Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2022
Article abstract: Revered by generations of Russian writers, Pushkin’s largest legacy is in poetry, and his literary memory is compounded by the fact that his works inspired internationally celebrated operas, ballets, and films.
Alexander Pushkin was born in Moscow to a father who was a tenant of a ministerial steward and to a mother descended from the Abyssinian black who became the adopted godson and personal secretary of Peter the Great. Sergey Lvovich, Alexander’s father, was more interested in drawing rooms and theaters than in his estate, which he left to the mismanagement of his wife, Nadezhda Osipovna Hannibal.
With curly, chestnut-colored hair, Alexander was a sallow, thick-lipped, and dreamy-eyed child. Neglected by his parents, who preferred his younger brother Leo and his elder sister Olga, he turned to his nanny, Arina Rodionovna, who regaled him with legends and songs about wizards, princesses, knights-errant, and elves. He also enjoyed the company of his maternal grandmother, Marya Hannibal, and it was at her country estate that Pushkin learned to love his native language.
As soon as he was old enough to read, he had a number of tutors, but he was a poor student. In 1811, he entered the lyceum in Tsarskoye Selo, a school instituted and sponsored by imperial decree, where he studied everything from religion and philosophy to swimming and horsemanship. At age fourteen, Pushkin published his first poem, “To a Poet-Friend,” in the well-respected European Herald. His official entry into the literary world occurred on January 8, 1815, when, as part of his qualifying examination for the upper school, he recited his own poem “Recollections of Tsarskoye Selo” before distinguished guests. His remarkable use of language, rhythm, onomatopoeia, and references to myth established him as a prodigy.
During 1817, Pushkin’s last year at school, he befriended hussars stationed at Tsarskoye Selo and joined them in bouts of drinking and gambling. After his graduation, he was appointed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but in 1818 he joined the Society of the Green Lamp, a literary club with liberal political leanings. The next year, he was suspected of collaborating with revolutionaries. Further complications arose with the publication in 1820 of his long poem Ruslan i Lyudmila (English translation, 1936). This poem created enormous controversy, winning praise for its epic quality but drawing condemnation for, among other things, its atheism. Pushkin was forced into exile on Ascension Day, May 6, 1820. He spent the next few years in the south of Russia, especially in Yekaterinenshtadt, the Caucasus, and Kishinev.
Befriended by Nicholas Raevsky, the younger son of a general celebrated for his exploits in the Napoleonic Wars, Pushkin was invited to holiday with the Raevsky family in the Caucasus, which fueled his imagination for his poem Kavkazskiy plennik (1822; The Prisoner of the Caucasus, 1895). Raevsky’s elder brother Alexander was the model for the poet’s sneering Mephistophelean hero in “The Demon” of the same year.
As his literary fame increased, so did his social notoriety. He continued to be extravagant in misconduct, surviving a duel against an officer whom he had accused of cheating at baccarat and using the incident in his short story “Vystrel” (1831; “The Shot”). Pushkin finally resigned from the government in 1824, but the emperor transferred him to the Pushkin estate in the deserted province of Mikhailovka, near Pskov. There he lived in sparse, unheated quarters, without books or his customary amusements. He wrote to friends requesting copies of works by William Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Miguel de Cervantes, Dante, Petrarch, John Milton, and Tacitus.
Engrossed in his own idiosyncratic activities, he neglected the family farm. During this period, he completed Tsygany (1827; The Gypsies, 1957), a verse tale based on his experiences in Bessarabia, a story of defeated egotism. Strong on description, it had affected, bombastic dialogue. Graf Nulin (1827; Count Nulin, 1972), a thin, rather banal response to Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece (1594), shocked readers with its sexual frankness. Pushkin wrote many lyric poems in the same year, including “André Chenier,” about the poet-martyr of the French Revolution. Its theme of heroic independence was regarded suspiciously by government censors, who deleted all references to the Revolution. Pushkin’s political consciousness was further exercised in his drama Boris Godunov (1831; English translation, 1918), a powerful story of ambition, murder, and retribution. Never produced in Pushkin’s own time, the play was savaged by critics, who thought it massively disorganized because it shifted focus from Czar Boris to the Impostor Dmitry.
This professional setback was coupled with trouble ensuing from Pushkin’s friendship with several conspirators in the Decembrist Revolt on December 4, 1825, against Czar Nicholas I, who had ascended the throne after Alexander I had died suddenly in November. Sick with fury and shame for having had to plead for compassion over his friendship with a key conspirator, Pushkin was escorted to the emperor, who appointed himself the writer’s censor and commanded the court to take note of the new, repentant Pushkin.
In Moscow, Pushkin lived with a friend and was invited to salons and parties of the famous, but the secret police watched him diligently. The czar wanted the poet supervised continually and tested Pushkin’s loyalty and liberalism by both subtle and unsubtle means. Pushkin grew tired of Moscow and left for St. Petersburg, where he saw little of his parents. He was investigated rather belatedly for his authorship of Gavriiliada (1822; Gabriel: A Poem, 1926) and later was reprimanded for traveling without authorization.
His writing remained calm and controlled, though his life was not. In October, 1828, he began Poltava (1829; English translation, 1936), a poem on Peter the Great. Also that year, his beloved nanny Rodionovna died in St. Petersburg, and he met sixteen-year-old Natalya Goncharov in Moscow in the winter, falling victim to her youthful beauty. Natalya was to be his victimizing “madonna,” for she was a vain, shallow creature. He became engaged to Natalya on May 6, 1830, but a cholera epidemic forced him to Boldino, where he composed Povesti Belkina (1831; The Tales of Belkin, 1947), his first sustained fictional work, and almost completed his master-piece Evgeny Onegin (1825-1833; Eugene Onegin, 1881), which he had started in 1823.
Written as a novel in sonnet sequences, Eugene Onegin was modern in its devastating sociological criticism amid the doomed Romanticism of the central characters. Technically, the story was in eight cantos, each stanza in four-foot iambics, alternating between masculine and feminine rhymes. It was the first occasion that Pushkin had used a regular stanzaic arrangement for a long poem, and the “Onegin” stanza with its final rhymed couplet was probably derived from Byron’s ottava rima. It was the figure of Onegin, however, that sealed the importance of the work, for the melancholy Romantic had affinities with such figures as Goethe’s Werner and Byron’s Childe Harold, and he stands as the first hero of Russian realism.
Pushkin’s marriage to Natalya in September, 1831, was followed by a move to St. Petersburg, where he served as historiographer and where his mounting debts compounded his anxieties. The next five years were solid successes as far as his literary achievements were concerned. In 1837, he was elected to the Russian Academy.
The final four years of Pushkin’s life marked a transition from poetry to prose. In 1834, he produced Skazka o zolotom petushke (The Tale of the Golden Cockerel, 1918) in verse, but he found more renown with the novella Pikovaya dama (1834; The Queen of Spades, 1896), which bore comparison with Eugene Onegin. Its themes of destruction, death, and madness were underlined by subtle symbolism in a manner reminiscent of his great French contemporary Stendhal.
Pushkin’s final masterpiece was Kapitanskaya dochka (1836; The Captain’s Daughter, 1846), a historical novella set during the period of the Pugachev Rebellion. The hero is a young officer loyal to the queen, who runs the gamut of happiness, pain, and vindication both in love and in honor. In this work, Pushkin conjoins story and history, fashioning a thoroughly credible romance while also creating an interesting portrait of the rebel leader Emelyan Ivanovich Pugachev by presenting him through the sensitivities of less important characters. The alternation of scenes of love and domestic calm with scenes of battle and camp precedes Leo Tolstoy’s orchestration of similar scenes in Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886), although Pushkin’s scale is smaller.
Despite his literary prowess, Pushkin found himself caught up in a spiral of destructive passions. His wife, though by now the mother of his four children, was still a flirt. Besides being the emperor’s special interest, she became the object of Baron Georges-Charles D’Anthès’ admiration, the adopted godson of Baron Heckeren. On November 4, 1836, Pushkin received an anonymous “diploma,” designating him a member of the “Order of Cuckolds.” In response, Pushkin challenged D’Anthès to a duel, which was avoided by skillful manipulation on the part of Heckeren. On his friend’s advice, D’Anthès married someone else and tried unsuccessfully to make peace with Pushkin. Matters came to a head with a duel on February 8, 1837, in which D’Anthès suffered a superficial rib injury while Pushkin was mortally wounded. Howling in agony, Pushkin turned to his wife to absolve her of any guilt for his death. He died on February 10.
There is no critical disagreement over Alexander Pushkin’s legacy to succeeding generations of Russian writers in prose and poetry. His mature work drew on a variety of genres and influences, and he can no more be limited by the term “Romantic” than the term “realist.” He was not a rebel by nature, so his Romanticism remained a force of circumstance. His most outstanding successes, Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades, and The Captain’s Daughter, show a tension between a Romantic emotionalism and a cool intellect that moderates his tendency toward excess.
Although the tone of his writing varies almost as much as his inconstant temperament in life, the total body of his writing is charged with satirical humor and implicit sociological criticism. The most explicit evidence of this lies in works such as Ruslan and Lyudmila, Gabriel, Count Nulin, and Eugene Onegin. Versatile in everything from verse epistles to lyrics and narratives, from historical studies to Romantic tragedies, Pushkin was preeminently a poet and novella writer.
The paradox of Pushkin was that he was intensely Russian even when he was derivatively French. His landscape was thoroughly indigenous, as were his most memorable characters. His plays (of which only Boris Godunov has the scope and intensity of a major work) follow history’s course even as they move into man’s inner world of mind, spirit, and will. While at first there is little that is Slavic about Pushkin, his work evokes some of the most cherished memories of Russia’s past and his own times.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Alexander Pushkin. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Edited with an introduction by Harold Bloom, one of the major postmodernist critics, this is a representative selection of some of the best academic criticism on Pushkin. Opens with an introductory critical essay by Bloom and a note that comments on the eleven individual essays that follow. Includes discussions of Pushkin’s poetry, prose, language, imagination, and image as a Russian national poet. Contains a chronology and a bibliography.
Mirsky, D. S. Pushkin. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1926. A critical biography that is sometimes unsatisfyingly brief in its treatment of many works, but it sheds light on Pushkin’s psychology.
Simmons, Ernest J. Pushkin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1937. A well-documented account of Pushkin’s life, but it contains no rigorous discussion of his work.
Troyat, Henri. Pushkin. Translated by Nancy Amphoux. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. A massive but compelling biography that is richly evocative of Pushkin’s life and times, while giving detailed analyses of all of his significant writing. While highly laudatory of the artist, it never forgets to present the man in all of his emotional mutations.
Vickery, Walter N. Alexander Pushkin. New York: Twayne, 1970. A useful guide for nonspecialist readers that conforms to a house style favoring much plot description and generalized comment. Its main focus is on Pushkin’s themes and poetic personality.