I have a little porcelain statue of Pushkin I bought at an antique shop in Yerevan, featuring a young curly-headed Aleksandr with a plume pen writing upon a round table. It is from the Soviet period, made in the Lemonosov porcelain factory of Saint Petersburg. It is sitting beside an iron Don Quixote figurine, also made in the USSR, and nestled among books published by Moscow Progress Publishers. I have a tidy little collection of them. Progress Publishers was Soviet Moscow’s major foreign language publishing house, focused mainly on getting Russian classics into the hands of foreigners, and also for approved literature students of the Soviet Union could use to improve their English and French.
For Russia it all starts with Pushkin. He wrote at the beginning, 200 years ago and leading into the explosion of Russian literary greatness with others like Lermontov and Turgenev and Tolstoy. Pushkin came from Russia’s nobility. His family was an ancient one, and had been of great service to the empire, which secured Pushkin’s exile (not execution) during the purges in the aftermath of the December revolution. Alexander I’s men found his poem “Ode to Liberty” among the Decemberists’ things – a Kantian discovery of individual freedom – and Pushkin was exiled and forced to remain silent, at least for a while.
Beside my Pushkin statue I have a metal one of an African girl sitting on a log reading a book. It would seem out of place, we don’t consider Africa as the epicenter of modern literary tradition. I bought it in Nigeria at a little outdoor market. Pushkin’s great-grandfather was African; some say he was Ethiopian but more probably he was from the Lake Chad region of West Africa (Cameroon), and had been sold into slavery by the Borno Kanem Caliphate to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople where he was discovered by visiting Russian dignitaries and sent to Saint Petersburg to the Tsar. There he became one of the Tsar’s most trusted soldiers.
Literature holds a special place in the story of Russian resistance and renaissance (or maybe just naissance). It was the only way to resist – there was nothing akin to a ‘civil society’ in the Russian Empire. There was the Orthodox Church, which usually marched in lock-step with the Tsar; and there was writing. Which is why writers, most of them born into the nobility but who recognized the condition of the serfs was unjust and untenable, led the charge for Russia’s freedom movements long before politicians ever could. A freedom movement that still exists, but should not be confused for western-funded activists. Russia’s story is older; its experience with authority deeper; and its literature better. Which is why in the opposition to Vladimir Putin and his new Imperium, we should really be looking to Pushkin and Turgenev – not Pussy Riot – as the voice of a more fair Russia.
200 years on, Pushkin’s dreams remain unfulfilled – but the fight goes on, and maybe that is really what matters anyways?
Pushkin’s ggrandfather, Gannibal, is a real-life story of a black “superhero”. I don’t understand why popular culture focuses on a fictitious cartoon character like Black Panther when a historical figure is much more interesting. Where is Gannibal’s movie?
I read Eugene Onegin by Pushkin and was very impressed by his only completed novel. I missed (or had forgotten) that Nabokov (who translated Onegin) claimed that his research led to a conclusion that Gannibal was born in equatorial Africa.
I haven’t read Onegin, I’ll track it down! People who want to talk about slavery forget that Ottoman Constantinople was a slave epicenter. From Africa but also lots of girls from the Caucasus; they were used for harems and other ‘work’ because they were considered wild and beautiful.