On January 29, 1837, Maximilian von Lerchenfeld-Köfering, Bavarian ambassador to Russia, wrote,
Russia has just lost its greatest man of literature, Mr. Alexander Pouschkin, the most famous Poet it ever had. He died at the age of thirty-seven, at the apex of his career, after being gravely wounded in a duel. The details of the catastrophe, unfortunately provoked by the dead man himself with a blindness and a kind of frenetic hatred well worthy of his Moorish origins, have for days been the sole talk of the town here in the capital.
In her biography, coinciding with the two hundredth anniversary of Pushkin’s birth, Elaine Feinstein traces the forces that drove Russia’s greatest poet to his great literary achievements and to his untimely death.
As the Lerchenfeld-Köfering letter indicates, Pushkin’s maternal great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Hannibal, had been born in Abyssinia and had become a favorite of Peter the Great. Pushkin owed to Hannibal his swarthy complexion, frizzy hair, and an interest in Peter the Great. In 1827 Pushkin began a novel about his African ancestor, and he refers to his African heritage in his masterpiece, Evgeny Onegin (1825- 1832; Eugene Onegin, 1833).
Pushkin’s father, Sergey L’vovich Pushkin, traced his lineage to the beginnings of Russia itself. Though Sergey L’vovich owned an estate in Nizhny Novgorod with twelve hundred serfs, he spent more than he earned. One of future poet’s classmates noted that in the Pushkin household there was “never enough of anything, from money to the last glass.” One thing not lacking in the Pushkin household was books. Sergey was especially fond of French literature, which he enjoyed reading aloud to his family. He gave Alexander free rein in the family library, where the young lad devoured Jean Racine (1639- 1699) and Molière (1622-1673), Voltaire (1694-1778), ninth century b.c.e. Greek poet Homer (in French), and the Latin classics. By the age of eight, Alexander was composing competent imitations of his favorite French authors. Sergey also enjoyed entertaining and numbered among his guests some of the leading literary figures of the day, including Vasily Andreevich Zhukovsky. Little known outside Russia, Zhukovsky was the father of Russian romanticism. The conversations and readings of these literati must have delighted Alexander.
As was typical among Russian aristocrats, Sergey and his family spoke French at home. Pushkin’s grandmother taught him Russian, and his nanny, Arina Radionovna, told him folk tales. These women’s lessons would prove more influential than those of Pushkin’s early tutors, from whom he claimed to have learned nothing. In 1811 Tsar Alexander I established a school at Tsarskoe Selo near Petersburg; Pushkin was part of the first class. He looked back on his six years there with affection.
Pushkin did not shine as a student, and a report at the end of his first year described him as having a fiery temper. The young man did, however, distinguish himself as a writer. At the age of fifteen, he had a poem accepted by the prestigious Messenger of Europe. In January, 1815, Gavril Romanovich Derzhavin, Russia’s leading poet of the late eighteenth century, came to Pushkin’s school to hear the pupils recite their verses. Derzhavin nodded off during the recitation but snapped to attention when Pushkin began to read “Recollections in Tsarskoe Selo.” When the young man concluded his poem, Derzhavin proclaimed Pushkin his successor. While still a student, Pushkin was elected to the Arzamas Society, created in 1815 to promote new literature.
Feinstein demonstrates that the child proved father to the man in two other ways. In a poem written at the age of fifteen, Pushkin imagines himself a piece of snuff lucky enough to fall inside a lady’s dress. He claimed to be in love with all the pretty women he met, and, judging from a Don Juan-like notebook that he kept, his feelings often were reciprocated. Pushkin carried on various affairs throughout his life and fathered at least one illegitimate son.
While still in school Pushkin met the reform-minded Colonel Pyotr Yakovlevich Chaadaev. Pushkin shared Chaadaev’s liberal sentiments, as is evident in Pushkin’s revolutionary...
(The entire section is 1738 words.)