Sons of Russia and of Africa

Readability

Sons of Russia and of Africa

by baldilocks

In honor of Pushkin’s birth­day, June 6.alexander_sergeyevich_pushkin

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; 16961781), 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 relGannibalation­ship 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 [18991977] 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!baldilocks

by baldilocks

In honor of Pushkin’s birthday, June 6.alexander_sergeyevich_pushkin

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 relGannibalationship 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!baldilocks