“I’ve lived to bury my desires, And see my dreams corrode with rust;
Now all that’s left are fruitless fires That burn my empty heart to dust.”
— A. Pushkin
Aleksander Pushkin is revered in Russia – and throughout the world – as a leading figure in Russian literature. Although he lived a closed and troubled life, he left behind a body of work that continues to be read and performed. He was also a Creole, the great-grandson of an African man brought to Russia as a slave, but who lived and led that country as General Abram Petrovich Gannibal. Throughout his life, Pushkin took great pride in his ancestry and celebrated it in both a biography and a poem.
Nearly two hundred years after his death, Aleksander Pushkin (177-1837) is revered in Russia – and throughout the world – as the greatest of all Russian authors, and whose poems, plays and novels are still taught, performed and read. In a nation that can boast such giants as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Chekhov, his standing in Russia towers above all other literary figures. Yet, during his life, Pushkin’s work brought him official criticism, condemnation, censorship and even a complete ban from publication.
During his life, Pushkin wrote and spoke out about – and even fought against – oppression. It was this idealism and not his race (for he was a Creole), that brought him to the attention of the Russian government and earned him repeated ostracism and even internal exile. Throughout his life, however, he continued to embrace and celebrate his African heritage and equated the struggle of black slavery elsewhere in the world with the conditions of serfs – white slaves, in effect – in Russia.
Family and Early Life
Aleksander Sergeievich Pushkin was born into a noble, but not rich, family in Moscow. The Pushkins could trace their ancestry back to the 12th century, including Russian, German and Scandinavian nobility. His most famous ancestor was his great-grandfather on his mother’s side, Major-General Abram (Ibrahim) Petrovich Gannibal. This officer, who rose to become the third-highest ranking general in the Russian military and who was in charge of all the fortifications and canal works in the country, had been born in Central Africa, was captured by slavers as a young boy and eventually sold to a Russian ambassador to be brought to the court of Czar Peter the Great (Gannibal’s life was reviewed by Kreol in its article “Abram Petrovich Gannibal” Issue 11). Finding the favour of the Czar, the young man rose in power and influence and eventually retired to a large land holding in Central Russia, near Pskov.
By the time of Aleksander’s birth, however, the family was not particularly wealthy, although it was still counted as noble and accepted at the Czar’s court. From an early age, Aleksander showed literary talent and published his first poem at the age of 15. He attended the newly established Imperial Lyceum, and was a member of that school’s first graduating class. The young man emerged not only as a writer with a proven talent, but with a commitment to social justice.
Years of Exile
From the beginning of his career as a poet, playwright and author, Pushkin became a voice of opposition to serfdom, the tradition which tied millions of peasants to the land held by the noble families of Russia – including his own family’s estates. This branded him as a radical in the eyes of the government, and, in 1820, forced him out of Moscow society. Instead, he lived in a series of places in western, European Russian, far from the centre of power. He moved to the Caucasus, then the Crimea and afterwards to the city of Chisinau, Moldova. There, he not only became a Freemason – an organization suspected by the Russian government at that time of being potentially dangerous to the state – but also the Filiki Eteria, a secret society dedicated to the independence of Greece from the Ottoman Empire. By this time, the Greek War of Independence had begun (lasting until its success in 1832), in which some French citizens and British subjects, including Lord Byron, took part.
Moving to Odessa in 1823, Pushkin once again angered the Russian government, which sent him in “internal exile” to his family’s estate, Mikhailovskoe, near Pskov in Central Russia, which had been established by his ancestor, General Gannibal. Although this was hardly a prison, Pushkin was unhappy in his isolation and even petitioned Czar Nicholas I in 1826, unsuccessfully, to lift the sentence.
Marriage, Novels and Plays
In 1831, Pushkin married a noted beauty, Natalya Goncharova, whose family also had connections with the nobility in Moscow. This marriage allowed him to re-enter Moscow society and be received at court, although he was only awarded with the lowest rank – that of Kammerjunker (junior chamberlain) – by the Czar’s ministers.
It did not help Pushkin’s standing that he continued to write and attempt to publish works that shocked the sensibilities of the nobility. His novel Dubrovsky (written in 1832, but not published until 1841, after his death) describes a serf uprising led by a nobleman and The Captain’s Daughter (1836) is based on Pugachev’s Rebellion of 1773-1774. While some of his poetry and plays were more readily received, Pushkin also took an active role in the literary scene of his time. He became a friend and supporter of the writer Nikolai Gogol and founded the literary and social journal The Contemporary.
By the mid-1830s, Pushkin’s financial situation was in a crisis. Without an independent income available to wealthy landowners, he found it difficult to earn a living as a writer since government censors often blocked publication of his works or production of his plays. In addition to the burden of his debts, Pushkin also faced another more personal trouble. His beautiful wife was rumored to be having an affair with a French aristocrat living in Russia, Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès. Pushkin challenged him to a duel, which was held in a snowy field outside St. Petersburg on February 8th, 1837. Both men fired, both were wounded, and Pushkin died two days later, aged only 37 years old.
Pushkin and Race
The literary legacy of Aleksander Pushkin is secure in the pantheon of Russian literature. After his death at such a young age, his works became more readily available and have never gone out of print. Less emphasized, but still central to his character, however, is Pushkin’s attitude towards race and his own standing as a Creole in a European society.
Far from trying to minimise his African ancestor, let alone trying to hide or deny him, Pushkin embraced his Creole status. His mother, Nadezhda Ossipovna Gannibal, granddaughter of General Gannibal, was often called “prekrasnaia mulatka” or, in French, la belle créole – the beautiful Creole – for her stunning looks. Aleksander also inherited some of his great-grandfather’s features, often being described as having a skin tone darker than most European Russians, full lips and hair that was more kinked than wavy.
Pushkin not only joked of his pride as being a “Moor”, he even boasted of his ancestry in a book, Peter the Great’s Negro, written from 1827 to 1828, but not published until 1837. When a literary rival, Fraddei Bulgarin, published an anonymous pamphlet on Pushkin in 1830, calling him “an Othello,” his response was the poem, “Moia Rodoslovnaia” (“My Genealogy”) that, again, proudly claimed his illustrious ancestor.
More than just personal pride, Pushkin found within his philosophy the parallels between the injustice of the serf system in Russia and the oppression of the Greeks by the Ottoman Turks with the slavery of Africans throughout the world. One of his most prized possessions was a large inkwell that featured the figure of a black man standing behind two bales of cotton. It was perhaps with the ink from this well that he wrote a letter to a friend in 1824 under the heading “Under the Sky of My Africa,” in which he stated: “One can think of the fate of the Greeks in the same way as the fate of my brother Negroes, and one can wish both them liberation from unendurable slavery.”
In return, Aleksander Sergeievich Pushkin is claimed and honoured by Africans, Creoles and Europeans throughout the world as both a towering literary genius and a social reformer.