The Russian poet and prose writer Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837) ranks as the country's greatest poet. He not only brought Russian poetry to its highest excellence but also had a decisive influence on Russian literature in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Aleksandr Pushkin is Russia's national poet. He established the norms of classical Russian versification, and he laid the groundwork for much of the development of Russian prose in the 19th century. His work is distinguished by brilliance of language, compactness, terseness, and objectivity. His poetry is supremely untranslatable, and consequently Pushkin has had less influence on world literature than on Russian literature. He may be described as a romantic in subject matter and a classicist in style and form.
Pushkin was born on May 26, 1799, the son of a family of the middle nobility. On his father's side he was a descendant of one of the oldest lines of Russian nobility, and on his mother's side he was related to an Abyssinian, Abram Petrovich Hannibal, who had been kidnaped in Africa, brought to Constantinople, and sent as a gift to Peter I (the Great). Pushkin was brought up in an atmosphere that was predominantly French, and at a very early age he became acquainted with the classic works of 17th-and 18th-century French literature. Several of the important figures of Russian literature—including Nikolai Karamzin and Vasily Zhukovsky—were visitors to the Pushkin home during Aleksandr's childhood.
Between 1811 and 1817 Pushkin attended a special school established at Tsarskoye Selo (later renamed Pushkin) by Czar Alexander I for privileged children of the nobility. Pushkin was an indifferent student in most subjects, but he performed brilliantly in French and Russian literature.
Early Works, 1814-1820
After finishing school, Pushkin led the reckless and dissipated life of a typical nobleman. He wrote about 130 poems between 1814 and 1817, while still at school, and these and most of his works written between 1817 and 1820 were not published because of the boldness of his thoughts on political and erotic matters. In 1820 Pushkin completed his first narrative poem, Russlan and Ludmilla. It is a romance composed of fantastic adventures but told with 18th-century humor and irony. Before Russlan and Ludmilla was published in June 1820, Pushkin was exiled to the south of Russia because of the boldness of the political sentiments he had expressed in his poems. His "Ode to Liberty" contained, for example, a reference to the assassination of Paul I, the father of Czar Alexander I. Pushkin left St. Petersburg on May 6 and he did not return to the capital for more than 6 years.
South of Russia, 1820-1824
Pushkin spent the years 1820-1823 in various places in the Caucasus and in the Crimea, and he was at first charmed by the picturesque settings and relieved to be free of the intoxications and artificialities of the life of the capital. Subsequently, however, he felt bored by the life in small towns and took up again a life of gambling, drinking, and consorting with loose women. He was always short of money, for his salary in the civil service was small and his family refused to support him. He began to earn money with his poetic works, but these sums were seldom sufficient to permit him to compete comfortably with his affluent friends. In 1823 he was transferred to Odessa, where he found the life of a large city more to his liking.
The poet's life in Odessa in 1823-1824 was marked by three strong amorous attachments. First, he fell in love with Carolina Sobansky, a beauty who was 6 years older than he. He broke with her in October 1823 and then fell violently in love with the wife of a Dalmatian merchant, Amalia Riznich. She had many admirers and gave Pushkin ample cause for jealousy. Amalia, however, inspired some of Pushkin's best poems, such as "Night" and "Beneath the Blue Sky of Her Native Land, " and he remembered her to the end of his life. His third love was for the wife of the governor general, the Countess Eliza Vorontsov. She was a charming and beautiful woman. Vorontsov learned of the affair, and having no special liking for Pushkin he resolved to have him transferred from Odessa. He was aided in this endeavor by an unfortunate letter that Pushkin had written to a friend in which he had questioned the immortality of the soul. The letter was intercepted, and because of it Pushkin was expelled from the service on July 18, 1824, by the Czar and ordered to the family estate of Mikhailovskoye near Pskov.
Pushkin's poetic work during the 4 years that he spent in the south was rich in output and characterized by Lord Byron's influence, which can be seen in "The Caucasian Captive" (1820-1821), "The Fountain of Bakhchisarai" (1822), and "The Gypsies" (1824). These poems are mellifluous in verse and exotic in setting, but they already show the elements of Pushkin's classic style: measure, balance, terseness, and restraint.
On Aug. 9, 1824, Pushkin arrived at Mikhailovskoye. His relations with his parents were not good. The father felt angry at his son's rebelliousness and on one occasion spread a story that his son had attempted to beat him. The family left the estate about mid-November, and Pushkin found himself alone with the family nurse, Arina Rodionovna, at Mikhailovskoye. He lived fairly much as a recluse during the next 2 years, occasionally visiting a neighboring town and infrequently entertaining old Petersburg friends. During this period he fell in love with a Madame Kern, who was married to an old general and who encouraged the attention of many men. Also at this time the nurse told Pushkin many folk tales, and it is generally believed that she imbued him with the feeling for folk life that manifested itself in many of his poems.
Pushkin's 2 years at Mikhailovskoye were extremely rich in poetic output. He completed "The Gypsies, " wrote the first three chapters of Eugene Onegin, and composed the tragedy Boris Godunov. In addition he composed many important lyrics and a humorous tale in verse entitled Count Nulin. Boris Godunov is a chronicle play. Pushkin took the subject from Karamzin's history, and it relates the claims of the impostor Demetrius to the throne of the elected monarch Boris Godunov.
After the end of his exile at Mikhailovskoye, Pushkin was received by the new czar, Nicholas I, who charmed Pushkin by his reasonableness and kindness. The Czar placed Pushkin under a privileged tyranny by promising him that his works would be censored by the Czar himself. The practical consequences of this arrangement were that Pushkin was placed under an honorable promise to publish nothing that was injurious to the government; in time this "privileged" censorship became increasingly onerous.
Pushkin continued his dissipated life after 1826 but with less gusto. Although he was still in his 20s, he began to feel the weight of his years, and he longed to settle down. On April 6, 1830, he proposed to Nathalie Goncharova for the second time and was accepted. She came from a noble family that had fallen on hard times financially. The Goncharovs were dissatisfied with Pushkin's standing with the government and were unimpressed by his reputation as a poet. Pushkin had to ask for economic favors for the Goncharovs from the government, and he persuaded his father to settle an estate on him.
Pushkin's output in the years 1826-1829 was not so great as in the years 1824-1826, but it was still impressive. He continued to work on Eugene Onegin, wrote a number of excellent lyrics, worked on but did not finish a prose novel entitled The Nigger of Peter the Great, and wrote Poltava, a narrative poem on Peter the Great's struggle with Charles XII which celebrates the Russian victory over the Swedes. This poem shows the continuing development of Pushkin's style toward objectivity and austerity.
In the fall of 1830 Pushkin left the capital to visit a small estate by the name of Boldino, which his father had left him, with the intention of spending a few weeks there. However, he was blocked from returning to the capital by measures taken by the authorities because of a cholera epidemic, and he was forced to return to Boldino. During that autumn at Boldino, Pushkin wrote some of his greatest lyrics; The Tales of Belkin; a comic poem in octaves, "The Little House in Kolomna"; and four small tragedies; and he virtually finished Eugene Onegin.
Eugene Onegin was begun in 1824 and finished in August 1831. This novel in verse is without doubt Pushkin's most famous work. It shows the influence in theme of Byron's Don Juan and in style of Laurence Sterne's novels. It is a "novel" about contemporary life, constructed in order to permit digressions and a variety of incidents and tones. The heart of the tale concerns the life of Eugene Onegin, a bored nobleman who rejects the advances of a young girl, Tatiana. He meets her later, greatly changed and now sophisticated, falls in love with her. He is in turn rejected by her because, although she loves him, she is married.
Pushkin's four little tragedies are models of spare, objective, and compact drama. The plays are short and vary in length from 240 to 550 lines. The Feast during the Plague is a translation of a scene from John Wilson's The City of the Plague; The Stone Guest is a variation of the Don Juan theme; Mozart and Salieri treats the tradition of Antonio Salieri's envy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's effortless art and the injustice of Nature in dispensing her gifts; and The Covetous Knight has as its theme avariciousness and contains the famous monologue of the baron on his treasures.
The Tales of Belkin consists of five short stories: "The Shot, " "The Snowstorm, " "The Stationmaster, " "The Undertaker, " and "The Peasant Gentlewoman." The stories are models of swift, unadorned narration.
Marriage, Duel, and Death, 1831-1837
After 1830 Pushkin wrote less and less poetry. "The Bronze Horseman" (1833) is considered by many to be his greatest poem. The setting is the great flood of 1824, which inundated much of St. Petersburg. The theme of the poem is the irreconcilable demands of the state and the individual.
The Golden Cockerel (1833) is a volume of Russian folktales. Pushkin's masterpiece in narrative is the short story "The Queen of Spades" (1834), about a gloomy engineer who is ruthless in his efforts to discover the secret of three winning cards. Mention should also be made of his The History of the Pugachev Rebellion (1834) and The Captain's Daughter (1837), a short novel about the Pugachev rebellion.
Pushkin married Nathalie Goncharova on Jan. 19, 1831. She bore him three children, but the couple were not happy together. She was beautiful and a favorite at court, but she was also somewhat uneducated and not free of vulgarity. She encouraged the attentions of Baron George d'Anthes, an exiled Alsatian Frenchman and a protégé of the minister of the Netherlands at St. Petersburg. Pushkin provoked D'Anthes to a duel on Jan. 26, 1837, and the duel took place the next day. Pushkin was wounded and died on January 29. There was great popular mourning at his death.
Many of Pushkin's works provided the basis for operas by Russian composers. They include Ruslan and Ludmilla by Mikhail Glinka, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky, The Stone Guest by Aleksandr Dargomijsky, and The Golden Cockerel by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Further Reading on Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin
Eugene Oneginis available in many translations. Recommended are those by Dorothea Prall Raddin and George Z. Patrick (1937) and by Vladimir Nabokov (4 vols., 1964); the Nabokov translation is accompanied by massive documentation. Among the excellent biographies of Pushkin are Ernest Simmons, Pushkin (1937), a full and readable account; Henry Troyat, Pushkin: A Biography, translated by Randolphe Weaver (1950), vivid and engrossing; and another work on Pushkin's life, David Magarshack, Pushkin: A Biography (1967). Walter N. Vickery, Pushkin: Death of a Poet (1968), is a work on the final days of Pushkin's life.
The most readable and informative review of Pushkin's works is Prince D. S. Mirsky, Pushkin (1926). Mirsky's A History of Russian Literature (2 vols., 1927) is recommended for general historical and literary background; this same work is available in a one-volume abridgment edited by Francis J. Whitfield (1958).