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Aleksandr Pushkin

Russia's most celebrated poet

Aleksandr Pushkin

Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin was born in Moscow on June 6, 1799. His father was descended from an old aristocratic family. His great-grandfather on his mother's side was Abram Petrovitch Ganibal, who, according to family tradition, was an Abyssinian princeling bought as a slave at Constantinople (Istanbul) and adopted by Peter the Great, whose comrade in arms he became. As was customary among aristocratic families of the day, Aleksandr's care and early education were entrusted to nursemaids and French tutors, and he became familiar with the Russian language through communication with household servants and his nanny.

In 1811, Pushkin was admitted to the Lyceum, an exclusive school for the nobility located outside St. Petersburg in Tsarskoe Selo, where he quickly gained the acclaim of his teachers and peers for his poetry. His first publication, "To My Friend, the Poet," appeared in the journal The Messenger of Europe (Vestnik Evropy) in 1814.

After graduating from the Lyceum in 1817, Pushkin accepted a civil service position in the Collegium of Foreign Affairs in St. Petersburg. He spent most of his time cavorting in St. Petersburg social circles, however, and one of those circles included a number of political radicals. Although Pushkin was never directly involved in any of the uprisings staged by the radicals, he used his poetry to express a number of revolutionary ideas. One poem, "Ode to Liberty," so angered Tsar Alexander that, in 1820, Pushkin was banished from St. Petersburg. His first major work, Ruslan and Lyudmila, a fairy tale in verse, was published that same year.

Pushkin left for Ekaterinoslav (in the Ukraine) on May 6, 1820. Soon after his arrival there, he traveled around the Caucasus and the Crimea. He was then transferred to Chisinau, Moldova, for three years. During this period he wrote a series of narrative poems featuring exotic southern settings and tragic romantic encounters, including "The Prisoner of the Caucasus" (1820-1821), "The Bandit Brothers" (1821-1822), and "The Fountain of Bakhchisaray" (1821-1823).

With the aid of influential friends, in July 1823 Pushkin was transferred to Odessa, Ukraine, where he engaged in going to the theater, social outings, and love affairs. He also completed "The Fountain of Bakhchisaray," began "The Gypsies," and published the first chapter of Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse about a world-weary young member of the nobility who fails to appreciate a woman's love until it is too late and she is married to another person.

After postal officials intercepted a letter which revealed his thinly-veiled support of atheism, Pushkin was exiled to his mother's estate of Mikhaylovskoye in northern Russia. The next two years, from August 1824 till August 1826, he lived at Mikhaylovskoye under surveillance. While at Mikhaylovskoye, he completed "The Gypsies" (published in 1827), wrote the drama Boris Godunov (published in 1831), and published several more chapters of Eugene Onegin.

In the late spring of 1826, Pushkin sent Tsar Nicholas I a petition that he be released from exile. After a very detailed interview with the Tsar himself, Pushkin's request was granted, but only on the condition that he was not to make any trip, participate in any journal, or publish - or even publicly read - any of his works without permission from the Tsar. His output over the next five years included The Blackamoor of Peter the Great (1827), a novel about his Abyssinian ancestor Gannibal, the last chapters of Eugene Onegin (1827-1828), a series of short stories collectively titled Tales of Belkin (1830), and a great number of poems.

In 1829, Pushkin met 16-year-old Natalya Goncharova, one of the most talked-about beauties in Moscow. He began proposing to her almost immediately, and she finally agreed to marry him after receiving assurances that he was no longer subject to persecution by the government. The two were formally engaged on May 6, 1830, and married on February 18, 1831. In May, the Pushkins moved to Tsarskoe Selo, to settle for a more frugal life and enjoy the peace and tranquility of the countryside. They never found what they wanted, as a cholera outbreak in St. Petersburg drove the Emperor and his court to take refuge in Tsarskoe Selo in July. In October of 1831 the Pushkins moved back to St. Petersburg, where they spent the rest of their lives and raised four children.

Natalya's beauty made her a sensation in high society, and the Tsar himself was one of her admirers. Because of her popularity, Pushkin was forced to spend more time in the capital than he wished. Her popularity also cost him a lot of money, as her presence at countless court balls necessitated the purchase of almost equally countless gowns. His financial situation was further complicated when Natalya's two unmarried sisters came to live with them, and by debts inherited from his father's estate. Despite these troubles, he was able to complete his fairy tale in verse, The Tale of the Golden Cockerel (1834), The Captain's Daughter (1836), a novel about Pugachev's peasant uprising of 1773-1775, and a number of his finest lyrics.

In 1834 Natalya met Georges d'Anthès, a French royalist in Russian service. After more than two years of flirtation on Natalya's part and open love on the Frenchman's part, Pushkin decided it was time to defend his wife's honor. On February 8, 1837, the men faced off with dueling pistols. D'Anthes fired first, and Pushkin was mortally wounded. He died two days later. Fearing a public outcry over the senseless loss of the popular poet, the authorities falsely declared that a funeral service would be held in St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, with admission only granted to members of the court and diplomatic society. The real service, however, was held in secret a day before it was announced, and Pushkin's body was smuggled out of the capital in the dead of night. Pushkin was buried beside his mother at Svyatye Gory Monastery, near Mikhaylovskoye.


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Tsar Alexander

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This page was last updated on 02/10/2019.