TRANSLATION, RESEARCH AND CREDIT NOTES
BIOGRAPHY [1 ~ CREDITS]
Pushkin was born into the Russian nobility in Moscow. Alexander Pushkin, the father of modern Russian literature, was of African heritage and in reality black.
His great-grandfather was actually an African slave, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, who later became a general to “Peter the Great”. Interestingly enough, Alexander Pushkin himself was very proud of his African ancestry.
Pushkin lived from 1799 to 1837 in Russia, and even wrote a book about his great-grandfather entitled “Peter the Great’s Negro,” also known as “Blackamoor of Peter the Great.” He is considered to be the greatest Russian poet and pioneered the use of vernacular speech in his poems, plays and novels, mixing both drama and romance. Alexander Pushkin introduced Russia to all the European literary genres. He brought natural speech and foreign influences to create modern poetic Russian. Even though he lived a short life, he left examples of nearly every literary genre of his day: lyric poetry, narrative poetry, the novel, the short story, the drama, the critical essay, and even the personal letter.
Life for Pushkin was entirely based on his favorite quote: “Live by the pen, die by the sword.” He lived a very provocative life and fought 29 duels. Which is how he died- in a pistol duel at the almost point-blank range of ten paces at the age of 37.
Monuments have been erected in Russia, in St Petersburg, Moscow, and schools, cities and streets carry his name.
It is said that Leo Tolstoy‘s book’s character Anna Karenina is based on Pushkin’s daughter (Maria Gartung), whom Tolstoy described as being extremely beautiful and intelligent.
Most biographers are harsh to Pushkin’s parents. His mother is portrayed as charming but cold, neglectful, and moody. “She could sulk for days, months, even years” one grandson recalled. In fairness, eight surviving children (of whom Pushkin was the second) would be hard for anyone to handle, but for some reason she favored the poet’s younger brother Lev, and was noticeably unaffectionate with that enfant terrible, her restless, brilliant eldest son, Alexander.
As for his father, Pushkin writes:
"My time under my father’s roof leaves little in the way of pleasant memories. Of course he loved me- but he showed no interest in me. I was entrusted to a series of French tutors, who were constantly being hired and fired. My first gouverneur was a desperate drunkard, the second, while not stupid or uneducated, could fly into such rages that he once tried to murder me for spilling a few drops of ink onto his waistcoat. The third, who was kept in our house for a whole year, was totally and obviously insane."
Pushkin published his first poem at the age of fifteen. By the time he finished school as part of the first graduating class of the prestigious Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoe Selo near Saint Petersburg, his talent was already widely recognized within the Russian literary scene.
Pushkin gradually became committed to social reform and emerged as a spokesman for literary radicals. This angered the government, and led to his exile from the capital in 1820. He went to the Caucasus and to the Crimea, then to Kamenka and Chişinău, where he became a Freemason.
In 1823 Pushkin moved to Odessa, where he again clashed with the government, which sent him into exile on his mother's rural estate of Mikhailovskoe (near Pskov) from 1824 to 1826.
Pushkin found himself under the strict control of government censors and unable to travel or publish at will. He had written what became his most famous play, the drama Boris Godunov, while at his mother's estate but could not gain permission to publish it until five years later. The original, uncensored version of the drama was not staged until 2007.
In the year 1831, during the period of Pushkin's growing literary influence, he met one of Russia's other great early writers, Nikolai Gogol. After reading Gogol's 1831–1832 volume of short stories Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, Pushkin supported him critically and would feature some of Gogol's most famous short stories in the magazine The Contemporary, which he founded in 1836.
Pushkin married his wife, Natalya Goncharova, on February 18, 1831 in the Great Ascension Church on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street in Moscow.
The newlyweds rented rooms in a charming house on Moscow’s Arbat Street. It was there the poet Tumansky visited the new couple and was singularly unimpressed by Natalya. Pushkin himself, in spite of everything, even bad omens, was truly blissful at the beginning. Just a week after the ceremony, Pushkin wrote his publisher:
"I’m married—and happy. I have but one wish: for nothing in my life to change. It will never get any better than this. This feeling is so new to me. It seems I am reborn."
Yet Pushkin’s mother-in-law did not share his joy. She reproved her son-in-law’s anti-clericalism, commanding her daughter to keep observing lugubrious vigils, prayers, and fasts. Over and over she complained that her daughter had made a tragic mistake in marrying a good-for-nothing scribbler, a proven trouble-maker, a heretic, a libertine--while nagging her new son in law for ever greater sums of money. Soon Pushkin could take no more, and left Moscow for good, writing his mother-in law in parting:
"I have been forced to leave Moscow to avoid the unpleasantness you caused, which in the end would have robbed me of more than just my peace of mind. You have described me to my wife as an odious man, a greedy, vile bloodsucking usurer; you have told her she just was a fool, and she should not allow her husband to…etc. You will admit that this is all preaching divorce. I have answered with both patience and mildness, both, I see now, were quite in vain."
In May 1831, the newlyweds moved to a cozy little home by the park of the Summer Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, not far from Pushkin’s beloved Lycée. Each morning he and Natalya would promenade around the lake. His sister Olga was happy that “they seem to adore each other”. The poet Zhukovsky wrote: “Pushkin is my neighbor, and we see each other often. His wife seems a quite delightful creature, and he’s so happy with her. I am gladder than ever for him that he is married. His soul, life, and poetry all gain from this”.
One of the new friends mentioned previously that Pushkin made in Tsarskoye Selo was Nikolay Gogol, just arrived from the provinces, and woefully shy. Pushkin immediately recognized Gogol’s talent, encouraged him to write, and helped him. Gogol, for his part, idolized Pushkin, and was grateful to him until death for aiding his career: it was Pushkin who gave him the plot and coached him in of two of his most famous works: the comedy The Inspector-General, and the novel Dead Souls. Pushkin helped Gogol get a university professorship, edited several of Gogol’s Petersburg Tales, including The Nose, The Carriage, and Nevsky Prospekt, and helped persuade the Tsar to permit the staging of The Inspector General.
Pushkin’s first child Maria was born on May 19, 1832, and, by most accounts, Pushkin was a doting father. But life in the capital was ruinously expensive, especially, in light of Natalya’s taste for fancy clothes, carriages, hats, and gloves. Though Pushkin took some pride in her brilliant success in Petersburg society, he could ill afford it, as he had foreseen before his marriage.
Although Natalya bore Pushkin four children, and was grateful to him for bringing her into society, she had little interest in his world of ideas and literature, and seems to have had little appreciation or even inkling of her husband’s talent. She was bored when he secluded himself to write, and was overheard during one of his poetry readings muttering: “Lord, how I’m sick of you and your poems, Pushkin!”
By 1833, Pushkin was writing to his friend Nashchokin: “Life here in Petersburg is so-so. Money woes keep me from relaxing. I lack my freedom of old, so necessary for writing. I’m spin about in society, where my wife is a big hit. But all that requires money; money comes from work, and my work requires seclusion”.
Finances continued to worsen when he got back to Petersburg. Natalya, over Pushkin’s objections, decided to bring her two older sisters Yekaterina and Alexandra to come and live with her and be brought out in society. This forced Pushkin to move into a bigger, more expensive apartment. And now to that interminable round of balls, receptions, and parties which made up their lives in St. Petersburg, Pushkin found himself escorting not just one woman-–but three. Pushkin remarked mournfully: “I thought my expenses would triple because of this— and what do you know? They increased tenfold.”
Pushkin could find no peace at home, because his wife and two sisters “have turned our home into a dress shop”. Even Pushkin’s ailing mother complained in January 1835:
"Natalie’s out dancing every single day. Yesterday we had a family reunion here with all the kids. She and her sisters talk just of feasts, balls, and spectacles. Little Masha is so used to seeing only luxuriously dressed people that when she saw me, she began to cry. We asked her why she didn’t want to kiss Grandma, and she said: 'her hat’s old, and her dress is shabby'".
In May 1835, Pushkin’s son Grigory was born and Pushkin was faced with yet another mouth to feed. “But I earn my income from the 33 letters of the Russian alphabet, nothing else.” And the increasingly obstructive process of censorship was making it impossible for him to work. Frustrated by the time it took for other journals to get approvals to publish his works, he asked for permission to start a literary review; his request was denied. By late July 1835, desperately strained by the costs of living in the capital, he renewed his request to be allowed to move to the country for a few years. Pushkin wrote to Count Benckendorf:
"The Emperor, having been so kind as to take me into his service again, pays me a salary of 5000 rubles a year. This is, of course, a huge sum, but not enough to cover my expenses of living here in St. Petersburg, where I find myself forced to spend no less than 25,000 rubles a year, just to live, take care of my family, pay my debts…In four years of marriage, I have contracted over 60,000 rubles in debts... The only way to repair my finances is to move to the country where I can work and study without worries— or else receive a loan of a huge sum of money."
But the Tsar enjoyed having Natalya at his balls, and Count Benckendorf did not want to see Pushkin out of close surveillance. They stipulated that if Pushkin moved, he would not only lose his salary, but all access forever to the State Archives. In the end, the Tsar gave Pushkin a loan of 30,000 rubles, to be paid for by suspension of his salary for the next six years. The Tsar’s loan was still not enough though; it vanished at once on urgent old debts, and— even more urgent— new dresses for Natalya. In the fall of 1835, the Tsar gave him leave to go back briefly to Mikhaylovskoye to finish The Captain’s Daughter. From there he wrote Natalya:
"You can’t imagine how lively the imagination becomes here, sitting all alone, or walking in the woods, where no one stops you from thinking, thinking—thinking until one’s head spins. But what am I thinking of? Here’s what: how are we going to live? Father won’t give me this estate, besides he’s squandered near half of it away already. Your family property is a hair’s breadth from total ruin. The Tsar won’t let me move to the country or be a journalist. To sell out and write what I’m told just for money— as God is my witness— I cannot do that. We haven’t a penny of stable income left, with stable expenses of at least 30,000… What will come of all this, Lord only knows. For now, it’s sad. But just kiss me, and maybe the grief will pass… If possible, could you please send me Montaigne’s Essays? The four blue volumes on the long bookcase. Please find them… The weather is very cloudy… I walk a lot, and ride a lot as well, on some old nags who are very happy about this, because they get oats afterwards, which they weren’t used to before… I kiss you, my own dear soul, and all the kids, and bless you with all my heart."
Yet all that “thinking, thinking, thinking” was beginning to weigh on him, and a few days later he wrote home again:
"I’ve found everything in Mikhaylovskoye the same as always, except my nanny’s no longer here. And in my absence, by my friends, the old pine trees, a new family of young evergreens has sprung up, which saddens me to see-- just as I’m sad seeing dashing young guardsmen at all those balls where I no longer dance."
These observations form part of his haunting elegy “I came back again” written that day, walking around Mikhaylovskoye:
At least in this elegy (whose unrhymed freeness marked a watershed in Russian poetry) Pushkin transcended his feelings of sadness with a wistfully loving greeting to nature, to future generations of life, itself springing up in new pines.
New griefs mounted in St. Petersburg. One of those “dashing young guardsmen at balls, where I no longer dance” was a tall, blond, handsome Frenchman named Georges D’Anthès. A royalist who left France after 1830, D’Anthès had been inducted in the Russian Imperial Horse Guards (earning, in his brief service to the Tsar, 44 separate reprimands from his commanding officers for conduct unbecoming). D’Anthès was the live-in “toyboy” of Baron Heckeren, the Dutch ambassador to Russia. Heckeren had fraudulently “adopted” D’Anthès as his “son” at the age of 24; there is copious evidence of a homosexual relationship, including passionate letters between Heckeren and D’Anthès. Yet D’Anthès was also a renowned lady-killer, a flashy Hussar playboy, a dandy fond of dancing, a foppish rake, a fashionable roué. All this, plus the inestimable cachet of being a Frenchman in a society of Gallomanes, made him all the rage at court balls— in a way Pushkin could never hope to be. And besides being popular, D’Anthès was rolling in his “father’s” money. In short, he was the antithesis of Pushkin, the ideal suitor Natalya Ivanovna Goncharova had once dreamed of for her daughter. Little wonder, then, that he quite turned Natalya’s head (and her two sisters’ heads as well).
Natalya Goncharova, Pushkin's wife.
By late 1835 D’Anthès lusted for the ultimate society triumph: to seduce and conquer the first beauty in St. Petersburg: Natalya Pushkina. That she was the wife of the “sunshine of Russian poetry” concerned him not at all. He knew (and needed) no Russian— save a few simple drill commands (and curses). Even his French was mediocre; he had read nothing, and the Muses were Greek to him. If D’Anthès can be believed, he won Natalya’s heart by declaring her his soulmate (perhaps she was); he wrote her melodramatic notes dying of love, and ready to die for her, etc. And she believed him- or at least was flattered to see D’Anthès wooing her, almost, some biographers relate, with the passion of Onegin wooing of Tatyana in the end of Eugene Onegin. By January 20, 1836, D’Anthès wrote Baron Heckeren to say that he loved Natalya, and “she loves me too, but we cannot see each other, for the husband is revoltingly jealous”. Whether or not Natalya actually became D’Anthès’ mistress (D’Anthès claimed she did, but this may have been Hussar boasting) Natalya did not trouble to conceal from her husband her delight in flirting with her handsome guardsman.
She did this even as Pushkin’s mother, Nadyezhda Osipovna Pushkina, was dying. Pushkin’s old friend from Mikhalovskoye, Zizi remembered: “Pushkin was always extraordinarily attached to and fond of his mother, even though she plainly preferred her younger son to him. But in the last year of her life, Alexander Sergeyevich looked after her with such tender care and affection that she at last recognized her former unfairness to him, and begged his forgiveness, confessing sadly that she had never been capable of appreciating him.” Anna Kern (by now just a good family friend) remembered in her memoirs:
"I saw him one last time with his wife at his mother’s house, not long before her death; she was too weak to get out of bed anymore, and was just lying there on a cot moved to the middle of the room, with her head to the windows. They sat by her on a little couch, and Nadyezhda Osipovna just looked at them tenderly with love. Alexander Sergeyevich returned her gaze while holding in one hand the soft end of his wife’s elegant fur boa, with which he gently stroked his mother, as if expressing in that one gesture all his love and tenderness at once both for his mother and his wife. All the while he could not speak a word. Natalya Nikolayevna’s hair was in curlers. She was getting herself ready for a ball."
Pushkin’s mother died on March 29, 1836. He brought her coffin riding by himself through 250 miles of roads quagmired by the spring thaw, to the Gannibal family burial plot by Mikhaylovskoye, in Svyatogorsky Monsatery. After burying her, he paid the monastery in advance for his own grave--right by hers. To Zizi he “lamented with exceptional distress how cruel fate had been to him once again, in giving him so little time to feel maternal tenderness which he had never in his life known before. And when he got back to St. Petersburg, gossips were spreading malicious stories that he had laughed all through his mother’s funeral.”
Meanwhile, the Tsar had finally given Pushkin permission to publish his own quarterly journal, The Contemporary (under vigilant censorship). In April 1836 the first issue came out featuring A Journey to Arzurum and several Pushkin poems, as well as the first publication of Gogol’s amazing short story The Nose. Unfortunately, circulation was poor, and reviews (by Pushkin’s enemies, chiefly Bulgarin and Uvarov) were vicious. The entire year of 1836 was financially disastrous for Pushkin. The Contemporary was struggling to survive and gain circulation. Virtually no income remained to support his four children (a daughter was born May 27, 1836) his wife, her two sisters (in attendance at three balls per week), and his own younger brother. He was forced to fawn to pawnbrokers and moneylenders; to borrow from Peter to pay Paul, and nearly had to giving up buying books. Yet bleak though Pushkin’s finances were, we should remember that it was a fairly normal, even stylish, habit of the Russian aristocracy to live for years on debt, as described in Eugene Onegin I, iii: “By serving honestly and nobly/His father lived, amassing debt”. Pushkin was Russia’s first professional writer (he once quipped “I write for the same reason that the singer sings, the baker bakes, and the quack kills his patient— for money”). Yet thwarted at nearly every turn by censorship, he had always known that money might not reward his efforts; most of his works were denied publication in his lifetime. Yet just as he had once cast a gold coin in a canal to admire its gleam underwater, beauty remained for Pushkin more important than profit. He could always find happiness in himself as long as he was “filled with the silent Muse” (“By lands where sovereignty of golden Venice reigns” ). He often turned down lucrative offers to write things that compromised what he saw as his artistic freedom or integrity, and indeed did so several times in 1836.
What made 1836 the bitterest year of his life was unquestionably loneliness. To his grief at the death of his mother, at his increasing loss of freedom, more than ever was added the pain of missing his true friends, from the Lycée, like Delvig “whom I can speak with of whatever wracks the soul and pangs the heart” who had died before his marriage, or Pushchin or Küchelbecker, exiled to Siberia. He had no real friends in St. Petersburg. By the end of 1836 he was forbidden to read new works, still uncleared by the censor, aloud even in the privacy of his own home. His letters were still being opened, and his every movement watched, prompting him to complain: “spies with us are like our letter “Ъ” [a silent letter at the end of every word that ended in a consonant, until post-Revolutionary spelling reforms]. They are soundless, useless—and ubiquitous”.
As Pushkin was finding no one with whom to assuage the grief and jealousy gnawing at his heart, D’Anthès was finding Natalya in every ballroom in town, besieging her with secret presents, love notes, ballet tickets. Natalya seems not to have noticed that in the finest Hussar traditions D’Anthès was then writing love letters to three people at once: Baron Heckeren, Natalya, and her own sister Yekaterina— and fooling everyone!
In the summer of 1836, to recover from a post-natal illness, Natalya rented an expensive summer house in a fashionable island suburb of St. Petersburg (D’Anthès’ regiment had been posted nearby). While D’Anthès wooed Natalya (and her sister) again, Pushkin wrote brooding poems on death, the soul, and his own poetic legacy, including “In vain I seek to flee to Zion’s heights” , “Our hermit fathers and our nuns blessed and blameless “ “When past the city gates with wistful thoughts I roam” , From Pndemonti and Exegi Monumentum, and finished his The Captain’s Daughter, printed in the December 1836 issue of The Contemporary. Many Russians consider it the finest novel ever written in the Russian language. Its gripping plot and themes of coming of age and love amidst rebellion, civil war, imprisonment, treachery, and death made it an instant classic, selling out the issue at once. In the novel, Pushkin warned prophetically: “God forbid any rebellion in Russia. It will be pointless— and pitiless”. The major Russian critic Belinsky called the novel “a miracle of artistic perfection” , and no less a genius than Gogol wrote “compared to The Captain’s Daughter all our other novels and short stories are like watery gruel. Its purity and poetic restraint attain such heights that reality itself seems an artificial caricature by comparison”.
Yet his woes blocked him from finishing yet another extraordinary work: Egyptian Nights, an enchantingly intricate fabric of poetry and prose, mixing cynical Russian reality and Italian Renaissance ideals, and treating clearly autobiographical themes of a poet’s struggle to keep his freedom amidst the enmity of authority and high society. Another theme of that novel is— at least for poetic improvisation— the nature of love itself, ranging from utter self-sacrifice on one side, to predatory, voluptuous female power, cruel yet sublime, life-consuming yet unanswerably majestic, a power personified in Queen Cleopatra.
From this sorrow Pushkin still longed to escape, to move to the country. But he was trapped in a gilded cage. On October 20, 1836, he wrote his father: “I had wanted to go to Mikhaylovskoye, but was not able to. This will set me back by another year at least. In the country I would have gotten a lot of work done. Here I do nothing but brood.” The flirtation between Natalya and D’Anthès grew to a fever pitch, as had the mockery it aroused. There are many versions of what happened next. On November 2, 1836, according to one version of events, D’Anthès lured Natalya to an assignation and threatened to kill himself unless she consented to become his mistress (though other versions say she aready was his mistress). Supposedly, according to yet another version, she answered, in some tawdry imitation of Tatyana’s rebuff to Onegin: “you have my heart; why do you need my body?” (What really happened at their tryst, if it happened, of course, we may never know). But the Imperial Court gloated pitilessly over the rumors.
On November 4, 1836, Pushkin and his friends received anonymous “diplomas” in French, certifying Pushkin as “coadjutor to the Grand Master of the Order of Cuckolds and Historiographer of the Order”. The “diplomas” implied that Pushkin had been cuckolded not by D’Anthès, but by the Tsar. Pushkin took the document for analysis. “From the type of paper used, the vocabulary, and the style, I immediately verified for myself that the letter is from a foreigner, a member of high society, and a diplomat” —in other words, from Baron Heckeren. Anna Akhmatova argues Pushkin was right, and proved his case to the Tsar. Baron Heckeren genuinely hated Pushkin on behalf of his “son”; at the same time he was perhaps no less jealous than Pushkin of a relationship that was taking his “son” away from him. Akhmatova argues convincingly that the letters were Heckeren’s “blind”. Unable to challenge the Tsar to a duel, Pushkin would have to move away with his family, or at least send his wife away, thereby ending Natalya’s relationship to D’Anthès. Other scholars believe that the “diplomas” were not from Heckeren, who could not, they argue, risk a scandal (others rejoin that this is precisely why why the letters were anonymous). Whatever their motives, whoever wrote the “diplomas” risked their lives in casting aspersions not just on Russia’s national poet, but on the honor of the Sovereign. Such risks could only be run by someone either high enough in the government to feel safe taking a risk, or someone who enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Different “diplomas” were in different handwritings; many years later Tsar Alexander II stated that one of the writers was Heckeren’s closest friend in St. Petersburg, and Pushkin’s old enemy, Count Nesselrode, the Foreign Minister himself.
Pushkin confronts D’Anthès
Pushkin himself was convinced beyond any doubt that the “diplomas” came from Heckeren and were intended as a “blind” to distract the poet from ever-increasing rumors about Natalya and D’Anthès. He confronted his wife with them; Natalya related her version of November 2nd, and told Pushkin that both Heckeren and D’Anthès had beseeched her to become D’Anthès’ mistress, but that she had refused (in her version of events, D’Anthès was little more than a stalker). Pushkin found (or perhaps was shown) several notes and letters from D’Anthès, and reacted by challenging D’Anthès to a duel. Baron Heckeren promptly visited Pushkin, accepted the challenge on behalf of his “son” , but requested a two week extension to inquire as to the circumstances. During the interim, a duel was avoided. To the amazement of everyone in St. Petersburg society, D’Anthès’ announced his engagement to Yekaterina Goncharova, Natalya’s sister (it seems Pushkin learned Yekaterina was pregnant by D’Anthès, which has recently been proven by unearthed correspondence between D’Anthès and Yekaterina). Under these circumstances, Pushkin reluctantly withdrew his challenge, on condition, however, that D’Anthès stay away from his home and from Natalya, and never expect either of them to socialize with the newlyweds. On January 10, 1837, D’Anthès and Yekaterina were married.
However, D’Anthès continued to act towards Natalya as he had before, ostentatiously casting longing looks at her, dancing with her, and dropping sexual innuendoes about Natalya in Pushkin’s presence. Malicious gossip spread throughout St. Petersburg that D’Anthès had married Yekaterina soley in order to save Natalya’s honor; at the same time, D’Anthès was doing everything he could to compromise it further. Natalya was upset too; she was jealous of her sister. Pushkin could stand it no longer. On January 25, 1837, he wrote to Baron Heckeren a letter which he knew was certain to provoke a challenge:
"I have long known the conduct of your son and could not remain indifferent to it. I was content to play observer, ready to intervene when I judged it meet. An incident, which in all other cases would have been very disagreeable, happily rescued me from the affair. I received the anonymous letters. I saw that the time was right and I took advantage of it. You know the rest: I made your son play such a pitiable role that my wife, shocked by such cowardice and banality could not help laughing, and the emotion that she had perhaps felt for this grand and sublime passion evaporated into the calmest contempt and most deserved disgust. I am obliged to admit, Baron, that your role has hardly been seemly. You, the representative of a sovereign crown, have been the paternal pimp for your own son. It seems his (by the way, quite inept) conduct has all been directed by you. It is you who probably dictated to him the sorry phrases and blather he tried to write. Like an obscene old woman, you’ve lain in wait for my wife to speak of the love of your bastard or self-styled “son” for her. While he in fact was laid up in your home with the clap, you’d tell her he was dying of love for her; you murmured: 'Give me back my son!' You must grasp, Baron, that after all this I cannot permit my family to have the least relationship with yours. It was exactly on this condition that I consented not to follow through with this dirty affair, and not to dishonor you in the eyes of our court and yours, as I have the power and the intention. But I do not care for my wife to have to hear any more of your paternal exhortations. I cannot permit your 'son', after his base behavior, to dare address a word to my wife, and still less will I let him subject her to barrack-room puns, and his overacted role of devoted, grand, unhappy passion when he is in fact no more than a coward and a scoundrelly roué. I am therefore obliged to ask that you put an end to all this scheming, if you wish to avoid a new scandal, from which I will certainly not retreat."
Immediately upon receipt of this letter, Pushkin received a challenge from D’Anthès. The duel between Pushkin and D’Anthès took place the next day, January 27, 1837. While getting dressed to go to the duel, Pushkin did not put on his talisman against violent death which had been a present from his friend and patron Nashchokin. After having left he stopped, turned around, and went back home to get his bearskin coat. As the ever-superstitious poet surely knew, in Russian superstition “to retrace one’s steps is bad luck.” On his way to the duel, Pushkin’s carriage crossed paths with Natalya’s coming home, but she was near-sighted and he was looking the other way— potent symbolism, perhaps, of the problems in their relationship that had led to such a fatal calamity.
The duel between Pushkin and D’Anthès on the snowy grounds of the Black River near St. Petersburg bears an eerie resemblance to the duel between the poet Lensky and Onegin in Eugene Onegin. One wonders how Pushkin could have helped pondering what he was doing. He had taken Madame Kirchgoff’s prophecy so seriously that he had not pursued marriage to Yekaterina Ushakova, a beautiful woman of means, who had truly loved him and his poetry—just because she was blond! What was he doing exactly in his 37th year getting into a duel with a blond man? According to his old friend Zizi, who had come to visit St. Petersburg in the days shortly before the duel, Pushkin confided in her his desire to seek death, and had answered her remonstrance that he should think of his family by saying that he had already spoken to the Tsar, who had given his word to take his family under imperial protection.
On the morning of his duel Pushkin seemed happier than in a long time, and wrote a letter connected to the upcoming issue of The Contemporary. He did not act like a man planning to die. Yet at Pushkin’s insistence the duel was fought at ten paces (nearly point-blank range). D’Anthès fired first; his bullet landed right where Natalya had forgotten to sew back a button in Pushkin’s waistcoat, bursting through the abdomen cavity and shattering the sacrum. The wound was fatal. Bleeding in the snow, and unable to rise from great pain, Pushkin insisted on nevertheless taking his shot. His shot passed through D’Anthès right arm, and deflected off a button on D’Anthès’ chest, knocking D’Anthès down. Thinking D’Anthès was dead, Pushkin remarked: “Strange, I thought I’d be pleased if I killed him, but now I feel that’s not the case.”
Pushkin, mortally wounded, is carried from the dueling field.
The wounded poet was brought home and eight doctors were summoned, including Dr. Arendt, the Tsar’s personal physician. All told him there was nothing they could do to save him,. Pushkin thanked them, and then dictated a list of all his debts, including all debts not evidenced by any writing, and signed it, and passed a request that the Tsar would absolve his debts, or at least permit sales and publication of his works to pay them, and to secure his family a pension. He also requested clemency for his second, his schoolmate Danzas (dueling, though common, was technically quite a serious crime in Russia). The Tsar wrote back to urge Pushkin to “die as a Christian” and promised to grant Pushkin’s requests, which greatly relieved him. In spite of agonizing pain, he lived on for forty-six hours after the duel; Dr. Arendt wrote in his memoirs: “I’ve been in thirty battles, and have seen many people dying, but never saw anyone die with so much courage in the face of pain”. After having himsef confessed and given rites of extreme unction, he blessed his wife and children, and told his wife: “Go to the country, mourn for me two years, then, if you like, remarry--but not to a good-for-nothing”. Then he forced himself briefly up to wave to his books: “Farewell, friends!” Present with him were the poet Zhukovsky, and the dictionary compiler Dal’ (joking with him that for the the first-and last time in his life he was addressing him with the intimate, informal second person pronoun ty, instead of the formal Vy.) Yet even in death, he was lonely, missing his real friends from the Lycée, and exclaimed: “What a pity neither Pushchin nor Malinovsky are here! It would have been easier to die.” Shortly before dying he asked for cloudberries; Natalya fed him cloudberry jam with a spoon. He died January 29, 1837 at 2:45 in the afternoon. (Even the time of his death gives pause; the ghost of his personification of Fate, the malevolent spirit of Countess in The Queen of Spades had appeared to at 2:45 in the dead of night. His benevolent spirit left his body at 2:45 in the afternoon, just as the northern wintry sun was setting).
Pushkin at Peace
Controversy swirls to this day about the reasons for such a tragic ending of what should have been such a happy story. Shortly after his death Natalya in tears is said to have cried hysterically: “I killed my husband! I’m the reason he died!” The poetess Anna Akhmatova indignantly agreed, and summing up Natalya with bitterness: “She always did what she wanted and never cared about his feelings. She bankrupted him, denied him all peace of mind, didn’t even let his dying mother into their home, but brought her two sisters in, rented the most expensive villas and apartments, forgot his address whenever he traveled, ceaselessly related to him all her amatory victories, complained to D’Anthès about his jealousy, and then made her own husband her confidant in the whole situation— which precipitated the tragedy.” Yet Pushkin himself insisted on his deathbed “my wife is blameless in this affair” . And he told friends who plotted revenge on Baron Heckeren and D’Anthès: “do not avenge me; I have forgiven everything” . Had some part of him had simply resigned himself with equanimity to the fate that had once been foretold him? After stopping the clock, and after everyone else left the room, the poet Zhukovsky stayed a while. He wrote Pushkin’s father later:
The actual weapons used in the Pushkin and D’Anthès duel.
"I sat down by him just looking at his face for a long time all alone. I never saw anything quite like his face in that first instant of death. His head was sunk slightly and his hands folded, as if resting after hard labors. Yet there was an odd expression on his face that I simply can’t put into words, so new, yet so familiar; relaxed, yet neither sleeping nor resting. Not the usual wit and intelligence that always sparkled in him, nor some poetic pose. No! It was a sense of profound surprise, yet contemplation, of contentment, of some sort of all-encompassing divine, profound wisdom and light. As I kept looking at him, I wanted to ask: 'What are you seeing, my friend?' What would he have said if he could have been resurrected? I can assure you in all our years I never saw him in such profound contentment, such majestic and triumphant joy. Of course joy had always danced before him and with him, but never was it revealed in such utter purity as in that moment when the hand of death lifted from him all earthly cares. That was the end of our Pushkin."
Profound shock gripped the capital at the news of Pushkin’s death. Thousands gathered to mourn, thousands more bought his works. In two days his estate earned many times more than what it owed in debts. There was a widespread sense of outrage that a foreign favorite of the Tsar had murdered the national poet; both D’Anthès and Heckeren were expelled from Russia after the duel. Yet many felt that the authorities who had so harassed the poet in life were directly responsible in some way for his death.
Gogol, gently, wrote: “All my joy and pleasure in life vanished with him. I never again wrote a single line without seeing him in my mind standing before me, and asking myself: what would he say of this? Would he like it? Would it make him laugh?”
Secret police reports denounced the “excessive fuss being made by so many, as if for a person of exceptional merit”. An estimated 50,000 people assembled by his apartment on the Moika Canal, not far from the Winter Palace, seriously alarming the Tsar and Count Benckendorf, who feared a possible uprising. They reacted as always: repressively. Mourners were driven away. Obituaries in the press were strictly forbidden. Only one newspaper managed a headline on January 30, 1837: “The sunshine of our poetry has set! Pushkin is dead!” Its editor was summoned at once and reprimanded by Benckendorf himself: “How dare you put out a black banner headline to announce the death of a person of no consequence or importance in the government service? ‘The sunshine of our poetry? Ha! What kind of position is that?’”
Popular indignation grew as Metropolitan Serafim, head of the Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg, refused to say a planned memorial mass (on the grounds that duelers, like suicides, were unworthy of Christian burial). On February 1, 1837, the Tsar without warning switched the funeral site from St. Issac’s Cathedral to a much smaller church right by the Winter Palace, the small Konyushennaya Church (later converted by the Soviets into a taxi garage) …The traditional funeral procession was ordered cancelled; instead, the coffin was sneaked to the church after midnight, as troops blocked the streets, and in Zhukovsky's sad phrase, “there were more gendarmes than mourners”. Schools and colleges were warned not to permit absences to attend the funeral, yet throngs surrounded the church, roughly held back by police. Admission was by ticket only, and tickets were issued from a register compiled by none other than Pushkin’s old enemy Count Vorontsov, listing mostly diplomats. Natalya did not attend the funeral procession, nor was she at the requiem the night before, having told Prince Vyazemsky she was exhausted and did not wish to appear before the gendarmes— or the crowds.
Fearful of displays of popular sentiment, the authorities, in the dead of night on February 3, 1837, had the poet’s coffin borne out of the church crypt, wrapped in a rude matting, and unceremoniously packed into a wooden box on a fast police sled whose floor was covered in straw. The coffin was then ordered removed for burial in Pushkin’s burial plot in Svyatogorsky Monastery in Mikhaylovskoye. By decree, all demonstrations of grief or even respect for the national poet were forbidden. Only three persons were allowed to accompany the coffin on the long trip: a gendarme named Rakeyev, Pushkin’s old friend Alexander Turgenev, by command of the Tsar, and Nikita Kozlov, Pushkin’s devoted servant from cradle to grave, who did not leave the coffin at any time, and “neither ate nor drank for three days from grief”. To ensure no crowds, in the bitterly cold dark wee hours of the morning of February 6, 1837, the “sunshine of Russian poetry" was laid to rest in the grave he had chosen himself less than a year before— right by his mother. Natalya lived until 1863, and in 1844 remarried an officer in the Life Guards (and friend of D’Anthès) named Pyotr Lanskoy. She visited Pushkin’s grave just twice: once after remarrying, and once in 1841, when a simple obelisk was placed over his tomb.
Russia’s first monument to Pushkin was erected in 1880, in what is now Pushkin Square in Moscow. If you chance to be there at about seven o’clock in the evening, it may seem to you that all the fretting lovers in the city are meeting by the poet’s statue. Perhaps for an instant, before they go off on their dates, they are taking in just a bit of his loving energy, his warmth, wit, humor, passion, and intensity. Of course, there is a more prosaic explanation (his statue is directly over the hub connecting Moscow’s three busiest subway lines). Yet it is fitting that lovers bearing flowers meet where Pushkin stands: over central arteries, in the heart of Moscow, where he was born and married, on a little hill near the Kremlin. (It is fitting, too, that Pushkin looks away from that seat of power and gazes with majestic melancholy at the constant stream of humanity spilling into what is said to be the busiest single branch of McDonalds in the world).
The library in Pushkin's house. Analysis of the bloodstains on the
Alexander Pushkin is universally revered by Russians as their most beloved and greatest literary genius. In critic Apollon Grigoriev’s famous phrase, “Pushkin is our all”. He is the very lodestar of the Russian culture and the creator of the Russian literary language. Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Nabokov, (the Russian literary geniuses best known in the West) all revered Pushkin and acknowledged themselves Pushkin’s heirs and literary debtors. To Gogol, “Pushkin is an extraordinary phenomenon, perhaps the only true expression of the essential Russian spirit”; to Dostoyevsky, Pushkin was “the height of artistic perfection.” Tolstoy praised Chekhov by calling him “Pushkin in prose.” For Russian poets, a deep devotion to Pushkin is something almost akin to religion. Pushkin is the “Prophet” of Russian literature; countless phrases of his entered the Russian language as Shakespeare’s phrases permeate English. Yet, while Russians revere Pushkin as English-speakers do Shakespeare, the West knows Pushkin far less well than it knows his literary heirs. The incomparable mastery of Pushkin’s verse has eluded translation, and much of his wit and wisdom is surprisingly unknown, although, in many ways, Pushkin was by far the most Western of all great Russian writers.
© 2013 Green Lamp Press ~ The Pushkin Project
Credit for Pushkin's biography goes to the following resources. Please visit these websites for interesting and detailed information about Pushkin's life and work:
The Pushkin Website
The purpose the Pushkin Website is to help make Pushkin and his work more accessible in every way, not just to scholars and aficionados, but to the general public. This Website features Pushkin’s works in English and Russian, links to the major institutions in the world that study and honor Pushkin’s life, works, and legacy, as well as news, books and media, a literary blog, and other resources.
© 2013 Green Lamp Press
Alexander Pushkin, the Black Father of Russian Literature
© Dr. Y. and www.afrolegends.com
(from African Heritage (http://afrolegends.com/2010/03/30/alexander-pushkin-the-black-father-of-russian-literature/)
Pushkin Genealogy (From Frontline PBS)
The Pushkin Page is a website that offers more Pushkin poems as well as interesting footnotes.
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