BY RUNOKO RASHIDI*
Born in Moscow on May 26, 1799 (several different birthdates have been offered), Alexandre Sergeivich Pushkin, the patriarch of Russian literature, was descended on his mother’s side from Major-General Ibrahim Petrovich Hannibal — an African (probably from Cameroon and perhaps descended from royalty) who became a favorite of Russian Czar Peter I (1682-1725).
By all accounts, Hannibal was an extraordinary figure and, from an African perspective, it is quite interesting that he assumed the name Hannibal — himself an African as well as one of the great military commanders and strategists in history, and one of the most outstanding figures from antiquity. In an official document that Hannibal submitted in 1742 to Empress Elizabeth, while petitioning for the rank of nobility and a coat of arms, he asked for the right to use a family crest emblazoned with an African elephant.
In 1703, at the age of 7, Hannibal was taken to the court of the Ottoman Sultan at Constantinople. In 1704, after a year in the capital, he was taken away by the deputy of the Russian ambassador Savva Raguzinsky, who was following the orders of his superiors (one of whom was Pyotr Andreyevich Tolstoy, great-grandfather of the great writer Lev Tolstoy).
Hannibal was baptized in 1705 in St. Paraskeva’s Church in Vilnius, with Russian Czar Peter I (Peter the Great) as his godfather. In 1717, he went to Paris to continue an education in the arts, sciences and warfare. By then, he was fluent in several languages and knew mathematics and geometry. He fought with the forces of Louis XV of France against those of Louis’ uncle Philip V of Spain, and rose to the rank of captain. It was during his time in France that he adopted his surname in honor of the Carthaginian general Hannibal. In Paris, he met and befriended such Enlightenment figures as Denis Diderot and Voltaire. Voltaire called him the “dark star of the Enlightenment.”
Upon the completion of his education in France that on his return to Russia he was met on his return by Peter himself, a few miles from Moscow.
After Peter’s daughter Elizabeth became the new monarch in 1741, he became a prominent person at her court, rose to the rank of major-general and became governor of Tallinn, a position he held from 1742 to 1752. The Empress Elizabeth had in 1742 given him the Mikhailovskoye estate in Pskov province with hundreds of serfs. Here, he retired in 1762. It is rumored that the great general Aleksandr Suvorov owed his life as a soldier to Hannibal, who convinced Suvorov’s father to let his son pursue a military career.
Pushkin was extremely proud of his maternal great-grandfather, and in an unfinished work, The Moor of Peter the Great, paid great homage to his illustrious ancestor, repeatedly referring to Hannibal as “the Moor,” “the Black” and the “African.”
Alexandre Pushkin has been identified as the father of Russian literature and composed in Russian during an era when most Russian writers composed in French. The most distinguished Russian writers offer Pushkin effusive praise.
Feodor Dostoevsky wrote that, “No Russian writer was ever so intimately at one with the Russian people as Pushkin.”
Maxim Gorky wrote that, “Pushkin is the greatest master in the world. Pushkin, in our country, is the beginning of all beginnings. He most beautifully expressed the spirit of our people.”
I. Turgeniev wrote that:
“Pushkin alone had to perform two tasks which took whole centuries and more to accomplish in other countries, namely to establish a language and to create a literature.”
According to N.A. Dobrolyubuv:
“Pushkin is of immense importance not only in the history of Russian literature, but also in the history of Russian enlightenment. He was the first to teach the Russian public to read. … In his verse, the living Russian language was first made known to us for the first time, the actual Russian world was opened wide to us. All were charmed and delighted by the mighty harmonies of this new poetry, the like of which had never been known.”
Stated A.V. Lunacharsky:
“Pushkin was the Russian spring. Pushkin was the Russian morning. Pushkin was the Russian Adam. Pushkin did for us what Dante and Petrach did for Italy; what the 17th century giants did for France; and what Lessing, Schiller and Goethe did for Germany.”
According to Nicholas G. Chernishevsky:
“Through him literary education was disseminated to tens of thousands of person, whereas before him literary interests had engaged only a few. He was the first to raise literature to the dignity of a national cause to our country. … It was Pushkin who paved the way, and to some extent, is still paving the way for further development of Russian literature.”
And perhaps the most profound as well as comprehensive assessment of Pushkin is by Gillon R. Aitken, a translator of his prose:
“Pushkin holds the supreme position in Russian literature. It was his genius, in his prose as well as in his verse, which created, in the fullest sense, a national literature could subsequently be built. Until his emergence, writing in Russia, with the exception of a handful of works, had been mainly imitative, pursuing pseudo-classical principles, and reflecting closely the trends of various Western European cultures — French, in particular. The lyrical simplicity and the absolute precision of Pushkin’s poetry, the natural, straightforward grace of his prose perfectly expressed the Russian mood; and, in that expression, Pushkin gave to Russia for the first time in her history a literature whose inspiration came from herself, and which succeeded in setting the tone for successive generations of Russian writers. But, of course, his achievements were more than national; his universality of vision, his ability to transmute what he saw and what he understood into language of the utmost purity and point, have created for him a permanent place in the literature of the world.”
Pushkin clearly saw himself as a Black man and closely identified himself with those Africans held in bondage in the Americas. In a letter composed in 1824 he stated that: “It is permissible to judge the Greek question like that of my Negro brethren, desiring for both deliverance from an intolerable slavery.”
Pushkin died prematurely on Jan. 29, 1837 at 2:45 p.m. resulting from wounds suffered defending his honor in a duel. Czar Nicholas I, who hated and feared Pushkin, called him “the most intelligent man in Russia.” Allison Blakely has written that “Pushkin was truly the counterpart to Shakespeare.” Among his most significant works translated into English are: Eugene Onegin, The Ode to Liberty, The Captain’s Daughter, and Boris Godunuf.
Alexandre Pushkin was buried on Feb. 6, 1837, in Svyatogorsk Monastery, near Mikhailovskoye, close to his mother and his great-grandfather Hannibal.
Bronze statues of Pushkin can be found throughout Moscow and St. Petersburg. Cities, town squares and 20 museums have been named after him. His portraits are everywhere. He is much beloved and remains one of Russia’s national heroes.
Fifteen years ago, during the 1999 bicentennial tributes and celebrations, Pushkin was honored by hundreds of thousands of people. I participated in those celebrations and personally gave two presentations on Alexandre Pushkin and his historical significance, and had the opportunity to visit the school that Pushkin attended and two of his residences. I found it quite interesting that on the desk upon which Pushkin wrote were items depicting African people.
During the celebrations, Pushkin’s presence seemed palpable to us, almost tangible. I felt that it was my mission, during the course of my presentations, to stress that, first of all, Pushkin was not an isolated entity in European history and that many, many Africans before, during and after Pushkin had made their mark in Europe and had left brilliant, even if sometimes little-known, legacies in the northern part of the world. In addition, I was determined to demonstrate to Africans and Russians alike that our history around the world, including Europe, did not begin with and will not end in bondage. I felt as though I was honoring and championing not only Pushkin himself, but African people everywhere.
HANNIBAL AND PUSHKIN: A BIBLIOGRAPHY
Acton, Harold. Pushkin and Peter the Great’s Negro. In Negro, An Anthology Collected and Edited by Nancy Cunard. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1970: 334-37.
Aitken, Gillon R., translator. The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin. New York: Norton, 1966.
Barnes, Hugh. The Stolen Prince: Gannibal, Adopted Son of Peter the Great, Great-Grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, and Europe’s First Black Intellectual. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Barringer, Felicity. With Vigils, Soviet Fetes National Poet. New York Times, Feb. 15, 1987.
Bivens, Matt, and Steven Gutterman. Rich Notebooks of Poet Pushkin Brought to Life. Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1994: A4.
Blagoy, Dmitry. The Sacred Lyre: Essays on the Life and Work of Alexander Pushkin. Moscow: Raduga, 1982.
Blakely, Allison. The Negro in Imperial Russia: A Preliminary Sketch. Journal of Negro History 61, No. 4 (1976): 351-61.
Blakely, Allison. The Black Presence in Russia. Journal of the Afro American Genealogical Society (Spring 1981): 61-66.
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Debreczeny, Paul, translator. Alexander Pushkin: Complete Prose Fiction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983.
Dugate, Jeff. Celebrating Russian Poet and Writer Alexander Pushkin. ESPER (Ebony Society of Philatelic Events and Reflections, Inc.), Volume 11, Issue 2 (April 30, 2005): 9-10.
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Rashidi, Runoko. Black Star: African Presence in Early Europe. Foreword by Robin Walker. Introduction by Charles S. Finch III. London: Books of Africa Press, 2011.
Rogers, Joel Augustus. Aleksander Sergeevich Pushkin, the Father of Russian Literature and Apostle of Freedom. World’s Great Men of Color, Volume 2. Edited with an Introduction, Commentary, and New Bibliographical Notes by John Henrik Clarke. New York: Collier, 1972: 79-88.
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Thornhill, Esmeralda. Popularizing Pushkin…Globally. Halifax: The James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, 1999.
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Vitale, Serena. Pushkin’s Button: The Story of the Fatal Duel Which Killed Russia’s Greatest Poet. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein and Jon Rothchild. London: Fourth Estate, 1999.
*Runoko Rashidi is an historian, anthropologist, lecturer and world traveler. To date, he has authored or edited 18 books about history and travel. He is currently based in Los Angeles and regularly leads African-heritage tours. His next tours are to Cameroon in December 2014 and Ethiopia in May 2015. For further information write to Runoko at [email protected] or call him at 323 920 6055.