The Original Black Russian

The African roots of Russia's most famous poet.

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In 1899, the tsarist government staged an elaborate, empire-wide celebration of the centennial of the poet's birth, attempting to harness Pushkin's status as a metaphor of Russia in service to the state. During Pushkin's lifetime, even as the poet himself suffered racial slurs, his contemporary Nikolai Gogol held him up as a model for "the Russian as he would be in 200 years."

Ironically, now that Gogol's 200 years have all but passed, a growing wave of Russian nationalism is spurring ugly instances of xenophobic violence. A major Russian monitoring center recently reported a rise in hate crimes against dark-skinned people from the former Russian republics and against African students.

Pushkin remains a mirror in which Russians profess to see reflected back at them their fondest aspirations and best impulses. The country would do well to take a good look into that mirror today.

Catherine Nepomnyashchy is the Director of the Harriman Institute