Imagine yourself in a room full of writers and littérateurs from different areas, cultures, and origins. You ask them one simple question:
Who are the greatest poets of all time?
The Arabs: It’s a no brainer; Imru’ al-Qays, and comes after him Nabigha or Zuhayr.
The Germans: hmm Schiller, Heine, Novalis or Hölderlin ? Von Kleist maybe ? No, no definitely Goethe.
The French: Quelle question! We will say De Ronsard, ou bien Lamartine. But ze bezt ever is Victor Hugo. Oui, absolument !
The English: The list is so looooong. On the top of the list comes Shakespeare, then Chaucer, Lord Tennyson, John Donne, Lord Byron, Keats, and a lot of “Wordsworth“.
What about you, our friends the Russians?
Russians in one voice: Александр Сергеевич Пушкин.
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“Pushkin is an extraordinary phenomenon and, perhaps, the unique phenomenon of the Russian spirit.” (Gogol)
“A prophetic phenomenon…
Pushkin’s coming mightily aids us in our dark way by a new guiding light.
In this sense, Pushkin is a presage and a prophecy.” (Dostoevsky’s Pushkin Speech)
I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that you’ll never find a Russian poet, novelist, or artist who wasn’t mildly or strongly influenced by Alexander Pushkin. All of them without exception, including Mikhail Lermontov, Leskov, Goncharov, Yesenin, and Gorky…
Poetry, novels, short stories, history, theater, criticism…he prepared the ground for the growth of every genre.
You can’t understand the genius of Gogol without being aware of the influence of Pushkin.
And we may actually even say that neither Gogol nor Tolstoy could have existed without him.
If you want a proof, just take any novel by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Turgenev; you will find that his name has been mentioned several times either implicitly and explicitly.
He is, indeed, the founder of modern Russian literature.
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“They like to talk about literature; They say good things about Bulgarin, Pushkin and Gretsch” (Nevsky Prospekt, Gogol)
We couldn’t say that Pushkin was loved by everyone at his time.
Thaddeus Bulgarin and Nikolay Gretsch, both editors of Northern Bee, a popular political and literary newspaper, didn’t much like Pushkin for example. They especially didn’t like his origins.
Bulgarin, who himself was born into a noble Polish family, referred to Pushkin as “a poet from Hispanic America,… Descended from a mulatto man or woman, – I do not know -” and then making fun of him “began to show that one of his ancestors was a Negro prince… Vanitas vanitatum.”
Pushkin, of course, did respond and attacked him for being an immigrant who not only dislikes Russians, and Russia, and its glory but also “is soiling the sacred pages of our annals with mud, denigrating the best fellow-citizens, and not content to attack contemporaries, scorning the graves of our ancestors.”
Okay, that’s a long story, and I won’t go further with the insults exchanged between the two men.
Instead, let’s talk about Abram Petrovich Gannibal.
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Abram (Abraham or Ibrahim) Gannibal (or Hannibal) was the son of the prince or chief of the capital Logon (part of present-day Cameroon).
Abram was abducted and taken to Constantinople on a ship to serve as a page under the Ottoman Sultan. He was later transferred to Russia as a gift for Peter the Great, where he was freed, adopted, and raised in the Emperor’s court household as his godson.
He was sent to France to receive education in the arts, science, and warfare. He was fluent in several languages and showed great interest in mathematics and geometry. During his time in France, he joined the French army in the hope to expand his learning in military engineering. Abram met important Enlightenment figures like Montesquieu and Voltaire.
The latter called him: the “dark star of the Enlightenment”.
Also read Hugh Barnes book “Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg” for more details.
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This dark star was the great grandfather of Pushkin.
Ibrahim, the main character from his first prose work, his unfinished historical novel; The Moor of Peter the Great, was loosely based on the life of Abram Gannibal. The novel traces the story of a black African who was brought to Russia during the reign of Peter the Great. As stated by the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, if the novel had been completed “we should have a supreme Russian historical novel”.
The reasons Pushkin unfortunately left the novel unfinished are still unknown.
According to one of Pushkin’s friends, the main intrigue would be the infidelity of the moor’s wife in reference to Abram’s first wife: Evdokia Dioper.
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To be continued…
This article is the second of a series I have called “Books with interruptions”. Also read my previous article in this series.