This year (1999) we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet. Pushkin was born in Moscow on June 6, 1799. His poetry has become part of the Russian language and the spiritual life of the Russian people and holds a special place in every Russian heart. Alexander Pushkin created the language of modern Russian literature. He freed Russian writing from the constraints of tradition and set new literary standards for novelists and poets. His preference for subjects from history and folklore brought fresh vitality to Russian literature and created lyrics of unsurpassed beauty.
Pushkin's father came of an old boyar family; his mother was the grand-daughter of Abram Hannibal who was an Abyssinian princeling bought as a slave at Constantinople and adopted by Peter the Great, whose comrade in arms he became. During early childhood Pushkin spent summers at his grandmother's estate near Moscow. He talked to the peasants and spent hours alone, living in the dream world of a precocious, imaginative child. He read widely in his father's library and gained stimulus from the literary guests who came to the house. In 1811 Pushkin entered the newly founded Imperial Lyceum at Tsarskoye Selo. While at the Lyceum he began his first completed major work, the romantic poem Ruslan and Ludmila (1820), making use of Russian folklore.
In his political verses and epigrams, widely circulated in manuscript, he made himself the spokesman for the ideas and aspirations of those who were to take part in the Decembrist rising of 1825, the unsuccessful culmination of a Russian revolutionary movement in its earliest stage.
For these political poems, Pushkin was banished from St. Petersburg in May 1820 and travelled in the northern Caucasus and later to the Crimea. The impressions he gained provided material for his romantic narrative poems: The Prisoner of the Caucasus, The Robber Brothers and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. Pushkin was hailed as the leading Russian poet of the day and as the leader of the romantic, liberty-loving generation. May 1823 he started work on his central masterpiece, the novel in verse, Yevgeny Onegin, on which he continued to work intermittently until 1831. Yevgeny Onegin unfolds a panoramic picture of Russian life. The characters it depicts and immortalizes are typically Russian and are shown in relationship to the social and environmental forces by which they are molded.
Pushkin had meanwhile been transferred first to Kishinyov and then to Odessa (1823-24). At Kishinyov, a remote outpost in Moldavia, he devoted much time to writing, though he also plunged into the life of a society engaged in amorous intrigue, drinking, gaming and he fought several duels. This finally led to his being again exiled to his mother's estate of Mikhaylovskoye, near Pskov, at the other end of Russia.
Although the two years at Mikhaylovskoye were unhappy for Pushkin, they were to prove one of his most productive periods. Alone and isolated, he embarked on a close study of Russian history; he came to know the peasants on the estate and interested himself in noting folktales and songs. During this period the specifically Russian features of his poetry became steadily more marked. At Mikhaylovskoye, he wrote the poem Count Nulin, based on the life of the rural gentry and, one of his major works, the historical tragedy Boris Godunov.
After the suppression of the Decembrist uprising of 1825, the new tsar Nicholas I, aware of Pushkin's immense popularity allowed him to return to Moscow in the autumn of 1826. Pushkin saw, however, that without the support of the people, the struggle against autocracy was doomed.
In The Bronze Horseman, Pushkin poses the problem of the "little man" whose happiness is destroyed by the great leader in pursuit of ambition., Pushkin found himself in an awkward and invidious position. The tsar's censorship proved to be even more exacting than that of the official censors, and his personal freedom was curtailed. The anguish of his spiritual isolation at this time is reflected in a cycle of poems about the poet and the mob (1827-30) and in the unfinished poem Egyptian Nights. Yet it was during this period that Pushkin's genius came to its fullest flowering. His art acquired new dimensions, and almost every one of the works written between 1829 and 1836 opened a new chapter in the history of Russian literature.
In 1831 Pushkin married Natalya Nikolayevna Goncharova and settled in St. Petersburg and was commissioned to write a history of Peter the Great. Meanwhile, both in his domestic affairs and in his official duties, his life was becoming more intolerable. In court circles he was regarded with mounting suspicion and resentment, and his repeated petitions to be allowed to resign his post, retire to the country, and devote himself entirely to literature were all rejected. Finally, in 1837, Pushkin was mortally wounded defending his wife's honour in a duel forced on him by influential enemies.
www.pushkin.org.au is a website on the internet dedicated to life and literary works of Alexander Pushkin.
www.pushkin.org.au aims to establish a database with complete works of Alexander Pushkin and a comprehensive collection of related articles, including a selection of art and music inspired by Pushkin's works.
www.pushkin.org.au welcomes any interest or contribution to the material, scope and development of the website.