Pushkin, Aleksandr Sergeyevich (Alexander Pushkin)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Pushkin, Aleksandr Sergeyevich (Alexander Pushkin)

Pushkin, Aleksandr Sergeyevich (Alexander Pushkin) (1799-1837) Russian poet and novelist

A radical writer and social reformer, Aleksandr Pushkin wrote romantic tragedies and narrative verse caricaturing the social standards of czarist Russia. Born to Muscovite aristocrats, he began reciting original verse at age 14 while enrolled at the Imperial Lyceum outside St. Petersburg, an institution established in 1811 by Czar Alexander I. In the writer's early autobiographical poems, he delighted in his Boyar (Bulgarian) heritage and in the free-spirited Rom (Gypsies) and attempted to alter the way that Russians viewed themselves. In the short story “The Shot” (1830), he examined the code of dueling practiced during the first Napoleonic empire. In reaction to social climbers scrambling for noble rank, he justifies his rise to fame and influence in “My Pedigree” (1830): “How then aristocrat am I to be? / God be thanked, I am but a citizen” (Pushkin 1888, 62).

Pushkin's poem “Ode to Liberty” ruffled the imperial court with its disrespect for royalty and its affronts to the church. Exiled on May 1820 to the Ukraine, then the Crimea, Moldavia, and finally to Odessa, he negotiated a reprieve with Nicholas I in 1826 but continued to feel pressure from censors and government spies who read his mail. Drawn southwest by reports of the Greek Revolution in 1821 and hostilities against the Ottoman Empire, Pushkin wrote of unrequited love in The Captive of the Caucasus (1821) and of an Oriental legend in The Fountain of Bakhchisaray (1823), romantic ballads that earned him acclaim as the “Russian Byron.” In 1825, the author began serializing Eugene Onegin, which he based on the folk tales told to him by his nurse and completed in 1832. The plot contrasts the aristocratic Onegin, a Byronic HERO, with Tatiana Larina, a naive country girl who develops finer instincts and morals than he. Under government surveillance, the poet completed the verse tragedy Boris Godunov (1825), the story of the boyar-emperor who ruled from 1598 to 1605 following a period of murderous court intrigues under Czar Ivan IV the Terrible. Because of the author's criticism of imperial autocracy, censors suppressed the play until 1866.

Pushkin advanced to subversive motifs and themes reflecting on the evils of despotism. He honored Peter the Great in the long narrative poem Poltava (1828), which commemorates the Russian triumph over Charles XII, emperor of Sweden, in 1709, in the central Ukraine. He made a more direct attack on imperial authority with The Bronze Horseman (1833), a ballad about the dreamer Yevgeny, a grief- stricken flood survivor who blames a monument to Peter the Great for the wretchedness of commoners. After cursing the equestrian statue, Yevgeny has to face the retaliation of the bronze figure, a symbol of autocracy and suppression of free speech that springs to life and pursues him to his death. According to the 20th-century Russian poet ANNA AKHMATOVA, the milieu of gloom and decay in St. Petersburg presented in Eugene Onegin explodes into stark GOTHIC fantasy in The Bronze Horseman. Pushkin describes the city as a sociopolitical hellhole that looms pitiless and overbearing on Yevgeny's horizon. Beginning at line 207, the narrative typifies the czar as immobile as he surveys the flood, a national calamity and a PROPHECY of the Romanovs' inaction in the final days of the Russian Empire.

In his last years, Pushkin angered Czar Nicholas I by researching the life of Peter the Great in the imperial archives as the model of a worthy ruler. In “The Captain's Daughter” (1836), Pushkin openly castigated the “old days,” when “torture was so ingrained a part of the judicial process that the beneficent order abolishing it remained a dead letter for a long time” (Pushkin 1999, 146). The unfinished narrative Peter the Great’s Feast was a blatant criticism of royal pretension. The ironic narrative ridicules Russian commoners for their trust in the autocrat's nobility and benevolence.

A court intrigue forced the author into a duel that resulted in his death at age 37. To avoid a political demonstration, the government concealed the location of Pushkin's funeral and interment. His works have been adapted to opera by Modest Moussorgsky, to oratorio by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and to ballet by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, and they influenced the lyricism of Anna Akhmatova. In cinema, Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler starred in an English film, Onegin (1999).


Andrew, Joe, and Robert Reid. Two Hundred Years of

Pushkin. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003.

Pushkin, Alexander. Eugene Onegin. Translated by Charles Johnston. London: Penguin, 2003.

----- . Poems. Translated by Ivan Panin. Boston: Cupples and Hurd, 1888.

----- . The Queen of Spades and Other Stories: A New Translation. Translated by Alan Myers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.