Five Facts about Aleksandr Pushkin that show why he’s Russia’s best-loved Writer
July 10, 2018
There’s a saying among Russians: “Pushkin is our Everything.” Aleksander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837) was indeed much more than just a writer to generations of Russians–he made the Russian literary language what it is today, inspired generations of writers that came after him, and remains a beloved symbol to this day. He even achieved fame abroad, though English translations of his work do little justice to the melodic rhyming and imagery found in his poetry. But as it’s often true that the lives of poets are just as fascinating as their writing, I’d like to share five facts about Pushkin that need no translation.
1. He made significant contributions to Russian literary language
During Pushkin’s time, it was fashionable for the nobles of Russia to speak French. This contributed to a societal divide between the wealthy elites and the rural populations which still spoke Russian, but were more often than not illiterate. Pushkin, much in the way Shakespeare did for English, created new words to suit his writing when he felt too cramped by the existing, stuffy style of upper class language. By combining the language of the nobility and the rural populations, he created entirely new patterns of expression, even on occasion throwing in some swear words into his writing which was still considered strictly taboo.
2. His stories and poems are a time-capsule of Russian life
What, exactly is so great about the novel-in-verse Yegvenii Onegin? Quite a few things in fact. It’s poetic form and the use of iambic tetrameter has become known as the “Pushkin sonnet” or the “Onegin stanza.” For those of us who aren’t as in the know about rhyme schemes, iambic tetrameter makes use of both rhymes that match on one syllable alone, and rhymes sharing more than one syllable between two or more words.
In addition, a passage containing a love-letter between two of the characters (see the English translation above) has become one of the most widely memorized poems in Russian literature, recited by generations of romantics and schoolchildren alike. What’s more, the protagonist, Yevgenii, inspired a number of spin-off and similar characters, making him an early sort of literary trope. His character, the “superfluous man” was a critique of Russian nobility and an expression of a man who had lost his purpose and no longer fit in with the world.
Yevgenii Onegin was rich in descriptive detail about upper-class life in the 1820s and 30s, giving us historical detail about the society in which Pushkin lived. Pushkin’s untimely death in a duel over a romantic dispute is even mirrored in the end of Yevgenii Onegin.
3. He had a multi-ethnic background
Though he was born in Russia, Pushkin’s great-grandfather, Abraham Petrovich Gannibal, came from Eritrea, in Africa. Gannibal was kidnapped into the slave trade, brought to Constantinople, then from there was taken by a Serbian count to the court of Peter the Great. Though Gannibal only reached Russia through horrible circumstances, he went on to be favored by Peter the Great and attained the status of a noble.
Pushkin was very proud of his African heritage. Even though Gannibal had become a noble in the Russian system of ranks, Pushkin instead chose to recognize Gannibal’s status in his former country when he boasted of his background. References to themes of multinationality and belonging surfaced many times in his work and personal life, including the unfinished novel The Moor of Peter the Great. Pushkin even adopted the nickname Afrikanyets, meaning “the African” among his friends. Though interestingly, the abolition of the Russian serfs and the emancipation of the slaves in the USA occurred within the same decade, slaves of African origin had a different place in society than in many other countries. Serfdom was not rooted in race in the Russian Empire, and although it was rare for a man from Africa to achieve the prestige that Gannibal did, Pushkin’s African heritage would have been seen more as exotic than something that carried a deep social stigma.
4. He renamed an iconic monument
The Bronze Horseman is a gigantic statue of Peter the Great located in St Petersburg, dedicated to him by Catherine the Great. The popular name (Медный всадник/Myednii Vsadnik in Russian, literally “Copper horseman”) comes from a poem written by Pushkin in 1833. The poem, really a story in verse, recounts what happens to an unfortunate citizen named Evgenii when the statue comes to life during one of Petersburg’s frequent floods.
The story has a lot to say about themes relevant to Petersburg and all of Russia, including the needs of the everyday citizens versus that of the state. St Petersburg was built at the express order of Peter the Great, and intended to be a great European city, inspired by the monarch’s travels to Holland and proving once and for all that anything western Europe could do, Russia could do better. Instead the reality was a little different. Peter could hardly have chosen a worse location for a city, situated as the land was near the Baltic Sea and Lake Ladoga near the border of Finland. This land was mostly marsh, all of which had to be drained in order for the foundation of the city to be laid. Hundreds of workers died of malaria and poor conditions, and even when completed, Petersburg is prone to flooding. Pushkin saw the city has a clash between the desires of the ruling class to mold the world to their desires, and the plight of the average citizen caught up on this world. The images of the stampeding Horseman terrorizing poor Yegenii have often been referenced in later literature, including Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg.
5. He had early ties to Revolution and Social Reform
In the late 1810s, Pushkin was part of a literary circle that had political motives as well as artistic ones. At this time, radical reformers known as Decemberists wanted to make changes to the autocratic hold the tsars had over the empire. For his connections to these rebels, Pushkin was sent into exile away from the Russian capital and his work was kept under strict government supervision.
Soon, however, it was seen that Pushkin was both too popular to be silenced entirely, and didn’t have strong enough ties with the rebels to warrant his exclusion from Russian cultural life. In an exclusive meeting with Tsar Nicholas I, the tsar became his personal censor. Unfortunately, it became clear that the Tsar was even stricter than the government presses, which frustrated Pushkin for the rest of his career. Throughout this political atmosphere, however, Pushkin refused to stop doing what he loved, and wrote extensively in exile.
Pushkin’s ties to early revolutionaries meant that years after his death, when the Soviets took power in 1917, he was reinvented as a cult figure that defied the monarchy and fought for justice. Although Pushkin did express sympathies for the Decembrists, his role was subsequently exaggerated by the Soviets in order to craft a particular image. Pushkin was more interested in art than planting bombs (and who could blame him?) and some even suggest that he was intentionally kept out of Decembrist plots because he was too big a gossip to be fully trusted.
Pushkin was part of the so-called “Golden Age” of Russian writers, which also included his personal friend Nikolai Gogol, whom you can read about [here]. This generation of playwrights, poets, and prose writers established Russia’s place among world literature. Though the Soviet Union enhanced his status by playing up certain aspects of his life, it can’t be denied that Pushkin is loved by Russians everywhere and gave the world a great gift with his talent for words.