Alexander Pushkin: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Alexander Pushkin is Russia's most celebrated poet. He wrote many plays, novels, and poems, and was killed in a duel like the character of his best-known work Eugene Onegin.

Birth of a Poet

It is ironic that Russia's most celebrated poet died in the same manner as one of the characters of his best-known novel. Although he is less known outside Russia, he is ranked in the same league as Russia's celebrated Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Alexander Pushkin was born in May 1799 in Moscow to a prominent Russian family. Almost symbolically, he was born on the same day as the granddaughter of Catherine the Great and the day was commemorated with the ringing of bells throughout Russia. Little known at the time, but later appreciated, was that Russia's greatest poet was also born on that momentous day.

Alexander Pushkin
Alexander Pushkin

Pushkin's African Great-Grandfather

An interesting fact of Pushkin's lineage was that his great-grandfather was the African prince Abraham Petrovich Gannibal. As a young boy, Gannibal was taken captive to the Turkish court in Constantinople, but later ransomed by a Russian diplomat and taken to St. Petersburg where the czar, Peter the Great, had him baptized into the Russian Orthodox faith. It was thought that Gannibal was from Ethiopia, but today, historians argue he was likely from modern northern Cameroon. He was sent to France to study in a French military school and he proved valuable to Peter for his knowledge of fortification building. Gannibal thus ran in high circles, even befriending many of the leaders of Enlightenment Europe. Pushkin was very proud of his dual heritage, and began, but never completed a biography of his great grandfather titled 'The Negro of Peter the Great.'

Pushkins Great Grandfather Abraham Petrovich Gannibal
Pushkins Great Grandfather

Education and Politics

Pushkin's parents were highly educated and frequently hosted many of Russia's leading artists, musicians, and literary talents, and so he grew up in an atmosphere that nurtured his talents. From 1811 to 1817 he studied at the elite lyceum, or school, in Tsarskoye Selo, which doubled as a popular vacation town for Russian nobility. Despite his young age, his writing career began here and he published a prodigious amount of poetry including his first book, the long narrative poem Ruslan and Lyudmila. Following graduation, he was appointed to the Collegium of Foreign Affairs in St. Petersburg. This was more an honorary position and he did little more than spend the next three years writing, drinking, and mingling with other literary figures. He also joined the short-lived Azarmas Society which was a club for writers.

Pushkins lover Anna Petrovna Kern
Anna Petrovna Kern

Politics and Exile

Politically, Russia was rife with political turmoil and many writers and intellectuals took to publishing anti-government tracts. Pushkin increasingly wove critical political themes into his writing and soon ran afoul of the imperial government when he published two poems critical of the government titled 'Noel' and 'Ode to Freedom'. The Russian government did not appreciate his humor, and in 1820 the czar, Nicholas I, had him exiled to southern Russia under the guise of an administrative transfer. He spent the next three years in the Crimea and Caucasus region, where he penned several works such as The Captive of the Caucasus, The Brothers Robber, The Captain's Daughter, The Bandit Brothers, and Gavriliada. In 1824 he was recalled to St. Petersburg under Alexander I where he soon published his best-known play Boris Godunov to great acclaim. Notable as well is that while in exile, Pushkin had a long-running affair with the married Anna Petrovna Kern who many suspect became the subject of some of his poetry. In 1831 though, Pushkin married Natalia Goncharova with whom he had four children.

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