As Americans observe Black History Month, Russians will celebrate their own link to black history. This year marks the 171st anniversary of the death of their greatest national poet, Alexander Pushkin.
Yes, Pushkin, who died on Feb 10, 1837, was part black.
Pushkin's great-grandfather, Abram Gannibal, was born in Sub-Saharan Africa, probably on the territory of what is now Cameroon, in the late 17th century. Taken captive in his boyhood, he was transported in 1705 by a Russian emissary from the court of the Turkish Sultan and presented as a gift to Peter the Great. Peter had the boy baptized and made him his godson. Since Abram was apparently a quick study, Peter gave him a job as his personal secretary then, as part of his crash program of modernizing Russia, sent him to France to study military engineering.
After his return to Russia, Gannibal (who named himself after Hannibal, the greatest African military commander in the ancient world) went on to enjoy an exceptionally long life. He survived six tsars, rose to the rank of general, was granted nobility and estates, and was decorated for distinguished service.
In Russia, Pushkin's African roots have often been denied or passed over in silence – though they have never lain very far beneath the surface. Soviet authorities in Moscow often greeted visiting African students with recitations of Pushkin's poetry, while pointing out that he was a fellow African. Russian writers seeking to subvert state control over the arts embraced Pushkin's blackness and held him up as a figure of creative freedom.
In 1937, the emigrant poet Marina Tsvetaeva wrote a loving appreciation of "My Pushkin" in which the poet's blackness merges with the ink from which poetry flows. More recently, an epic Russian documentary filmed for the bicentennial of Pushkin's birth in 1999 opened and closed with footage of African children watching spellbound as Pushkin's life unfolded on film before them.
Pushkin himself was fascinated by his African heritage and did not hesitate to identify himself as a "descendant of Negroes." In a famous line from his masterpiece Eugene Onegin, he imagines fleeing "under the sky of my Africa to sigh for gloomy Russia." African American writers and intellectuals including Frederick Douglass took inspiration from Pushkin's poetry and from his pride in his African roots.
Yet Pushkin was also proud to trace the other side of his lineage back to one of the oldest boyar families in Russia. While he sympathized with the plight of his "brother Negroes," in the United States, and wrote poetry eloquently promoting freedom from tsarist oppression, Pushkin himself owned serfs. The poet himself, it would seem, was torn by the same competing vectors of race, class, national identity and political allegiance that have haunted his posthumous image for two centuries.
In Russia, Pushkin's legacy has often seemed as much political as poetic. When he died in a duel with a French officer over his wife's honor, tsarist authorities, fearing his symbolic power as a rallying force for the opposition, spirited his corpse out of Petersburg in the dead of night for burial.
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.