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.

Alexander Pushkin, by V.A. Tropinin, 1827, Pushkin Museum

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As it relates, Gannibal was Pushkin’s mother’s father’s father. Pushkin was born on June 6, 1799, just 18 years after his great-grandfather’s death. He was an indifferent student at the Lyceum outside of St. Petersburg, preoccupied as he was with writing poetry and trying to get it published. He graduated in 1817 and took a position at the Collegium of Foreign Affairs in St. Petersburg, where over the next three years he associated with members of the radical movement who would be responsible for the Decembrist Uprising in 1825, the famous plot to overthrow Nicolas I and place the emperor’s brother on the throne.

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.