Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1836) is Russia's greatest and most beloved poet. He was so prolific he gave away his plots to Gogol and inspired more than 4,000 pieces in art, music and literature. Based on the number of books written about him (1,614 in 1999 in the Library of Congress collection), Pushkin was is the world's 19th most famous person. He ranks behind Jesus and Wagner but ahead of Gandhi and Beethoven. [Source: Robert Wernick, Smithsonian; National Geographic, September, 1992]
Dostoevsky wrote: "For the very first time, he gave us the artist models of Russian beauty which come directly out of the Russian soul, living in our national truth, on our national soil." Gogol said, "Pushkin is a unique expression—and perhaps even the only expression—of the Russian soul."
Pushkin was short: only 5 foot, six inches. He had pale blue eyes, a protruding jaw and curly unmanageable hair and once described his looks as "a true ape by his face." “His terrible side whiskers, his long nails which looked like claws, his short stature, his mincing manners, the impudent way in which he stared at the women whom he found attractive...and his natural unlimited vanity" were some of his endearing qualities, according to Anna Olenin, a woman who once considered marrying him. Sometimes he wore a black frock coat and a silk top hat. Other times he donned a fez and Turkish pantaloons. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, September 1992]
Books: Pushkin: A Biography, an excellent work by T.J. Binyon, a lecturer of Russian literature at Oxford (Knopf, 2003); Pushkin, the Man and His Age by Robin Edmonds (St. Martin's Press, 1997); Pushkin by Elaine Feinstein (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998;
Pushkin and Russians
The passion and feelings that Russians have for Pushkin is much stronger than say the English have for Shakespeare, Americans for Mark Twain or the Spanish for Cervantes. Pushkin's great-great-great daughter told Reuters, "There is not a man, woman or taxi driver in Russia who cannot quote Pushkin, and usually with tears in their eyes...Pushkin virtually singlehandedly created the Russian literary language."
Russians read Pushkin’s fairy tales when they are children and young men woo their girlfriends with his verse. Liberals treasure his skepticism and irony. Nationalists and patriots credit him with helping to create a Russian identity. Romantics treasure his love verse. Believers find spirituality in his works. And all Russians consider him the father of Russian literature. [Source: Robert Wernick, Smithsonian]
The Russian love for Pushkin remains strong. All over Russia, streets, palaces, monuments, squares, towns and museums have been named after him. His boyhood home is a national shrine. Twenty-three new books about the poet were published in Russia in 1993 alone. While sentiments about other Russian writers rise and fall, Tolstoy included, the love for Pushkin remains strong and consistent. Even Stalin loved him.
Pushkin's Family Background
Pushkin's family were boyars—members of the Russian aristocracy—but they squandered away much of their money at the beginning of the 19th century. Pushkin liked to boast his boyar heritage went back 600 years. In aristocratic terms, Pushkin life was not at comfortable as he could have been but in absolute terms he didn't do too badly.
Pushkin's maternal great grandfather was an “Ethiopian” slave (from the Cameroon) bought from the Turks by Peter the Great, who made him a godson, enabling him to get an education and receive military training. Some say his great, grandfather was an Ethiopians prince. Pushkin was proud have African blood running through his veins.
Pushkin's great grandfather became a nobleman and miliary commander. According to one account the tsar wanted "to make an example of him and put Russians to shame by convincing them that even among wild men there can be formed men who can obtain learning and this become helpful to their monarch."
Pushkin's Early Life
Pushkin was born in May 1799 in Mikhaylov (near Pskov), his mother's family estate, and lived there off and on his whole life. He spoke French at home as was taught Russian by his nanny. His father was prone to angry outburst and fits of weeping. His beautiful creole mother loved Pushkin’s younger brother best and went months without even speaking to Aleksandr and let two years pass without seeing him when he was away at school.
Pushkin's childhood was unhappy. He was chubby and awkward and considered himself ugly and unloved and was ashamed of his dark skin. He wasn't a very good student and hated physical exercise but he loved language and had a flair for it and immersed himself in Russian folklore and red French literary classic and explicit erotic literature. At the age of eight he memorized the complex fairy tales that were told to him by nanny and wrote poetry in French.
Pushkin attended the imperial lyceum at Tsarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg. He joined several semi-secret clubs including one called the Society of the Unknown People and The Green Lamp, and fell in with the Decembrist revolutionaries, who staged an uprising against the tsar in 1825, but did not participate in their coup attempt. He also wrote extraordinary poetry that caught the attention of the literary establishment and the secret police.
After Pushkin graduated he was named a collegial secretary of the 10th rank at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For this job he was paid 700 rubles a year for pretty much doing nothing at all. When he was asked to do something he considered it a “gross affront” to someone of his class. He spent a great deal of time playing faro, French gambling card game, and visiting brothels. Much of his writing was limited to satires and obscene epigrams.
Pushkin and Politics
In 1820, one of Pushkin’s anti-authoritarian poems caught the eye Tsar Alexander I and he was exiled—to the Caucasus and Black Sea area not Siberia—with the promise that he would not write any anti-government verse. He was allowed to finish his exile at his family’s estate under the supervision of a bailiff, whose 19-year-old daughter Pushkin impregnated.
Pushkin walked a fine line between criticizing and praising the royal family, and came within a whisker of being exiled to Siberia on several occasions. Alexander I was particularly upset by a poem called Ode to Liberty, which mocked the tsar and the Orthodox church and earned him his five years of exile and of house arrest in the Black Sea and at Mikhaylov.
At least 11 of the Decembrists who were exiled or executed were good friend of Pushkin. Several expressed admiration for his freedom poem. Pushkin wrote an unfinished 10th chapter to Onegin that explained his association with the Decembrists but he burned it. He reportedly was not involved in any of the conspiracies because of concerns he could not keep his mouth shut. In any case, at the time the Decembrists were being exiled to Siberia or executed Pushkin was invited back to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
When Alexander I's brother, Nicholas I, took the throne he allowed Pushkin to return to St. Petersburg and helped the poet with his creditors. Pushkin returned the favor by writing flattering poems about him. Still, the poet wasn't trusted and he was almost constantly watched, his mail was opened and lines and stanzas were censored from his works. Nicholas gave Pushkin the position o Kammerjunker ("gentleman of the bedchamber"). At that time Pushkin’s political views also changed. Instead of voicing admiration for the Turks and the mountain people of the Caucasus, he supported their “pacification” and conquest.
Pushkin was a notorious rogue, womanizer and gambler, something the Russian people seem to love about him. He liked to dance with gypsies; eat smoked sturgeon; get drunk in local taverns; listen to Rossini; challenge authority; and take steam baths on trips to Georgia.
Pushkin was so temperamental and unpredictable that he would likely be described as manic depressive if he were alive today. He could be offensive just as easily as charming. He flew off the handle with the slightest perceived offense, heckled actors on stage and accused strangers of cheating at cards. He was regarded by many as a snob and others as s great patriot and a sort national prodigal son. Some have compared his relatively short, precocious, tempestuous life to that of Mozart.
Pushkin was paraphrased as saying “Everything on earth is done to attract women.” He often bragged that he got his passions and his dark complexion from his maternal great grandfather. He bragged he had 113 great loves including a general's wife and gypsy women who let him share her tent and the passionate Princess Evdokiya Golitsyna. He seemed to be attracted by little more than a woman's looks and their tiny feet. On the later he told a friend, “I usually write elegies, as another has wet dreams.” He wrote many notes to women identified only as N.N. who some say was Pushkin's one true and secret love.
Pushkin's Wealth, Fame and Debts
Even though he was considered poverty stricken by aristocratic terms, Pushkin’s family estate had 200 serfs and servants and was valued at 38,000 rubles, a large sum of money in his time. Despite being labeled as "the most intelligent man in Russia" by Tsar Nicholas I, Pushkin was a terrible gambler, losing large chunks of his handsome royalties at whist. He was deep in debt as a result of his gambling losses, exorbitant household expenses and supporting his free-loading brother and his in-laws.
Pushkin mortgaged his estate to pay off his debts and made his situation worse by borrowing money at high interest rates. He also frequently quarreled with is father on matters related to money and quibbled with his siblings on how their parents's estate would be divided. Pushkin's pressing monetary concerns was one of his main motivations for writing. He knew that value of his work and bargained hard to receive the handsome sum of 10 rubles a line.
During his time Pushkin was probably the most famous man in Russia. Audiences were cast by his spell and people flocked around him to touch his clothes.☻
Pushkin's Literary Works
Pushkin's work take up 16 volumes. He wrote poems, novels, dramas. history, historical romance, pornography, children stories, folk tales, love stories, political critiques and more than 400 sonnets. His characters included rouges, serfs, magicians, fairy tale characters, aristocrats and ghosts. Despite this seemingly endless fountain of creativity he had trouble finishing his longer pieces.
Pushkin was the first Russian writer to write almost exclusively in Russian rather than French, the language of the Russian court and aristocracy. He is credited with absorbing the entire humanistic and literary tradition of the West and using that knowledge to dig deep into the Russian soul and develop a uniquely Russian literature. He managed this despite, he claimed, being “harassed and persecuted” by the tsar’s censors.
Friends said that Pushkin wrote in inspired bursts, with his time exile in the Caucasus and the Black Sea coast being his most productive periods. There he wrote the folkloric epic Rusain and Ludmilla, The Prisoner of the Caucasus, about a Russian who is rescued by and then reject the love of a Circassian beauty, The Gypsies and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray His most well-known works—the verse-novel, Eugene Onegin, and the historical drama Boris Godunov—came soon afterwards.
Pushkin wrote lyric poetry, short stories, novels in verse, historical tragedies in iambic pentameter, fairy tales, history, psychological studies, and translations. In one creative burst that lasted for six weeks he completed History of Pugachev, wrote The Bronze Horseman and several short stories, reworked the Shakespeare play Measure for Measure and folk tales, translated ballads by the poet Mickiewicz, and wrote The Tale f Dead Tsarevma and the Seven Heroes.
The Bronze Horseman is regarded by many as Pushkin’s masterpiece. It explores no less than nine major themes, according to one scholarly analyst, and explores them with “stereoscopic depths.” Pushkin’s work inspired others. Eugene Onegin was scored by Tchaikovsky. Boris Godunov was made into an opera by Mussorgsky. Ballets and pieces by Glinka and Stravinsky were also inspired by his work. Pushkin also wrote the novel The Captain's Daughter
Book: Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary by John Bayley (1971) is regarded as one of the best works on Pushkin’s literary achievements,
Pushkin work is known for its clarity, grace and power and ability to combine romantic sentimentality and with deeply-felt tragedy. A great admirer of Byron, he wrote with great ease and economy and precision utilizing a great richness of sound, rhymes and rhythms. Pushkin, wrote Celestine Bohlen in the New York Times is "so accessible, so clear and so human that it slips effortlessly into memory, like a child's prayer."
Pushkin's writing tends to be less sermonizing and moralistic than other Russian writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He was more interesting in capturing the joys of life than pondering the darkness of the soul. "Long live the sun! And down with the night!" he wrote in a 1825 poem.
Unfortunately, Pushkin's work doesn't translate very well into English, which is why his works are not widely read in the West and Westerners have a hard time figuring out what all the brouhaha is about. After reading some poorly translated Pushkin's poem, Flaubert told Turgenev, "He is flat, your poet."
One Pushkin poem goes:
Skyward soar the whirling demons,
Shrouded by the following snow,
And their plaintive, awful howling
Fills my hear with dread and woe.
Eugene Onegin (1831) is regarded as Pushkin's best and most ambitious work. Similar to Byron's Don Juan and the inspiration for a 1879 Tchaikovsky opera, it is a novel in verse and moralistic tale about a jaded aristocrat from St. Petersburg, Onegin, who inherits an estate from his uncle and intimidates the local nobles with his sophistication and scandalizes them with his proposal to free his serfs.
Onegin’s life begins to unravel when his superciliousness forces a good friend to challenge him to a duel and spurns a declaration of love by the beautiful, tender-hearted Tatyana Larin. He leaves the state and travels the world and returns to St. Petersburg six years later where he runs into Tatyana, who by this time has become the wife of Onegin's cousin, a prince.
Onegin is regarded as "superfluous man" and a "guilty nobleman," figures that became themes in Russian literature. Tatyana is considered an embodiment of all Russian female virtues. She is a Cinderella-like character who rose up from poverty to high society after Onegin breaks her heart.
A film version Onegin (1999) starred British actor Ralph Fiennes as Onegin and Liv Tyler as Tatyana. Fiennes sister Martha directed it and their brother Magnus composed the film's score. His girlfriend Francesca Annis had a cameo role. Fiennes said, "I was mesmerized by the emotional intensity of the story. Pushkin's verse-novel was such a powerful narrative about love and loss, and it completely took me over. It was the wisdom and humor that drew me—that and the great tragedy at its core."
Passage from Eugene Onegin
Pushkin often digresses from the narrative but it is the language than brings it alive. Even though much of harmony and vividness is lost in the translation, its imagery and emotion are born out:
Evegeny stood, with soul regretful,
and leant upon the granite shelf;
he stood there, pensive and forgetful,
just as a poet paints himself.
Silence was everywhere enthralling;
just sentries to each other calling,
and then a drozhky's clopping sound
from Million Street came floating round;
and then a boat, with oars a-swinging,
swam on the river's dreaming face,
and then, with an enchanting grace,
came distant horns and gallant singing.
Pushkin and Natalya Goncharova
When Pushkin was 27 he decided to settle down. He chose as his bride 16-year-old Natalya Goncharova, widely regarded as the most beautiful woman in Russia in Pushkin's time. "I don't believe there was any man who did not fall in love with her," one chronicler wrote. A thirteen-year-old once came up to her and said, "I must tell you now that I love you, because soon I must go to bed."☻
Pushkin and Natalya's life together was one long series of parties, interrupted only by pregnancies and illnesses. Natalya was also regarded as a beautiful but dumb and considered a superficial party girl. She once told Pushkin, "Lord how you bore me with your poetry." She much preferred waking up in the afternoon and attended high-society parties, where she could dance until dawn and flirt with all the gentlemen, included the tsar, who lavished her with attention.
The attention that Natalya received unfortunately spelled doom for Pushkin. At the tsar’s parties, Natalya was wooed by a young Frenchman named Geoges d'Anthés, an assistant and "adopted son" to the wealthy Dutch Ambassador to the Russian court, Baron Jacob von Heeckeren. D'Anthés was a tall, blonde, muscular and strikingly handsome man who didn't speak a word of Russian but that didn't stop him from pursuing Natalya in public and spending entire parties dancing and talking to her.
By all accounts D'Anthés was a distasteful character. Scholars believe that he was either was bisexual or coldly manipulative of von Heeckeren, who was gay and had a crush on D'Anthés. In any case he acted liked a stalker with Natalya, who flirted with D'Anthés but by most accounts remained faithful to Pushkin.
Pushkin Duel with Natalya's Admirer
Pushkin was a compulsive duelist, who perceived slights on his honor at every turn. He used to practice for duels by shooting off 100 rounds a day and walking around public gardens swinging an 18-pound cudgel to strengthen his pistol-firing arm. Before 1836, by one count he had been in six duels, once over the selection of a song at a ball, but had never even been scratched. Other duel challenges were avoided one way or another.
On November 4, 1836 Pushkin received a "citation" in the mail awarding him the "Grand Master of the Order of the Cuckold." It was not clear who sent the message or whether anything had really happened between Natalya and D'Anthés. Pushkin was not in a good mental state at the time. The burden of his debts and obligations may have been too much. His biographer T.J. Binyn wrote he was in a “sullen rage...incapable of rational thought or action, and lashed indiscriminately at anyone or anything, caring little—on the contrary hoping—he might, like Samson at Gaza, bring the whole edifice of his life crashing about him.”
Enraged by the citation Pushkin challenged d'Anthés to a duel. D'Anthés was willing but von Heeckeren negotiated a bizarre solution to the dispute by convincing D'Anthés to state publicly that he showered attention on Natalya only because he wanted to marry her sister Katerina and Pushkin would say he had not been dishonored. The duel was called off and D'Anthés married Katerina, who was already pregnant before their wedding..
D'Anthés used his marriage as an excuse to spend time with Natalya and their meetings disturbed Pushkin so much he prohibited D'Anthés from entering his house. One friend wrote, "Pushkin gnashes his teeth and assumes his constant expression of a tiger. Natalya dabs her eyes and blushed at the long passionate gaze of her brother in law. [Katerina] directs on both of them a jealous lorgnette."
Book: Pushkin's Button by Serena Vitale (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999)
Pushkin's Tragic End
Unable to bear it any longer, Pushkin wrote a letter to the von Heeckeren that was so insulted there was no choice but to have a duel. Of D'Anthés, he wrote "Like some obscene old harpy you have been sidling up to my wife in corners to urge the suit of your bastard." By all accounts Pushkin looked forward to the duel. He picked a second who wouldn’t talk him out of it, talked cheerfully on the way to the duel and even stopped for a lemonade at a café. A friend described him as in “state bordering on lunacy...free...from those mental sufferings which had so terribly tortured him.”
Both D'Anthés and Pushkin were excellent shots. Pushkin insisted that Lepage pistols, hand made in Paris, be used and pawned off some table silver to pay for them. After meeting at a field with knee-deep snow near the Moyka Embarkment on Black River in St. Petersburg, Pushkin and D'Anthés lined up a 20 paces apart and started walking towards each other as was the custom. Either one could fire at any time they chose.
When they were less than 12 steps apart d'Anthés, fired and hit Pushkin in the abdomen. Pushkin fell but propped on one arm he managed to shot d'Anthés, who miraculously survived when the bullet was deflected by a button on his chest and was left with only two cracked ribs (some scholar believed the bullet was actually deflected by some kind of body armor).
Pushkin was brought back to his apartment. He suffered intense pain and stayed alive for 36 hours. He was given opium and the sacraments. When his doctor asked him if there was anyone he wanted to say goodbye to, he looked at his collection of books as said, "Farewell Friends." He died surrounded by his family.
Pushkin's death was similar to that of Onegin's artistic friend Lensky. Before he had died:
Not all of me is dust,
Within my song,
safe from the worm,
my spirit will survive.
Russians were shocked by Pushkin’s death. One of Pushkin’s friends wrote, Thousands—"women, old men , children, students, ordinary people in sheepskins and some even in rags"— appeared at the field where the duel took place. Many also appeared outside Pushkin's apartment to bow and kiss the hand of the dead poet.
The Orthodox church in St. Petersburg refused to perform a funeral for Pushkin “on the grounds that a death in a duel was tantamount to suicide.” Pushkin's body was taken from the apartment in the middle of the night and funeral services were held at a small church with no public announcement. Again in the middle of the night, his body was taken to Svyatogorsky monastery in Mikhaylovkpye for burial. Pushkin's body was reportedly rolled up in a carpet and only a few friends were on hand to see him buried.
Nicholas I was generous to Natalya and her and Pushkin's children. After a period of mourning she returned to the St. Petersburg ball scene and eventually married a major general and lived quietly with him until her death. D'Anthés was demonized for his role in the duel and he and Katerina late made their way to France where they lived happily.
Many Russians believe that Gorbachev' greatest achievement was retrieving the pistols used in the duel from France. The retrieval of some of Pushkin's love letters from Switzerland was also front page news.
Stop a Russian on the streets and chances are he can recite some Pushkin verses. Mussorsky made an opera from Boris Godunov. Tchaikovsky made operas of Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades. Glinka did Rusland and Lyudmila.
The way Pushkin's life and death has been honored give an indication his influence and his ability to be all things to all people and. In 1999, the 200th anniversary of Pushkin's birth, he was praised as a paragon of Russian spirituality and virtue.
The year 1937 was the 100th anniversary of Pushkin's death. He was depicted as one of Russia's great revolutionary figures. Pravda wrote: Pushkin "made literary Russian accessible to millions of workers, giving them the most important weapon of cultural growth and development...He remains a great teacher, and through love for Pushkin, through a genuine acquaintance with this works, we will educate Soviet youth.
Stalin was in power in 1937 and the Reign of Terror was at its height . While people were being executed and sent to labor camps in Siberia, symposiums and readings of Pushkin were held and statues or Stalin reading his work were raised.
The the 200th anniversary of Pushkin's birth in 1999 was celebrated with an endless series of television specials, concerts, poetry reading and advertisements with the poets image. Pictures of Pushkin appeared everywhere: on buses, trams, the sides of buildings, plastic bags, boxes of matches and vodka bottles.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016