Monday, September 24, 2012

Alexander Pushkin: Little Known Facts

Portrait of A. Pushkin by Konstantin Somov
I posted a little about Alexander Pushkin's African ancestry last week, and promised more today.  I've learned quite a bit about this fascinating man, and although he lived a short life, it was one of great accomplishment!

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799 –1837) was a Russian author of the Romantic era, and is considered the greatest Russian poet and founder of modern Russian literature.  Pushkin was born into the Russian nobility in Moscow and published his first poem at age fifteen.  He was widely recognized by the literary establishment by the time he graduated from the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum.

On June 6, 1999, Russia celebrated the 200th anniversary of Pushkin's birth. A London Times headline read, "Pushkin Mania rages: Russians cash in on bicentenary of their poet's birth". Reporting from Moscow, Anna Blundy noted: "Russia has been swept by Puskhinmania in preparation for tomorrow's bicentenary of the poet's birth...Russians all know long tracts of Pushkin's work by heart, and Sunday's festival is the dominant theme of most television, and radio broadcasts, newspaper articles and advertising campaigns."

In Russia, Pushkin seems to be a combination of Shakespeare and Mozart rolled into one. As Shakespeare is to the English language, Pushkin is to Russian literature.  

But, regardless of Pushkin's greatness, according to Selwyn Cudjoe, "at the beginning of the 19th century, Pushkin's Africanness was an issue. Throughout his life, his pronounced African features-thick lips, dark skin and kinky hair-remained an issue and Pushkin was acutely aware of them. Yet, he always took pride in his African ancestry."

Pushkin's great-grandfather was Abram Petrovich Gannibal (1696–1781), a Black African page raised by Peter the Great (see more on him in last week's post, or check out the link that follows). This information is from Cudjoe's article Pushkin: Russian African Genius:

...Pushkin suffered from a sense of his own "ugliness" and the taunts of his classmates. At the lycee where he studied when he was 12, he was nicknamed "monkey". However some of his school friends called him "the Frenchman" because they thought he was a "mixture of a monkey and a tiger".

This "stain" of his blackness remained with him. In 1827, he returned to his family mansion in Mikhaylovskoe where he began his unfinished novel, The Negro of Peter the Great, based on the life of his great grandfather. In this highly fictionalized account of his ancestor Grannibal, Pushkin centered his story on "a Negro's wife, who is unfaithful to her husband, gives birth to a white child and is punished by being shut up in a convent". Even as he tells this gripping story, the sexual prowess of the black man in a white world assumes much importance.

Perhaps, it is wise that Pushkin did not finish telling this story. It would have had to come up against the scurrilous attacks of those who preferred to believe that he came from a slave background. In fact, he was forced to defend Abram's honor against the calumny of Fruddy Bulgarin, a crusading journalist. Putting the question in verse, Pushkin said: "Filyarin says he understands/That my black granddad, Gannibal/ Bought for a bottle of rum, once fell/Into a drunk sea captain's hands." To this, he responded: "My grandfather, so cheaply bought,/ The Tsar himself treated with trust/And gave him welcome at his court./ Black, but never again a slave."
Pushkin died young.  Notorious about defending his honor, he fought a total of twenty-nine duels.  Though rumored to be a womanizer, when it was reported that his wife's brother-in-law, Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d'Anthès had made attempts to seduce Pushkin's wife, Pushkin challenged d'Anthès to a duel.  Pushkin died two days later, having been shot through the spleen.  He was 37.

Are any of these facts new to you? Also, have you read any Pushkin? Thanks for visiting and have a great week! 


mrpaul said...

amazed to learn that Pushkin fought so many duels

i assume he won every one of them, except for the last of course

Maria McKenzie said...

That was surprising to me too! I made the same assumption;).

Intangible Hearts said...

Must not have been that ugly if was such a womanizer. It does take two.:)

William Kendall said...

I've read some of Pushkin's work, though it's been years. Thanks for posting!

Maria McKenzie said...

@Eve: Agreed!

@William: You're welcome!