The Original Black Russian

The African roots of Russia's most famous poet.


By 1880, however, the famed novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky had set the stage for Pushkin’s transformation into an imperial metaphor. In a wildly popular speech on the occasion of the unveiling of the Pushkin monument in the center of Moscow, Dostoevsky heralded Pushkin as the exemplary Russian, a great “reconciler,” who incarnated in his poetry the spirit of his own nation and the spirit of foreign peoples.

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