Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837)
Russian 19th century author who often has been considered his country's greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. Pushkin blended Old Slavonic with vernacular Russian into a rich, melodic language. He was the first to use everyday speech in his poetry. Pushkin's Romantic contemporaries were Byron (d. 1824) and Goethe (d. 1832), but his ironic attitude can be connected to the literature of 18th century, especially to Voltaire. Pushkin wrote some 800 lyrics with a dozen narrative poems.
"Love passed, the muse appeared, the weather
of mind got clarity newfound;
now free, I once more weave together
emotion, thought, and magic sound."
(from Eugene Onegin, 1823)
Alexander Pushkin was born in Moscow into a cultured but poor aristocratic family. On his father's side he was descendant of an ancient noble family and on his mother's side he was a great-great-grandson of an black Abyssinian, Gannibal, who served under Peter the Great. In his childhood the future poet was entrusted to nursemaids, French tutors, and governesses. He learned Russian from household serfs and from his nanny, Arina Rodionovna. Pushkin started to write poems from an early age. His first published poem was written when he was only 14.
While attending the Imperial Lyceum at Tsarskoye Selo (1811-1817), he began writing his first major work, Ruslan and Ludmila (1820), a kind of fairy story in verse. It was based on Russian folk-tales which his grandmother had told him - in French. Years later at his father's estate he listened legends and fairy tales which his old nurse Arina Rodionovna told him, calling that process "making up for the defects in his accursed education." In 1817 he accepted a post at the foreign office at St. Petersburg. He became associated with members of a radical movement who participated later in the Decembrist uprising in 1825. Several of Pushkin's friends were involved in the affair, but he apparently had no connection with it. In May 1820 Pushkin was banished from the town because of his political poems, among them 'Ode to Liberty'. He was transferred south to Ekaterinoslav. During this time Pushkin discovered the poetry of Lord Byron. He was then moved to Kishinev, and in the summer of 1823 to Odessa. Count Vorontsoff, governor of Odessa, did not have high opinions about the poet: "... he is really only a wek imitator of a not very respected model - Lord Byron."
Although living in exile in different parts of Russia, Pushkin continued to write poems, rising gradually as the leader of Romantic movement. In 1823 he started his major masterpiece, the novel in verse Eugene Onegin, which appeared in 1833. His great historical tragedy, Boris Godunov, was published in 1831. It was based on the career of Boris Fyodorovich Godunov, the czar of Russia from 1598 to 1605. Boris is haunted by his quilt over the murder of the tsarevich Dmitry. When an ambitious young monk claims to be Dmitry, Boris tries to defend his throne, but he falls ill and dies. The composer Mussorgsky used this play as the basis of his opera (1869-74) of the same name.
In 1834 Pushkin received an appointment as a functionary at the court, but his minor status was considered humiliation. Pushkin's debts were mounting and he was worried about his wife's possible infidelity.
In his last years Pushkin started to write historical work of Peter the Great, which was left unfinished. In 1829 he fell in love with 16-year-old Natalya Nikolayevna Goncharova, a beauty of the Imperial court, whom he married two years later. The marriage was unhappy and Pushkin had little peace for intense creative activity. His wife's frivolous social life led Pushkin into debt and eventually to his early death. A gossip of an affair between Baron Georges d'Anthиs and his wife started to spread. Pushkin defended his wife's honor with her brother-in-law in a duel. He was fatally wounded and died on February 10 (New Style), 1837. The czar buried buried Pushkin in secret in the monastery near Mikhailovskoye, for fear of popular risings at the funeral. He also paid all the remaining debts of the poet.
As an essayist Pushkin was prolific but most of his writings remained in draft form and over half were published posthumously due to repressive censorship. Chiefly Pushkin concentrated on literature and history. He saw that overwhelming use of French by the upper class delayed the progress of Russian literature. In this matter Pushkin was not speaking without own experience - his first language was French and he read French writers well on into adolescence. The responsibility of Decembrist Rebellion Pushkin shifted onto foreign influences, and argued against corporal punishment in teaching. He was fascinated by democratic republicanism but perceived the tendency to idealize both the natural state of life, as exemplified in the work of James Fenimore Cooper and in the political discussion in the United States, as shown in his essay "Dzhon Tenner" (1836, John Tanner).