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’.