Pushkin, Alexander Sergeyevich

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(17991837), considered Russia's greatest poet, author of lyrics, plays, prose, and the novel in verse Eugene Onegin.

Of the Russian poets, none is mentioned by Russians with more reverence than Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin. His work has been set to opera by Mikhail Glinka, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Peter Tchaikovsky; his lyrics have been memorized by young school-children throughout the former Soviet Union; and leading poets of the twentieth century, such as Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Alexander Blok, emphasized his impact on their work and lives. Pushkin may indeed have opened the door for the later part of the so-called Golden Age of Russian literature. At the 1880 ceremony following the unveiling of the Pushkin statue in Moscow, Ivan Turgenev credited Pushkin with giving birth to the Russian literary language; Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in an impassioned, near-hysterical speech, declared Pushkin superior to Shakespeare.

Such reverence is certainly merited, but reverence has its dangers. The author of the novel in verse Eugene Onegin, the historical play in verse Boris Godunov, the cryptic yet fluid "Belkin Tales," the brilliant "Little Tragedies" (four plays in blank verse, three of which deal with crimes of passion) the stylized folktale "Ruslan and Lyudmila," the tense, fatalistic story "Queen of Spades," and hundreds of lyrics, a master of style who absorbed and transformed European literary traditions and gave Russian folklore an unprecedented poetic expression, Pushkin attained quasi-mythological status in the twentieth century, becoming a hero figure for the Soviet establishment and dissidents alike. Yet Pushkin was a complex figure: profoundly solitary yet immersed in the social life of the aristocracy; devoted to his friends but easily incited to violence. His female characters, such as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, have remarkable depth and soul, but he himself was primarily attracted to physical beauty in women, and brought about his own early death partly on account of this. These contradictions in his character, while perhaps limiting his literary offering, account in part for its richness; his work is both immediate and layered, both sincere and wry.

Pushkin was born in Moscow in 1799. His father Sergei descended from boyars, one of whom, mentioned in Pushkin's Boris Godunov, had been a supporter of the False Dmitry during the Time of Troubles. Pushkin's mother Nadezhda was the granddaughter of Abram Gannibal, an African slave. Abram had been brought from Africa as a gift for Peter I, who favored him and sent him to Paris for military education. With the accession of Elizabeth to the throne, Abram rose through the ranks to the status of general, but was retired following Elizabeth's death. Pushkin took pride in his African heritage, referring to it often in his lyrics. Abram's daughter Mariya, Pushkin's grandmother, not only played the role of surrogate parent to Pushkin, whose own parents gave him little attention or affection, but also recounted family history, to be reflected later in Pushkin's unfinished novel The Blackamoor of Peter the Great.

Pushkin's parents embraced the lifestyle of the aristocracy, though they could not afford it. Sergei, an adept conversationalist with a vast knowledge of French literature, invited some of Russia's leading literary figures to the household, including the historian Nikolai Karamzin and poets Konstantin Batyushkov and Vasily Zhukovsky. Pushkin and his sister and brother grew up surrounded by literati. However, Pushkin's childhood was unhappy. Pushkin was the least favored child, perhaps in part because of his African features and awkward manner. Only his grandmother and his nanny Arina Rodionova nurtured him emotionally; the latter told him folk tales and entertained him with gossip, and served later as the model for Tatiana's nanny in Eugene Onegin.

In 1811 Pushkin's parents sent him to boarding school, the Lyceum, newly established by Alexander I in a wing of his palace in Tsarskoye Selo. There Pushkin received a first-rate education (though he was not a stellar student) in a relaxed and nurturing environment, and formed friendships that would prove lifelong, with classmates Ivan Pushchin, Anton Delvig, Wilhelm Kyukhelbecker, and others. While at the Lyceum, Pushkin enjoyed a social life filled with pranks and light romantic encounters, and he amazed his teachers and classmates with his verse. The aged poet Gavryl Derzhavin, upon hearing Pushkin recite his "Recollections in Tsarskoye Selo" during an examination

in 1815, recognized sixteen-year-old Pushkin as his poetic successor.

Pushkin graduated from the Lyceum in 1817. From there he moved to Petersburg, where he spent his days sleeping late, taking walks, and attending parties in the evenings. Erratic and excitable, he made public scenes at the theater on several occasions. He frequented houses of prostitutes and had a number of romantic affairs. He was a member of the literary circle "The Green Lamp," whose members, including Pushchin and Delvig, were also involved in secret political activities aimed at reform. Pushkin was not invited to join in the secret meetings, but he did write lyrics challenging the tsarist autocracy, including his ode "Freedom"(1817), "Noelles" (1818), and "The Village" (1819). The lyrics caused a stir; Pushkin was ordered to appear before Count Miloradovich, governor-general of St. Petersburg. Following that meeting in 1820, the tsar sent Pushkin into exile in the form of military service in South Russia under Lieutenant General Inzov.

Pushkin's exile was in many ways pleasant. He befriended General Rayevsky and his family and traveled with them around Caucasus and Crimea. He then spent nearly three years in Kishinev, where he wrote the verse tales "The Prisoner of the Caucasus" (18201821), "The Bandit Brothers" (18211822), and "The Fountain of Bakchisaray" (18211823). In addition, he wrote the scathing, mock-religious "Gavriiliada" (1821) and began his novel in verse Eugene Onegin (18231831). During this time Pushkin was captivated by Lord George Gordon Byron, particularly his Childe Harolde.

In July 1823 he was transferred to Odessa, where he had a lively social life, attended theater, and had affairs with two married women. He finished "The Fountain of Bakchisaray" and chapter one of Eugene Onegin, and began "The Gypsies."

From 1824 to 1826 he was exiled to his mother's estate of Mikhailovskoye in North Russia. There he finished "The Gypsies" and wrote the historical play in verse Boris Godunov, "Graf Nulin," and chapter two of Eugene Onegin.

In November 1825, while Pushkin was still in Mikhailovskoye, Alexander I died. The confusion over the successor provided the opportunity for secret political societies (called the Decembrists after the event) to rise up in armed rebellion against the aristocracy before Nicholas was proclaimed emperor. The uprising took place in Petersburg in December 1825 and involved poet Kondraty Ryleev, Colonel Pavel Pestel, Pushchin, Kyukhelbecker, and others. Pushkin, while not present or involved, was implicated, as some Decembrists quoted his poetry in support of their movement. Ryleev and Pestel were sentenced to death, Pushchin and Kyukhelbecker to hard labor.

In the spring of 1826 Pushkin petitioned Tsar Nicholas I for a release from exile. He met with the tsar and was granted release, but restrictions continued as before. He was under constant scrutiny, and his most minute activities were reported to the tsar.

In 1829 Pushkin met and proposed to Natalia Goncharova, a society beauty. They were formally engaged on May 18, 1830. Pushkin was given permission to publish Boris Godunov. In September 1830 Pushkin went to Boldino in east-central Russia to make wedding arrangements. Because of the outbreak of asiatic cholera, he was forced to stay three months there. This time was the most productive of his life. As part of an overall transition from poetry to prose, he wrote the magnificent Tales of Belkin, a collection of stories in taut, swift-moving prose, revolving around mistaken identity and, according to Andrej Kodjak (1979), containing an encoded message concerning the Decembrist uprising. Other works during this period include his "Little Tragedies" ("The Avaricious Knight," "Mozart and Salieri," "The Stone Guest," and "Feast in the Time of the Plague"), as well as "The Little House in Kolomna," "The Tale of the Priest and his Workman Balda," the last chapter of Eugene Onegin, and some of his finest lyrics, including "The Devils." He married Goncharova in February 1831, shortly after the unexpected death of Delvig, his closest friend after Pushchin.

Pushkin's marriage to Goncharova proved unhappy. She had little appreciation for his work, and he was unable to finance her extravagant lifestyle. Pushkin was beset with financial worries, and wrote little (including "Tale of the Golden Cockerel"(1834), the cycle of poems "Stone Island" (Kamenny ostrov, 1836) and his novel The Captain's Daughter (1836). He published a quarterly journal The Contemporary, which added to his troubles and did not fare well.

Natalia Goncharova loved mingling with the high aristocracy and playing society coquette; her many admirers included the tsar. The flirtation took on more serious tones when Baron Georges Charles d'Anthès, a French exile living in St. Petersburg under the protection of the Dutch ambassador, began to pursue her in earnest. A duel between d'Anthès and Pushkin took place on February 10, 1837. Pushkin, severely wounded, died two days later.

Of Pushkin's works, Eugene Onegin is the best known in the West, though by no means his sole masterpiece. Written over the course of eight years, it consists of eight chapters, each chapter broken into numbered stanzas in iambic tetrameter. Narrated by a stylized version of Pushkin himself, it portrays a Byronic antihero, Eugene Onegin, a bored society dandy who rejects the sincere and somber Tatiana. Onegin then flirts casually with Tatiana's sister Olga, provokes a duel with his friend Vladimir Lensky, a second-rate poet infatuated with Olga, and kills Lensky in the duel. After some travels, Onegin returns to Petersburg to find out that Tatiana has married a wealthy general. He falls in love with her, but she rejects him out of loyalty to her husband. The work holds immense popular and scholarly appeal thanks to the playfulness and perfection of the verse, the layers of confession and commentary, the appeal of the heroine, and the complex element of prophecy of Pushkin's own death.

See also: decembrist movement and rebellion; derzhavin, gavryl romanovich; golden age of russian literature; pushkin house


Bethea, David M. (1998). Realizing Metaphors: Alexander Pushkin and the Life of the Poet. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Binyon, T. J. (2002). Pushkin: A Biography. London: HarperCollins.

Evdokimova, Svetlana. Pushkin's Historical Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Greenleaf, Monika. (1994). Pushkin and Romantic Fashion: Fragment, Elegy, Orient, Irony. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Pushkin, Alexander Sergeyevich. (1983). Complete Prose Fiction, tr. Walter W. Arndt and Paul Debreczeny. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Pushkin, Alexander Sergeyevich. (1991). Eugene Onegin, reprint ed., tr. Vladimir Nabokov. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Vitale, Serena. (1999). Pushkin's Button, tr. Ann Goldstein and Jon Rothschild. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Diana Senechal

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Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin

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