By Eva M. Doyle
Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin has been called one of Russia’s greatest poets and the black father of Russian literature. Pushkin was born on May 26, 1799, in Moscow to the granddaughter of an African slave owned by Peter the Great. Pushkin was proud of his African heritage. One of his unfinished historical novels was titled, “Peter the Great’s Negro,” also known as “The Blackamoor of Peter the Great.”
The word blackamoor was often used in literature to mean black. Blacks who were brought from Africa were given such surnames as Moor, More, Moore, Morrow or simply blackamoor. The origin of the word Moor goes back to ancient Africa.
Pushkin is pictured in many books with dark skin and black curly hair. He remarked in his writings that his ancestors were “stolen from the shores of Africa.”
Pushkin produced some of the greatest poetry in the world. At age 11, he was already familiar with the Russian and French classics. At age 15, the most famous Russian magazine of the time, Messenger of Europe, published one of his poems. Pushkin was regarded as a gifted writer and a child prodigy who earned the respect and admiration of his countrymen. Writers and poets of great distinction took an interest in him.
However, Pushkin did not limit his writing to poetry. He became involved with a liberal underground revolutionary group. He used his pen and criticized the leaders of the czarist regime. Because he spoke out against the oppression of the people, his writings were subject to close scrutiny. It was a serious offense to criticize the government. His political poems led to interrogation by the secret police. As a result, Pushkin was exiled.
Nicholas I was set to deport him to Siberia, but decided against it due to the influence of Pushkin’s many friends and admirers. Instead the czar transferred Pushkin to a place in the south of Russia. It was still a great penalty for Pushkin because he was placed in a region very different from where he grew up. It was far from Moscow and his family.
Despite the isolation, Pushkin wrote a novel titled “Eugene Onegin” that later became a tradition in Russian novels. His short story, “The Queen of Spades,” was considered to be of the highest quality in prose. While writing these great works, Pushkin remained under the watchful eye of the secret police.
Pushkin was then exiled to Mikhailovskoye, an isolated Russian village. The government was concerned about how the people would react because of Pushkin’s great influence.
Two years later, Czar Nicholas decided that it would be better to have Pushkin under his power in Moscow than to make him a martyr, so he was ordered returned to Moscow.
Pushkin continued to write. He wrote in almost every genre, including narrative poetry, lyrical poetry, short stories, novels and critical essays. Pushkin wrote over 800 poems. One of his masterpieces was “The Bronze Horseman.” This was a long narrative poem based on the statue of Peter the Great and the great flood of November 1824. The flood occurred in St. Petersburg, killing about 10,000 people, including hundreds of soldiers. The poem was not published until after the death of Pushkin due to his political views. It was considered to be one of the most influential works in Russian history.
In 1837, Pushkin was fatally wounded defending his wife’s honor in a duel.
Monuments have been erected in his honor. A statue of Pushkin was placed in St. Petersburg. Many of his works provided the basis for operas by Russian composers. Several museums were dedicated to him. A minor planet discovered in 1977 by a Russian astronaut was named for him.
The great honor and respect Russians had for Pushkin came to light during the closing ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. It happened as a revolving stage with portraits of the greatest writers in the history of Russia were displayed. Among them was Pushkin. Standing in the crowd of thousands to pay tribute to these men of distinction was the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for the Criterion newspaper for 38 years.