Pushkin's pride: how the Russian literary giant paid tribute to his African ancestry

For Russians, Alexander Pushkin inhabits a space beyond taste, where nationalism has given subjective art the patina of fact. He is the undisputed father of their literature in the way Shakespeare is for Brits. Given the insular nature of contemporary Russian politics, it might be hard to imagine that the creator of Eugene Onegin was not only a proponent of multiculturalism and global exchange but an example of it: Pushkin was mixed race, and proud of his African ancestry. 

His great-grandfather, Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal, was probably born in what is now Cameroon in 1696. Gannibal was kidnapped as a child and taken to Constantinople, where, in one of those confounding literary footnotes, one of Tolstoy’s ancestors “rescued” him (this is Pushkin’s own word – vïruchiv – in a 1824 note) and presented him to Peter the Great.

Gannibal exchanged one form of servitude for another, but as page, godson and exotic court favourite to the emperor, his new life was much more glamorous. Following a military education in France, he rose to the nobility and died a general-in-chief with hundreds of serfs: a black aristocrat with white indentured servants in 18th-century northern Europe.

Pushkin attempted to fathom his forebear’s life in an uncompleted historical novel he began in 1827, The Moor of Peter the Great. In the fragment, which draws on the author’s own experience of prejudice, Ibrahim finds himself admired by many women in France, but “this curiosity, though hidden behind an appearance of benevolence, offended his self-esteem”. He envies “people whom nobody noticed, regarding their insignificance as happiness”. He expects “mockery”. And when he falls, it is for Countess D, who “received Ibrahim courteously, but with no special attention. This flattered him.”

Simply and engagingly written – it is easy to imagine it developing into a rollick – the fragment is nevertheless extremely subtle. The irony can be Austenian in its suppleness, as when Pushkin imagines the Countess finding “something appealing in that curly head, black amidst the powdered wigs in her drawing room”, or explores Ibrahim’s own prejudice about the sexual motives of the women around him.

This ambiguity was central to Pushkin’s identity. Sometimes he used his African heritage to position himself as a Byronic outsider hero, as when speaking of “my Africa”, in Onegin, as if he’d been there. He called American slaves “my brothers” while owning Russian slaves of his own and insisting – as Nabokov’s translation of his 1830 poem My Genealogy has it – Gannibal was: “The emperor’s bosom friend, not a slave.” At other times, he reproduced stereotypes of the day, as when he pictures Ibrahim with “jealously [beginning] to seethe in his African blood” – a trope that society gossips applied to Pushkin himself after his tragic duel.

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