Will We Ever Pin Down Pushkin?

Mar 1, 2020

Who was Alexander Pushkin? Russians regard him as their greatest writer, greater even than Lev Tolstoy. Edmund Wilson, once one of America’s best-known public intellectuals, pronounced him “the greatest poet of the nineteenth century.” But for those who do not know Russian, the reasons for this praise remain elusive.

In fact, almost everything about Pushkin is elusive. When Isaiah Berlin formulated his famous distinction between “hedgehogs” and “foxes”—the great system-builders and the congenital skeptics—he deemed Pushkin (1799–1837) the perfect fox. As man and poet, Pushkin seems to be the master of a thousand strange disguises and masks concealing still more masks.

Pushkin was himself a strange mixture. The Pushkins were one of Russia’s most prominent noble families, but the poet’s maternal great-grandfather, Ibrahim Hannibal, was an African who, legend has it, was an Abyssinian prince taken hostage by the Turks. In 1705 a Russian envoy rescued him from the sultan’s court in Istanbul and delivered him to Tsar Peter the Great as a gift. Peter adopted the boy as his godson, dispatched him to France for military training, and made him an officer in his most prestigious regiment. Hannibal eventually rose to the rank of general. Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, granted him considerable property, including the estate at Mikhailovskoe, near the Latvian border, where Pushkin, as every Russian schoolchild knows, wrote some of his best poems.

Everything about him has become legendary. Russians visit “Pushkin places” associated with incidents in his life. When the Russian Formalists ridiculed biographical criticism they imagined an article entitled “Did Pushkin Smoke?” If something costs too much, a Russian might ask: “So who’s going to pay for it? Pushkin?” Vain and endlessly playful, Pushkin would have appreciated both the adoration and the parodies of it.

He loved being outrageous. One young woman Pushkin courted recalled his “terrible sidewhiskers, his disheveled hair, his nails long as claws,…the strangeness of his natural and constrained disposition, and his unlimited vanity,” all of which combined with a face given to expressions of “malice and sarcasm.” Others mentioned his careless attire and habit of twirling a cane or whip. Of course, he made the most of his exotic African heritage. His greatest work, the novel in verse Eugene Onegin, features a narrator who longs to stroll once again “under the sun of my Africa”—where Pushkin never set foot—and his unfinished novella, “The Moor of Peter the Great,” is a romanticized biography of his ancestor.

Pushkin sometimes imitated Byron and sometimes parodied imitators of Byron. With his endless seductions of society women, Pushkin became fascinated with the figure of Don Juan. How could the great seducer transform himself at will into whatever a given woman most desired? Pushkin’s play The Stone Guest deals with Don Juan, while prurient scholars have excited themselves by deciphering the code…

By Gary Saul Morson



Hermitage, St. Petersburg/Scala/White Images/Art Resource
Alexander Pushkin; painting by Pyotr Konchalovsky, 1932