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Alexander Pushkin Biography | Poet

Photo of Alexander Pushkin

Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin (June 6 [O.S. May 26] 1799 – February 10 [O.S. January 29] 1837) was a Russian Romantic author who is considered to be the greatest Russian poet[1] [2][3] and the founder of modern Russian literature.[4][5] Pushkin pioneered the use of vernacular speech in his poems and plays, creating a style of storytelling—mixing drama, romance, and satire—associated with Russian literature ever since and greatly influencing later Russian writers.


Pushkin's father descended from a distinguished family of the Russian nobility which traced its ancestry back to the 12th century, while his mother's grandfather was Abram Petrovich Gannibal, an Eritrean who was abducted as a child by the Turks during their rule of coast of Eritrea[verification needed]. A less popular theory, however, posits that Gannibal might have been from an ancient sultanate near or around the present day Chad. He was brought to Russia and became a great military leader, engineer and nobleman under the auspices of his adoptive father Peter the Great.

Born in Moscow, Pushkin published his first poem at the age of fifteen. By the time he finished as part of the first graduating class of the prestigious Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoe Selo near St. Petersburg, the Russian literary scene recognized his talent widely. After finishing school, Pushkin installed himself in the vibrant and raucous intellectual youth culture of the capital, St. Petersburg. In 1820 he published his first long poem, Ruslan and Lyudmila, amidst much controversy about its subject and style.

Pushkin gradually became committed to social reform and emerged as a spokesman for literary radicals. This angered the government, and led to his transfer from the capital. He went first to Kishinev in 1820, where he became a Freemason. Here he joined the Filiki Eteria, a secret organization whose purpose was to overthrow the Ottoman rule over Greece and establish an independent Greek state. He was inspired by the Greek Revolution and when the war against the Ottoman Turks broke out he kept a diary with the events of the great national uprising. He stayed in Kishinev until 1823 and—after a summer trip to the Caucasus and to the Crimea—wrote two Romantic poems which brought him wide acclaim, The Captive of the Caucasus and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. In 1823 Pushkin moved to Odessa, where he again clashed with the government, which sent him into exile at his mother's rural estate in north Russia from 1824 to 1826. However, some of the authorities allowed him to visit Tsar Nicholas I to petition for his release, which he obtained. But some of the insurgents in the Decembrist Uprising (1825) in St. Petersburg had kept some of his early political poems amongst their papers, and soon Pushkin found himself under the strict control of government censors and unable to travel or publish at will. He had written what became his most famous play, the drama Boris Godunov, while at his mother's estate but could not gain permission to publish it until five years later.

In 1831, highlighting the growth of Pushkin's talent and influence and the merging of two of Russia's greatest early writers, he met Nikolai Gogol. The two would become good friends and would support each other. Pushkin would be greatly influenced in the field of prose from Gogol's comical stories. After reading Gogol's 1831-2 volume of short stories Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, Pushkin would support him critically and later in 1836 after starting his magazine, The Contemporary, would feature some of Gogol's most famous short stories. Later, Pushkin and his wife Natalya Goncharova, whom he married in 1831, became regulars of court society. When the Tsar gave Pushkin the lowest court title, the poet became enraged: He felt this occurred not only so that his wife, who had many admirers—including the Tsar himself—could properly attend court balls, but also to humiliate him. In 1837, falling into greater and greater debt amidst rumors that his wife had started conducting a scandalous affair, Pushkin challenged her alleged lover, Georges d'Anthès, to a duel which left both men injured, Pushkin mortally. He died two days later.

The government feared a political demonstration at his funeral, which it moved to a smaller location and made open only to close relatives and friends. His body was spirited away secretly at midnight and buried on his mother's estate.

There were 4 children of Puskin's marriage to Natalya: Alexander, Grigory, Maria, and Natalia (who would marry into the royal house of Nassau and become the Countess of Merenberg).


Literary legacy

Critics consider many of his works masterpieces, such as the poem The Bronze Horseman and the drama The Stone Guest, a tale of the fall of Don Juan. His poetic short drama "Mozart and Salieri" was the inspiration for Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. Pushkin himself preferred his verse novel Eugene Onegin, which he wrote over the course of his life and which, starting a tradition of great Russian novels, follows a few central characters but varies widely in tone and focus. "Onegin" is a work of such complexity that, while only about a hundred pages long, translator Vladimir Nabokov needed four full volumes of material to fully render its meaning in English. Unfortunately, in so doing Nabokov, like all translators of Pushkin into English prose, totally destroyed the fundamental readability of Pushkin in Russian which makes him so popular, and Pushkin's verse remains largely unknown to English readers.

Because of his liberal political views and influence on generations of Russian rebels, Pushkin was conveniently pictured by Bolsheviks as an opponent to bourgeois literature and culture and predecessor of Soviet literature and poetry.[5] They renamed Tsarskoe Selo after him.

Pushkin's works also provided fertile ground for Russian composers. Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila is the earliest important Pushkin-inspired opera. Tchaikovsky's operas Eugene Onegin (1879) and The Queen of Spades (1890) became perhaps better known outside of Russia than Pushkin's own works of the same name, while Mussorgsky's monumental Boris Godunov (two versions, 1868-9 and 1871-2) ranks as one of the very finest and most original of Russian operas. Other Russian operas based on Pushkin include Dargomyzhsky's Rusalka and The Stone Guest; Rimsky-Korsakov's Mozart and Salieri, Tale of Tsar Saltan, and The Golden Cockerel; Cui's Prisoner of the Caucasus, Feast in Time of Plague, and The Captain's Daughter; and Nápravník's Dubrovsky. This is not to mention ballets and cantatas, as well as innumerable songs set to Pushkin's verse.


Influence on the Russian language

Pushkin is usually credited with developing literary Russian. Not only is he seen as having originated the highly nuanced level of language which characterizes Russian literature after him, but he is also credited with substantially augmenting the Russian lexicon. Where he found gaps in the Russian vocabulary, he devised calques. His rich vocabulary and highly sensitive style are the foundation for modern literary Russian.


Sample of Pushkin's Work


Translated by Maurice Baring

When the loud day for men who sow and reap

Grows still, and on the silence of the town

The insubstantial veils of night and sleep,

The meed of the day's labour, settle down,

Then for me in the stillness of the night

The wasting, watchful hours drag on their course,

And in the idle darkness comes the bite

Of all the burning serpents of remorse;

Dreams seethe; and fretful infelicities

Are swarming in my over-burdened soul,

And Memory before my wakeful eyes

With noiseless hand unwinds her lengthy scroll.

Then, as with loathing I peruse the years,

I tremble, and I curse my natal day,

Wail bitterly, and bitterly shed tears,

But cannot wash the woeful script away.

Alexander Pushkin: Poems | Best Poems | Short Poems | Quotes