Friday, January 16, 2009

General Abraham Hannibal, General Ivan Hannibal, Alexander S. Pushkin and Descandants





At this juncture, unlike the previous parts, I start this part differently. First, I will give quotes from various Russian and non-Russian sources to give one a feel as to how much Alexander S. Pushkin meant to Russia and everyone. Yes, everyone, as Mikhail Ivanov wrote in the June/July 1999 issue of Russian Life, entitled “My Pushkin, Our Pushkin”:

Everyone has their own vision of Pushkin. Russians, of course think
Pushkin is the pride of Russia, the sun of Russian poetry. The French,
I am told appreciate Pushkin’s prose more than his poetry. It is not
clear why. Perhaps because prose is easier to translate. Or perhaps
because it is hard for the French to admit that such fine verses were
written by a poet so nonchalantly killed by a French bon vivant.
The British may cherish Pushkin because he loved and translated
Lord Byron.

Second, I’ll write his story in brief, with highlights in his life, where I think were crucial. Without exaggeration, Alexander S. Pushkin is probably the only person on earth who has been studied to “death”. As Vyacheslav Skotorenko, National Pushkin Commemoration Commissioner, rightly said in 1999, “he just gets bigger and bigger”. There is a book, Puskhin’s Buttons, which deals with the last week of his life, detailing his activities from the time he woke up to the time he went to sleep. Heck, there is even a restaurant, CDL, which has a special Pushkin menu that will treat you to all the delicacies Pushkin sang in his verse (Dine with Pushkin in Russian Life June/July 1999). Elaine Fienstein in the Poet’s Fate writes, in Russia, Pushkin’s name has entered the spoken idiom. It is common place for a child to be scolded: “Who do you think will close the door after you, Pushkin?" In other words, there is not much to add here except to highly recommend to you to read Pushkin’s biography by various authors.

Third, I’ll start working my way backwards. A. I will quote from comments made at the time of his death and later. B. I will return back to the brief biography of his short but active life.

“The sun of our poetry has set. Pushkin is dead, dead in the full vigor of life in the midst of his magnificent career. We have not the courage to say more. Besides, what good could it do? Every Russian knows the meaning of this terrible loss; every Russian heart is torn by it. Pushkin! Our poet, our joy, our popular glory! Is it possible that we no longer have Pushkin? We can not get used to the thought”. Kraievsky, 1837.

“Pushkin was one of those creative geniuses, to be great historical personalities who working for the present paved the road toward the future, and therefore can not possibly belong only to the past”. V. Belinsky, 1837

“You were born among gods- go forward’. Zhukovsky, 1825.

“Russian language was created for Pushkin, Pushkin for the language: raise up Russian Poetry among the nations of the world, as Peter the Great made Russia a world power”. E.Baratynsky (Pushkin’s contemporary)

“Pushkin walks with the strides of a giant”. Decembrist poet, Konstantin Ryleev.

“Pushkin is rare and perhaps unique phenomenon of the Russian spirit: he is the Russian man in his supreme development, as he will appear perhaps 200 years hence. In him, the Russian nature, the Russian soul, the Russian language and the Russian characters are reflected in such purity; in the same refined beauty as a landscape seen reflected on the convex surface of a magnifying glass”. Nikolai Gogol in 1830’s

“Without Pushkin we should have lost, not literature alone, but much of our irresistible force, our faith in our rational individuality, our belief in the people’s power, and most of all our belief in our destiny”. Fydor Dostoeyvsky, 1857

“Pushkin! following on your steps we sang a secret freedom! give us your hand in these troubled times help us in our silent struggle”. Alexander Blok, 1921.

“Pushkin in our country; is the beginning of all beginnings”. Maxim Gorky

“Pushkin is an immense importance not only in the history of Russian literature, but also in the history of Russian Enlightenment. He was the first to teach the Russian public to read” N. A. Dobrolyubov

“Pushkin alone had to perform two tasks which took whole centuries and more to accomplish in other countries, namely to establish a language and create a literature”. I. Turgeniev

“The fire has gone out upon the altar”. ... "Pushkin loved life so much that he died so soon.” Henry Troyant.

“Love bard par excellence”. ... “He wrote of passion and regret; he defied Tsars to champion individual freedom and sing of “noble hearts in a cruel age”. He gave Russians a romantic image of themselves, and he is still their favorite poet” Mike Edward writing in the September issue of 1992, National Geographic.

“It was a white woman, Harriet Beetcher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), whose writings lit the torch for “negro” freedom in America; it is a “negro”, Alexander Sergeevitch Pushkin, who did the same for white emancipation in Russia”. J. A. Rogers

“Any translation of Pushkin’s poetry that seeks to produce rhymes of poetry will be nothing but a pale reflection of the original”. Paul Richardson.

“Pushkin turns 200, but never grows old; Russians most revered writer touches his country’s psyche like no other. Culturally, he, Shakespeare, Jefferson and Elvis rolled into one”. Maura Reynolds (The Times) in 1999.

Finally, what does Alexander S. Pushkin had to say to all these attentions that he got? Well, prophetically, he had said it already, when he was still alive. Here is what he had to say:

“I shall not wholly die-but in my songs my spirit will, incorruptible and bodies survive-and I shall be renowned as long as under heaven one poet yet remains alive”.


Alexander S. Pushkin was born to Sergei L. Pushkin (an impoverished and yet noble family) and Nadejda O. Hannibal (the granddaughter of General Araham P. Hannibal) on May 26th 1799. His mother, Nadejda Ossipovna Hannibal, (“The Beautiful Creole”) - who due to her abandonment by her father – was self-centered cold and vain. She was not fitted for the role of the “housewife” (Troyant.) She liked appearing in drawing rooms, ball rooms to show off her beauty and youth. Beside Alexander --the second child-- she had two other children from Sergei Lvovich Pushkin. And they were the oldest ,Olga and the youngest, Lev. (There were three others who died at early age.

Nadejda more or less resented that she had Alexander because of his supposed “blackness”, which she felt had resulted in ruining her beautiful image. As a result of this resentment, Alexander was really drawn to his and his sibling’s nanny, Arina Rodionovna. His isolation pushed him to search inwards. His siblings were also supportive of him. If I have to summarize his childhood; four people really influenced and molded him very much early on.

The first one was dead almost eighteen years earlier. It was Abraham P. Hannibal, his maternal great grandfather. Pushkin understood and respected Abraham Hannibal for what he had accomplished, despite the cruelty of the world around him, almost single handedly. The second was his maternal grandmother, Maria Alexeievna, who despite her husband’s abandonment was still warm, gentle, intelligent and good “house wife” (Troyant). Her knowledge of the Russian language and alphabet was very useful in instilling a sense of pride in young Pushkin. She was also the first one, to realize the genius in Pushkin. The third was his paternal uncle, Vasilli L. Pushkin, who in his own right was a good poet. Friends of Uncle Vasilli would gather and read poetry that also broadened young Pushkin’s mind.

All the books in the household were read by Pushkin at a very early age which also sparked his imagination. And finally, the most important influence in Pushkin’s life, ironically, was not an “educated”, but “uneducated emancipated serf woman”, Arina Rodionovna, whose encyclopedic mind and knowledge of the Russian language folk-tales, folk- songs, & proverbs sparked the genius in Pushkin.

School Days

Around 1811, Pushkin’s parents decided to send him to school. A friend of the family told them that Czar Alexander I had set up a Lyceum/ Lycee in a wing of his palace at Tsarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg. Alexander Pushkin was accepted, and his paternal uncle, Vasili L. Pushkin took the future poet to St. Petersburg in July 1811. In school, he befriended many students who would become his life long friends. Among them were, I. Pushchin and Anton Delvig.

During his school days, he was known as the “Frenchman” because of his command of the language. He was also mocked for his appearance. He was teased and was given a nickname, “the monkey” because of his “blackness”. In all the six years Alexander stayed at the Lycee, he went to visit his family only once. While occasionally, his parents would visit him. According to Elaine Fienstien, the highlight of his stay at the Lycee was:

In January 1815 the boy received extraordinary recognition from
Derzhavin (the leading poet of the last generation). Invited to hear
recitations of the pupils at the Lycee, Derzhavin had fallen asleep
but was suddenly galvanized into attention when Pushkin began to
read his poem, “Recollections in Tsarskoe Selo”. After hearing of
Pushkin’s poem, the older poet said, “I live on. He is the one who
will replace Drzhavin”.

J.A.Rogers describing this event wrote, “Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the poem was that it was written not in the conventional French but in Russian. Russia had at last a great poet using her own language!" As one writer put it, “with one cut of the sword Pushkin had freed Russian literature from the ties that were keeping it enslaved”.

All the aforementioned accomplishment at the age of fifteen! The moment whereby the elder Derzhavin “passed the torch in surrender” was immortalized by the famous oil painting of Ilya Repin. (Note: French was the official language of the court of Russia and Russian was considered not a language of the elite but of the serfs that would not qualify for literature).

It is also very important to understand the political and social conditions of Imperial Russia at the time of the birth and childhood of Alexander S. Pushkin. After the era of Catherine II (Russia’s frontiers had expanded tremendously). Czar Paul I succeeded Catherine II. Paul I was killed when palace coup plotters during an attempt to arrest him was strangled. His son, Alexander I, succeeded him as czar. Czar Alexander begun his reign as a liberal and he started to liberalize Russia.

In foreign affairs, Alexander after a series of military defeats by Napoleon of France - who had been marching into various European capitals after defeating their armies - sued for peace. In 1807, at Tilsit on the river Niemen, Alexander and Napoleon signed a peace treaty. However, by 1812 the French had invaded Russia, aroused a great wave of patriotic indignation among the Russian people, though the westernizers among the elite of Russia had been very sympathetic to the French aspiration (Feinstein). According to John Oliver Killens, in his book, The Black Russian, also notes that “most of the Russian nobility worshiped the French as if it were a kind of fetish that would secure them the keys of the kingdom”.

On the military front, the Russian army under the famous Russian commander, Kutuzov, enticed the French army to penetrate deep into Russian soil, even allowing them to burn Moscow, so that the famous Russian winter could destroy Napoleon’s troops. After the defeat of Napoleon, Russian people’s hopes were restored. However, Alexander I took measures that retarded his earlier policies.

Forced Exile
Tackling the Russian Bear: The Fourth Generation

Pushkin’s fame grew like wild fire. His poems were recited by ordinary people. He took their fear, feeling, anxiety, joy, agony and translated them into beautiful words of “living hope”. Since, there were around forty million serfs during this period of time, Pushkin became their voice. He declared serfs to be men and women not chattels, thus he got the name of “Apostle of Freedom”. (Note: There were other people who were called “Apostle of Freedom”. Among them was the Bulgarian patriot, Vasil Levsky). The authorities fearing his poems which began to instill a sense of hope in the masses, started to censor his every line. The authorities finally exiled Pushkin. The hope of the authorities was that, like his predecessor ancestors, the untamed Russian bear, would devour him. One of the poems that pulled the last straw was entitled, “ole to freedom”.

Oh shake and shiver, tyrants of the world, but lend an ear ye fallen slaves,
gain courage and rise!

In her book, Distant Pleasures: Alexander Pushkin and the Writing of Exile, Stephanie Sandler states:

Throughout the western tradition, poets sent out of their native
lands have made their wonderings famous: exile produced Dante’s
Commedia and Ovid’s Tristia; expatriation formed the Sensibilities
of Henry James and Gertrude Stein, of Ezra Pound and T.S Elliot.
Russia has given the world a large share of writers in emigration…
Russia has another distinguishing feature among nations that writers
have been known to flee, for it is a country with a long tradition of an
internal exile. Russia’s vastness, juxtaposed to its concentration of
cultural life in it’s two capitals, St. Petersburg and Moscow, made it
possible to remove dangerous men and women to areas within the
country where they would be both less accessible to those who might
fall under their influence and less likely, because whey were deprived
of an audience to flourish.

“It was this forced internal exile, precisely because he was confined within Russia but sent to its periphery; Pushkin became acutely aware of his Russian-ness. It was indeed the experience of travel in exile immensely, which broadened his sense of what Russia was. But banishment meant that Pushkin could not speak with authority from the center of the country, only tentatively from its borders” (Sandler). Even though he was to communicate with his fellow Russians from a distance, for Russians, literature is both an affirmation and an expression of national identity called “narodnost”. Moreover, literature is regarded as an embodiment of social and moral truths. Therefore, the writer is viewed as a sacred voice, a prophet (Sonya Stephen Hoisington writing in Russian views of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin). His sacred voice continued to instill narodnost to the fullest. The authorities could confine Pushkin within the borders of Imperial Russia and yet he still continued to inspire his fellow country men through his writings, despite the physical distance. In exile he went to the far frontiers of Imperial Russia. It was during his exile in the south that he wrote many works including, The Prisoner of the Caucasus, The Gypsies and The Fountain of Baktchisarai.

His friends back in St. Petersburg pleaded on his behalf and he was allowed to go to Odessa. “I put my appearance in Europe”, Pushkin wrote in 1823 after hearing of the news. After writing more poems from Odessa he was ordered to be confined to his ancestral home in the province of Pskov in the estate of Mikhaylovskoe. Even though life in Mikhaylovskoe was monotonous and boring, it was a turning point in Pushkin’s literary works because he departed from “subjective lyricism” and ventured into historical objectivism (Pushkin and His Works). He took a serious study of Shakespeare and produced his Boris Godunov. He also started his masterpiece Eugene Onegin.

During his exile in Mikhaylovskoe the authorities had spies following him, including monks and his own father. It was also during this time that great changes were taking place in St. Petersburg. After the death of Alexander I, in 1825, a revolt occurred in the guard troops that were organized by Pushkin’s friends. Pushkin almost participated in the revolt except that his belief in bad luck (superstition: few things crossed his path on his way to St. Petersburg) prevented him from coming to St. Petersburg disobeying orders.

Czar Nicholas I succeeded Alexander I. Czar Alexander I commenced his rule by hanging five brilliant guard officers and exiling over 100 to Siberia. As a footnote, when two of the condemned were supposed to be hanged the rope broke and in disgust one of the condemned commented, “That is why we revolted; poor Russia they can’t even hang us right”. The authorities found out that Pushkin’s poem was an inspiration- beside their efforts to change the conditions of Russia- of the secret society of the officers. As a result, the new czar sent for him. Thus, as E.A. Bradyley Hodgetts wrote in Court Of Russia In The Nineteenth Century, Volume I, 1908, One of the most interesting chapters in the history of European Literature is the history of the relations of Nicholas with Pushkin, the poet. It is also interesting to note that the new czar began his rule-after hanging the accused and exiling the rest--by having an audience with Alexander Pushkin for two hours. This famous meeting also has its own dramatic point to show.

According to J.A Rogers:

The Czar asked,” Were you a friend of the conspirators against me?” Pushkin, his back to the fire, his manner not showing the respect due to the czar of all Russias, replied frankly, “that is true, your majesty. I loved those so-called conspirators deeply, and I shall ever love and
esteem them”.“ What would you have done had you been in St. Petersburg on the 14th of December?” Nicholas asked. “I should have been in the ranks of the rebels,” was the fearless reply. “That would have caused us great sorrow.” replied the czar. “We are grateful for all you have done for Russia, and wish you to be always near us. We name you imperial historian.”

Nicholas I Czar of All Russia decided to be the personal censor of the writings of Pushkin and promised Pushkin to travel any where he wants to go. Actually, Pushkin had a short poem that he had written about Nicholas which began to circulate, it read:

He was made emperor, and right then displayed his fair and drive: sent to Siberia a hundred-twenty men and strung up five.

After six years of exile and a promise by Czar of All Russia to free him, Pushkin’s freedom was short-lived. Pushkin decided it was time to get married.


Troyant in his brilliant biography of Pushkin ended the book by saying that “Pushkin loved life so much that he died so soon”. For Pushkin, one of the reasons that makes life so pleasurable and lovable is because of women. “Pushkin was so fond of women”, a contemporary acquaintance, S. V. Komovsky, wrote, “that even the touch of hand while dancing at school ball aged 15 or 16 was enough to make his eyes blaze, and he would redden and snort like an ardent stallion in a young herd” (Feinstein). His poems to various women were of superb quality. Finally, Pushkin decided to marry an eighteen year beauty called Natalia Gonchorova. Some commented that she was the most beautiful woman in all of Russia. It was rumored that Czar Nicholas I was even in love with her.

Pushkin and Natalia had four children. They were Maria, Alexander, Gregory and Natalia. With all the successes of his writings, prose and verse, his wife was oblivious to her husband’s genius. She had often wondered what all the fuss was about her husband being the greatest poet. Like Pushkin’s mother, Natalia, was more concerned with the ball rooms and court appearances than providing cushion and comfort that Pushkin had been longing for.


His writing and popularity also created a lot of powerful enemies and court intriguers. This, of course, was deja-vu all over again: the fourth generation. Pushkin’s enemies plotted to get to Pushkin through his beautiful and naive wife. Anonymous letters saying that his wife was having an affair with the czar started to circulate. There was also another letter which read: “Pushkin was elected acting grand master of the order of cuckolds”. Pushkin challenged D’Anthes(whom Pushkin accused of being the originator of the letters) to a duel. D’anthes was the French adopted son of the Dutch Ambassador to Russia, Heckeren. D’anthes withdrew Pushkin’s challenge and decided to marry Natalia’s sister. More letters started to circulate indicating that D’anthes was courting Pushkin’s wife. Pushkin challenged D’anthes for a duel once again. This time around, D’anthes accepted.

It was on the fateful morning in February 1837, the son and sun of Russia was shot in a duel and died two days later. There were thousands of people who gathered outside Pushkin’s home. The authorities fearing revolt whisked the body away at night and buried him at the cemetery of the Svyatogorsky Monastery, near Mikhailovskoe. D’anthes and his “father” were whisked out of Russia.

Finally, the Russian Bear Tamed

If you recall in my earlier posts, I mentioned that Abraham Hannibal was occasionally sent to be devoured by the Russian bear because of court intrigues, jealousies and racism. Ivan Hannibal, the oldest son of Abraham Hannibal, also encountered the same fate. Both Abraham and Ivan Hannibal through their resolve and resilience tackled the Russian bear. Even though, both survived the Russian bear, the Russian bear was never tamed. It was only with the sacrifice of a member of the fourth generation- namely Alexander S. Pushkin – that the Russian bear was finally tamed. It was not building canals and bridges, it was not even conquering in the name of the Double-Headed Eagle that the Russian bear was tamed but rather, through literature. The supposedly untamable Russian bear, finally succumbed to the beautiful words of Alexander S. Pushkin: the son and sun of Russia. In another words, it was not the power of mechanical engineering, or military engineering that tamed the Russian bear, but the engineering of words that finally led the Russian bear to throw down its towel.

Some people argue that it is difficult to decide as to which one of the works of Pushkin is his greatest achievement. There is, however, a consensus that his novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, is considered to be his master piece. The famous Irish actor Ralph Fiennes in his article entitled “Shooting Pushkin”, quoting Vladimir Nabokov, in the forward to his deliberately literal version of Eugene Onegin writes: "it is impossible to translate the poem- that it is best to sacrifice “elegance, euphony clarity, good taste, modern usage, and even grammar” for something closer to Pushkin’s line-by-line meaning. Nabokov also insists that anyone who really wishes to appreciate “Onegin” should learn Russian."

It should also be noted that Pushkin’s works had and continues to inspire and influence various Russian art forms such as ballet, opera and music and artists such as Muggosorsky, Raimaninoff and others.

Here is a short list of (not complete) the works of Alexander S. Pushkin (not in chronological order)

1. The Moor of Peter the Great (unfinished book about Abraham Hannibal)
2. The Captain’s Daughter (inspiration for Tolstoy’s Anna Karanina and many other famous Russian writers.)
3. Dubrovsky
4. The Queen of Spades
5. The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin
6. The History of the Village of Gorukhino
7. Kirdjali
8. Egyptian Nights
9. Ruslan and Ludmila
10. Boris Godniov
11. The Bronze Horseman
12. The Golden Cockerel
13. History of Pugachev
14. Eugene Onegin
15. and many more.

1)Alexander S. Pushkin
2) Olga (Pushkin's sister)
3) Lev (Pushkin's brother)
4) Natalia Gonchorova (Pushkin's wife)
5) Pushkin's grave

1 comment:

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