept the family in comfort if he had been a better manager. Sergei, however, only visited his estates twice during his lifetime. He had the reputation of being an idle, frivolous and miserly man, who disliked being burdened with domestic trivia, but he was also a fluent French speaker and had a large library of French literature and philosophy, both of which offered Pushkin a solid grounding for his later education.
Pushkin’s relation with his father was restrained, there was a distance between them, and when they were together, they argued. It is reported that his father suffered agonies of apprehension about the trouble his son was risking in clashes with the various authorities.
A.S. Pushkin complained bitterly about father’s meanness and his lack of affection, but Sergei was generous enough to sign over Boldino on the occasion of the poet’s marriage.
Pushkin’s mother inherited Mikhailovskoe from her father Osip, but he had left the estate so heavily in debt that, during her lifetime, the income went into paying it off. She was undoubtedly beautiful and elegant and also, in some ways, the mother from hell. She was disappointed in young Alexander’s appearance. She found him dull and chubby, disliked his swarthy looks and flat nose, and openly preferred her daughter Olga, and younger son, Lev. She wanted him to run about, be more sprightly and charming, and she nagged him to such an extent that he would run away and hide. After such episodes Nadezhda Osipovna would be so annoyed that she refused to speak to him for days. He had two habits which got on her nerves, rubbing his hands together and losing his handkerchiefs. To cure him of the hand-rubbing, she once tied his hands together behind his back and let him go for an entire day without food. To remind him about the handkerchiefs she sewed one to his jacket.
Pushkin spent his schooldays at the Lyceum at Tsarskoe Seloe. The school had 30 pupils and was inaugurated in October 1811 at a ceremony attended by the Imperial family, where the boys were presented to Tsar Alexander who had briefly considered enrolling his brother, the future Tsar.
In the aristocratic circles to which the Pushkin’s belonged, Sergei Lvovich was regarded as impoverished, but the ancient nobility of his ancestry, along with the distinction of the Gannibal’s meant that the family had an automatic entry to the highest rank of society. Alexander received the best education to be found in Russia. The school had previously been a palace occupied by various Grand Duchesses, and its facilities were impressive. The boys lived on the fourth floor, and on the floor below were classrooms, a physics lab, a reading room with newspapers and journals, and a library.
At the age of 14 Pushkin’s first published work appeared in the journal The Messenger of Europe (1814). The following year he was invited to perform after the end of term examinations. The event was attended by various dignitaries, including the Minister of the Interior and the hugely respected 18th century poet Derzhavin. His poem Reminiscences of Tsarskoe Seloe was a great success, and Derzhavin predicted that he would be replaced by the young poet.
Within two years after leaving school Pushkin was already famous and getting into trouble with the authorities. This tendency to attack trouble was to follow him and help shape his entire life. He traveled to St Petersburg and immediately launched into a life of gambling, women and poetry. All graduates of the Lyceum were obliged to enter either the military or the Civil Service and Pushkin had taken up a junior position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The post paid very little, but allowed him the time to spend most of his mornings in bed, his afternoons strolling along Nevsky Prospekt, and his evenings at fashionable parties, followed by drinking and cards. At the same time he wrote incessantly, producing a stream of poems, one of which, Ode to Freedom, caused his expulsion from the capital and later on threatened his survival. His first major epic, Ruslan and Lyudmilla, was also completed during this period, along with various satires – at least one of which (Noelles) openly mocked Tsar Alexander. Another poem which attracted the attention of the censors and the police was The Village, which is an overt attack on the horrors of serfdom.
Influenced by French verse and writers such as Voltaire, Pushkin wrote with an unaccustomed clarity and directness. His poems avoid the flowery and lavish descriptions that were popular with other writers of the time, his talent of capturing people and events; have a fluency of mood and emotional tone which is immediately seductive. Instead of using the formality of the classical style, he composed his satirical verses in everyday, conversational Russian. Often short, wicked (and sometimes obscene) gems of wit, qualities he also expressed in his longer works.
His friends, the entire circle of young officers and courtiers in the capital, quoted and laughed over his words. His talents made his satires even more dangerous in the eyes of the authorities, especially because Pushkin compounded his notoriety by his wild behavior. His gambling, womanising and drinking were not exceptional in his circle, apart from the fact that he sometimes went to extremes. He was said to have caught a cold waiting outside a prostitute’s door one rainy night when she refused to let him in. There was one incident when in a drunken state he rolled out of his seat one night at the theatre, on another occasion, he applauded by beating on the bald head of a man sitting in front of him. Even worse, he had an uncertain temper, and he fought or threatened to fight duels on a regular basis. Everything about Pushkin made sure that he was unlikely to be overlooked by the authorities.
In 1820 Pushkin was the subject of police suspicion because of the subversive and mocking tone of his poems, and he was called before the Governor General of St Petersburg to account for his political views. He had taken the precaution of burning his manuscripts in case his lodgings were searched, and he told the Governor this and cheekily offered to write down his verses from memory. He made a favourable impression; this was reinforced by the pleadings of more established poets on his behalf. Pushkin had mocked and insulted his old headmaster but when Tsar Alexander asked the man’s opinion he defended the young poet. The Tsar, however, insisted on some punishment. He stopped short of sending Pushkin to Siberia, and instead dispatched him to the North Caucasus.
When Pushkin set off for Bessarabia (South Russia) in the autumn of 1820 he was not sad to be leaving St Petersburg, the scene of various quarrels and dangers. Although the realisation changed nothing about his behaviour or his writing, the danger in which he stood was real. This was not a good time to mock an autocratic ruler, especially Tsar Alexander. The Tsar had come to the throne with the connivance of a group of officers who had murdered his father. He was popularly suspected of being involved, and any reference to the affair disturbed him. Pushkin’s Ode talked of the instruments of torture still in use, and also made indirect references to Alexander’s guilt, so by the standards of the time he enjoyed a surprising tolerance. During his lifetime many of his close friends were to be hanged, imprisoned or exiled under harsher conditions. Given Pushkin’s indiscretion, and willingness to air his opinion in his poetry, he might be said to have led a charmed life.
He was sent to Ekaterinoslav, close to the Black Sea and Russia’s borders with Turkey and what is now Romania. The town was far from the grandeur of St Petersburg, and many of the inhabitants lived in simple huts. Pushkin arrived in a bad mood, and when some local dignitaries came to visit, saying that they wanted to see the famous poet, he replied – “Well now you’ve seen him. Goodbye.” As if to confirm everything the locals had heard, he attended his first social outing, a banquet given by the Governor, wearing see-through muslin trousers without underwear. Fortunately, Pushkin fell ill soon after and was taken off to visit the Caucasus by the family of a St Petersburg friend. This was the real frontier with Asia, still turbulent with resentment against Russian rule. Pushkin was deeply impressed by the untamed scenery and its people. One of his most popular poems, The Prisoner of the Caucasus, about a romance between a Russian prisoner and a Circassian girl, drew on this period of his travels. The poem was written in Kishinev, where the Governor of the province had moved his headquarters – a town in Moldavia which had changed hands several times in Russia’s struggles with the Ottoman Empire. Its population was a mix of Greeks, Turks, Moldavian peasants and other various nationalities from all over the region. Although Pushkin continued to feel isolated and lonely, he enjoyed the rich ethnic mix around him, and he explored the town and the region of Southern Bessarabia making friends with the gypsies and sometimes joining in their street performances.
In Kishinev he completed The Prisoner and it is from this point that his writing took a new direction. He began reading and writing more seriously, filling the first of a series of notebooks in which he recorded his thoughts and literary planes. In this period he also completed The Dagger, celebrating the assassination of a reactionary official, followed by two of his bawdiest tales. In The Gabrielad, Mary, the mother of Jesus is seduced by the Devil, by the angel Gabriel and finally by God himself, all in one day. In The Tsar Nikita and His Forty Daughters a messenger has to return the missing private parts of the Tsar’s daughters. At the same time he had begun the first part of his epic tale Evgeny Onegin. During the times when he was not griped with inspiration, Pushkin alleviated his boredom by incessantly picking quarrels, in one incident he challenging a Greek to a duel for expressing surprise that he hadn’t read a particular book.
In the summer of 1823 Pushkin took a trip to Odessa, on the edge of the Black Sea, he was fortunate to secure himself a new post with the Governor, Count Vorontsov. Odessa was the administrative capital of Southern Russia, it had fine European buildings and a French restaurant, but Pushkin was bored within a month. By this time he was famous for his epic Ruslan and Lyudmilla, and he realised for the first time that it would be possible to make his living solely by writing. The obstacle in his way was official censorship, and the more he heard about his popularity in the North, the more his frustration at his enforced exile increased. In between writing Evgeny Onegin and lobbying for official release from government service, he spent his time engaging in one love affair after another, and penning insulting verses about his new boss. Vorontsov believed (correctly) that the young poet was trying to seduce his wife, and within a few months the Count was pleading with his superiors to deliver him from Pushkin. Pushkin was not allowed to resign, but in June one of his letters to a friend in which he light-heartedly talked about taking ‘lessons in atheism’ was intercepted. It was all the excuse needed for his dismissal, and by August 1824 Pushkin’s name had been struck from the list of Civil Servants and he was on his way back to his parents’ estate in Mikhailovskoe, under police supervision.
Pushkin was pleasantly surprised by the warmth of his reception at when he arrived home. Unfortunately, the local authorities imposed on his father the responsibility of supervising and reporting on his daily behaviour and his dangerous political tendencies. Sergei went as far as opening his son’s letters and furious quarrels followed. During one of them Sergei claimed that his son had threatened to strike him. Letters of complaint flew back and forth and in the end Sergei removed himself and the rest of the family to St Petersburg, never to return while Alexander was on the premises. Although at first he was not entirely enthusiastic about having to live at Mikhailovskoe they estate became his refuge, and in later life he longed to be able to flee the bright lights of the city and retire there.
The estate was like a tiny kingdom. The Pushkin’s didn’t only own the land; they owned the people who lived on it. At Mikhailovskoe Pushkin lived the life he had treasured as a child. In winter he went down to the lake and broke the ice with his fist to plunge in for a swim or he went riding or walking round the countryside, amusing and puzzling the peasants with his style of dress, a Russian shirt, baggy trousers and straw hat. They noted also his habit of jumping around, waving his arms and talking loudly to himself.
Pushkin was not a particularly good manager of his estate. The village chieftain (Starost) took care of the land, while Arina Rodionova, his old nanny and a sort of surrogate mother to Pushkin looked after the house. In the evening Arina told him fairy stories and Russian folk tales. One thing Pushkin did well at Mikhailovskoe was to write, composing much of his best work there. He wrote down Irina’s folk tales, finished The Gypsies which he had started in Odessa, expanded the collection which was to be the core of his great library, continued his studies of Russian history, and composed the play, Boris Godunov.
In December of 1824 Tsar Alexander died. The legitimate heir was his brother Constantine, who did not want responsibility and in turn, abdicated in favour of his younger brother Nicholas. Neither brother was popular, but public opinion feared Nicholas more. A group of young officers saw the accession as their chance for action. They became known as the Decembrists but they had been meeting and debating revolutionary topics for a number of years. Many of them had been Pushkin’s school friends, influenced by the ideas of the Lyceum’s first director, Malinowsky, who had written in favour of the emancipation of *slaves (Serfdom – peasants tied to land and landlord) and permanent peace, and who had been forbidden to speak at the inauguration of the school.
The Decembrists planned for all the regiments who supported them to assemble in the Senate Square during the oath of allegiance to Nicholas and to shout for Constantine and a constitution. In the event few of the regiments turned up, and neither did the Decembrist leader, Prince Trubetskoy. Nicholas ordered his supporters to open fire and the rebels dispersed. After the subsequent arrests and interrogations, five of Pushkin’s close friends were hanged, and 100 officers were exiled to Siberia.
Whether Pushkin owed up to the fact that he survived the Decembrist revolt to luck or intuition is not clear. He had set out for St Petersburg on the 1st December but turned back because a couple of hares ran across his path. He was therefore far away from St Petersburg at the time of the revolt, but over the next few months various agents made attempts to claim that he was implicated. This was the time of Pushkin’s greatest danger, because some of the conspirators had confessed to being influenced by his writings, in particular, Ode to Freedom. The following September Nicholas ordered Pushkin to present himself at his headquarters in Moscow. After the resulting interview the Tsar freed Pushkin to travel anywhere within the Empire apart from St Petersburg, to enter he would need special permission. Nicholas also declared that in future he himself would be the poet’s censor. Pushkin left in a state of euphoria, but Nicholas had been less generous than he appeared. The actual censor was Count Benckendorff, the Tsar’s chief of security.
After the interview with Tsar Nicholas, Pushkin’s career was at its most successful. His earlier work was being published and he was received everywhere with great acclaim. His release had energised him, and as if to mark a new chapter in his life he began writing his novel, The Negro of Peter the Great. He had been thinking about a project involving Abraham for some time. After leaving school in 1817, he had met the last surviving son of the Abraham’s, his grandfather’s brother, Peter, who kept calling for vodka until they were both legless. In 1825 Pushkin wrote in his diaries that he intended to go and see is old Negro of a Great uncle, before he died to learn more about his great-grandfather. He made the trip a week or so later, leaving with an unpublished biography of Abram and a memoir about the family written by Peter.
Pushkin often made reference to his African blood and his ‘negro’ temperament, but he said little about any personal experiences this caused him in Russian society, and his feelings can only be deduced from his account in The Negro of Peter the Great of Ibrahim’s environment. For instance, in the novel, when Ibrahim leaves France he writes to his lover asking why she would want to unite herself to the “unhappy lot of a negro”, “a pitiful creature whom people scarcely recognise as human”. In St Petersburg, the parents of the girl that the Tsar has picked out for his protégé can hardly conceal her horror at the prospect, while her mother whines about the ugliness of his features. Pushkin himself on a number of occasions had been referred to as “monkey face”; it seems significant that at the time he wrote The Negro Pushkin himself had started looking for a wife.
Natalya Ivanovna Goncharova came from an impoverished family. Her father was a known alcoholic and her mother, formerly a lady-in-waiting to the Empress, had been married off under suspicious circumstances. Pushkin’s nickname for his mother in law was Mama Kars after a Turkish fortress. From an early age, Natalya and had the reputation of being one of the country’s outstanding beauties. Pushkin had been knocking about in Moscow. Although he applied more than once for permission to go abroad, Nicholas always refused. Marriage offered the only prospect of change in a life barely under his control. Pushkin proposed in the spring of 1829, but Natalya’s mother did not accept him until a year later. Even so, the marriage kept being put off. An uncle died, and then Pushkin was quarantined on Boldino, his father’s estate, by an outbreak of cholera. On his return to Moscow another old friend died and the wedding was once again postponed until February, when it finally took place. The couple produced four children: Maria (1832), Alexander (1834), Grigory (1835), and Natalya (1836).
The autumn of 1835 in Boldino had been one of Pushkin’s most productive. He finished Evgeny Onegin, wrote four highly-regarded tragedies (including Mozart and Salieri), and a collection of short stories, a narrative poem and about 30 shorter poems. His married life was relatively peaceful, apart from the pressure of his debts. He worked seriously on a history of the Cossack rebellion against the Empress Catherine; Tsar Nicholas gave permission for it to be published and lent him the money to publish it at his own expense. Pushkin felt his future was assured. For Natalya, on the other hand, life was a constant round of economies, and struggling to make ends meet. The Tsar had met her a few months after the wedding – and, taken by her beauty, began making her one of his circle. Pushkin, hard at work on researching Pugachev, was relatively untroubled.
At Boldino in the autumn of 1833 Pushkin finished his history of Pugachev, and wrote a verse, a fairy story, two short stories and a novel – then topped it all off with another of his epic poems – The Bronze Horseman which focuses on the statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg and begins with an account of the great flood of 1824. There have been many interpretations of this poem, and what it says about Peter or imperialism, but it remains a towering work which continues to overshadow much of Pushkin’s output. Yet it is the style of stories like The Queen of Spades that have had a greater influence on succeeding generations of writers, both in Russia and beyond.
Pushkin and his wife met George D’Anthès in 1834. D’Anthès was the adopted son of the Dutch ambassador, a handsome Frenchman who had joined the Tsar’s army to advance his career. In 1835 he began flirting and making advances to Natalya and at first Pushkin did not take the matter seriously. He was often absent, which allowed plenty of time for the relationship to develop, and soon vicious rumours began to circulate as both Nataly and D’Anthès were careless in their behaviour; D’Anthès in particular often made a point of dropping hints in private and in public. The whole affair came to a head early in November when Pushkin received a letter. Pushkin immediately issued a challenge, but the duel was put off and delayed by a complex series of negotiations initiated by D’Anthès’ adopted father. As a result D’Anthés proposed to Natalya’s sister and married her within the month, but his secret meetings with Natalya continued. The inevitable duel took place on the afternoon of 27th January 1837. Pushkin was killed, although he managed to wound D’Anthès after being shot.
The grief which broke out on the news of Pushkin’s death was unprecedented and took the authorities by surprise. The secret police saw such spontaneous demonstrations as threatening. The funeral was transferred from the cathedral at the last moment to a smaller church and every effort was made to play down public mourning. In the repressive atmosphere of the century, Pushkin continued to be viewed for decades as a threat to public order and a source of dangerous ideas.
It was more than 30 years later that the poet’s genius received public acknowledgement, when a statue of Pushkin was unveiled in Moscow during 1880. In response to the various shifts in the political and social climate in Russia Pushkin has been all things to all men. In the rest of the world the operas of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov brought Pushkin’s creative talents to a wider public.
In a continent struggling with the different claims of ethnicity and nationality, he now appears to be a figure who was capable of using the different strands of his identity to create and inspire new modes of seeing and new cultural achievements.
BLACK EUROPEANS: A British Library Online Gallery feature by, guest curator Mike Phillips.
Books on Slavery in the Muslim World:
• Slavery in the History of Muslim Black Africa, by Humphrey J. Fisher.
• The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean, by Shihan de S. Jayasriya.
• African Elites in India: Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade
• Islam’s Black Slaves: by Ronald Segal, pub. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (American)
• The Moor of St. Petersburg: by Frances Somers Cock