The First Russian

In January 1832 a New Year’s gift arrived at the home of Alexander Pushkin. The parcel had been sent by a close friend, the art collector Pavel Nashchokin, along with a note: “I am sending you your ancestor.” At the center of the gift, an inkstand, was the figure of a small Black boy with bright red lips leaning against two bales of cotton. Inside them, in lieu of the white crop, was ink (chernilo, literally “black stuff” in Russian). The substitution revealed Pushkin’s ancestor to be a man of “great foresight,” wrote Nashchokin, for else how could a slave child from what is now Cameroon, purchased in Constantinople (for a bottle of rum, as one rumor had it), have known that his great-grandson would become Russia’s greatest poet, a man known colloquially as nashe vse, “our everything”?

Pushkin was born in 1799 to an aristocratic family that could trace its lineage all the way to the twelfth century and the boyars of feudal Russia. An inviolate snob, he resented the new nobility that had gained its status through Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks—an attempt at meritocracy that conferred titles based on service to the state. In his writing, he took pains to highlight how influential his family had been at pivotal moments of Russia’s history. He gave the ancestral Pushkins meaty roles in Boris Godunov (1825), his play about the Time of Troubles (1598–1613), the chaos over succession that followed the death of Ivan the Terrible.

Pushkin also intended to immortalize his great-grandfather Abram Petrovich Gannibal in print. In 1828 the poet’s first experiment in prose fiction was the unfinished (and posthumously titled) “Peter the Great’s African,” a Russian Othello story set against the backdrop of the tsar’s modernizing reforms; the novel is now available in a new translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Boris Dralyuk, alongside the prose works “Dubrovsky,” “The History of Goriukhino,” and “The Egyptian Nights.” In keeping with the Pushkins’ class pride, the family was keen to emphasize that Gannibal, who was born in 1696, had been a prince in his native country; likewise, they preferred the version of the story in which he had been taken hostage (not purchased) by Ottoman invaders. He arrived in Constantinople at age seven, where he was kept in the seraglio of Sultan Ahmed III until he was acquired by a Russian envoy, likely through a bribe of Siberian fur (not rum).

Africans were a commonplace oddity in imperial Russia. Peter the Great kept several in the palace, and up until the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Romanov tsars all had Black soldiers guard the doors of their bedchambers. They were known as “Abyssinian Guards,” though not all were from Ethiopia or Eritrea—an African American boxer named Jim Hercules worked as one for Alexander III after his wife, the empress, spotted Hercules in London and offered him the job. He made regular trips home to America and was known to bring back jars of guava jelly for the tsar’s children. A number of Russian nobles had their own African servants to keep up with the fashions of court; a “negro” even appears briefly in the Rostov family home in War and Peace.

But Gannibal was special. This particular African became the favorite of Peter the Great, who raised him as a godson. The tsar sent him to be educated abroad, in France, after which he returned to Russia to serve in the military, rising to the rank of general. He was tasked with teaching civil engineering to the architects of Peter the Great’s new, Westernized empire. Such a fate should have been enough to make Gannibal the star of his family tree.

It is not enough to say that Gannibal’s great-grandson became a poet, even a great poet. Pushkin, it is often claimed, invented the Russian literary language itself. This is hyperbole for sure (Pushkin’s teachers included such venerable poets as Gavrila Derzhavin), but it is true that by the end of the eighteenth century, when Pushkin was born, secular genres were still emerging in Russia. The use of the vernacular was relatively nascent (most printed texts, other than those in a foreign tongue, were written in the liturgical language Old Church Slavonic), and the patronage system meant that genres like the court ode (which paid homage to the tsar) predominated. Russian models for popular literary genres like the adventure tale or historical fiction were either limited or poor in quality. It was against this background that Pushkin produced dramas (Boris Godunov), fairy tales (“Ruslan and Ludmila”), historical fiction (The Captain’s Daughter), a novel in verse (Eugene Onegin), historical tracts (The History of the Pugachev Rebellion), and astonishing pieces of lyric poetry.

Does it matter, then, that this writer whom Dostoevsky later called “the first Russian” made frequent mention of another kind of heritage? In “To Yuryev” (1820), a poem addressed to a friend, he describes himself as “a forever idle playboy, an ugly descendant of negroes, raised in the wild.” In a letter to the poet Prince Vyazemsky regarding the Greek independence movement, Pushkin had this to say: “One can think of the fate of the Greeks in the same way as of the fate of my brother negroes, and one can wish both of them liberation from unendurable slavery.” In Eugene Onegin (1833), the narrator at one point proclaims (in Vladimir Nabokov’s translation),

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’Tis time to leave the dreary shore
of the element inimical to me,
and ’mid meridian ripples
beneath the sky of my Africa,
to sigh for somber Russia,
where I suffered, where I loved,
where I buried my heart.

To this, Pushkin affixed a footnote: “The author, on his mother’s side, is of African descent.”

That many readers of Pushkin remain unaware of his African roots is not an accident, and in fact was part of a concerted effort to ensure that Russia’s great national poet, whose talents were to redeem a country long viewed in the West as backward and incapable of literary genius, was as Russian as possible. In 1899, in an article to mark the centennial of Pushkin’s birth, the journal Moscow News proclaimed: “With his works, he showed that the Russian people are not one of those peoples of the East which strives only to adopt the latest fruits of European civilization.” That year, all of Russia was lit up with celebrations of the poet. Streets were renamed in his honor. Schoolchildren were given candy bars with his face on the wrapper. There was even a macabre board game based on the poet’s death for sale: Pushkin’s Duel.

As part of the commemorations, the ethnographer Dmitry Anuchin wrote a special report, “Pushkin: An Anthropological Sketch.” Anuchin, then a pioneering thinker in the Russian school of race science, did not entirely disavow Pushkin’s African lineage. To some extent, his dual heritage was useful as a metaphor for imperial Russia just then, as it sought to subsume a multitude of ethnically disparate nations to its south and east (in what is now called Central Asia). Anuchin, however, conscious of Western racial hierarchies, actively sought to distance Pushkin’s Africanness from his Blackness. To do so, he claimed Pushkin’s ancestor had to have hailed from Abyssinia. Gannibal belonged, in Anuchin’s formulation, to “the Ethiopian race, which considerably differed from the negro race.” Soviet scholars likewise tended to skirt the question of Pushkin’s Blackness. The critic Yury Lotman, for instance, avoided mentioning Pushkin’s great-grandfather by name in his 1981 biography of the poet, and even claimed that the “monkey” taunts Pushkin received in his lycée were a response to Pushkin’s facility with the French language.

Though the motivation behind these omissions is odious, modern readers of Pushkin could be forgiven for wondering how much filling in these gaps truly require. To some, an invocation of Pushkin’s Blackness feels out of place, the misapplication of American racial categories in a vastly different setting. None other than W.E.B. Du Bois raised that concern in a 1940 biographical sketch of Pushkin, intended for a collection of profiles of great Black figures throughout history. “A pertinent question arises in this case,” wrote Du Bois,

as to whether an Encyclopedia of the negro should include a person like Pushkin. In the narrow sense of the word and according to continental usage, Pushkin was in no sense a negro; and the mere fact that he was an octoroon had little to do with his cultural development.

By 2006 this question was still pertinent, and a group of scholars devoted a collection of essays, Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness, to answering it. The introductory essay, written by Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Ludmilla A. Trigos, carried the blunt title “Was Pushkin Black and Does It Matter?” Across the essays, which range in topic from Pushkin’s reading of Othello to his reception during the Harlem Renaissance, the answer reveals itself to be an emphatic yes, for reasons not biological but emotional. Being Black mattered to Pushkin—his own words attest to it. As another contributor, the Pushkin scholar David M. Bethea, put it: “Blackness was for Pushkin both something real, given (he cared about surfaces), and something styled, something to be worked with.” As a poet, he found utility in Africa as a myth and in Blackness as metaphor. In Onegin, he juxtaposed his constrained life in Russia—marked by near-constant surveillance and various periods of exile—with an imagined African homeland defined by wild freedom. In “Peter the Great’s African,” his great-grandfather, as a Europeanized Black man, was the poet’s entryway into imagining Peter the Great’s Russia—a place where European standards of modernity were imposed, sometimes violently, on unwilling peoples.

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Before these more recent scholarly interventions, Pushkin’s Black heritage stayed in the public consciousness in large part thanks to his reception by Black artists and writers. During the Harlem Renaissance, Pushkin became a source of race pride for poets like Claude McKay, whose 1927 poem, titled simply “Pushkin,” reflects on seeing his statue while visiting Moscow years earlier:

Gazing upon the image of the man
In whom a nation’s flowering began.
The very greatest Russian of his race,
I saw the Negro plainly in his face.

Reflecting on this scene of the Jamaican-American McKay—buoyed by the communal identity that fostered Black artistic production during the Harlem Renaissance, gazing at an image of another Black poet and feeling invigorated—one feels the profound absence of such moments in the life of Pushkin. To the extent he was aware of himself as a Black writer, he forged this identity in isolation, likely cobbling it together from news reports about the slave trade, Enlightenment tracts regarding African savages, and certainly Othello—quite the brew. Our best sense of how these disparate (and deranged) clues about the nature of Black personhood were filtered through Pushkin’s mind into something like a manageable sense of self comes through in his characterization of his ancestor Gannibal, renamed Ibrahim in “Peter the Great’s African.”

The story begins in Paris, where Peter the Great’s “godson, an African named Ibrahim” has been sent to study. Pushkin portrays Ibrahim as a curiosity among the French, at times an object of racist scorn and at others of sexual fascination. “All the ladies wished to receive le Nègre du czar,” he writes. Desirability was central to Pushkin’s wrestling with race, including his own. In his writings, he vacillated between bemoaning his “negro ugliness” (in a letter to his wife, he complained that his African features would be immortalized in a new statue) and noting with excitement how his exotic looks might win him sexual conquests. In “To Yuryev,” he writes, “Without understanding why, a nymph will become all aflame looking at a faun.”

Similarly, Ibrahim is both insecure in his appearance and never without options. He embarks on a disastrous affair with a married Frenchwoman, Countess D, who soon becomes pregnant with his child. To cover up their indiscretion, a white baby is brought into the delivery room and the Black child is sent away as soon as it’s born. Ibrahim—who has imbibed the worst beliefs about his race from French society—comes to feel their love has made for an unnatural union, one that will bring shame and ultimately great unhappiness to the countess. “Why should we strive to unite the fate,” he writes her, “of so tender and beautiful a being as yourself with the terrible fate of a negro—a pitiful creature scarcely worthy of being called human?”

Ibrahim resolves to return to Russia to serve his godfather. His friend the Duke of Orléans is aghast at the notion and tries to convince him to stay, using a curious argument. “Think about what you are doing,” he implores.

Russia is not your native country. I doubt you will ever set eyes on your sultry homeland again, but your long sojourn in France has spoiled you for both the climate and the way of life of half-barbarous Russia.

Here, we get our first clue that one of the ways Pushkin accessed Blackness was—ironically—by wrestling with what it meant to be Russian.

In the era when Pushkin was writing, race as a philosophical concept was in conflict with other theories on how to divide people into categories. One of the most influential of them was the climate theory of human differentiation as articulated by Montesquieu—who is mentioned in the story—in his treatise The Spirit of Laws (1748). Montesquieu believed that climate had a direct influence on temperament and that the governability of a particular people was a function of the weather. Over time, interpreters of Montesquieu used this to suggest that the temperate climate of Western Europe provided a kind of golden mean between the supposedly hot-blooded, despotic societies of Africa and Asia and the stiff peoples of the north whose minds were stunted by the frigid temperatures. French philosophers even speculated that Russians had failed to create a literary tradition on par with their own on account of such meteorological forces. “The want of genius therefore among the Russians,” wrote Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche in A Journey into Siberia (1770), “appears to be an effect of the soil and of the climate.”

By having a Frenchman portray both Russian and African climates as inhospitable to a man of Ibrahim’s refined manners and sophistication, Pushkin subtly yokes Russianness and Blackness together. The moment suggests that Pushkin, at least in part, understood being Black through the experience of being Russian—that is, on the losing end of the hierarchies of difference concocted by the West.

Pushkin, however, would not have been inventing the wheel by connecting the Black and Russian experiences, especially during the period in which he was writing. In Alexander Radishchev’s fictional travelogue A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (1790), the narrator traverses the Russian countryside, witnessing up close the horrors of Russia’s own peculiar institution. He stops for a cup of coffee and pours in some sugar, or as he refers to it, “the fruits of the sweat of miserable African slaves.” Taking a position on the African slave trade became a way for Russian writers after Radishchev to implicitly criticize serfdom and to participate in debates over freedom itself, including freedom of speech. (Radishchev was exiled to Siberia after writing Journey.)

In the volume of essays on Pushkin’s Blackness, Nepomnyashchy offered another significant literary referent for “Peter the Great’s African”: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789), translated into Russian in 1794. Equiano spurred a rage for travelogues in which an African slave, given access to a Western education, is suddenly endowed with great powers of intellect. Such tales were often promoted by white abolitionists in the West to show that the supposed backwardness of Black peoples was not inherent but rather a symptom of enslavement. Peter the Great, Nepomnyashchy notes, was arguably undertaking a similar experiment of nature versus nurture in bringing European culture and customs to a country considered barbaric by the West. In this way, she argues, an African like Ibrahim is the ideal vessel for a story about “the Petrine reform of Russian society, which pits education and natural ability against genealogy.”

Is it his Africanness that explains Ibrahim’s patience with the old Russian nobles who are obstinate in the face of Peter’s reforms, refusing to let their self-worth be tied to their adoption of European standards of style and decorum? When he returns to St. Petersburg, Ibrahim distinguishes himself from other Russian officers back from France by not mocking the obstinate members of Peter’s court who still insist on doing some things by old traditions (i.e., sitting around a table according to familial seniority). Whereas Korsakov, a young Russian likewise educated in Paris, turns his nose up at Russian customs, both old and new—“Que diable est-ce que tout cela?” (What the devil is all of this?), he whispers at the sight of beer—Ibrahim wins admirers for his deference to Russian ways (he waits for a young woman to ask him to dance the minuet), even as he seems an embodiment of the foreign. And that comes in handy when he decides he wants to marry one of their daughters.

“Peter the Great’s African” is also significant as an exploration of genre. Inspired by the success of Walter Scott’s Waverly (1814)—a historical novel about the Jacobite Uprising of 1745—Pushkin was keen to bring the form to bear on historical events in his own country. Though Ibrahim is at the center of the narrative, Peter the Great is his true subject. The tsar appears or is referenced at various moments (he writes letters to Ibrahim in Paris, greets him warmly upon his return, observes a prank at the ball, interrupts a meal of the old boyars), but even in his absence he can be keenly felt. In his reforms and the effect they have on everyone in Russia, he is ambient.

The young woman Ibrahim is betrothed to, Natalya, is desperate to get out of their engagement (which was arranged by Peter) because she’s in love with another man. Her maid comforts her with the assurance that because of Peter’s reforms (including allowing noblewomen to attend public balls and mingle with men besides their husbands) there will be ample opportunity to find love after marriage. “It may be your lot to marry the African,” she tells Natalya, “but you’ll still be a free woman. Things have changed since the old days. Husbands no longer lock up their wives.” Pushkin, for the first time seriously contemplating marriage himself, was particularly preoccupied with the question of female fidelity. His future wife, Natalya Goncharova, was a favorite at the court balls, where she had many admirers (including, allegedly, Nicholas I).

During Pushkin’s lifetime, the question of history—its purpose and how to write it—was hotly contested, and few entered the fray with more fire than he. In his youth he had been an ardent reader of Nikolai Karamzin’s groundbreaking twelve-volume History of the Russian State (1816–1829). Like many, Pushkin admired Karamzin’s ability to combine meticulous archival research with a narrative style that flowed like fiction, full of lively anecdotes and historical figures who came across like fully realized characters. He had, though, echoed liberal critics who found Karamzin’s writing marred by its tacit defenses of autocracy; the History was sponsored by the state, and Karamzin portrayed the tsar and his antecedents as competent rulers and serfdom as necessary to establish order. When Pushkin sat down to write his own historical works, he directed his criticism at French historians, who focused too heavily, he believed, on identifying historical laws that governed the fate of nations. Criticizing the French historian François Guizot, Pushkin wrote: “Do not say: It could not have been otherwise. If that were true then the historian would be an astronomer, and the events of the life of mankind would be predicted in calendars like solar eclipses.”

To Pushkin, such historians woefully underestimated the importance of chance. This was all the more true for Russia, he felt, a country where all power was concentrated in the hands of a single human being who could be subject to irrational impulses or flights of fancy. Pushkin’s belief in the centrality of capriciousness would explain his numerous attempts across genres to capture the figure of Peter the Great. The tsar appears in the poem “The Bronze Horseman” (1837) as a menacing statue come to life, rushing through the streets of St. Petersburg at high speed, a metaphor for the brutal pace at which he tried to modernize the nation. In the narrative poem “Poltava” (1829), Peter is a heroic leader on the battlefield, leading his army in a victory over the Swedes. In “Peter the Great’s African” he is a warm, fatherly presence. When Ibrahim first returns from Paris, the two have dinner with the tsar’s family, during which Peter

recalled certain episodes from Ibrahim’s childhood, relating them in such a cheerful, kindhearted manner that no one would have suspected this courteous and welcoming host of being the hero of Poltava, the mighty, fearsome transformer of Russia.

In “The History of the Village of Goriukhino,” Pushkin highlights how much chance shapes the very writing of history. The story is told from the perspective of a landowner named Belkin who wants to be a writer. Many of Belkin’s literary experiments echo Pushkin’s, including an attempt at an epic poem drawn from Russian history (centering on Rurik, the Viking who, legend had it, founded Old Rus’), before he settles on writing history itself. “The possibility of moving from trivial and questionable tales to the narration of true and great events,” Belkin explains, “had long stirred my imagination.”

This frame allows Pushkin to criticize the self-assuredness with which historians undertake their work; for instance, much of Belkin’s process involves lucky breaks and chance access to archives. At one point, a priest’s children have gotten hold of a chronicle written by the town sexton; they turn it into a kite that flies into Belkin’s courtyard. “This chronicle,” Belkin tells us, “which I then acquired in exchange for a quarter-measure of oats, is distinguished by its profundity of thought and unusual magniloquence.”

Pushkin himself undertook serious archival research, both for The History of the Pugachev Rebellion and for a long-gestating but ultimately unfinished study of Peter the Great. In 1831 he was appointed official historian of Russia, a post previously occupied by Karamzin. Thus his attitude toward history writing in “The History of the Village of Goriukhino” is not a condemnation of the historian’s craft but an acknowledgment of its limitations, the same ones that would propel Pushkin back into fiction. It was there that he could, after having rigorously delved into what had been, imagine what else could have been. In other words, this account makes room for counternarratives that the historians of his time deemed unserious, too plebian: myth, rumor, and folk forms of historiography.

In “Goriukhino,” Belkin’s official history of the town competes with the histories of it told by serfs. When he recounts a local tale surrounding a mysterious bog, he is quick to dismiss it from the historical record:

It is said that a half-witted woman used to tend a herd of swine not far from this isolated spot. She became pregnant and could provide no satisfactory explanation for this. Popular belief held the bog demon responsible, but this tale is not worthy of the attention of a historian.

Yet in the world of fiction, our attention is drawn precisely to such vivid and magical stories. Here Pushkin surprisingly anticipates what the scholar Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulation,” a form of creative semi-nonfiction meant to give voice to marginalized figures otherwise silenced by the archive.

No one is quite sure why Pushkin never completed “Peter the Great’s African.” Perhaps he intended to return to it at a later point, but the poet died at the age of thirty-seven in a duel with his wife’s rumored lover. (Korsakov’s warning to Ibrahim, “A woman’s fidelity cannot be relied on,” turned out to be prescient.) Some scholars have suggested that Pushkin was sensitive about the class, rather than racial, origins of his ancestor and worried that his project opened Gannibal’s supposed royal paternity up to scrutiny. After a letter in the newspaper The Northern Bee hinted that his ancestor was likely purchased by a skipper for a bottle of rum, Pushkin responded in verse. In the poem “My Genealogy” (1830), he writes that the “skipper” was none other than Peter the Great, and calls Gannibal nepodkupen, which means something like incorruptible—in the sense that one cannot be bribed or bought. One scholar, noting the root of the word and the nature of Pushkin’s offense, translated it as “unpurchasable.”

Indeed, an important subtext to the prose gathered in this collection is that its very existence was a byproduct of a changing commercial landscape for Russian literature during Pushkin’s time, one that he felt deeply conflicted about. As was common practice, Pushkin began his career as a gentleman poet, reading his work in literary salons. But advances in printing-press technology in Russia facilitated a transition away from the patronage system and toward a literary marketplace where prose, not poetry, was most in demand. The poet Alexander Bestuzhev mocked the public’s appetite for it: “Prose, prose! Water, simple water!”

Though Pushkin became known as Russia’s first professional writer, meaning he was able to make a living from his literary output alone, he brooded over the expectations of the market. In 1824 he wrote the poem “A Conversation Between a Bookseller and a Poet,” in which he paints the bookseller as a crude capitalist unconcerned with the loftier aims of artistic creation. The poet longs for the days when he was not at the mercy of the crowd, anticipating Pushkin’s “To the Poet” (1830), which urges writers not to cave to the public’s demands: “You are a tsar, live alone.” By the end of “Conversation,” the poet—in need of money and in want of readers—capitulates…somewhat. He says that while the bookseller may buy his manuscript, “inspiration is not for sale [ne prodaetsya].”

In the short story “The Egyptian Nights,” which Robert Chandler rightly describes as a masterpiece, Pushkin presents a more nuanced picture. The main character, Charsky, is a poet whose background and biography have much in common with Pushkin’s. Like Pushkin, Charsky has been left an estate by a relative and granted a civil service position that is not “burdensome” and affords him time to devote to poetry. “His life could have been most pleasant,” the narrator observes, “but he had the misfortune to write and publish poetry.” What irks Charsky is the public work of being a poet, from the shallowness of name-dropping literati to the refrain of every writer’s favorite question: “Haven’t you brought anything new for us?” Juxtaposed to these indignities is Charsky’s private experience of setting pen to page, the pure terrain of inspiration that the pressures to publish and sell threaten to contaminate.

Charsky’s dim view of the literary world is tested when an impoverished poet from Italy knocks on his door. The man improvises verses for a paying public audience and is looking for help setting up a performance in Russia. (This character was likely inspired by Pushkin’s friend the Polish poet and activist Adam Mickiewicz.) At first Charsky rebuffs him, but he soon takes pity on the man and agrees to arrange the event. Still, he finds it distasteful that the public, rather than inspiration, should direct a poet’s choices. When the Italian asks Charsky for a theme to improvise upon, he says, “Here’s a theme for you…. ‘It is for the poet to choose the matter of his songs himself; the crowd has no right to direct his inspiration.’” The man closes his eyes, readies himself, and then spontaneously recites the following lines:

“True poets sense an obligation
Only to sing what’s truly worthy
The Muses and their inspiration.”
What makes the wind sweep down ravines
And whirl dry leaves through dusty air,
While ships becalmed on silent seas
Wait for its kiss in blank despair?
What makes the eagle leave his height
And, flying past towers, choose to alight
On some old stump? The eagle knows.
And Desdemona’s heart is closed
To all but black Othello, whom
She loves—just as the moon adores
The blackest night. Hearts know no laws;
Eagles and winds are free to roam.
A poet too is like the wind;
He too escapes all ties that bind.
And like the eagle, he flies far;
Like Desdemona, he must love
Whatever idol charms his heart,
And not care who may disapprove.

Charsky is speechless; his conviction that money and creativity cannot coexist is repudiated by this astonishing performance. In turn we see Pushkin, the great-grandson of a slave, once full of anxiety at the mention of his ancestor’s purchase, settle into the idea that to be bought and sold is no shame, and that in fact being able to serve two masters, one external and one within, has long been an act of Black genius.

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