February 10, 2008

February 10 | Alexander Pushkin

June 6, 1799 - February 10, 1837: Age 37

Pushkin published his first poem at the age of 14, and by the time he finished high school he was widely known to be among the greatest Russian literary figures. He moved in the highest and most avant-garde circles in St. Petersburg, soaking in the vibrant atmosphere of social reform and becoming a key literary radical. He annoyed the government sufficiently to be "transferred" out of the capital and into the sticks, where the bureaucrats hoped he would become obscure.

Far from sinking into obscurity, Pushkin joined a number of secret societies and wrote a couple of poems that brought him international acclaim. The government responded by exiling him still further into the sticks, this time to his mother's rural estate in northern Russia. He lobbied successfully with the Tsar himself for his release, and returned to St. Petersburg, but soon found himself under suspicion again as copies of his poems kept turning up amongst the papers of rebels and other intellectual troublemakers.

Now strictly censored, he wrote one of his greatest works, Boris Godunov, a powerful drama about the Russian ruler who took power from 1598 to 1605, but riffing dangerously on themes of corruption and regicide. It took him five years to get it published, and then only in a heavily censored form. The play was not performed in its uncensored form until 2007, 182 years after it was written.

It is interesting that this stubborn and difficult man, treated with utmost suspicion by the government, was known to the Tsar and in fact admitted to court life. Tsar Nicholas I was no intellectual and in fact one of the most reactionary rulers in Russian history. It was a strange time: Russian society was experiencing an intense flowering of artistic and intellectual creativity at the same time as the Russian government was at its most repressive.

In 1831 he married a renowned beauty from a wealthy family of manufacturers. They became regulars in court circles. The Tsar gave Pushkin the lowest court title, and Pushkin (perhaps rightly) assumed that this was so that his wife could be ogled by her many admirers at court balls. The cost of living in society was very high, and he fell into debt. Moreover, among his wife's admirers was her sister's dashing and handsome fiancé, a French nobleman named Georges d'Anthès. Rumours of a scandalous liaison enraged Pushkin, and an anonymous letter circulated in society nominating him "Deputy Grand Master and Historiograph of the Order of Cuckolds" pushed him beyond the brink. He wrote an insulting, non-anonymous letter to d'Anthès' father and, when urged to withdraw his remarks, he challenged d'Anthès to a duel.

Dueling was illegal in Russia at the time but in fact a fairly common occurrence: Pushkin had already dueled several times. One party would demand "satisfaction" from the other, then both parties would select trusted "seconds" (assistants) and a "field of honour" (a place where they could get on with it uninterrupted). Many details would have to be negotiated: time and place, the distance apart from one another, the weapons chosen, who would fire the first shot, and when the duel would be considered finished.

Pushkin and d'Anthès dueled with pistols, and d'Anthès fired first. He hit Pushkin, wounding him in the stomach. Pushkin struggled to his feet and managed to get a shot off at d'Anthès, wounding him lightly on the right arm. Two days later, Pushkin died of his wound; d'Anthès of course did not, but he was arrested briefly, then pardoned (considering the gravity of Pushkin's abuses), stripped of rank, and escorted to the border. He returned to France with his wife and embarked on a successful political career, living to a ripe old age of 83.

Sources: Wikipedia, Alesandr Pushkin


Ulla said...

Interesting. Many times I have seen my favorite ballet
'Evgeni Onegin', (Tchaikovsky and Pushkin) and indeed - a duel is important part of it....

franca said...

Yes, I've enjoyed the opera. But in THAT duel the hero wins. If you can call killing your best friend "winning"...

Ulla said...

Yes, in the opera, the duel has even a bigger role,
the ballet concentrates more on the love story.
The circumstance on the story duel and the real life duel is almost same. Seeing how many duels Pushkin was a part of... would we say he had a 'pattern' running amok... lol?