Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin

o View Alexander Pushkin, to one who is not a Russian, is a notable author whose works often live beside the Classics at the library. However, to a Russian, Pushkin is more than an author. He is a hero, a national figure, and a man whose life is continually worshiped by Russia. Mikhail Lermontov, considered by many as Russia's second greatest poet, bewailed after Pushkin's death in an ode: "The Poet is dead: a slave of honor."[1] Tsar Nicolas I claimed Pushkin to be the "cleverest man in Russia."

The appreciation of Pushkin's genius still exists in Russia. Much of the content in literature textbooks in Russia are Pushkin's masterpieces. Little children memorize Pushkin's poems and sprout them in front of relatives, who are often quite delighted. The appreciation of Pushkin was especially evident during his 200th birthday anniversary on June 6 1999. A reporter in Russia described the atmosphere thus:

Flags bearing lines from his poems flutter in the wind, his portrait seems to adorn almost every shop window and his towering features, framed by those famous lamb-chop whiskers, glare down from the gable-ends of blocks of flats. -Robert Parsons[2] Pushkin's name is also mentioned in contemporary politics. Candidates often attempt to woo the hearts of voters by impressing them with their knowledge of Pushkin. Recently, the Mayor of Moscow and the Kremlin, during election time, had a squabble regarding the ownership of a note written by Pushkin. This was considered rather ironic since Pushkin was a critic of "sensationalist" government officials.

However, while as many Russians vehemently glorify his works, it must be noted that though Pushkin was arguably perfect as an author, his reputation as a human is less than flattering as will be discussed below.

o

Pedigree and Life Pushkin was the descendant of Abraham Gannibal (or Hannibal) who was a slave of Peter the Great.

Gannibal was brought to Russia where he studied military under the direction of Peter the Great's supervisors. In time Gannibal rose to the rank of a Major General and attained great respect from the nobility of Russia. Gannibal fathered 10 children, among who was Nadja, who later became Alexander Pushkin's mother.

Pushkin was born in Moscow in June 6, 1799. The decade of his life was fairly uneventful. However by his

teens, his fame as a poet had begun to be established. In 1811, he was selected as one of the 30 students to attend a school named "Imperial Lyceum" in Tsarskoe Selo--the best school in Russia at the time. During his time in the school, he began writing romantic poems, which, at the time, was dismissed by his peers as expressions of his youthful fancy. However, one of his poems, Recollections in Tsarskoe Selo, was recognized by one of the great poets of the time, Gavrila Derzhavin. The recognition of his poem by Derzhavin is said to be the spark that ignited Pushkin’s desire to write poems.

In 1815, Pushkin graduated from the Lyceum and attended the College of Foreign Affairs in Petersburg. Petersburg, at this time, was one the fastest growing cities in the world. Young, aspiring students often flocked to the city to mingle with the nobility and establish themselves in the upper circles. Besides students, Petersburg was populated by French nobles fleeing the French Revolution. Pushkin, during his stay, absorbed many Western and radical ideas that heavily influenced him. One notable influence was the writing style of Lord Byron, an English poet known for his morbid writing style. The influences are apparent in his political poems, “Freedom,” “The Village,” and several other poems in which Tsar Alexander I was the subject of. He also published his first long poem (later converted to an opera) Ruslan and Lyudmila, a Russian version of Romeo and Juliet. The publication of the poem caused quite a stir due to this rather revolutionary writing style and its metaphoric symbolism of the government of that time.

The political motifs in his poems aroused the suspicions of the Russian censors. After an investigation into Pushkin’s life, the censors decided to exile him to Siberia. However, after many of his friends from the nobility appealed the ruling, he was assigned to a government service, which required him to travel with some general. The “punishment” was rather advantageous to him. His travels to the Caucasus region and Ukraine provided him with interesting subjects to write about. His experiences while traveling were written in the form of a poem, The Prisoner of the Caucasus.

In 1823, he was given permission of return from his “exile.” Pushkin settled in the city of Odessa and tried his hand in writing theatrical performances. Finding modest success in his first few plays, he resolved to write (what is now considered his masterpiece) Eugene Onegin. However, before he could finish the play, in 1825 he was exiled to his mother’s estate in northern Russia. There were numerous reasons why he was exiled. One of the reasons was his unbridled nature. He was convicted of having affairs with two married women. Also, the postmaster of Odessa intercepted a letter from Pushkin that expressed his approval of Atheism. Again, his exile to a remote place proved beneficial to him. He was able to finish Onegin, write two more plays, The Gypsies and Boris Godunov.

In late December of 1825, the Decembrist Uprising occurred. Several of Pushkin’s poems and writing were

found among the rebels’ papers. Tsar Nicholas I demanded an audience with Pushkin. After speaking with Pushkin, Nicholas was convinced that the poet did not have in any part in the rebellion. Pushkin took advantage of the interview to appeal his exile. Nicholas, finding him charming and witty, granted him freedom and vowed to become Pushkin’s personal censor. Returning from exile, Pushkin spent the next 5 years in Nicholas’s court and pursuing matrimony. During this time he published many of the works that he had authored during exile such as Godunov and Onegin. Unfortunately, as Fate would have it, the increased freedom proved to be his demise. In 1830, he announced his betrothal to the beautiful Natalia Goncharova and married her in 1831.

After his marriage, he sought to move away from the hectic atmosphere of Petersburg and into a calm town where he could continue his writing career. He chose to move back into the town where he attended his pre-Collegiate studies, Tsarskoe Selo which was close to Petersburg. Unfortunately, Petersburg suffered a cholera epidemic and the nobles including Tsar Nicholas I fled to Tsarskoe Selo.

Natalia Goncharova, beauty spread in Tsarskoe Selo and attracted many admirers including Tsar Nicholas himself. Mme. Pushkina was flattered and encouraged many of her admirers by flirting with them. The Tsar hoping to entertain Natalia Goncharova (and encouraged by her attention to him) elevated Pushkin to a “Kammerjunker,” a court rank usually granted at the time to youths of high aristocratic families. Pushkin was deeply offended because he was convinced that it was conferred, not for any quality of his own, but only to make it proper for the beautiful Mme. Pushkina to attend the Tsar’s court balls. He sent several letters to his friends denouncing the Tsar’s action and expressing his contempt of the Tsar. However his letters were intercepted and presented to Nicholas. In a fury, Pushkin announced his resignation from the court, however after being threatened by the Tsar, retracted it—no doubt fearing some reprisal.

The more balls, Mme. Pushkina attended, the bigger the throngs of admires grew. One of the admirers, a French refugee named d’Anthes-Heeckren, publicly expressed his love for her causing a scandal. Pushkin, being offended, challenged Heeckren to a duel, as the custom was then. As by custom, the disputant was to shoot first. Heeckren’s first bullet struck Pushkin, wounding him mortally. However, he had enough strength to fire a shot at Heckreen, which wounded him—but not mortally. Two days later, Pushkin, surrounded by a few friends (most of the society sympathized with Heeckren) died at the age of 38. His last words to his wife were:

"Try to be forgotten. Go live in the country. Stay in mourning for two years, then remarry, but choose somebody decent." o Notable Works

Pushkin, in his brief life, wrote at least four novels, 12 verse poems, and numerous plays and short poems. At his death, at least two books remained incomplete. One of those books was titled The Negro of Peter the Great which was a tribute to his great-grandfather, Gannibal. Years after his death, several people claimed to have unearthed Pushkin's unpublished books. However, due to the writing style of those books and other attributes of Pushkin lend to the theory that the books were counterfeit.

Among his greatest works is his first novel Eugene Onegin. Onegin was the first novel of its kind in Russian literature, in terms of its writing style. The novel was written in verse and also featured dialogues--something never attempted previously. Also, the verse was written so that it was meant to spoken, that is, when a reader reads the novels aloud, the verse us designed so that the words flow out of one's mouth, a rhythm that was esthetically pleasing to one's ears. As a tribute to his innovation, the style became known as "Onegin Stanza." Thanks to its melodic flow, music great Tchaikovsky was later able to adapt it to his opera, which was also titled Eugene Onegin. In Onegin, a rich youngster named Eugene Onegin is invited to dine with his friend, Vladimir Lensky. During his visit to Lensky's house, Lensky's fiancé's sister, Tatiana falls in love with him. However, Onegin politely refuses to her advances and rejects her love. Lensky takes offense and challenges Onegin to a duel. Lensky is killed during the duel and Onegin flees. Tatiana then moves to Moscow where she matures and gets married. Years later, Onegin comes to Moscow and encounters Tatiana, however doesn't recognize her although she recognizes him. Onegin falls in love with her and starts wooing her despite the fact that she is married. Tatiana, however, rejects his love politely and gives a speech that mirrors his speech of refusal to her. With a start, Onegin realizes who she is and as he realizes it, the story comes to a close.

Pushkin's play, Boris Godunov, is also noteworthy--perhaps the most widely known play of Pushkin. Boris Godunov strongly resembles traditional Russian plays. Traditional Russian plays often featured the nobility and quite often a Tsar--usually one who ruled recently. Also, Russian plays featured dramatics and extremely long monologues that attempted to portray the mindset of the character. Pushkin's Godunov followed those trends. His play featured one of the most hated tsars in Russian history, Boris Godunov who ruled during the late 16th century. The play, in essence, is little more than a series of giant monologues which attempt to portray the mindset of Tsar Godunov. Before the play has begun, the reader is let know that Boris Godunov has killed the heir to the throne, which puts him in line to inheriting the throne. The play itself is Boris repenting his actions and suffering hallucinations that shows a dead baby talking to Godunov from its grave. Boris' mental health gradually detiorates during the play and by the end of the play, as he dies, he is insane.

Ruslan and Lyudmila, generally considered the best long poem by a Russian, also exhibits genius that is characteristic in all of Pushkin's work. Ruslan is somewhat similar to several of Shakespeare's works, especially

Romeo and Juliet. However, the play is not a tragedy and the writing style is completely different. For one, most of Shakespeare's works are in verse, while Ruslan is a poem and exhibits poetic qualities such as rhythm and short, quick sentences. It lacks the monologues that are in Romeo. The basic plot of the poem is as follows: Lyudmila, the daughter of a king, has three suitors, one of them being Ruslan. She chooses Ruslan to be her husband. On the day of her betrothal, she is kidnapped by a sinister magician. The king promises half his kingdom if she is brought back and the three suitors embark to find the princess. On his way, Ruslan encounters a wizard who instructs him to go

north to find Lyudmila. He enters a forest where a giant Head attacks him. Ruslan kills it and finds a sword hidden behind the head. Before dying, the Head reveals that the sorcerer Chernomor is the one who kidnapped Lyudmila and that the sword was destined to kill Chernomor. Ruslan finds Chernomor, fights him and kills him. Lyudmila, while being escorted to the palace by Ruslan, is kidnapped once again. Ruslan arrives at the palace to find that Lyudmila is already there, but in a deep coma. There it is revealed that one of the other suitors had kidnapped Lyudmila from Ruslan to appear as her rescuer. However, he had used a potion that had put her in a deep sleep and he was unable to revive her. Ruslan puts a magic ring to Lyudmila and she immediately wakes up. Ruslan is proclaimed the rescuer and soon they are married.

o

Legacy Pushkin's legacy and contributions to Russian and Global literature is generally uncontested by historians. His

works and life influenced future writers to an extent that is simply astonishing. For example, during Pushkin's time, many of the authors were "part-time" authors, so to speak. Their main profession was not to write, but some other practical profession. Pushkin was the first of the Russian "full-time" author. He was able to conduct his profession rather successfully. His success inspired many, who without such inspiration would probably have not devoted themselves to writing as their main profession. One such author he influenced was another Russian great: Nikolai Gogol. Gogol and Pushkin were close friends ever since they met in Petersburg during Pushkin's collegiate days. Gogol was in the civil service at that time. With Pushkin's encouragement, as his fame grew, Gogol retired from the civil service to pursue writing novels for a living. The friendship between was hardly limited to each encouraging the other. Both of them provided ideas to each other to write about. For example, Gogol's famed Dead Souls was initially Pushkin's idea. However, Pushkin did not attempt to bring his idea to life because he felt that his writing style would not fit the theme of the novel.[3]

One of the greatest authors of all time, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was also influenced heavily by Pushkin. He once professed that though he was of the "Gogolian line [in terms of writing style], no Russian writer can deny that Pushkin did not have an affect on them." The influence was apparent in many of Dostoevsky's books. For example, in Crime and Punishment, many of the "nonsensical" characters (that is characters that do not have significant roles in the plot)

have characteristics of many of Pushkin's characters. Also, Dostoevsky's novella The Gambler, seems to have been inspired by Pushkin's Queen of Spades, in which a man loses his mind after he continually loses while gambling.

Pushkin's affect was not limited to literary circles. The popularization of his books truly vaulted Russia into the circles of European society. Until Pushkin's works, there was no Russian novel that earned the recognition of the social and philosophical elites in social centers such as Paris, Vienna, and London. Since Russia was attempting to Westernize during Pushkin's time period, the success of his works varnished the popular western stereotype that Russia was a land of uncultured savages.

Many Russians of the modern day recognize that fact. A recent poll, showed that Pushkin's contributions to Russia is considered only third to Peter the Great and Vladimir Lenin.

[1] http://www.worldandi.com/newhome/public/2004/March/bkpub1print.asp [2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/361169.stm [3] www1.umn.edu/lol-russ/hpgary/Russ3421/lesson6.htm