Thursday, December 5, 2019

Who was Alexander Pushkin?

Pushkin, author of the original novel in verse Eugene Onegin, occupies a unique place in Russian literature. Russians don’t simply view him as their greatest poet; he is the symbol of Russian culture itself. 

A literary legacy 

Pushkin’s prose spans a remarkable range: from satires to epistolary tales, from light comedies to romantic adventures in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, from travel narratives to historical fiction. The haunting dream world of The Queen of Spades draws on his own experiences with high-stakes society gambling. The five short stories of The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin are deceptively light as they reveal astonishing human depths, and his short novel, The Captain’s Daughter, a love story set during the Cossack rebellion against Catherine the Great, has been called the most perfect book in Russian literature. Pushkin’s life and work have acquired mythic status. Deeply playful and experimental, the writer adopted a vast array of conflicting masks and personae. His writing is serious, then ironic—then ironic at his own irony—on moral and philosophical themes. A philosophical fox, Pushkin appreciated the limitations, as well as the virtues, of any set of ideas.

Source: Texted adapted from Penguin Random House, Novels, Tales, Journeys; The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and “Russian Literature” on by Gary Saul Morson.

A  portrait of Czar Peter the Great (1672–1725) and his page boy. The boy was originally thought to be Abram Petrovich Gannibal (1696–1781), but in 1720 when artist Baron Gustav von Mardefeld created this work, Gannibal would have been in his mid-20s. 

Russia's multiracial hero 

If Pushkin is the fountain from which Russian culture flows then his origins are distinctly non-Russian,” writes Samuel Goff in The Calvert Journal. “Many view Pushkin as a Black man who found recognition in a white world.” Pushkin’s matrilineal great-grandfather was Abram Petrovich Gannibal. Born in the African territory known today as Cameroon, Gannibal was kidnapped, sold into slavery as a child, and given to Czar Peter the Great, whose fondness for the boy allowed him to become a nobleman and military engineer. Pushkin was proud of this African ancestor. “He used his mixed-race heritage to concoct a persona as a romantic outsider, unfairly shackled by Russian courtly life,” Goff writes. “At one point in Eugene Onegin, Pushkin’s narrator imagines himself ‘Under the sky of my Africa / Sighing for gloomy Russia.’ Pushkin also tried to compose a historically accurate account of his great-grandfather’s life, but he died before he could finish The Moor of Peter the Great.

bust of Gannibal in Petrovskoe, Russia. 

Seattle Opera's Eugene Onegin plays Jan. 11–25, 2020 at McCaw Hall.
Tickets & info: