Live by the pen; die by the sword. This statement directly applies to the way Alexander Pushkin lived his life. The greatest poet in Russian history lived his life just like it would have happened to a romantic character in one of his stories or poems. Greatly influenced by his heritage and by one of the greatest Romantic poets of all time, Lord Byron, Pushkin breathed life, adventure, and personal anguish into his literature. Using his great knowledge of his native language and blending it in with raw emotion and romantic ideals made Pushkin the most explosive and influential writer to have ever been born as a Russian.
Alexander Sergeievich Pushkin was born on May 26th (June 6th, according to the new style), 1799 in Moscow, into an old boyar family. Pushkin's great-grandfather was brought from Africa as a gift to Peter the Great, who treated him as his own, gave him noble status, and made him his comrade in arms. Even before Alexander was born his path in life was destined to be an unusual one.
At a very early age Pushkin was reading books. His father had a library in the house and whenever the young Pushkin had a chance he was thumbing through books that were shaping his childhood, since he was pretty much a neglected child. His parents were rarely home and the woman that took care of him, his nyanya, an old serf woman, would tell him grand stories and legends about far-off and wondrous lands. This fueled his sponge-like imagination and the creative forces that would guide his life in later years.
In 1811 Tsar Alexander I opened a school for boys, the Lyceum, which Pushkin was to attend. Before the school opened his education came from tutors who taught him how to read and write French, the language of Russian nobility. At the age of 12 Pushkin was off to Tsarskoe Selo, the sight of the Lyceum, to start his formal education. There, Pushkin left a huge impression with everybody that he came in contact with. His teachers either loved him or hated him and he was very popular with his fellow students.
By his graduation from the Lyceum in 1817, Pushkin was already famous all throughout Russia. His first legitimate work, "Ruslan and Ludmila," was completed as his graduation project. To this day it is argued that, "Ruslan and Ludmila," is his greatest literary work. Graduates of the Lyceum were all to receive position in the government. Pushkin got the assignment of being the Tenth Undersecretary in the Foreign Office. This job was not a prestigious one that he deserved to get but his liberal views and political poetry prevented him from getting a job that was any better.
Pushkin was not outwardly attractive, but his demeanor and charm was able to win over the heart of any woman. As soon as Pushkin was outside the confines of the Lyceum he was able to live out his playboy lifestyle. He had affairs with many women and many lovers that all found it hard to resist his smooth talking style and the passion in his eyes. He even kept a list for himself that divided the women who he had sexual relations with and the relationships that were purely platonic.
His leisurely lifestyle and his provocative literature eventually earned him an exile that was implemented by the Tsar. The Tsar and the authorities, felt that it would be better to have Pushkin stationed in the south of Russia so as not to add fuel to the talk of revolution and reform. Pushkin was sent to the small town of Kishinev where he was in no mood to slow his fast paced life down.
He fought in many duels, had more affairs, and was heavy into gambling. At one of his duels he arrived late eating a bag of cherries, where he accused the man of cheating at a game of cards. Taunting the officer by spitting the pits in his direction he avoided a gunshot wound when the officer fired and missed. Without even returning the gunfire he nonchalantly walked away from the duel still eating his cherries.
In 1822 he was sent off to Odessa in the Caucasus to join Count Vorontsov's staff. Vorontsov treated Pushkin with disrespect, which was evident with the assignments that he gave him. He once ordered Pushkin to go and make a report on a locust infestation in very rural farmland. Pushkin came back and to give his report and immediately went to seek out the Count. He found the Count at an opera and he told him that he was ready to give him his full report. The Vorontsov told him that it could wait, but Pushkin insisted. Spitefully and sarcastically Pushkin said, "The locust flew in, landed, ate, and left." He told it in a rhyming poet verse that sounded very smug and mocking when quoted in Russian. This enraged Vorontsov, but this was only the tip of the iceberg.
It just so happened that Pushkin had not given up his love for women. At the time he was carrying on two affairs at the same time. One of the women was Vorontsov's wife. When Vorontsov found out he immediately contacted St. Petersburg and informed them about what was going on. The final outcome was that Pushkin was to be sent to his family estate in Mikhailovskoe, where he was not to leave the grounds.
Pushkin was dishonorably relieved from his duty as a government official and was banished to his family estate. In 1824 he started spending his new exile at home and doing a great deal of writing. He was able to start, "Eugene Onegin," and complete "The Gypsies," and "Boris Godunov." In a few short years his life was to take another turn.
The 14th of December 1825, the date of the Decembrist Uprising, that would be the catalyst in the shift of power, when Alexander I died. The uprising or revolt lasted only a few hours, a few shots were fired, and there were no casualties, but most of the conspirators and participants were close friends of Pushkins. This put Pushkin into the hotseat with the new Tsar, Nicholas.
Tsar Nicholas I began his rule of Russia by executing some of the conspirators, exiling some to Siberia, and imprisoning some others. When Nicholas heard that Pushkin was inside the circle of people that were involved with the uprising he immediately sent for Pushkin.
In 1826 Pushkin met with the new Tsar who was blown away by the way the poet carried himself. Nicholas told Pushkin that he would let him out of exile and that he would be his personal censor. There was no way that Pushkin could turn this down, because of the immense honor and distinction that the Tsar was giving Pushkin. However, for Pushkin this was just another weight that was added to his shoulders. For the rest of his life/literary career he would have to tailor his writing to the political views and ideals of the Tsar. The Tsar went as far as editing and adding most of Pushkin's works.
In the thirty years that Tsar Nicholas reigned over the Russian land he was known as the Iron Tsar. He implemented strict laws and censorship over all of the land. He talked and acted in a manner that reflected the way he ruled, being very orderly and stern in character. This made the union between him and Pushkin comparable to that of fire and water. Pushkin was a freespirit who preached personal freedom and challenged the ideals of the state. These were very trying times for Pushkin.
Then came the winter of 1829-1829, when Russia's most famous poet laid his eyes upon his future wife. Her name was Natalia Goncharova, she was 16, and she was rumored to be the most beautiful woman in Moscow. He met her at the first ball that she attended and from the first moment his intentions were to marry this woman.
For the next two years Pushkin would be in pursuit of Natalia until her mother finally agreed for the couple to marry. They were married in 1831; ten months after the mother approved the proposal. At the wedding ceremony a few bad omens fell upon the service. Pushkin's ring fell to the floor and his candle blew out. Pushkin took this very seriously, which he saw as signs of the problems that were to come.
High debts and accusations of Natalia having numerous affairs plagued Pushkin and Natalia's marriage. This fueled Pushkin's passionate persona and he became a jealous husband that was willing to sacrifice his life in a duel to uphold his honor.
This is exactly what he had to do and that is exactly how he died.
A French Baron named George-Charles Dantes caught the eye of Pushkin's wife. She too being the most beautiful woman in all Russia caught his eye also and the two met frequently at royal functions, literary salons, and formal balls. Engulfed in a jealous rage Pushkin eventually challenged Dantes to a duel November 5, 1836. The duel did not take place until January 27, 1837 and it was the last day Pushkin would see with living eyes.
He died two days later on January 29th (February 10th by the new style) with his wife at his bedside along with many of his close friends. At the age of 37 Pushkin's fate had been acted out like that of a romantic character in one of his poems or novels.
He was buried at his family estate in Mikhailovskoe, where he spent two years of his exile, where he found his love for literature in his father's library, and where his creative energy was structured by his nyanya with her fantastic stories. Now over 200 years since his birth he is considered the father of Russian literature, in a renaissance of sorts, during the Golden Age of Russian Art. No one can argue that the wealth of literature Pushkin brought to the Russian people, as well as the world has in one way or another influenced every single Russian writer to this day and for years to come.
The translated versions of his texts can be read in almost any language. His literature seems to speak across cultural and language barriers not unlike the literature of Shakespeare. To read his literature in Russian is to take a breath of the Russian spirit and soul. It would be worth the time and the effort in learning the Russian language just to read Pushkin the way he wrote it without the diluting effects that translations give to literature.
Russian Language Major at San Diego State University
and employee of Russian Sunbirds