The dramatic life and death of Alexander Pushkin
Alexander Pushkin is not appreciated fully in the West, where his virtues are lost in translation, but he is a literary hero in the land of his birth.
Hailed as the father of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin was born 213 years ago this month. He is as revered by Russians as Shakespeare is by the British but he is not as well known in the West as Russian literary giants like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.
This is because much of his work, including the novel Eugene Onegin, was written in verse, makingeffective translation much more difficult .
Pushkin’s plays and stories have inspired operas, songs and ballets; it is rare to meet a Russian who cannot quote his poetry by heart. It is hardly surprising that every Russian town and village wants to claim a piece of Pushkin and hundreds of monuments are dedicated to the writer.
An hour west of Moscow, near Zakharovo, a monument dedicated to Pushkin as a child stands in a small orchard that once belonged to his maternal grandmother, Maria Hannibal. The young Pushkin spent several summers there, in the birch woods near the lake.
He later wrote: “My Zakharovo… reflected in the mirror of waters, with its fences, bridge and shady grove.” He recalled “with what quiet beauty, the minutes of childhood flowed”. The statue shows the poet as a boy, leaning on his grandmother’s lap, book in hand, gazing portentously into the distance.
Pushkin’s great grandfather was the captured African prince, Abram Petrovich Hannibal, who became a Russian nobleman and general, and godson of the tsar. Pushkin later started to write a historical novel about Hannibal, translated as The Negro of Peter the Great.
A marble column outside the 16th- century Transfiguration Church at Bolshiye Vyazyomy marks the grave of Pushkin’s brother, Nikolai, who died aged six. In a poem, Pushkin describes a visit to the graveyard, “where drowse the dead in solemn peace”.
The nearby Bolshiye Vyazyomy estate has had many owners, includingBoris Godunov, subject of one of Pushkin’s best-known plays. The current house, with its lime trees, was built by the Golitsyn family in the late 18th century.
Pushkin often stayed here when it belonged to Natalia Golitsyna, model for the ancient countess in his story of madness and gambling, The Queen of Spades.
Pushkin was forced to leave this childhood idyll for his school at Tsarskoe Selo near St Petersburg when he was 12. He built his reputation as a poet there and threw himself into the literary and political life of the city.
However, his involvement in movements for social reform led to censorship and exile. He travelled through the Caucasus and Crimea and spent two years at his mother’s estate in Mikhailovskoe, enjoying “country life, Russian baths and strawberries”.
Married and happy
In 1831, Pushkin married 17-year-old Natalia Goncharova in the church of the Grand Ascension in central Moscow. The wedding day was beset by “evil omens” (dropped wedding rings and blown-out candles).
There is a small, gold statue of the couple under a dome outside the church and another, larger version opposite the flat on Arbat Street where they spent their first months of married life.
Pushkin’s letters of the time suggest another briefly idyllic period: “I am married and happy,” he wrote. “My only wish is that nothing will change.”
But after a few months in the same city as his mother-in-law, he returned to St Petersburg with his wife, saying: “I do not like Moscow life. You live here not as you want to live, but as old women want you to.”
A duel to the death
Life was to imitate the art of Eugene Onegin in which the hero fights a duel, with pistols in the snow, against his friend Lensky, a poet whose frozen corpse is then loaded on to the sleigh in which they arrived.
This was pretty much Pushkin’s fate, too. On a winter evening in 1837, Pushkin travelled by sleigh from Nevsky Prospekt to the Black River area of St Petersburg, then filled with woods and dachas, where Georges D’Anthès fatally wounded him in the stomach.
The poet, then aged 37, had become convinced that D’Anthès was flirting with his wife and challenged the French cavalry officer to a duel. Pushkin’s death is all the more curious because a major theme in Eugene Onegin is the relationship between literature and real life.
Pushkin’s dramatic death has inspired hundreds of poems, plays and paintings, one of which can be seen in Pushkin Museum on Prechistenka Street in Moscow. The picture portrays the duel, with the dying poet and the fur-lined troika. This storehouse of “Pushkinalia” includes exhibitions on each of Pushkin’s major works, plus much-amended manuscript pages covered in trademark doodles and sketches.
In St Petersburg, Pushkin’s last home, where he lay dying for two days after the duel, is now a popular museum. It displays the poet’s death mask and last waistcoat, complete with fatal bullet hole. A granite obelisk marks the site of the duel. ...