Alexander Pushkin Biography

Alexander (or Aleksándr) Sergeyvich Pushkin (1799—1837) was a Russian poet born in Moscow, on the 7th of June 1799. He belonged to an ancient family of boyars; his maternal great-grandfather, a favourite negro ennobled by Peter the Great, bequeathed to him curly hair and a somewhat darker complexion than falls to the lot of the ordinary Russian. In 1811 the future poet entered the newly founded lyceum of Tsarskoe Selo, situated near St Petersburg. On quitting the lyceum in 1817 he was attached to the ministry of foreign affairs, and in this year he began the composition of his Ruslan and Ly’udmila, a poem which was completed in 1820.

Portrait of Alexander Pushkin by Vasily Andreevich Tropinin. 1827. Oil on canvas. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile Pushkin mixed in all the gayest society of the capital, and it seemed as if he would turn out a mere man of fashion instead of a poet. But a very daring Ode to Liberty written by him had been circulated in manuscript in St Petersburg. This production having been brought to the notice of the governor, the young author only escaped a journey to Siberia by accepting an official position at Kishinev in Bessarabia, in southern Russia. If we follow the chronological order of his poems, we can trace the enthusiasm with which he greeted the ever-changing prospects of the sea and the regions of the Danube and the Crimea.

At this time Pushkin was, or affected to be, overpowered by the Byronic “Weltschmerz.” Having visited the baths of the Caucasus for the re-establishment of his health in 1822, he felt the inspiration of its magnificent scenery, and composed The Prisoner of the Caucasus, narrating the story of the love of a Circassian girl for a youthful Russian officer. This was followed by the Fountain of Bakhchisarai, which tells of the detention of a young Polish captive, a Countess Potocka, in the palace of the khans of the Crimea. About the same time he composed some interesting lines on Ovid, whose place of banishment, Tomi, was not far distant. To this period belongs also the Ode to Napoleon, which is inferior to the fine poems of Byron and Manzoni, or indeed of Lermontov, on the same subject. In the Lay concerning the Wise Oleg we see how the influence of Karamzin’s History had led the Russians to take a greater interest in the early records of their country. The next long poem was the Gipsies (Tzuigani), an Oriental tale of love and vengeance, in which Pushkin has admirably delineated these nomads, whose strange mode of life fascinated him. During his stay in southern Russia he allowed himself to get mixed up with the secret societies then rife throughout the country. He also became embroiled with his chief, Count Vorontzov, who sent him to report upon the damages which had been committed by locusts in the southern part of Bessarabia. Pushkin took this as a premeditated insult, and sent in his resignation; and Count Vorontzov in his official report requested the government to remove the poet, “as he was surrounded by a society of political and literary fanatics, whose praises might turn his head and make him believe that he was a great writer, whereas he was only a feeble imitator of Lord Byron, an original not much to be commended.” The poet quitted Odessa in 1824, and on leaving wrote a fine Ode to the Sea. Before the close of the year he had returned to his father’s seat at Mikhailovskoe, near Pskov, where he soon involved himself in trouble on all sides. In his retirement he devoted a great deal of time to the study of the old Russian popular poetry, the builinas, of which he became a great admirer. Recollections of Byron and André Chenier gave the inspiration to some fine lines consecrated to the latter, in which Pushkin appeared more conservative than was his wont, and wrote in a spirit antagonistic to the French Revolution.

In 1825 he published his tragedy Boris Godunov, a bold effort to imitate the style of Shakespeare. Up to this time the traditions of the Russian stage, such as it was, had been French. In 1825 the conspiracy of the Dekabrists broke out. Many of the conspirators were personal friends of Pushkin, especially Küchelbecker and Pustchin. The poet himself was to a certain extent compromised, but he succeeded in getting to his house at Mikhailovskoe and burning all the papers which might have been prejudicial to him. Through influential friends he succeeded in making his peace with the emperor, to whom he was presented at Moscow soon after his coronation. The story goes that Nicholas said to Count Bludov on the same evening, “I have just been conversing with the most witty man in Russia.” In 1828 appeared Poltava, a spirited narrative poem, in which the expedition of Charles XII. against Peter and the treachery of the hetman Mazeppa were described. In 1829 Pushkin again visited the Caucasus, on this occasion accompanying the expedition of Prince Paskevich. He wrote a pleasing account of the tour; many of the short lyrical pieces suggested by the scenery and associations of his visit are delightful, especially the lines on the Don and the Caucasus. In 1831 Pushkin married Natalia Goncharov, and in the following year was again attached to the ministry of foreign affairs, with a salary of 5000 roubles. He now busied himself with an historical account of the revolt of the Cossack Pugachev, who almost overthrew the empire of Catherine and was executed at Moscow in the latter part of the 18th century. While engaged upon this he wrote The Captain’s Daughter, one of the best of his prose works. In 1832 was completed the poem Eugene Onyegin, in which the author modelled his style upon the lighter sketches of Byron in the Italian manner. Yet no one can accuse Pushkin of want of nationalism in this poem: it is Russian in every fibre.

In 1837 the poet, who had been long growing in literary reputation, fell mortally wounded in a duel with Baron George Heckeren d’Anthès, the adopted son of the Dutch minister then resident at the court of St Petersburg. D’Anthès, a vain and frivolous young man, had married a sister of the poet’s wife. Notwithstanding this he aroused Pushkin’s jealousy by some attentions which he paid Natalia; but the grounds for the poet’s anger, it must be confessed, do not appear very great. Pushkin died, after two days’ suffering, on the afternoon of Friday the 10th of February. D’Anthés was tried by court-martial and expelled the country. In 1880 a statue of the poet was erected at the Tver Barrier at Moscow, and fêtes were held in his honour, on which occasion many interesting memorials of him were exhibited to his admiring countrymen and a few foreigners who had congregated for the festivities. Pushkin left four children; his widow was afterwards married to an officer in the army, named Lanskoi; she died in 1863.

Pushkin’s poetical tales are spirited and full of dramatic power. The influence of Byron is undoubtedly seen, in them, but they are not imitations, still less is anything in them plagiarized. Boris Godunov is a fine tragedy; on the whole Eugene Onyegin must be considered Pushkin’s masterpiece. Here we have a great variety of styles—satire, pathos and humour mixed together. The character-painting is good, and the descriptions of scenery introduced faithful to nature. The poem in many places reminds us of Byron, who himself in his mixture of the pathetic and the humorous was a disciple of the Italian school. Pushkin also wrote a great many lyrical pieces. Interspersed among the poet’s minor works will be found many epigrams, but some of the best composed by him were not so fortunate as to pass the censorship, and must be read in a supplementary volume published at Berlin. As a prose writer Pushkin has considerable merits. Besides his History of the Revolt of Pugachev, which is perhaps too much of a compilation, he published a small volume of tales under the nom de plume of Ivan Byelkin. These all show considerable dramatic power: the best are The Captain’s Daughter, a tale of the times of Catherine II.; The Undertaker, a very ghostly story, which will remind the English reader of some of the tales of Edgar Poe; The Pistol Shot; and The Queen of Spades.

The academy of St Petersburg has recently issued a complete edition of the works of Pushkin, including his letters. See the bibliography in the editions of Gennadi (7 vols., St Petersburg, 1861) and Annenkov (6 vols., St Petersburg, 1855).

(W. R. M.)

This Pushkin biography has been adapted from an entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica, now in the public domain.