Alexander Pushkin: Russian-African genius
Posted: Tuesday, December 3, 2002
By Selwyn Cudjoe, July 4, 1999
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WHEN I arrived in the United States in the 1960s-ages ago, it seems-one of the first books I encountered was JA Rogers's World's Great Men of Color. In the 1950s Rogers, a Jamaican, went from house to house selling his books in Harlem, trying to get his people to realise that Africa and Africans had made enormous contributions to the world. In that book I learned that writers such as Alexander Pushkin, Alexandre Dumas, Samuel Coleridge and Robert Browning were of black ancestry, an astonishing fact to someone cradled in a colonial education. It was the 1960s, an age of Black Power; a time when most of us came into a better awareness of our people and ourselves.
On June 6, Russia was ablaze in festivity as it celebrated the 200th anniversary of Pushkin's birth. As a London Times headline puts it, "Pushkin Mania rages: Russians cash in on bicentenary of their poet's birth". Reporting from Moscow, Anna Blundy noted: "Russia has been swept by Puskhinmania in preparation for tomorrow's bicentenary of the poet's birth...Russians all know long tracts of Pushkin's work by heart, and Sunday's festival is the dominant theme of most television, and radio broadcasts, newspaper articles and advertising campaigns."
Pushkin remains Russia's playful and elusive genius, a combination of Shakespeare and Mozart rolled into one. He holds the same status in Russian literature as Shakespeare has in the English language. Eugene Onegin, Pushkin's classic verse novel of 1833, has become a work to which Russian writers pay obeisance. Each school child knows it by heart and recites it at the drop of a hat.
During the weeks that led up to Pushkin's second centenary, a member of the public read out one line of Eugene Onegin and told viewers how many days there were to go before Pushkin's birthday. I only wish that we could do a similar thing for Maxwell Philip, CLR James or VS Naipaul.
But greatness or not, at the beginning of the 19th century, Pushkin's Africanness was an issue.
Throughout his life, his pronounced African features-thick lips, dark skin and kinky hair-remained an issue and Pushkin was acutely aware of them. Yet, he always took pride in his African ancestry.
In her new book on Pushkin, Elaine Feinstein tells us that Abram Petrovich Gannibal, Pushkin's great-grandfather, born in Northern Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in the 1690s, was of royal stock. Pushkin claimed that his great grandfather was a prince who lived a luxurious life. He was abducted from Ethiopia when he was eight years old by a "Frenchman collecting animals and other curiosities for Louis XIV" of France. Shipped to Istanbul, he was placed in the Sultan's seraglio where the Russian ambassador found him and sent him back to Russia as a present to Peter the Great (Pushkin, pp 17-18).
In the Russian court, Abram became a great favourite of Peter the Great. The Tsar became so attached to this precocious and intelligent child that he had him baptised into the Orthodox Church at Vilno where the Tsar himself became his godfather and the queen of Poland his godmother.
Feinstein reports that when Abram's brother, a person of standing in the African world, arrived to claim Abram, the Tsar refused to part with him. Sending him to study military strategy in France, Abram returned to Russia in 1725 and was given a commission in the Tsar's own regiment. When Elizabeth, the Tsar's daughter, came to the throne, Abram was made a Major General and granted an estate in Mikhaylovskoe in a province of Russia.
As he grew up, Pushkin took great pride in his great-grandfather and his Africanness which he openly embraced and celebrated in Eugene Onegin. Even so, Pushkin suffered from a sense of his own "ugliness" and the taunts of his classmates. At the lycee where he studied when he was 12, he was nicknamed "monkey". However some of his school friends called him "the Frenchman" because they thought he was a "mixture of a monkey and a tiger".
This "stain" of his blackness remained with him. In 1827, he returned to his family mansion in Mikhaylovskoe where he began his unfinished novel, The Negro of Peter the Great, based on the life of his great grandfather. In this highly fictionalised account of his ancestor Grannibal, Pushkin centred his story on "a Negro's wife, who is unfaithful to her husband, gives birth to a white child and is punished by being shut up in a convent". Even as he tells this gripping story, the sexual prowess of the black man in a white world assumes much importance.
Perhaps, it is wise that Pushkin did not finish telling this story. It would have had to come up against the scurrilous attacks of those who preferred to believe that he came from a slave background. In fact, he was forced to defend Abram's honour against the calumny of Fruddy Bulgarin, a crusading journalist. Putting the question in verse, Pushkin said: "Filyarin says he understands/That my black granddad, Gannibal/ Bought for a bottle of rum, once fell/Into a drunk sea captain's hands." To this, he responded: "My grandfather, so cheaply bought,/ The Tsar himself treated with trust/And gave him welcome at his court./ Black, but never again a slave."
Pushkin, it was rumoured, was a renowned womaniser. Yet when, in 1837, it was reported that a French officer, D'Anthes, was messing with his wife, Pushkin challenged him to a duel and was killed at the age of 38. Yet, he remains the people's poet, Russia's answer to Shakespeare and someone about whom we in T&T ought to know a lot more.
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