GOOD MORNING P.O.U.!
We continue our look at Afro-Russians with…
“The Father of Russian Literature”
Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was a Russian author of the Romantic era who is considered by many to be the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature.
Pushkin was born into Russian nobility in Moscow. His great-grandfather from his mother’s side – Abram Gannibal – was brought over as a slave from Africa and had risen to become an aristocrat. Pushkin published his first poem at the age of fifteen, and was widely recognized by the literary establishment by the time of his graduation from the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum.
While under the strict surveillance of the Tsar’s political police and unable to publish, Pushkin wrote his most famous play, the drama Boris Godunov. His novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, was serialized between 1825 and 1832.
Notoriously touchy about his honour, Pushkin fought as many as twenty-nine duels, and was fatally wounded in such an encounter with Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès. D’Anthès, a French officer serving with the Chevalier Guard Regiment, had been attempting to seduce the poet’s wife, Natalya Pushkina.
Life and career
Pushkin’s father, Sergei Lvovich Pushkin (1767–1848), was descended from a distinguished family of the Russian nobility that traced its ancestry back to the 12th century.
Pushkin’s mother Nadezhda (Nadya) Ossipovna Gannibal (1775–1836) was descended through her paternal grandmother from German and Scandinavian nobility. She was the daughter of Ossip Abramovich Gannibal (1744–1807) and his wife, Maria Alekseyevna Pushkina (1745–1818).
Ossip Abramovich Gannibal’s father, Pushkin’s great-grandfather, was Abram Petrovich Gannibal (1696–1781), a Black African page kidnapped and brought to Russia as a gift for Peter the Great. Abram wrote in a letter to Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter, that he was from the town of “Lagon”. Russian biographers concluded from the beginning that Lagon was in Ethiopia, a nation with Orthodox Christian associations. Vladimir Nabokov, when researching Eugene Onegin, cast serious doubt on this Ethiopian origin theory. In 1995 Dieudonné Gnammankou outlined a strong case that “Lagon” was a town located on the southern side of Lake Chad, now in northern Cameroon. However, there is no conclusive evidence for either theory. After education in France as a military engineer, Abram Gannibal became governor of Reval and eventually Général en Chef (the third most senior army rank) in charge of the building of sea forts and canals in Russia.
Born in Moscow, Pushkin published his first poem at the age of fifteen. By the time he finished school as part of the first graduating class of the prestigious Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoe Selo near Saint Petersburg, his talent was already widely recognized within the Russian literary scene. After school, Pushkin plunged into the vibrant and raucous intellectual youth culture of the capital, Saint Petersburg. In 1820 he published his first long poem, Ruslan and Lyudmila, amidst much controversy about its subject and style.
Pushkin gradually became committed to social reform and emerged as a spokesman for literary radicals. This angered the government, and led to his transfer from the capital (1820). He went to the Caucasus and to the Crimea, then to Kamenka and Chişinău, where he became a Freemason.
Here he joined the Filiki Eteria, a secret organization whose purpose was to overthrow Ottoman rule in Greece and establish an independent Greek state. He was inspired by the Greek Revolution and when the war against the Ottoman Turks broke out he kept a diary recording the events of the great national uprising.
He stayed in Chişinău until 1823 and wrote two Romantic poems which brought him wide acclaim; The Captive of the Caucasus and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. In 1823 Pushkin moved to Odessa, where he again clashed with the government, which sent him into exile on his mother’s rural estate of Mikhailovskoe (near Pskov) from 1824 to 1826.
In Mikhailovskoe, Pushkin wrote nostalgic love poems which had been dedicated to Elizaveta Vorontsova, wife of Malorossia’s General-Governor. Then Pushkin continued work on his verse-novel Eugene Onegin.
In Mikhailovskoe, in 1825, Pushkin wrote the poem To*** (I keep in mind that magic moment…). It is generally believed that he dedicated this poem to Anna Kern, but there are other opinions. Poet Mikhail Dudin believes that the poem has been dedicated to the serf Olga Kalashnikova. Pushkinist Kira Victorova believes that the poem has been dedicated to the Empress Elizaveta Alekseevna. Vadim Nikolayev, argues that the idea about the Empress is marginal and refuses to discuss it, while trying to prove that poem had been dedicated to Tatyana Larina, the heroine of Eugene Onegin
Authorities allowed Pushkin to visit Tsar Nicholas I to petition for his release, which he obtained. Insurgents however, in the Decembrist Uprising (1825) in Saint Petersburg, had kept some of Pushkin’s earlier political poems, and he quickly found himself under the strict control of government censors, unable to travel or publish at will.
During that same year (1825), Pushkin also wrote what would become his most famous play, the drama Boris Godunov, while at his mother’s estate. He could not however, gain permission to publish it until five years later. The original and uncensored version of the drama was not staged until 2007.
Around 1825-1829 he met and befriended the Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, during exile in central Russia. 1829 he travelled through the Caucasus to Erzurum to visit friends fighting in the Russian army during Russo-Turkish War (1828–29).
Around 1828, Pushkin met Natalya Goncharova, then 16 years old and one of the most talked-about beauties of Moscow. After much hesitation, Natalya accepted a proposal of marriage from Pushkin in April 1830, but not before she received assurances that the tsarist government had no intentions to persecute the libertarian poet. Later, Pushkin and his wife Natalya Goncharova, became regulars of court society. They officially became engaged on 6 May 1830, and sent out wedding invitations. Due to an outbreak of cholera and other circumstances, the wedding was delayed for a year. The ceremony took place on 18 February 1831 (Old Style) in the Great Ascension Church on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street in Moscow. When the Tsar gave Pushkin the lowest court title, the poet became enraged, feeling that the Tsar intended to humiliate him by implying that Pushkin was being admitted to court not on his own merits but solely so that his wife, who had many admirers including the Tsar himself, could properly attend court balls.
In the year 1831, during the period of Pushkin’s growing literary influence, he met one of Russia’s other great early writers, Nikolai Gogol. After reading Gogol’s 1831–1832 volume of short stories Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, Pushkin supported him and would feature some of Gogol’s most famous short stories in the magazine The Contemporary, which he founded in 1836.
By 1837, Pushkin was falling into greater and greater debt and faced scandalous rumors that his wife had embarked
on a love affair. In response, the poet challenged Natalya’s alleged lover, her brother in-law Georges d’Anthès, to a duel which left both men injured. Shot through the spleen, Pushkin died two days later. His last home is now a museum.
The Tsarist administration, fearing a political demonstration at his funeral, had it moved to a smaller location and restricted attendance to close relatives and friends. The poet’s body was taken secretly at midnight and buried on his mother’s estate.
Pushkin had four children from his marriage to Natalya: Maria (b. 1832, touted as a prototype of Anna Karenina), Alexander (b. 1833), Grigory (b. 1835), and Natalya (b. 1836) the last of whom married, morganatically, into the royal house of Nassau to Nikolaus Wilhelm of Nassau and became the Countess of Merenberg.
Of Pushkin’s children only the lines of Alexander and Natalya continue. Natalya’s granddaughter, Nadejda, married into the British royal family (her husband was the uncle of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh). Descendants of the poet now live around the globe: in Great Britain, Germany, Belgium and the United States.
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