Pushkin’s Exile at Mikhailovskoe (Part 2)

According to Pushkin’s own account written immediately afterwards, Sergei L’vovich not only took seriously the official charge of atheism levelled against his elder son — even accusing Alexander Sergeevich of attempting to corrupt his elder sister and younger brother with atheistic doctrine – but he also agreed to the governor’s request that he himself should assume the responsibility for his son’s secular supervision. (A local monk was appointed Pushkin’s spiritual supervisor.) This responsibility was interpreted as including the reading of Alexander Sergeevich’s correspondence, on which he was now almost entirely dependent for maintaining contact with the outside world. Father and son had never been close at any time. Now insults flew in both directions. Alexander Sergeevich declared that he would never speak to his father again, while for Sergei L’vovich Alexander became ‘ce monstre, cefils denature’, who had, he alleged, threatened to beat him.3 In the upshot, the family returned to St. Petersburg in November. Although the quarrel was eventually patched up, Pushkin’s parents did not visit Mikhailovskoe so long as he was living there. He remained on this dilapidated but beautiful estate, alone except for the serfs and his nanny, Arina, for the next twenty-two months.

In spite of this unpromising beginning, these two years of isolation proved to be providential for Pushkin. Had he been in St. Petersburg in December 1825, he would almost certainly have been caught up in the Decembrist Revolt, with incalculable consequences for the remainder of his life. (Even if he had still been in Odessa, there were enough Decembrists in the town who were his personal friends, such as Prince Volkonsky, to constitute a political risk for him, if only by association.) Equally important, for the first time in his life Pushkin had almost nothing to do but write and read.

Pushkin’s friends did not all agree about where the blame for his exile lay. (Vyazemsky was sympathetic; Delvig urged him to be careful for a year or two; and Karamzin observed that Vorontsov was ‘no despot’.) But they were united in wanting him to make good use of it. As Zhukovsky put it, ‘You are born to be a great poet, be worthy of this!’ Ryleev wrote in similar vein.4 They may have been preaching to the converted, but he certainly followed their advice. The use that Pushkin made of these years may best be judged if an attempt is made to compare the scale of his literary achievement as it actually was by the end of 1826, when he finally returned first to Moscow and then to St. Petersburg, with the kind of assessment of his work which his death might have evoked from literary critics and historians if his life had ended simultaneously with Byron’s (in 1824) or at any time during the following six months.

In 1824, ten years after his first poem had appeared in the St. Petersburg press, Pushkin’s reputation rested in large measure on three of his longer, published, works: Ruslan and Lyudmila, The Captive of the Caucasus and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. On the basis of this evidence, critics would have speculated about the direction that his mature poetry would have taken after the early flowering of his extraordinary talent. Posthumous publication of the draft of The Gypsies and the opening chapters of Evgenii Onegin might have confused them (as indeed they actually did confuse some critics when they were first published). Misleading comparisons would probably have been drawn between Pushkin and Byron. Abroad, even at this early date, Pushkin’s death would not have gone unnoticed. Pushkin’s three major poems of the period 1820-4 were already beginning to be translated into German before he left the south; and articles about his work were beginning to appear in English, French and Polish literary journals as well. The Westminster Review, for example, devoted several pages to this ‘very original’ poet at the beginning of 1824.5 Even in Russia, however, a hypothetical evaluation of Pushkin’s work in mid-1824 could not perhaps have gone very much further than this: an original writer of infinite, but still uncertain, promise.

By the time Pushkin left Mikhailovskoe in September 1826 he had written some of the finest lyrics in the Russian language; he had finished The Gypsies; and the greater part of Evgenii Onegin was either written or drafted. The Gypsies was not published until 1827, but the first chapter of Evgenii Onegin was published in 1825 and the first edition of Pushkin’s collected poems came out in the following year. It was at Mikhailovskoe that he wrote prefaces in verse – very different from one another, but each of them superb – to Ruslan and Lyudmila6 and to Evgenii Onegin.1 His other Mikhailovskoe poems included, at one end of the scale, Count Nulin, a poem which if Graham Greene had written it, he might have classified as an ‘entertainment’ : the Rape of Lucrece in Russian nineteenth-century dress, but relating what might have happened if Lucrece had slapped Tarquin’s face.8 At the opposite pole stands Boris Godunov, a play written partly in blank verse and partly in prose, set in the period of the Russian ‘Time of the Troubles’ in the late sixteenth century.9 Moreover, it was in these two years that Pushkin first developed his power of criticism. Although he never wrote any single work of literary criticism from then until the time of his death, the aggregate of his views on the writing of others, whether of his own or earlier ages, scattered among letters, notes and commentaries of every kind over a period of twelve years, constitutes a variegated corpus of rigorous literary criticism.10

(Robin Edmonds)

Pushkin’s Exile at Mikhailovskoe (Part 1)

O rus!


(Used by Pushkin as the epigraph to the second chapter of Evgerdi Onegin: ‘Oh country!’ [in Latin] – a pun on the medieval word for ‘Russia’, Rus’.).

Not long after Pushkin had left Odessa he wrote an uncharacteristically self-pitying poem, To the Sea. ‘Bewitched by powerful passion’ (an obvious allusion to Elizaveta Vorontsova) he had ‘stayed upon your shores’; and the poem’s last four lines read:

В леса, в пустыни молчаливы Перенесу, тобою полн,

Твои скалы, твои заливы,

И блеск, и тень, и говор волн.

… Filled by you, I shall carry into the woods and the silent wastes, your rocks, your bays, and the glitter, the shadow and the sound of your waves.

Pushkin’s enforced departure, not long after his twenty-fifth birthday, seemed to mark an unhappy ending to his four years in the south. He was now to be confined to the province of Pskov and kept under surveillance, religious as well as secular. For the first time since he left St. Petersburg he became an exile in the formal, as opposed to the metaphorical, sense of the word. Yet, as it turned out, this was the beginning of a new stage of his personal and poetic development: a blessing in disguise. This disguise was heavy at first. Pushkin arrived in Mikhailovskoe from Odessa late on the evening of 9 August 1824. He found all his family at home. Summoned by the governor of Pskov, he was obliged to sign an undertaking of good conduct. Once the full dimensions of his disgrace were understood, the initial feelings of the family reunion, following an absence of over four years, gave way to weeks of strain, culminating in a blazing row at the end of October. In desperation, Pushkin even wrote to the governor of Pskov, asking to be imprisoned. Fortunately his letter was not delivered.

(Robin Edmonds)

Pushkin’s Origins (Part 6)

Pushkin observed that Moscow’s decline relative to St. Petersburg was the inevitable consequence of the rise of St. Petersburg, where Peter the Great had transferred the capital of his empire eighty-seven years before Pushkin was born. ‘Two capitals’, wrote Pushkin, ‘cannot flourish in the same degree in one and the same state, just as two hearts do not exist in the human body.’ After recalling the earlier competition between Moscow and St. Petersburg, Pushkin goes on to ask:

Where has that noisy, festive, carefree life got to? Where have the balls, the banquets, the eccentrics, the bundles of mischief got to? -Everything has disappeared… The streets are dead; it is rare that one hears the noise of carriages on the roadway; the women rush to the windows when one of the chiefs of police rides past with his Cossacks.

Pushkin contrasts all this with the good old days of Moscow, when a rich eccentric would build himself a Chinese house on one of the principal streets of the city, complete with green dragons and wooden mandarins under golden sunshades.25 Moscow’s relative decline at this point in the nineteenth century may be ascribed in part to the fact that large tracts of it, being built of wood, were destroyed by the fire that broke out in 1812 during the Napoleonic occupation of the city. Nevertheless, after 1812 the rich rebuilt their Moscow houses in stone; and the atmosphere of Moscow University was in Pushkin’s time more liberal than that of the University of St. Petersburg.

In the early nineteenth century Russia’s two capital cities were remarkable for two characteristics, one of which Pushkin himself described. First, the hazards of travelling from one to the other. One of the stanzas of Evgenii Onegin lambasts the bridges rotting from neglect, the bugs and fleas which prevent the traveller from getting a wink of sleep at post stations, the absence of inns and the high-sounding but in fact miserable menu which the traveller finds teasing his appetite in a cold hut.26 Secondly, their size: they were quite small. (The same could indeed be said of Paris in the same period.) When Pushkin and his wife settled in St. Petersburg, the total urban population of the Russian Empire was fewer than two million, of whom 445,000 lived in St. Petersburg and 323,000 in Moscow.

Among the few hundred thousand inhabitants of St. Petersburg and Moscow in Pushkin’s day, the members of the upper stratum, whether or not they held appointments in the service of the state, followed an intensive social round, limited only by the restrictions of Orthodox fasts, above all ‘Great Lent’ (velikii post, the fast before Easter). It so happens that the merry-go-round of this period is the subject of one of the most brilliantly descriptive passages in Russian literature: the opening chapters of War and Peace. Tolstoy here portrays different kinds of parties given in St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1805, which he then contrasts with life in a large country house at the time. Life in both cities and also in the countryside changed little in the interval between then and Pushkin’s period.

Tolstoy’s portrait is of salon elegance in the capital ; of a name-day party in the house of a rich family in Moscow; and of the old-fashioned dignity of a grandee, the elder Prince Bolkonsky, who, exiled by Paul I, but now free to return to St. Petersburg, prefers to continue living in the calm of his estate, Bald Hills, about one hundred and fifty versts from Moscow. This description of life in St. Petersburg and Moscow is bathed in the roseate glow of a national epic; or as Akhmatova might have said (she used these words to criticize a different Russian writer), ‘no swords flash’.27 In Tolstoy’s final version – the work was continually revised – he cut the amount of French spoken by his characters in St. Petersburg ; in Moscow he makes Count Rostov speak ‘very bad but self-confident’ French ; and apart from the opening paragraph of the novel, which is entirely in French, for most of the dialogue in these early chapters he contents himself with the occasional interjection of the words mon cher or ma chere, together with a reminder to his readers that their ‘ancestors’ not only spoke but also thought in refined French.28 This was indeed the French that Pushkin, bilingual from childhood, also spoke. Even when he was dying, the melancholy words, ‘I must put my house in order,’ were spoken in French, not in Russian.

If the reader of the opening chapters of War and Peace can temporarily detach himself or herself from the flowing cadences of Tolstoyan prose and the subtlety of Tolstoy’s analysis of character, there will be discerned, often between the lines, a social analysis of the times that has not been subjected to the demands of the nostalgia of a later Russian generation. Thus, with the exceptions of Pierre Bezukhov (whose conversation shows from the outset traces of his being intended by Tolstoy as an embryonic Decembrist) and the younger Prince Bolkonsky (Andrei), cant is talked about Alexander I (the ‘lofty destiny of our dear Emperor’); except for Prince Andrei, no one shows much understanding of contemporary political realities; and – leaving aside the very young – the minds of most of them in St. Petersburg and Moscow are concentrated on money, match-making, trading influence and jockeying for position. All this goes on at a round of parties given on the eve of the Battle of Austerlitz. But for the war, what would all of them have been doing, with no parliament, no free press and (except in private) no freedom of assembly to absorb their energies? Tolstoy leaves his readers to imagine the answer to this question, before hurrying them on to the Austerlitz campaign.

The Battle of Austerlitz was Napoleon’s greatest victory, in which he decisively defeated the allied Russian and Austrian armies. On learning of the outcome the British Prime Minister, the younger Pitt, is said to have remarked: ‘Roll up that map [of Europe]; it will not be wanted these ten years.’ His forecast was right. It did indeed take ten years before the map of Europe could at last be redrawn, at the Congress of Vienna, after Napoleon had, in his turn, met his final defeat. Halfway through this epic period of European history, in 1811, Pushkin left his native Moscow for Tsarskoe Selo, where he spent the next six years of his life.

(Robin Edmonds)

Pushkin’s Origins (Part 5)

Curiously enough, we cannot be wholly confident about Pushkin’s physical appearance at this age. The authenticity of the lesser-known portrait (by an unknown artist), which depicts a small boy in conventional style, is extremely doubtful. Geitman’s well-known engraving of Pushkin as he was perhaps ten years later was not executed until 1822, by which time Pushkin was in Kishinev. Geitman seems deliberately to emphasize what he presumably regarded as Pushkin’s African traits. Here too views differ. (Geitman’s engraving may even have been derived from a drawing of Pushkin’s younger brother, Lev, at school.) The common factor, as it is to all of the many descriptions of Pushkin as a man, is the flash of his eyes: blue, penetrating and startlingly expressive – something which no one who met Pushkin, even briefly, ever forgot.22

The deficiencies of Alexander Sergeevich’s parents were counterbalanced by the quality not only of his father’s library, but also of some of his friends. Already as a young boy Alexander Sergeevich was introduced at home to leading literary figures, such as Nikolai Karamzin, Petr Vyazemsky and Vasilii Zhukovsky. Karamzin was the first great Russian historian. Pushkin greatly admired his work, although their relationship had its ups and downs. After 1820 they scarcely met, because Karamzin died not long after Pushkin was released from exile; but Vyazemsky and Zhukovsky became Pushkin’s close friends for the rest of his life.

Prince Vyazemsky, a liberal member of the high aristocracy, was Irish on his mother’s side. A little less than seven years older than Pushkin, he was at the same time a poet, literary critic and journalist. Pushkin and he did not always see eye to eye, whether on politics or on poetry, but the quality of their friendship was such that these disagreements, unlike some of the polemics in which Pushkin indulged with other people, had no lasting effects. Pushkin was also a close friend of Vyazemsky’s wife and of his family.

Zhukovsky was almost old enough to be Pushkin’s father. Indeed, towards the end of Pushkin’s life their relationship became so close that he was a kind of surrogate father, extending to Pushkin the relationship that Sergei L’vovich never offered to his elder son. He was himself the offspring of an unusual union: his mother was a captive taken from the Ottoman Empire during one of the Russo-Turkish wars. Personally he was a sad man, unable to marry the woman whom he loved. A poet distinguished mainly for his translations, Zhukovsky was one of the first to recognize Pushkin’s outstanding talent. At court – in his capacity as tutor to Nicholas I’schildren – he did all he could to soften the edges of Pushkin’s abrasive relationship with the tsar and Benckendorff. After Pushkin’s death, it was he who arranged for the tsar to make financial provision for his family, and also preserved Pushkin’s papers from the depredations of the tsar’s Third Department.

Another important friendship that Pushkin owed to his Moscow childhood was with the Turgenev brothers, all three of whom were older than himself. (The novelist, Ivan Turgenev, was – at most -their distant cousin.) It was on the advice of the eldest of these three brothers, Alexander, born in 1784, that in 1811 Pushkin’s parents applied for him to be enrolled in the imperial lycee. Here Alexander Turgenev used to visit the boy and encouraged his precocious poetic talent. And it was he who, on the tsar’s instructions, accompanied Pushkin’s body to its final resting place. The second brother, Nikolai, a distinguished Decembrist, was a political emigre during the last twelve years of Pushkin’s life. Some of the politically radical verses of Pushkin’s early period were written in the Turgenevs’ house in St. Petersburg.

Pushkin did not like the city of his birth, Moscow. Perhaps this was at first because of the recollection of his childhood years, later reinforced by a series of disagreeable altercations with his mother-in-law, who lived in Moscow at the time of his marriage. By contrast, he was fascinated by St. Petersburg. The capital was described by Pushkin’s great Polish contemporary, Adam Mickiewicz, as :

The fancy of the tsar, and he set out to found a city not for men but for himself: a monument to vanity. Into the depths of fluid sands and marshy swamps he bade them sink a hundred thousand piles and trample down the bodies of a hundred thousand men, earth having fallen on the bodies of the serfs23

By contrast, Pushkin’s introduction to The Bronze Horseman speaks for itself:

Люблю тебя, Петра творенье,

Люблю твой строгий, стройный вид,

Невы деркавное теченье,

Береговой её гранит,

Твоих оград узор чугунный,

Твоих задумчивых ночей

Прозрачный сумрак, блеск безлунный,

Когда я в комнате моей Пишу, читаю без лампады,

И ясны спяшие громады Пустынных улиц, и светла Адмиралтейская игла,

И, не пуская тьму ночную На золотые небеса,

Одна заря сменить другую Спешит, дав ночи полчасз.

Люблю зимы твоей жестокой Недвцжный воздух и мороз,

Вея санок вдоль Невы широкой,

Девичьи лица црче роз,

И блеск, и шум, и говор балов,

А в час пирушки холостой Шипенбе пенистых бокалов И пунша пламенб голубой.

Люблю воинственную живостб Потешных Марсовых полей,

Пехотных ратей и коней Однообразную красивостб,

В их стройно зыблемом строю Лоскутья сих знамён побелных,

Сиянье шапок этих медных,

Насквозь простреленных в бою.

Люблю, военная столица,

Твоей твердыни дым и гром,

Когда полнощная царица Дарует сына в царский дом,

Или победу над врагом Россия снова торжествует,

Или, взломав свой синий лёд,

Нева к морям его несет И, чуя вешни дни, ликует.

I love you, Peter’s creation, I love your stern, harmonious look, the mighty flow of the Neva, her granite embankments, the iron pattern of your railings, the transparent twilight and the moonless brilliance of your pensive nights, when I write and read in my room without a lamp, and the sleeping masses of the deserted streets shine and the Admiralty spire gleams, and without admitting night’s darkness to the golden heavens, dawn hastens to replace dusk, leaving night a bare half-hour. I love the motionless air and the frost of your brutal winter, the rush of sleighs along the broad Neva, the girls’ faces brighter than roses, and the sparkle, the noise and the talk at balls, and at the hour of a bachelor’s feast the hiss of sparkling wine-glasses and the blue flame of punch. I love the warlike liveliness of Mars’ playing-fields, the uniform beauty of the hosts of infantry and cavalry, the tatters of those victorious colours in their harmoniously swaying order, the gleam of those bronze helmets, raked with shots fired in battle. Martial capital, I love the smoke and thunder of your stronghold, when the northern empress presents a son to the royal house, or when Russia once again celebrates victory over her enemy, or when, having broken its blue ice, the Neva carries it to the seas and, scenting the days of spring, exults . . .

(Robin Edmonds)

Pushkin’s Origins (Part 4)

Whether either of these properties would have benefited by the presence of Sergei L’vovich is open to question. He was a hot-tempered man, although his rages seldom lasted for long. His chief concern seems to have been to reserve what energies he had for social life, avoiding responsibility for anything else, including the running of his own household; and as he grew older and his financial °. umstances worsened, he also grew increasingly mean. The Pushkin household in Moscow was run by Sergei L’vovich’s bossy, but erratic, wife, who – spoiled as a child – was given to prolonged sulks as a grown-up. Not only did they move house annually from 1799 to 1807, including one brief return to St. Petersburg (hence the infant poet’s meeting with Paul I), but Nadezhda Osipovna had a habit of continually moving furniture from one room to another, changing the functions of each room in the process. The consequent disruption was on such a scale that she was said by one of Alexander Sergeevich’s contemporaries to be obliged to send out for crockery whenever more than two people were invited to dinner.15

The conditions of disorder in the Pushkins’ life in Moscow were relieved by the fact that the summer months were spent in the country on a small estate at Zakharovo, forty-four kilometres from Moscow. Nadezhda Osipovna’s mother had bought Zakharovo in exchange for Kobrino, her family property near St. Petersburg, which she sold in 1799. Even Zakharovo was mortgaged ten years later; and in January 1811 it was sold for forty-five thousand roubles.16 Nevertheless, it was during these summers at Zakharovo that Alexander Sergeevich first got to know the beauty of the Russian countryside; his love for it was reinforced later in life.

The feeling that the Pushkins were camping – not living – in their home can hardly have failed to induce a feeling of instability in the small boy. To make matters worse, his mother’s favourite seems to have been his elder sister, Olga. He disliked his tutors, of whom there was a succession. They were mainly French, as was the custom at that time in a Russian family of this social standing, but they included a Miss Bailey, whose efforts to teach the boy English met with little success (he had to study the language all over again in later life). He was also confronted early in his boyhood by the tragedy of death: not only that of the first nanny, Ul’yana, of whom little is known, but also of three of his siblings, one of whom – Nikolai – was five when he died in 1807.

Neither parent seems to have taken much trouble over their remarkable elder son until the time came for him to go to school at the age of twelve. The member of the family who seems to have come closest to understanding the contradictions of his character -now fiery, now withdrawn – was his maternal grandmother, Maria Alekseevna. More perceptive than either of his parents, she observed of her grandson :

I do not know what he will become : the boy is intelligent, he loves books, but he works badly, it is rare that he recites his lessons correctly ; sometimes one cannot move him nor send him to play with the children, and sometimes he gets agitated and excited and one does not know how to calm him down ; he throws himself from one extreme to the other ; he does not know the happy medium. God knows how this will finish, if he does not become reasonable17

Alexander Sergeevich never did have much truck with the happy medium, nor did he ever become ‘reasonable’. No one seems to have realized until he went to boarding school – and even then only gradually – that he was a literary genius. In spite of his excellent memory, he simply did not bother with subjects which did not interest him, like mathematics. On the other hand, when reading the works of authors who did engage his attention, already as a boy he showed the beginnings of the power of discrimination which he developed in his later study of an exceptionally broad range of literature.

It is the biographer’s misfortune that Pushkin destroyed most of his autobiographical notes, which might have illuminated these early years more clearly than the fragments of evidence that have been handed down by those who knew him then. What is reasonably certain, however, is that Alexander Sergeevich’s nanny, Arina Rodionovna, and his sister, Olga, were much closer to him than either parent. (For example, it was to Olga – not to his parents – that he recited his first play, a comedy written in French, imitated from Moliere.18 This recital took place before he was twelve years old.) From the age of ten he had Nikita Kozlov, a serf from Boldino, twenty-one years older than himself, as his personal servant, who stayed with him for the rest of his life and beyond (he was one of the very few who were present at the poet’s burial). Arina was also born a serf – and she was always illiterate – but she was emancipated by Pushkin’s maternal grandmother in the year of his birth. She chose to stay on with the Pushkin family and she thus became successively nanny to Olga, to Pushkin himself and to his younger brother, Lev. It seems that she was not the nanny whom the tsar Paul I scolded in 1800 when he met the infant Pushkin out for a walk in St. Petersburg. It may therefore not have been with Arina that Pushkin was later taken for walks in the Yusupov Garden in Moscow, as recorded in his own autobiographical notes. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that between the ages of six and twelve it was Arina to whom he was closest, in a family environment to which, in the same notes, Pushkin applied the adjective ‘intolerable’.

Most young children love grown-ups who tell them stories. Arina not only told Pushkin stories but she also poured out peasant traditions and proverbs. An exceptionally imaginative child such as Pushkin had good reason to love Arina. Moreover, her remarkable powers of story-telling were again exercised in later years, this time with tangible poetic results, when she used to spend the evenings talking to Pushkin at Mikhailovskoe during his two-year exile on his mother’s estate. When this exile was brought to an end by Nicholas I’s summons to Pushkin for an audience in Moscow in September 1826, Arina wept; but she was glad of the opportunity to get rid of Pushkin’s smelly Limberg cheese, to which he was addicted. A letter dictated by her in the year before she died described him as constantly in her heart and in her mind. The depth of Pushkin’s own feelings towards Arina is evident from more than one of his poems; and during his exile at Mikhailovskoe a letter drafted near the end of 1824 says it all:

I spend all day on horseback – in the evening I listen to tales told by my nanny, the prototype of Tatyana’s nanny [a reference to the nurse in the famous letter-writing scene in Chapter 3 of Evgertii Onegin.] ; you saw her once, it seems to me, she is my one and only friend – it is only when I am with her that I am not bored.20

What should have marked out Alexander Sergeevich to his parents and everyone else who met him – and did indeed impress his schoolmates – was the number of hours that from an early age (often at night) he spent reading. There is a story that, told to leave the room by his uncle Vasilii, who was about to recite some unsuitable verses, he shouted : ‘I know everything already!’ He probably did. His desire for reading as a boy, which he himself described in his autobiographical notes, gave him at this astonishingly early age a detailed knowledge not only of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French literature, but also of some of the classics in French translation -Plutarch’s Lives, the Iliad and the Odyssey, for example.

(Robin Edmonds)

Pushkin’s Origins (Part 3)

Pushkin had access to his maternal family papers (and in 1817 he met one of Abram’s sons, a senior general, who plied him with vodka, at Mikhailovskoe). Nevertheless, he never attempted to identify where in Africa his great-grandfather was born. ‘Gannibal’ – the Russian form of Hannibal – at first sight suggests North Africa. It has, however, been generally accepted that this was not so, and that Abram was born about 1693 in a region where – as he himself claimed in 1742, in his petition to the Russian Senate applying for a certificate of nobility and a coat of arms – he had been a member of ‘the high nobility’. Although this petition gives the name of a town ‘in the demesne of my father’ it does not add in what country the town was situated.10 Nevertheless, it is Ethiopia that is assumed to have been Abram’s country of origin. The evidence about Abram’s boyhood is extremely sketchy. It is far from established how he got to Constantinople or how he made his transition from the Sublime Porte to the Russian capital. What is certain is that, on his arrival, Peter the Great became his personal patron and that in 1716 the tsar sent him to Paris for his military education : the start of a long career which, although the paths both of his public and of his private life did not run smooth, he none the less ended as a full general and the owner of a large estate (including Mikhailovskoe, with one thousand four hundred serfs).

The portrait of Abram Petrovich as a young man in Paris and St. Petersburg which his great-grandson drew in his Blackamoor of Peter the Great11 – the opening chapters of a novel never completed – is charming, but it bears only a tenuous relation to what we know of his early career. Once he had entered the tsar’s service within Russia, however, the facts become easier to establish. True, he enrolled in the French school of military engineers (it was his expertise in fortifications that later made his name in Russia) and he took part as an officer in the French army in the War of the Spanish Succession. But, unlike the hero of Pushkin’s novel, he never set foot in the fast set of the corrupt and dissolute court of Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, the Regent of France. On the contrary, his years in Paris were spent in extreme poverty. On his return to St. Petersburg in 1724, Peter the Great gave him a commission in his own Preobrazhensky Regiment. During his subsequent military career there was more than one period when he found it prudent to go to ground in the country. It was only after Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth, came to the throne that he was granted the Mikhailovskoe estate and promoted major-general. His first marriage, in 1731, was to a Greek, whom he succeeded in persuading the government to imprison for five years for infidelity, although both sides had erred in equal measure. She ended her days in a convent. His second wife, to whom he was bigamously married for nearly twenty years, was German. Abram Petrovich himself died in 1781, a patriarch nearing ninety, who had fathered eleven children, all by his second wife.

The romantic nature of his birth and his early years apart, it seems probable that Abram Petrovich Gannibal differed ‘in nothing from a typical career-minded, superficially educated, coarse, wife-flogging Russian of his day, in a brutal and dull world of political intrigue, favouritism’,12 and that the Gannibals were ‘a patriarchal, half savage, half literate, family’.13 (Both these are descriptions written by Russians.) It is hard to imagine two families more different than the Gannibals and the Pushkins in the late eighteenth century. Remarkably, however, Nadezhda Osipovna was not the first Gannibal to marry a Pushkin. Her mother was born Maria Pushkina, marrying Abram Petrovich’s third son, Osip Gannibal; thus Sergei L’vovich, the poet’s father, was Nadezhda Osipovna’s second cousin. Osip Gannibal, like his father, attempted bigamy, deserting Maria after only three years. But he was less successful than his father, because in 1784 his second marriage was declared invalid by Catherine II; and Maria retained the title and prerogative of his legitimate wife, including a quarter of the large properties that Abram had been awarded earlier in the century. Hence the part played by Mikhailovskoe in the life of Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin.

Alexander Sergeevich was proud of his paternal ancestry for quite other reasons. The Pushka or Pushkin family emerges from the mists of early Russian time around 1400. Alexander Sergeevich’s line of descent from Konstantin Pushkin, born early in the fifteenth century, was direct. (Because Konstantin’s father was called Grigorii, this was the name given by Pushkin to his younger son, who lived into our own century.) The Pushkin family had not, however, been distinguished in any way since the end of the seventeenth century, when a Pushkin was executed by Peter the Great – that is, unless the story of two startling murders is taken into account (Alexander’s paternal great-grandfather strangled his wife in 1725 and his grandfather allegedly hanged his children’s French tutor whom he suspected of being his wife’s lover). The social level of Alexander Sergeevich’s parents was that of the middle nobility. At the beginning of the nineteenth century a family of this kind especially if they lived in either St. Petersburg or Moscow, lay open to a permanent temptation to imitate, as best they could, the way of life of the so-called vysshii svet – the haut monde described in the opening chapters of War and Peace – regardless of whether they had anything like the means to do so.

There were some compensations. Sergei L’vovich had a considerable library of French books; both he and his brother were well read in French, therefore; and Vasilii achieved a reputation as a minor poet. There was, however, more to it than that. Both his father Sergei and his uncle Vasilii were social climbers. Their pursuit (especially Sergei’s) of the haut monde in the end left them broken.14 It was this curious combination of a snobbish dilettante as a father and, as a mother, the moody, capricious descendant of military boors, which formed the at first sight improbable background to the first twelve years of the life of Russia’s greatest poet.

In the marriage of Pushkin’s parents the problem was not infidelity – Nadezhda Osipovna was a stronger character than Sergei L’vovich – but fecklessness. In 1798, at the age of thirty-one, two years after his marriage to Nadezhda Osipovna in St. Petersburg, Sergei L’vovich resigned his commission in the Egersky Regiment; the couple, with their baby daughter, Olga, then moved to Moscow. Clearly unsuited for military life, Sergei L’vovich took no part in the campaigns of the opening years of the nineteenth century, although Alexander I gave him some minor employment, for which his salary can only have been minimal. From 1817 onwards he did nothing for the rest of his life, never even visiting his own family estate, Boldino (in Nizhnii Novgorod province, with twelve hundred serfs), whose administration he left to a steward. He took equally little interest in the Mikhailovskoe estate.

(Robin Edmonds)

Pushkin’s Origins (Part 2)

In the eighteenth century there were, strictly speaking, no censuses in Russia. By 1858, however, the total number of both sexes entitled to noble status in the Russian Empire was 604,000.2 Although the privileges established by law were common to all of them, the divisions of wealth and status within the noble class were immense. At one end of the income scale of the Russian nobility stood landowners like Count P. B. Shereme’tev, who owned – at the lowest reckoning – sixty thousand serfs,3 and those who had already made vast fortunes from the newly-exploited mineral wealth in the Urals and further east. At the other, there were villages in which there lived men bearing names distinguished in Russian history but so impoverished that their standard of existence was little higher than that of the surrounding serf population. At best, the ‘dispossessed, homeless, landless, proletarian brothers and sisters of the comfortable owners of inherited estates’ either ‘lived as pensioners in the owner’s house’ or ‘flitted miserably from one house to another.

The aim of the reforms of Peter the Great at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was to break the power of the nobility. His reforms swept away the ancient order of the boyar, once the highest dignity in Russia: a title held by three Pushkins in the course of the seventeenth century. The main branch of the Pushkin family was untitled. The only hereditary title in Russia until the eighteenth century was that of knyaz’, prince. (The title of the tsar’s sons, literally ‘great prince’, is confusingly translated ‘grand duke’ in English, although there were never any dukes in Russia.) From then on the titles of baron and count began to be conferred – among many importations from the Baltic States and Central Europe. But the greatest Petrine reform, which remained in force during Pushkin’s lifetime and well beyond it, was the Table of Ranks. Originally there were fourteen in all, rising from a junior official (‘collegial registrar’) at the bottom of the ladder up to chancellor, equivalent to field marshal, at the top. The Table’s social significance lay in the fact that, from 1721 onwards, a private soldier of humble birth became eligible for commissioned rank; and the children of holders of the eight senior ranks in the Petrine Table, roughly down to that of the civilian equivalent of major, became hereditary nobles. Peter the Great died in 1725; his Table of Ranks survived until the Russian Revolution nearly two hundred years later.

This new system was superimposed on a social hierarchy previously based on birth and genealogy alone. At the same time there was an influx of foreigners into Russia during the eighteenth century: some adventurers, some men of substance and some men of talent (the architect Charles Cameron was a notable Scottish example). Taken in conjunction with the increasing tendency of successive tsars to convert into imperial grandees both their own personal favourites and senior servants of the state (such as Field-Marshal Kutuzov,5 created Prince of Smolensk), all this combined to bring about a gradual transformation of the Russian noble class by 1800.

As Pushkin put it in his poem, My Genealogy, ‘We have an aristocracy that is new by birth, and the newer it is, the more aristocratic’. This poem is full of irony, accentuated by the circumstances that provoked Pushkin to write it.6 But a remark that expresses his mature view of the position of the Pushkin family in Russian society is one which he made in the course of a talk, recorded by himself, with the Grand Duke Mikhail (younger brother of Nicholas I) towards the end of 1834: ‘Speaking of the old nobility, I said “We, who are gentlemen, just as well born as the Emperor and yourself7 The Pushkins were indeed an ancient family. Of the families included in the gosudarev rodoslovets (a sort of official studbook) in the reign of Ivan the Terrible, only thirty odd, including the Pushkins, were still extant three centuries later. By 1800, however, the Pushkins were already a family financially on the way down. Both Alexander Sergeevich’s parents had estates, but these had shrunk in size during the eighteenth century.

At the time Alexander Sergeevich was born, the Gannibals had been Russian for less than a hundred years. His mother, Nadezhda Osipovna Pushkina, was known as ‘the beautiful creole’. The reason for this was that her grandfather was black; and according to her daughter-in-law the palms of Nadezhda’s hands were rather yellow.8 Alexander Sergeevich was proud of and fascinated by his greatgrandfather, who had died eighteen years earlier – so much so that to the line of verse ‘beneath the sky of my Africa’ (in the first chapter of Evgenii Onegin) he added a long explanatory note, which begins with the words: ‘The author, on his mother’s side, is of African descent. His great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Annibal [Pushkin used the French spelling here], was kidnapped in his eighth year from the shores of Africa and brought to Constantinople. Having rescued him, the Russian Ambassador sent him as a present to Peter the Great, who had him baptized in Vilno.’9 Although much of this note is of dubious accuracy, Pushkin’s great-grandfather was certainly christened – Petr Petrovich – in Vilno in 1707, his godparents being Peter the Great and the Queen of Poland. Apparently because he had previously been known as Ibrahim, he was allowed to use the Russian form, Abram, as his Christian name ; and by 1725 he had adopted the name Gannibal as his surname.

(Robin Edmonds)

Pushkin’s Origins (Part 1)

On 26 May 1799, the feast of the Ascension, Nadezhda Osipovna Pushkina gave birth to her first son, in the family’s town house, in what was then known as German Street, in Moscow. He was christened Alexander in the Church of the Epiphany a fortnight later. The Gannibals – the family of the boy’s mother – had attained noble rank barely half a century earlier. By contrast, his father, Sergei L’vovich Pushkin, was descended in a direct line from one of the oldest families in Russia. Thus, Alexander Sergeevich automatically entered the world of the dvoryanstvo by virtue of his birth. Expressed in these simple terms, the privileged position in Russian society to which he had the inherited right to look forward sounds a foregone conclusion. In reality, the boy’s prospects were less clear-cut.

For this reservation there are two reasons: one particular and the other general. The particular reason derives from the fact that the families of Alexander Sergeevich’s father and mother were glaringly disparate. By blood, therefore, he was from the outset an unusual and potentially explosive mixture. The Janus-like1 exterior of his character which – in parallel with his literary genius – he swiftly developed even as a boy, still more as a young man, sometimes baffled his friends and usually misled his enemies. Pushkin was himself sometimes morbidly conscious of the special legacy of his lineage. Of the reaction of others to the contrasts involved in his complex personality he took little account throughout his life.

The general reason at once becomes apparent when the differences between the Russian dvoryanin (literally, a man of the court, dvor) and an English aristocrat or a French nobleman, as they were at the end of the eighteenth century, are taken into consideration. Any attempt to compare, let alone to equate, the Russian nobility with the Western European aristocracy falls foul of the fact that a feudal system, in its classic European form, never existed in Russia; there was no territorial aristocracy there of the kind familiar in Western Europe. The Russian social system therefore had neither a feudal nor a bourgeois tradition. The intelligentsia – itself a Russian word – did not yet exist in this period. (The small merchant class was not categorized as belonging to the bourgeoisie, which was a sort of dumping ground for Russians of many different kinds, including even factory workers at this time.) The word which, for want of a better, is generally used to translate dvoryanstvo is ‘nobility’ (the word ‘gentry’, often used in describing Polish society, is misleading
in the Russian context). To English ears ‘nobility’ does not have the right ring; it is a translation from noblesse, the word used for dvoryanstvo in the French that was still the language of the Russian imperial court at the turn of the century.

The dvoryanstvo constituted the apex of a human pyramid numbering about forty millions when Pushkin was born. It was indeed a highly privileged class. An obvious example is the fact that a Russian noble was exempt from corporal punishment (the knut was reserved for the millions below him). But no less important was access to education. The Russian educational system still being in its infancy at the turn of the century, most Russian nobles were educated at home by tutors (and afterwards, if their parents could afford it, sent abroad to foreign universities to complete their studies). Pushkin himself was one of the exceptions to this general rule, being sent to the imperial boarding school which was inaugurated just when he entered it; but the products of Russian universities did not make their mark in Russian life until shortly after his death. For a poor but intelligent boy the option was a seminary school: a route followed by Speransky towards the end of the eighteenth century and by Stalin a hundred years later.

(Robin Edmonds)


From 1919 on, the praises of education were sung to the working masses by those such as Maiakovski, lavinski, Tcheremnykh, Khlebnikov by means of the famous “Rosta windows”, posters produced and copied by hand and stuck in empty shop windows.

With the passing of years, and with varying talent and originality, education has become major soviet propaganda. Although it is no longer a case of teaching illiterate peasants to read and write, it is still necessary to construct he country’s future, and to form the Soviet citizen.

With or without Perestroika, there is a striking constancy in the themes illustrated by the posters. Firstly, attempts are made to further technical and manual education -paradoxically, these are not highly thought of in the Land of the Victorious working-classes. School must also form taste; thus art is described as a “wonder”, as “magic”, and is supposed to hold fairy-tale appeal for children. The symbols used are extremely conventional (greek pillars, lyres…) and the concepts are not without a certain “spiritualism”. Words such as “miracles”, “soul”… (and this was already the case under Stalin where folklore, for example, was defined as “the soul of the people”) are more popular with Soviet idealogy, however atheist and materialistic, than with our obscurantist society. Finally, sport is given a place of honour, according to the maxim “a sound mind in a sound body”. It strengthens and develops community spirit.

The posters at the end of the eighties are little different from those of the “Brejnev stagnation” years. There are some innovations, however. The computer is one of them (soviet schools are beginning to be equipped with them); as well as the fight against excessive television viewing, nevertheless, on the whole we get the impression that such large-scale problems are treated very vaguely and with a certain timidity. The question of parent-child relationships -very painful at present – doesn’t get beyond the stage of a question. Parent’s lack of willingness to follow their children’s schooling closely, or to to keep in touch with the school, falls far short of reality. We are reminded of certain posters in the seventies which were much more violent in denouncing the pressure brought to bear on teachers by families – in order that their offsprings’s marks be upgraded. The same comment can be applied to teachers. Asked to show “creativity”, many find themselves bewildered nowdays, uncertain of what to teach or how to do so.

The series on peace and war are perhaps the most representative. The basic assumption is that “all children want peace”. But peace must be defended by weapons, which justifies soviet militarism and armament. Literal cliches like these can be found in countless posters throughout the USSR. The wheel has come a full circle with the cult of the hero killed at war, a theme soviet education has been trying to develop since the Second World War. Except that now it’s a question of fighting the idea of a “dirty war”. Today’s herns are those that fought in Afghanistan, even though the word may be left unsaid.



The majority of poster artists receive specialized education at an Art College and then enter the Artist’s Union, for example, the poster section of the Moscou organisation has about a hundred and fifty members. It provides them with corporate advantages as well as worker status, however, the main publishing house, Panorama», formerly called “Plakat” (the poster), is not answerable to the Union, but to the Communist Party Central Committee.

This firm commissions the work, and pays a set price for the original irrespective of the number of copies that are printed. They then propose the poster to bookshops, and only when orders have been placed does the printing start.

Until 1985, these commissions were of such a directive order that artists found them very restricting. Their work had to be submitted for approval both to the council members of the Artist’s Union and to the editors whose decision was made both on artistic and political grounds. As a rule, the Central Committee exerted tight control and gave frequent advice, riowdays, it allows them greater freedom. Perestroika’s inherent ideas have enabled the artist to show initiative and fully exploit the use of satire. Though obviously the management cannot accept posters radically opposed to the Party line. The most important problem at the present time is no longer one of censorship, but of economics: a poster must be financially viable. However, political and social themes are not conducive to large-scale printing: who, for example, really wants to buy a poster against bureaucracy?

Shortage of paper is another problem; in 1990,

“Panorama” received half the amount of the previous years. The “Aguitplakat”, which is attached to the Artists’ Union, publishes a few posters (about sixteen per month), which are more daring than those of “Panorama”, but printed in smaller quantities (maximum 7000- 8000 copies). In fact, the majority of posters, often the most interesting, are not published at all. They remain “exhibition” posters, which is somewhat contrary to their calling. The public’s enthusiasm is evident by the large numbers that turn up for such events.

The audience can sometimes show their disapproval as well: they broke a Moscow Artist’s Union display window which showed a poster of Lenin breast-feeding Stalin.

At the moment there is no publishing cooperative, only the Communist Party can afford to publish posters, the impact of independant posters is limited by their lack of circulation. Faced with the disappearance of mass propaganda posters “Panorama” has had to move into new fields, such as calendars, or series on religious feasts. They are now ready to look for new customers abroad, too. But because of their attachment to the Communist Party, however, they have to limit their choice. For example, they cannot allow themselves to publish erotic posters even though they are in great demand from part of the population.

The Soviet poster, too, is at a turning point in it’s history.