Monthly Archives: November 2013

Pushkin’s Ambiguous Relationships (Part 2)

In the euphemistic language of the early twentieth century, Hekkeren might have been described as ‘a confirmed bachelor’. In the nineteenth century the idea that a government could not safely entrust its representation abroad to a man of homosexual leanings -provided that he was reasonably discreet – was not one to which much attention was paid. And up to 1834 Hekkeren was discreet with one exception: he grossly abused the privilege of the diplomatic bag. He used this to import – duty-free – goods of all kinds in quantities far exceeding the requirements of personal use and therefore intended for the market. Hekkeren was by no means the first head of mission to err in this way, either in his century or in our own. In avoiding trouble with the officials both of the Russian customs and of the ministry of foreign affairs, he doubtless relied on his friendship with Nesselrode and on the value set in St. Petersburg on his own ultramonarchist convictions. Once the future of Belgium had been internationally agreed, at the London Conference in 1831 (under the Vienna settlement, Belgium had formed part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands), Hekkeren cannot have had much of importance to do in St. Petersburg; his leaves of absence were of extreme length even by the standards of those days. But for what happened in 1836-7, he might have been remembered only as a malicious, though harmless, busybody, a familiar type in the diplomatic services of all ages.

From the turn of the year 1833-4 an extraordinary change, triggered by Hekkeren’s meeting with d’Anthes in Prussia, came about. Hekkeren had given d’Anthes a lift in his carriage, so that the two men left the inn together and arrived in Russia together on 8 September 1833. In the course of the following year Hekkeren travelled to Alsace in order to meet Georges d’Anthes’ family. By February 1836 Georges’ father, who was not well off, wrote to Hekkeren authorizing him to adopt his son; and on 22 May the Russian foreign minister received from the Netherlands minister formal notification of the fact that, by decision of the King of the Netherlands, Georges d’Anthes was entitled to bear his name, his title and his coat of arms. Hekkeren had had some legal difficulty in his own country in bringing this remarkable operation to a successful conclusion. He was obliged to overcome the fact that the French code civil, which was still in force in the Netherlands, did not allow an adoption of this kind. This obstacle was circumvented by means of a royal decree which did not mention the word adoption, but did lay down that both d’Anthes and his descendants were authorized to bear the name of Hekkeren.10 From then on Russian documents tend to refer to the elder Hekkeren and the younger Hekkeren, but since this is confusing to a present-day reader, the use of the name d’Anthes is retained throughout the rest of this book, except in quotations.

Was Hekkeren’s affection for – not to say, obsession with – this handsome blond man, half his age, platonic and was d’Anthes actively bisexual? Both are questions to which no definitive answers can be given. At the time, the general reaction in St. Petersburg was one of astonishment, but the candid expression of this astonishment seldom went outside the privacy of confidential correspondence. Long afterwards, however, two pieces of evidence came to light, both of which point in the same direction. In his account of the events of 1836-7, one of d’Anthes’ brother officers in St. Petersburg, Prince Alexander Trubetskoi, wrote that there was one exception to d’Anthes’ :

youthful mischief. . . about which we learned much later. I do not know whether to say that he lived with Hekkeren or that Hekkeren lived with him. At that time buggery was widespread in high society…

It must be assumed that, in his relations with Hekkeren, he [d’Anthes] played only the passive role.

Like all memoirs, this account, which was written fifty years after d’Anthes had left Russia, cannot be relied upon. On the other hand, there is only one reasonable explanation of the fact that when writing (in French) to Hekkeren from St. Petersburg, d’Anthes used the second person singular throughout. No Frenchman who was born a member of the noblesse – or, for that matter, the upper bourgeoisie -would have addressed his father as anything but ‘vous’ in the nineteenth century – and indeed well into the twentieth.

Pushkin’s first reference to d’Anthes is an entry in his diary of 26 January 1834, where he remarks that the guards are not happy with the decision to accept two French emigres, one of them Baron d’Anthes, ‘as officers straight away’. In February of that year d’Anthes, without knowing a word of Russian (a language that he never troubled to learn during his three and a half years in St. Petersburg), was indeed gazetted cornet in the household cavalry; and two years later he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. He retained his French citizenship, however. He seems to have got on well enough with his brother officers. He also enjoyed the financially important patronage of the Empress Alexandra (Nicholas I’s Prussian wife), who was his regiment’s colonel-in-chief; and it was not long before he became a familiar figure in St. Petersburg society.

(Robin Edmonds)

Pushkin’s Ambiguous Relationships (Part 1)

Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while, Till we can clear these ambiguities»

—Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act V, Scene iii.
The ‘mouth of outrage’ has been wide open ever since Pushkin’s death – with justice – but most of the efforts made to explain the circumstances of his death have either been overtaken by later archival discoveries or created more heat than light – or both. Recent Russian scholarship has brought about the beginning of a change: in particular the assembling of the bulk of the documentary evidence, some of which is comparatively new, in chronological order. The modern biographer no longer needs to detain the reader with detailed discussion of earlier studies of what happened in St. Petersburg between the beginning of January 1836 and the end of January 1837, such as that written by Pavel Shchegolev nearly eighty years ago ; and certainly not with two accounts that have since appeared in English, one of which reflected what Robert Hughes has called, in another context, the ‘priggishness of the Puritan school-marm’, while the other resorted to use of the technique of the unsupported assertion, clad in embarrassingly purple prose.

This said, much of what happened during Pushkin’s final year is still shrouded in ambiguity and it seems likely to remain so. In part this is because of the difficulty of reconstructing Pushkin’s state of mind with a measure of certainty at any point during his last, critical months. Uncertainty becomes outright ambiguity when account is taken of the nature of the multiple network of personal relationships, whether proven or unproven, at the centre of which Pushkin lived during – roughly – the last two years of his life. Even the timespan of these relationships is still a matter of opinion. The two years just mentioned are measured from the autumn of 1834 to the autumn of 1836. This timespan is supported by a phrase in one of Pushkin’s letters : ‘une persévérance de deux années. — his own description of the attentions paid to his wife (and, he might have added, to his sister-in-law) by Baron Georges-Charles d’Anthès – although it has been argued that in reality ‘the whole romance’ between Natalya and d’Anthès lasted only one year. However that may be, there is a consensus that it was sometime during 1834 that the Pushkins first met d’Anthès : whose place in French history – such as it is – is that of a man who did well both in business and in politics under the Second Empire, living almost to the end of the nineteenth century, whereas in Russian works of reference he is simply described as Pushkin’s murderer.

D’Anthès arrived in St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1833, having left France after the bloodless revolution of 1830. Born at Soultz in 1812 (as it happened, in the same year as Natalya Goncharova) he was a member of a family that had been established in Alsace since the late seventeenth century and was ennobled in 1731. At the age of seventeen he entered the French military academy of St. Cyr, where his studies were cut short by the overthrow of Charles X, whose cause he espoused – in vain. There being no future in the France of the new bourgeois monarchy for a youth of his legitimist political opinions, d’Anthès decided to try his luck as a soldier of fortune in Prussia. On arrival in Berlin, he soon discovered that the professional standards of the Prussian Army were beyond or, as he might have seen them, beneath him, because he would have been obliged to begin his military service in Prussia as a non-commissioned officer. However, the close family links between the royal houses of Prussia and Russia ensured that, armed with a valuable letter of introduction, he was able to leave Berlin for St. Petersburg in 1833 hoping for acceptance by the Russian army instead. Travelling by road, d’Anthès met in a German inn a Dutch diplomat, who was returning to his post in St. Petersburg. This complete stranger, who would soon exercise a lasting effect on his own future and, as it turned out, a profound influence on the fate of Pushkin, was Baron Louis Borchard van Hekkeren. Hekkeren was forty-one at the time of this encounter. His family was one of the oldest in Holland ; in his youth he had served in the French navy; and after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 he joined the Netherlands diplomatic service. In St. Petersburg, where he served for ten years from 1823, first as chargé d’affaires and then as minister, he aroused mixed feelings in the diplomatic world, although he was an intimate of the Nesselrode circle. Although Nesselrode was known ironically in St. Petersburg as ‘the Austrian Minister for Russian foreign affairs’, it was the Austrian Ambassadress who described Hekkeren in her diary as ‘cunning, false and peu sympathique’.

(Robin Edmonds)