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BiographyAleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837)
Russian 19th century author who often has been considered his country's greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. Pushkin blended Old Slavonic with vernacular Russian into a rich, melodic language. He was the first to use everyday speech in his poetry. Pushkin's Romantic contemporaries were Byron (d. 1824) and Goethe (d. 1832), but his ironic attitude can be connected to the literature of the 18th century, especially to Voltaire. Pushkin wrote some 800 lyrics with a dozen narrative poems.
"Love passed, the muse appeared, the weather
of mind got clarity newfound;
now free, I once more weave together
emotion, thought, and magic sound."
(from Eugene Onegin, 1823)
Aleksandr Pushkin was born in Moscow into a cultured but poor aristocratic family. On his father's side he was descended from an ancient noble family and on his mother's side he was a great-great-grandson of a black Abyssinian, Gannibal, who served under Peter the Great. Pushkin himself had black hair and swarthly complexion. In his childhood the future poet was entrusted to nursemaids, French tutors, and governesses. He learned Russian from household serfs and from his nanny, Arina Rodionovna. Pushkin started to write poems from an early age. His first published poem was written when he was only 14.
While attending the Imperial Lyceum at Tsarskoye Selo (1811-1817), he began writing his first major work, Ruslan and Ludmila (1820), a kind of fairy story in verse. It was based on Russian folk-tales which his grandmother had told him - in French. Years later at his father's estate he listened to legends and fairy tales told by his old nurse Arina Rodionovna, calling that process "making up for the defects in his accursed education." In 1817 he accepted a post at the foreign office at St. Petersburg. He became associated with members of a radical movement who participated later in the Decembrist uprising in 1825. Several of Pushkin's liberal friends were involved in the affair. Some of them were hanged or exiled for life to Siberia, but Pushkin apparently did not take part in their conspiracy; and he was absent in the south at the time of the insurrection. In May 1820 Pushkin was banished from the town because of his political poems, among them 'Ode to Liberty'. However, his friends did not consider him a political person. Pushkin was transferred south to Ekaterinoslav; it was a mild form of exile. During this time Pushkin discovered the poetry of Lord Byron. He was then moved to Kishinev, and in the summer of 1823 to Odessa. Count Vorontsoff, governor of Odessa, did not have high opinions about the poet: "... he is really only a weak imitator of a not very respected model - Lord Byron." Vorontsoff made later a brief appearance in Tolstoy's novella 'Hadji Murad' (1904).
Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin (1833), a novel in verse, is considered the greatest masterpiece of Russian literature. Evgenii Onegin is a dashing young aristocrat : "In French Onegin had perfected / proficiency to speak and write, / in the mazurka he was light; / his bow was wholle unaffected." On inheriting his uncle's estate, he retires to country. Soon Onegin befriends Vladimir Lenskii, who is in love with a local girl, Olga Larina. Her unpolished, romantic elder sister Tatiana falls in love with Onegin, but he rejects Tatiana's love. He considers himself mysteriously doomed, he would be a bad husband. "But I for bliss was not created: / To that my soul is foreign still. / In vain, in vain, are your perfections;/ Of them I count myself unworthy." At a party Onegin insults Olga, and Lenskii challenges him to a duel, and is shot dead. Three years later Onegin meets Tatiana who is married to a prince. She is the last of the principal characters introduced to the reader, but she is also central for the story. Onegin declares his love to her, and writes her a series of letters expressing a mad passion. Now it is her turn to reject him. She confesses that she loves him but insists that they must part for good. Pushkin's novel has been a rich source of character types for Russian writers. Tatiana has been regarded as the ideal of Russian womanhood. She is faithful, generous, sincere, and considerate. Among others Turgenev modelled his heroines after her. The libretto for Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin (1879) was adapted from Pushkin's novel by the composer's brother Modeste. - Vladimir Nabokov's commentary and translation of Alexandr Pushkin's comedy of manners arouse much controversy. The ten-year-long work was first brought out in 1964 by the Bollingen Foundation in four volumes.
Although living in exile in different parts of Russia, Pushkin continued to write poems, rising gradually as the leader of the Romantic movement. In 1823 he started his major masterpiece, Eugene Onegin. He fell also in love with the daughter of his friend. Her small feet were celebrated in a stanza of the verse novel. He also later wrote love lyrics of Amalia Riznich, the wife of a Dalmatian merchant and his mistress. Pushkin's great historical tragedy, Boris Godunov, was published in 1831. It was based on the career of Boris Fyodorovich Godunov, the Czar of Russia from 1598 to 1605. Boris is haunted by guilt over the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitry. When an ambitious young monk claims to be Dmitry, Boris tries to defend his throne, but he falls ill and dies. The composer Mussorgsky used this play as the basis of his opera (1869-74) of the same name.
"Like to some magistrate grown grey in office
Calmly he contemplates alike the just
And unjust, with indifference he notes
Evil and good, and knows wrath nor pity."
(from Boris Godunov)
Pushkin's troubles with the authorities continued. In 1824 he was banished to his family estate of Mikhailovskoe. Pushkin's father tried in vain to keep his son under his control, but the result was, that the poet's friends applied to the Czar, and Pushkin père was exiled from his own estate. When the new Czar, Nicholas I, allowed Pushkin to return to the capital. Due to the Czar's patronage, he openly abandoned revolutionary sentiments. In 1829 he made a four-month visit to Transcaucasia, witnessing the action with the Russian Army against the Turks. In 1830 he visited another family estate, Boldino, and was stranded by cholera for three months. This was a very productive literary period. He wrote a group of plays, among them The Avaricious Knight, Mozart and Salieri, The Stone Guest, and The Feast During the Plague. Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin (1831) was possibly inspired by the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Pushkin published the work anonymously and surprised Russian readers. However, the tales did not gain the popularity of his poems. Proper Mérimée, who admired Pushkin's light touch, translated Tales of Belkin into French. 'The Queen of Spades' (1834), Pushkin's most famous short story, was later made into an opera by Tchaikovsky. The tale about a gambler's breakdown struck close to the poet's own life - he was a gambler, too, to the end of his life.
"Lisaveta Ivanova listened to him with horror. So those passionate letters, those ardent demands, the whole impertinent and obstinate pursuit - all that was not love! Money - that was what his soul craved for! It was not she who could satisfy his desire and make him happy! The poor ward had been nothing but the unknowing assistant of a brigand, of the murderer of her aged benefactress!..."
(from 'The Queen of Spades', 1834)
In 1833 Pushkin travelled east to the Urals for historical research. Next year he received an appointment as a functionary at the court, but his minor status was considered a humiliation. His debts were mounting and he was worried about his wife's possible infidelity.
In his last years Pushkin started to write a historical work on Peter the Great, which was left unfinished. The Tsar had been a central figure in his narrative poem 'The Bronze Horseman' (1833), partly inspired by the flooding of Petersburg in 1824. Pushkin was was ambivalent about Peter. He thought that Peter the Great "despised humanity perhaps more than did Napoleon," but Pushkin also mythologized him and the city in the poem, in which Petersburg becomes the symbol of Russia: "I love you, Peter's creation."
In 1829 Pushkin fell in love with 16-year-old Natalya Nikolayevna Goncharova, whom he married two years later. Her family was as impoverished as Pushkin's, but she become a beauty of the Imperial court. The marriage was unhappy and Pushkin had little peace for intense creative activity. His wife was invited to every ball at the palace, and her frivolous social life led Pushkin into debt and eventually to his early death. The gossip of an affair between Baron Georges d'Anthès and his wife started to spread. An anonymous note informed Pushkin that he had been elected to "The Serene Order of Cuckolds". Although A'Anthès married Natalya's sister, the scandal was not quite over. Pushkin defended in a duel his wife's honor with her brother-in-law. D'Anthès fired first his pistol. Fatally wounded, Pushkin fired also his shot and his opponent got a slight wound. Pushkin died on February 10 (New Style), 1837. The Czar buried him in the monastery near Mikhailovskoye, in secret for fear of popular risings at the funeral. He also paid all the remaining debts of the poet. Natalya received a pension.. D'Anthès was expelled from Russia. He died in 1895.
As an essayist Pushkin was prolific but most of his writings remained in draft form and over half were published posthumously due to repressive censorship. Chiefly Pushkin concentrated on literature and history, but he did not develop a systematic philosophical view - it has been said that Pushkin lacked "central vision". He saw that overwhelming use of French by the upper classes delayed the progress of Russian literature. In this matter Pushkin was not speaking without his own experience - his first language was French, he read French writers well on into adolescence, and his characters, such as Onegin, spoke French. The responsibility of the Decembrist Rebellion Pushkin shifted onto foreign influences. He was fascinated by democratic republicanism but perceived the tendency to idealize the natural state of life, as exemplified both in the work of James Fenimore Cooper and in political discussion in the United States, as was shown in his essay "Dzhon Tenner" (1836, John Tanner).