The Oscar-Winning 19th-Century Russian Poet

Tuesday, 18 February 1890 - St. Petersburg, Russia

Today we had a snowstorm outside, so I decided to stay inside curled up with a good book. And who better to read than Alexander Pushkin, the father of modern Russian literature. He was the first to use everyday speech in his writing. Considered Russia’s greatest poet, he also wrote plays, novels, short stories and even fairy tales. He would not only inspire Russian writers, but also composers and artists as they tried to bring his works to life.

Alexander Pushkin
Pushkin’s life was as romantic a tale as any he invented. Born in 1799 of Russian nobility, he was also descended from German and Swedish nobles on his mother’s side and an African prince on his father’s. Alexander Pushin was the great grandson of the great General Abram Gannibal. (Yes, the same Gannibal that spoke to Alexander Suvorov in my last blog.)

Abram Gannibal was a captured African prince held hostage by the Ottoman Sultan. He was made a gift to Peter the Great. Rather than treating Gannibal as a slave, Peter raised him with his own children. He would grow up to become Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth’s Major-General and head military engineer. She made him a nobleman in his own right for his service to Russia. A yet despite all his achievements, Gannibal is probably most famous for being the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin.

Pushkin was publishing poetry at fifteen. By the time he graduated from the Imperial Lyceum, he was already a popular writer. He became part of the rebellious youth culture of St. Petersburg and became a crusader for social reform. His outspoken views so upset the government, he often had to leave St. Petersburg and lie low. Pushkin was too popular to be sent off to Siberia, so the authorities tried to control him with strict censorship. Indeed his one play, Boris Godunov, will not be performed in it’s original uncensored form until 2007!

His most famous poem, The Bronze Horseman, shows Peter the Great as a demonic figure. A young man loses his true love in a flood, all too common in St. Petersburg history. He stands before Peter’s famous equestrian statue and curses the Tsar for building his capital in this dangerous spot. The statue comes to life, hunts the poor man down and kills him. Peter the Great’s great-great-grandson, Tsar Nicholas I, would not be amused. The poem was not allowed to be published until after Pushkin’s death.

The Bronze Horseman
Besides being at odds with the powers-that-be, Pushkin was very touchy about any real or perceived slights. Pushkin fought 29 duels to protect his honor. Dueling was popular in the early nineteenth century among gentleman (and fools.) In 1837 Pushkin was shot through the spleen at his last duel and died a few days later. Russia lost it’s greatest literary figure at the age of 37.

Pushkin is popular among the Victorians for his romantic views. The communists will love him for the thumbing his nose at Imperial Russia. Although his work is hard to translate into other languages, he will still have a great influence outside his country.

The 1984 film Amadeus not only won the Academy Award for "Best Picture," it also won Peter Shaffer the award for "Best Adapted Screenplay." Amadeus was in fact based on a play Pushkin wrote back in 1830 called Mozart and Salieri. Pity Pushkin won’t be there to collect his Oscar.

The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish
A fairytale by Alexander Pushkin - Russia (1950) with English subtitles

Wondrous Moment - a poem by Alexander Pushkin

A Collection of Alexander Pushkin’s Poems

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