Aleksandr Pushkin by Vasily Tropinin
Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin (Russian: Алекса́ндр Серге́евич Пу́шкин, Aleksandr Sergeevič Puškin, listen ) (June 6, 1799 [O.S. May 26] – February 10, 1837 [O.S. January 29]) was a Russian Romantic author who is considered to be the greatest Russian poet  and the founder of modern Russian literature. Pushkin pioneered the use of vernacular speech in his poems and plays, creating a style of storytelling—mixing drama, romance, and satire—associated with Russian literature ever since and greatly influencing later Russian writers.
The 16-year old Pushkin recites a poem before Gavrila Derzhavin. Painting by Ilya Repin (1911).
Pushkin's father descended from a distinguished family of the Russian nobility which traced its ancestry back to the 12th century, while his mother's grandfather was Abram Petrovich Gannibal, an Ethiopian who was abducted as a child by the Turks during their rule of the coast of Eritrea
. A less popular theory, however, posits that Gannibal might have been from an ancient sultanate near or around the present day Chad. He was brought to Russia and became a great military leader, engineer and nobleman under the auspices of his adoptive father Peter the Great.
Born in Moscow, Pushkin published his first poem at the age of fifteen. By the time he finished as part of the first graduating class of the prestigious Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoe Selo near St. Petersburg, the Russian literary scene recognized his talent widely. After finishing school, Pushkin installed himself in the vibrant and raucous intellectual youth culture of the capital, St. Petersburg. In 1820 he published his first long poem, Ruslan and Lyudmila, amidst much controversy about its subject and style.
Pushkin's self-portrait on a one rouble coin, 1999
Pushkin gradually became committed to social reform and emerged as a spokesman for literary radicals. This angered the government, and led to his transfer from the capital. He went first to Kishinev in 1820, where he became a Freemason. Here he joined the Filiki Eteria, a secret organization whose purpose was to overthrow the Ottoman rule over Greece and establish an independent Greek state. He was inspired by the Greek Revolution and when the war against the Ottoman Turks broke out he kept a diary with the events of the great national uprising. He stayed in Kishinev until 1823 and—after a summer trip to the Caucasus and to the Crimea—wrote two Romantic poems which brought him wide acclaim, The Captive of the Caucasus and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. In 1823 Pushkin moved to Odessa, where he again clashed with the government, which sent him into exile at his mother's rural estate in north Russia from 1824 to 1826. However, some of the authorities allowed him to visit Tsar Nicholas I to petition for his release, which he obtained. But some of the insurgents in the Decembrist Uprising (1825) in St. Petersburg had kept some of his early political poems amongst their papers, and soon Pushkin found himself under the strict control of government censors and unable to travel or publish at will. He had written what became his most famous play, the drama Boris Godunov, while at his mother's estate but could not gain permission to publish it until five years later.
Alexander Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky
In 1831, highlighting the growth of Pushkin's talent and influence and the merging of two of Russia's greatest early writers, he met Nikolai Gogol. The two would become good friends and would support each other. Pushkin would be greatly influenced in the field of prose from Gogol's comical stories. After reading Gogol's 1831-2 volume of short stories Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, Pushkin would support him critically and later in 1836 after starting his magazine, The Contemporary, would feature some of Gogol's most famous short stories. Later, Pushkin and his wife Natalya Goncharova, whom he married in 1831, became regulars of court society. When the Tsar gave Pushkin the lowest court title, the poet became enraged: He felt this occurred not only so that his wife, who had many admirers—including the Tsar himself—could properly attend court balls, but also to humiliate him. In 1837, falling into greater and greater debt amidst rumors that his wife had started conducting a scandalous affair, Pushkin challenged her alleged lover, Georges d'Anthès, to a duel which left both men injured, Pushkin mortally. He died two days later.
The government feared a political demonstration at his funeral, which it moved to a smaller location and made open only to close relatives and friends. His body was spirited away secretly at midnight and buried on his mother's estate.
There were 4 children of Pushkin's marriage to Natalya: Alexander, Grigory, Maria, and Natalia (who would marry into the royal house of Nassau and become the Countess of Merenberg).
His last words were: "Try to be forgotten. Go live in the country. Stay in mourning for two years, then remarry, but choose somebody decent."
Critics consider many of his works masterpieces, such as the poem The Bronze Horseman and the drama The Stone Guest, a tale of the fall of Don Juan. His poetic short drama "Mozart and Salieri" was the inspiration for Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. Pushkin himself preferred his verse novel Eugene Onegin, which he wrote over the course of his life and which, starting a tradition of great Russian novels, follows a few central characters but varies widely in tone and focus. "Onegin" is a work of such complexity that, while only about a hundred pages long, translator Vladimir Nabokov needed four full volumes of material to fully render its meaning in English. Unfortunately, in so doing Nabokov, like all translators of Pushkin into English prose, totally destroyed the fundamental readability of Pushkin in Russian which makes him so popular, and Pushkin's verse remains largely unknown to English readers.
Because of his liberal political views and influence on generations of Russian rebels, Pushkin was conveniently pictured by Bolsheviks as an opponent to bourgeois literature and culture and predecessor of Soviet literature and poetry. They renamed Tsarskoe Selo after him.
Pushkin's works also provided fertile ground for Russian composers. Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila is the earliest important Pushkin-inspired opera. Tchaikovsky's operas Eugene Onegin (1879) and The Queen of Spades (1890) became perhaps better known outside of Russia than Pushkin's own works of the same name, while Mussorgsky's monumental Boris Godunov (two versions, 1868-9 and 1871-2) ranks as one of the very finest and most original of Russian operas. Other Russian operas based on Pushkin include Dargomyzhsky's Rusalka and The Stone Guest; Rimsky-Korsakov's Mozart and Salieri, Tale of Tsar Saltan, and The Golden Cockerel; Cui's Prisoner of the Caucasus, Feast in Time of Plague, and The Captain's Daughter; and Nápravník's Dubrovsky. This is not to mention ballets and cantatas, as well as innumerable songs set to Pushkin's verse.
Influence on the Russian language
Statue of Pushkin in Tsarskoe Selo (1900).
Pushkin is usually credited with developing literary Russian. Not only is he seen as having originated the highly nuanced level of language which characterizes Russian literature after him, but he is also credited with substantially augmenting the Russian lexicon. Where he found gaps in the Russian vocabulary, he devised calques. His rich vocabulary and highly sensitive style are the foundation for modern literary Russian.
Sample of Pushkin's Work
The Arbat Monument to Pushkin and his wife.
- When the loud day for men who sow and reap
- Grows still, and on the silence of the town
- The insubstantial veils of night and sleep,
- The meed of the day's labour, settle down,
- Then for me in the stillness of the night
- The wasting, watchful hours drag on their course,
- And in the idle darkness comes the bite
- Of all the burning serpents of remorse;
- Dreams seethe; and fretful infelicities
- Are swarming in my over-burdened soul,
- And Memory before my wakeful eyes
- With noiseless hand unwinds her lengthy scroll.
- Then, as with loathing I peruse the years,
- I tremble, and I curse my natal day,
- Wail bitterly, and bitterly shed tears,
- But cannot wash the woeful script away.
- :Translated by Maurice Baring
- Dull day is done and petered out. Dull night
- Has spread its leaden mist across the sky.
- Behind the thicket, in a spectral light,
- A foggy moon is nigh...
- All this unfolds a shadow on my soul.
- In a far land the moon climbs from the pole;
- The warmth of evening saturates the air;
- The sea like a luxurious carpet there
- Stirs under bluer skies...
- It is the time: straight down the hill she flies
- Toward the shore where billows wash and moan;
- There under our beloved stone
- She’s sitting, melancholy and alone.
- Alone... none to weep for her, none
- To kiss her knees, their sweet oblivion;
- Alone...Now there is not a man on earth to feel
- Her moist lips, snowy breasts or tender shoulders.
- None worth the heavenly way she might have loved.
- You surely weep alone... and I’m unmoved.
- But if.........
- -Translated by Alexander Foreman
The famous Pushkin Monument in Moscow, opened in 1880 by Turgenev and Dostoyevsky.
Six winged Seraph (after Pushkin's poem Prophet), 1905. By Mikhail Vrubel.
- Ruslan i Lyudmila – Ruslan and Ludmila (1820) (poem)
- Kavkazskiy Plennik – The Captive of the Caucasus (1822) (poem)
- Bakhchisarayskiy Fontan – The Fountain of Bakhchisaray (1824) (poem)
- Tsygany, – The Gypsies (narrative poem) (1827)
- Poltava (1829)
- Little Tragedies (including Kamenny Gost – The Stone Guest, Motsart i Salieri – Mozart and Salieri, The Miserly Knight, and A Feast During the Plague) (1830)
- Boris Godunov (1825) (drama)
- The Tale of the Priest and of his Workman Balda (1830) (poem)
- Povesti Pokoynogo Ivana Petrovicha Belkina – The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin (a collection of 5 short stories: The Shot, The Blizzard, The Undertaker, The Station Master and The Squire's Daughter) (1831) (prose)
- The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1831) (poem)
- Dubrovsky (1832-1833, published 1841, prose novel)
- The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Knights (1833, poem)
- Pikovaya Dama – The Queen of Spades (1833) later adapted as an opera
- The Golden Cockerel (1834, poem)
- The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish (1835, poem)
- Yevgeniy Onegin – Eugene Onegin (1825-1832) (verse novel)
- Mednyy Vsadnik – The Bronze Horseman (1833, poem)
- The History of Pugachev's Riot (1834, prose non-fiction)
- Kapitanskaya Dochka - The Captain's Daughter (1836, prose) a romanticized historical novel of "Pugachevshchina," the life and times of Pugachev.
- Kirdzhali – Kırcali (short story)
- I Have Visited Again (poem)
- Istoriya Sela Goryukhina – The Story of the Village of Goryukhino (unfinished)
- Stseny iz Rytsarskikh Vremen – Scenes from Chivalrous Times
- Yegipetskiye Nochi – Egyptian Nights (short story with poetry, unfinished)
- K A.P. Kern – To A.P. Kern (poem)
- Bratya Razboyniki – The Robber Brothers (play)
- Arap Petra Velikogo – The Negro of Peter the Great (historical novel, unfinished, based on the life of his great-grandfather)
- Graf Nulin – Count Nulin
- Zimniy vecher – Winter evening
Hoaxes and other attributed works
In the late 1980s, a book entitled Secret Journal 1836–1837 was published by a Minneapolis publishing house (M.I.P. Company), claiming to be the decoded content of an encrypted private journal kept by Pushkin. Promoted with little details about its contents, and touted for many years as being 'banned in Russia', it was an erotic novel narrated from Pushkin's perspective. Some mail-order publishers still carry the work under its fictional description. In 2006 a bilingual Russian-English edition was published in Russia by Retro Publishing House.
- ^ Allan Reid, "Russia's Greatest Poet/Scoundrel", retrieved on 2 September 2006.
- ^ BBC News, 5 June 1999, "Pushkin fever sweeps Russia", retrieved 1 September 2006.
- ^ BBC News, 10 June 2003, "Biographer wins rich book price", retrieved 1 September 2006.
- ^ Biography of Pushkin at the Russian Literary Institute "Pushkin House", retrieved 1 September 2006.
- ^ a b Maxim Gorky, "Pushkin, An Appraisal", retrieved 1 September 2006
- Elaine Feinstein (ed.): After Pushkin: versions of the poems of Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin by contemporary poets. Manchester: Carcanet Press; London: Folio Society, 1999 ISBN 1-85754-444-7
- Serena Vitale: Pushkin's button; transl. from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998 ISBN 0-374-23995-5
- Markus Wolf: Freemasonry in life and literature. With an introduction to the history of Russian Freemasonry (in German). Munich: Otto Sagner publishers, 1998 ISBN 3-87690-692-X
- T. J. Binyon has written an English biography: Pushkin: A Biography (London: HarperCollins, 2002) (ISBN 0-00-215084-0; US edition: New York: Knopf, 2003; ISBN 1-4000-4110-4).
- Yuri Druzhnikov, Prisoner of Russia: Alexander Pushkin and the Political Uses of Nationalism, Transaction Publishers, 1998, ISBN 1-56000-390-1