Was the Father of Russian Lit a Brother?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Find out if Alexander Pushkin's African roots held meaning for him.

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Pushkin began to circulate a series of radical poems unofficially, one of which, "Ode to Liberty," would be found among the papers of all the major Decembrist conspirators. Pushkin, by this time exiled to his mother's estate in Northern Russia, was not involved in the plot, so he escaped punishment, although the five ringleaders were sentenced to death.

Forgiven by Nicolas I in 1826, Pushkin began an extraordinary period of creativity, completing over the next five years two of his masterpieces, Eugene Onegin and Boris Gudonov, and four tragedies, including Mozart and Salieri, the story of which was retold more than a century and a half later in Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, filmed by Milos Forman. During this period, he also began a novel about his great-grandfather, The Moor of Peter the Great, which he never completed.

Like his great-grandfather's first marriage, to Evdokia Dioper, Pushkin's marriage in 1831 to Natalya Goncharova was deeply troubled, and would have the most fatal consequences. In 1836, enraged by the French military officer Georges d'Anthes's pursuit of his wife, Pushkin challenged him to a duel, but retracted it when d'Anthes married his wife's sister. When d'Anthes continued his pursuit, Pushkin challenged him once again. On Jan. 27, 1837, Pushkin was mortally wounded, dying two days later. (d'Anthes was pardoned but expelled from Russia, returned to France and became a politician.) All of Russia grieved. Virtually overnight, Pushkin was hailed as the indisputable father of Russian literature.

A Shade of Meaning

So was the father of Russian literature a race man? Did he think of himself as "a brother"? Although in the United States, with its crazy "one drop" rule, Pushkin would have been categorized as a black man, did he identify with his great-grandfather's African heritage as a matter of choice, or was that irrelevant to him?

The answer is: most definitely! And he wrote about this on several occasions. Once, in a letter written in 1824, Pushkin even highlighted his relation to black slaves in the U.S.: "One can think of the fate of the Greeks in the same way as of the fate of my brother Negroes, and one can wish both of them liberation from unendurable slavery, " as related in Under the Sky of My Africa.

Nepomnyashchy relates a fascinating story about one of Pushkin's favorite possessions: On his desk sat "an inkstand featuring a black man leaning against an anchor and standing in front of two bales of cotton (made to hold ink). Accompanying it was a note [from his close friend, Pavel Nashchokin] stating: 'I am sending you your ancestor with inkwells that open and that reveal him to be a farsighted person.' Pushkin was extremely pleased with the gift, which he kept on his desk to the end of his days," according to Under the Sky of My Africa. The note and the gift were clever puns, as Marial Iglesias explained to me: "It is based on a pun with 'ink' (chernila, in Russian) and 'black' (cherni, in Russian)." As Nepomnyashchy says, "it holds the ink (literally, the 'black stuff') for Pushkin to ply his trade and thus attests to the creativity of its owner."

Because the word for "ink" in Russian has the same root as the word "black," the gift brilliantly signifies both upon Pushkin's blackness and his role as a writer who is also black. That inkstand, we might say, was Pushkin's signifying sign of his black ancestry, centrally placed on his desk as a visible testament and reminder both of his African ancestry and, perhaps, of the irony that a man of recent African descent was playing such a seminal role in the creation of Russia's national literary tradition. 

It won't come as a surprise that Pushkin, in death, was frequently compared to Othello, Shakespeare's famous black character whose jealousy led to his wife's death -- and to his own -- or that racism accosted Pushkin in death as it did during his life. One of his classmates noted after his death that "In him was manifested all the ardor and sensuality of his African blood," while another noted that he was frequently "Flaring up into a fury, with unbridled African passions (such as his mother's ancestry), eternally absent-minded, eternally absorbed in his poetic dreams … " writes Nepomnyashchy. And some Russian commentators have done their best to erase the significance of his blackness, or to claim that he had no interest in it at all, or that it was irrelevant to his genius.

But we know that this is not true, since Pushkin kept that token of his -- and his great-grandfather's -- blackness on his writing desk.