It is one of the ironies of life and history that Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (Russian: Алекса́ндр Серге́евич Пу́шкин)—a Russian man partially of African descent–is considered the founder of Russian literature. It is as though the influence of Other was meant to be added to a society which has demonstrated well-documented xenophobia and antipathy toward non- Russians.
Pushkin pioneered the use of vernacular speech in his poems and plays, creating a style of storytelling—mixing drama, romance, and satire— associated with Russian literature ever since and greatly influencing later Russian writers. He also wrote historical fiction. His The Captain’s Daughter provides insight into Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great.
Born in Moscow, Russia, 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 Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoye Selo. Pushkin gradually became committed to social reform and emerged as a spokesman for literary radicals; in the early 1820s he clashed with the government, which sent him into exile in southern Russia. While under the strict surveillance of government censors and unable to travel or publish at will, he wrote his most famous play, the drama Boris Godunov, but could not publish it until years later. His novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, was published serially from 1825 to 1832.
In other words, Pushkin penned his works in a manner that the normal, every-day Russian could understand and, by doing so, shaped the Russian language in his own image thereafter. Two and a half centuries before him, William Shakespeare played an identical role for the English language.
Most of Pushkin’s lineage was of the Russian aristocracy. However, one of his great- grandfathers was Abram Petrovich Gannibal (transliteration varies; 1696–1781), probably born in present–day Eritrea, Cameroon or Chad. As a child, Gannibal had been a slave of the Ottoman Empire and at age seven or eight he was purchased by Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia. (Interestingly enough, Peter’s emissary in the sale of Gannibal was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Count Pyotr Andreyevich Tolstoy–an ancestor of the other Russian literary legend, Leo Tolstoy.)
Peter educated Gannibal (in Paris) in the classic European manner of the era, molding him into the general and nobleman he would become.
In an official document that Gannibal submitted in 1742 to Empress Elizabeth, while petitioning for the rank of nobility and a coat of arms, he asked for the right to use a family crest emblazoned with an elephant and the mysterious word “FVMMO” (means homeland in Kotoko). However, FVMMO has also been suggested to stand for the Latin expression “Fortuna Vitam Meam Mutavit Oppido” which means “Fortune has changed my life entirely.
As his patronymic ‘Petrovich’ indicates, Gannibal’s relationship to Peter was as a son to a father, but his life as a Russian was by no means a picture of racial tolerance.
While still a teenager, Gannibal was writing the tsar’s letters, working on encryption for secret messages, and helping to plan military campaigns. As an adult he rose to the top of the Russian army. Gannibal also read Racine, Corneille and Moliere, and was, in Paris, the friend of Montesquieu, Diderot and Voltaire, who called him “the dark star of the Enlightenment”.
Yet this was less than a century after France had established its slave colonies in the West Indies, and Voltaire also said that the intelligence of black people was “far inferior”, while Montesquieu,
equivocating about slavery, said it was sometimes “founded on natural reason”.
Pushkin was proud of and attempted to chronicle the life of his famed and unique forebear in his unfinished work, The Negro of Peter the Great and began by praising his great- grandfather’s “culture and natural intelligence” – but his plot foundered when he came to describe Gannibal’s rejection by Natasha, a Russian aristocrat.
After overhearing plans to marry her off to “that black devil”, Natasha lies in a swoon for two weeks. Gannibal’s friend Korsakov, warning him off marriage, alludes to his “flat nose, thick lips and fuzzy ha
ir”. Then the story breaks off.
Pushkin’s translator and editor Vladimir Nabokov [1899-1977] included a 50-page excursus on the current state of knowledge about “Abram Gannibal”, which suddenly explodes into an astonishing attack: Gannibal was “a sour, grovelling, crotchety, timid, ambitious and cruel person: a good military engineer, perhaps, but humanistically a nonentity”. Neither Pushkin nor Nabokov, it seems, found Gannibal easy to write about.
As was so with his even more famous descendant, Gannibal’s natural and nurtured talents benefited Russia in ways
that could not have been foreseen.
He wrote a six-inch-thick textbook on Geometry and Fortification, and became chief military engineer to the Russian army. He also worked on a “secret howitzer” that paved the way for the first rockets, and helped design the system of canals finally built by Joseph Stalin.
Pushkin’s short life ended in a tragic and romantic manner that was characteristic of his life’s work. He suspected that his wife, Natalya Goncharova, was having an affair and challenged the man thought to be her lover to a duel. The poet caught the worst end of the matter and died two days later.
His poem, I Loved You.
Я вас любил
Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам бог любимой быть другим.
I Loved You
I loved you, and I probably still do,
And for a while the feeling may remain…
But let my love no longer trouble you,
I do not wish to cause you any pain.
I loved you; and the hopelessness I knew,
The jealousy, the shyness – though in vain –
Made up a love so tender and so true
As may God grant you to be loved again.
What Pushkin means to me: Pushkin’s heritage is a reflection of our own heritage as Americans who are black–one of my own nephews bears a striking resemblance to the poet–and how he lived can be a positive motivator for black Americans; the same can be said for his great-grandfather. Well before Pushkin was born, all during his lifetime and afterward, Africans existed mainly as slaves—of Islamic Arabs, of Europeans, of Americans and of other Africans. Puskin’s destiny, however, was not to be a slave but a legend.
Additionally, he chose to celebrate his African heritage rather than to rail against the injustices perpetrated on his kind. And though he was born an aristocrat, he was not content to live through his lineage, but to mold the world around him using his own personal gifts.
The manner in which Pushkin’s life ended is part of his individuality: of explosive emotions and of choices made, romantic and tragic. We need not be sad, however, that Alexander Pushkin’s life was so short. On the contrary, that he existed symbolizes what men and women can create in the lifespan allotted merely by using talents bestowed upon them by God and in spite of humble origins/heritage: a legacy which lasts long after they do.
Pushkin and Gannibal demonstrate that each individual is the captain of his/her own fate. ‘Nadezhda’ was the name of Pushkin’s mother—‘Hope’ in Russian. Thus, it can indeed be said that Alexander Pushkin was born of Hope–literally and allegorically–and represents that for many more than he knew.
Juliette Akinyi Ochieng blogs at baldilocks. Her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game, was published in 2009; the second edition in 2012. Her new novel, Arlen’s Harem, is due in 2014. Help her fund it and help keep her blog alive!