Authors: Alexander Pushkin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Russian poet

June 6, 1799

Moscow, Russia

February 10, 1837

St. Petersburg, Russia


Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, Russia’s first important poet, was descended on his father’s side from a family of impoverished nobility and on his mother’s from an Abyssinian officer in the service of Peter the Great. Pushkin was proud of both heritages, and the distinctive character of his verse, a combination of classical form and romantic feeling, may have been influenced by them. {$I[AN]9810001457} {$I[A]Pushkin, Alexander} {$I[geo]RUSSIA;Pushkin, Alexander} {$I[tim]1799;Pushkin, Alexander}

Alexander Pushkin

(Library of Congress)

Born in Moscow on June 6, 1799, he studied at home and at the Lyceum (1811-1817), where he absorbed Latin and eighteenth century French literature and began publishing verses: spirited anacreontics, political epigrams, and, in 1820, a long narrative poem, Ruslan and Liudmila. This work, like much of his later work, was based on folk material. At the age of twenty he was already acknowledged the new leader of Russian poetry. To the czarist government he was also (and continued to be throughout his life) politically suspect. He was as precocious in love as he was in poetry, and in St. Petersburg from 1818 to 1820 he threw himself with his characteristic love of life into a round of sensual adventures.

In 1820, as the result of his patriotic “Ode to Liberty,” he was sent to the Caucasus as a nominal state official but in reality an exile. There, during the next four years, he wrote his first mature poems, including The Prisoner of the Caucasus, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, and The Gypsies, all showing in their exotic settings and romantic characterizations the influence of George Gordon, Lord Byron. He also began in 1823 his masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse modeled on Byron’s Don Juan and not completed until 1831. Pushkin’s poem resembles Byron’s only superficially (and less as the work proceeds), in its buoyant tone and theme of love. It has greater unity of form, mellower wisdom, and more profound characterization; the story of Eugene, the callow amorist, rejected by the romantic, noble Tatyana who continues to love him even after she is married to another, merits the claim of having launched the great Russian novel.

Dismissed from the service in 1824, for the next two years Pushkin was confined by the government to his mother’s estate near Paskov. There, seeking a less subjective theme, he wrote Boris Godunov, an imitation of Shakespearean tragedy rather stilted in tone and lacking in cumulative effect. Although Pushkin’s theme is individual rather than political freedom, the play was censored as antimonarchial. Its reputation today rests chiefly on the opera by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, based on Pushkin’s text.

After 1826 Pushkin was kept under closer government surveillance in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Several notable short verse plays dealing with kinds of evil (The Covetous Knight, Mozart and Salieri, and The Stone Guest) were written in 1830, just before his marriage to Natalia Goncharova, a beautiful woman much younger than he, who (at least according to a letter he wrote to a friend) was his one hundred thirteenth conquest. After this date he wrote mostly history, criticism, and fiction. His most important works of fiction, written in terse, bare narrative style, are The Queen of Spades, a tale of supernatural evil, and The Captain’s Daughter, a romantic novel of love and heroism played out against a background of provincial life and the Pugachev Rebellion of 1773.

Forced into a dull round of court affairs by his wife and subject to continuous government censorship and restraint in spite of his patriotic poems Poltava and The Bronze Horseman, Pushkin found married life onerous. Involved in domestic intrigue and scandal, he challenged a guardsman named d’Anthes and was fatally wounded in a duel fought to defend his wife’s honor. He died two days later at St. Petersburg.

Pushkin’s reputation, at its height in the 1820’s, fell during the last years of his life but revived rapidly after 1880, when Fyodor Dostoevski delivered the famous commemorative address in which he stressed Pushkin’s role in the formation of a Russian national consciousness. Pushkin’s notoriety is still low in the West because of the special difficulties in translating his work, particularly his large body of lyric poetry beloved by Russian-speaking peoples.

Author Works Poetry: Ruslan i Lyudmila, 1820 (Ruslan and Liudmila, 1936) Gavriiliada, 1822 (Gabriel: A Poem, 1926) Kavkazskiy plennik, 1822 (The Prisoner of the Caucasus, 1895) Bratya razboyniki, 1824 Evgeny Onegin, 1825-1832, 1833 (Eugene Onegin, 1881) Bakhchisaraiskiy fontan, 1827 (The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, 1849) Graf Nulin, 1827 (Count Nulin, 1972) Tsygany, 1827 (The Gypsies, 1957) Poltava, 1829 (English translation, 1936) Domik v Kolomne, 1833 (The Little House at Kolomna, 1977) Skazka o mertvoy tsarevne, 1833 (The Tale of the Dead Princess, 1924) Skazka o rybake ir rybke, 1833 (The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, 1926) Skazka o tsare Saltane, 1833 (The Tale of Tsar Saltan, 1950) Skazka o zolotom petushke, 1834 (The Tale of the Golden Cockerel, 1918) Medniy vsadnik, 1837 (The Bronze Horseman, 1899) Collected Narrative and Lyrical Poetry, 1984 Epigrams and Satirical Verse, 1984 Long Fiction: Arap Petra velikogo, 1828-1841 (Peter the Great’s Negro, 1896) Kirdzhali, 1834 (English translation, 1896) Kapitanskaya dochka, 1836 (The Captain’s Daughter, 1846) Dubrovsky, 1841 (English translation, 1892) Yegipetskiye nochi, 1841 (Egyptian Nights, 1896) Istoriya sela Goryukhina, 1857 (History of the Village of Goryukhino, 1966) Short Fiction: Povesti Belkina, 1831 (Russian Romance, 1875; better known as The Tales of Belkin, 1947) Pikovaya dama, 1834 (The Queen of Spades, 1858) Drama: Boris Godunov, wr. 1824-1825, pb. 1831 (English translation, 1918) Skupoy rytsar, wr. 1830, pr., pb. 1852 (The Covetous Knight, 1925) Kamyenny gost, wr. 1830, pb. 1839 (The Stone Guest, 1936) Motsart i Salyeri, pr., pb. 1832 (Mozart and Salieri, 1920) Pir vo vryemya chumy, pb. 1833 (The Feast in Time of the Plague, 1925) Stseny iz rytsarskikh vryemen, wr. 1835, pr., pb. 1937 Rusalka, pb. 1837 (The Water Nymph, 1924) Little Tragedies, pb. 1946 (includes The Covetous Knight, The Stone Guest, Mozart and Salieri, and The Feast in Time of the Plague) Nonfiction: Istoriya Pugacheva, 1834 (The Pugachev Rebellion, 1966) Puteshestviye v Arzrum, 1836 (A Journey to Arzrum, 1974) Dnevnik, 1833-1835, 1923 Pisma, 1926-1935 (3 volumes) The Letters of Alexander Pushkin, 1963 (3 volumes) Pisma poslednikh let 1834-1837, 1969 Miscellaneous: The Captain’s Daughter, and Other Tales, 1933 The Works of Alexander Pushkin, 1936 The Poems, Prose, and Plays of Pushkin, 1936 Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy, 1937-1959 (17 volumes) The Complete Prose Tales of Alexander Pushkin, 1966 Pushkin Threefold, 1972 A. S. Pushkin bez tsenzury, 1972 Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy, 1977-1979 (10 volumes) Alexander Pushkin: Complete Prose Fiction, 1983 Bibliography Bayley, John. Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary. Cambridge UP, 1971. Offers erudite commentaries on Pushkin’s works. Chapter 7 deals with his prose and its relationship to his entire canon. Bethea, David M. Realizing Metaphors: Alexander Pushkin and the Life of the Poet. U of Wisconsin P, 1998. Bethea illustrates the relation between the art and life of Pushkin and shows how he speaks to modern times. Bethea, David, and Sergei Davidov. “Pushkin’s Saturnine Cupid: The Poetics of Parody of The Tales of Belkin.Publication of Modern Language Association of America 96 (1971): 748-61. This article is basically an answer to the essay by Richard Gregg. The authors emphasize, among other things, the parody of The Tales of Belkin as their most pronounced facet. Binyon, T. J. Pushkin: A Biography. Knopf, 2004. An interesting and extensive biography of Russia’s national poet. Debreczeny, Paul. The Other Pushkin: A Study of Alexander Pushkin’s Prose Fiction. U of California P, 1983. In his encompassing study, Debreczeny discusses all Pushkin’s prose works, drawing upon the extensive scholarship on the subject. Pushkin’s stories are also discussed at length, with interesting results. Debreczeny, Paul. Social Functions of Literature: Alexander Pushkin and Russian Culture. Stanford UP, 1997. Debreczeny divides his study into three parts: the first is devoted to selected readers’ responses to Pushkin; the second explores the extent to which individual aesthetic responses are conditioned by their environment; and the third concerns the mythic aura that developed around Pushkin’s public persona. Driver, Sam. Pushkin: Literature and Social Ideas. Columbia UP, 1989. Driver examines Pushkin’s politics, his aristocracy, and his dandyism. A final chapter explores two unfinished Pushkin fragments, a Russian version of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham and a retelling of Tacitus’s account of the death of Petronius Arbiter. Emerson, Caryl. “‘The Queen of Spades’ and the Open End.” In Pushkin Today, edited by David M. Bethea. Indiana UP, 1993. Summarizes briefly the socioliterary, psychoanalytical, linguistic, and numerological studies of the story, and argues that what is parodied in the story is the reader’s search for a system or a key; contends that Pushkin teases his readers with fragments of codes, partial keys that do not add up. Evdokimova, Svetlana. Pushkin’s Historical Imagination. Yale UP, 1999. An examination of the range of Pushkin’s fictional and nonfictional works on the subject of history. Evdokimova considers Pushkin’s ideas on the relation between chance and necessity, the significance of great individuals, and historical truth. Feinstein, Elaine. Pushkin: A Biography. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998. Drawing on recently discovered documents, Feinstein explores the life of one of nineteenth century Russia’s greatest writers. Gregg, Richard. “A Scapegoat for All Seasons: The Unity and the Shape of The Tales of Belkin.Slavic Review 30 (1971): 748-61. Gregg discusses The Tales of Belkin as a unified cycle within Pushkin’s total output. Gregg, Richard. “Pushkin’s Novelistic Prose: A Dead End?” Slavic Review 57 (Spring, 1998): 1-27. Argues that Pushkin systematized, perfected, and pushed to its furthest limit a kind of prose that had never been practiced before with such consistency, elegance, and taste. Contends that in terms of the novel, however, which was the preeminent fictional genre by the 1840’s, prose of this kind was not possible. Kropf, David. Authorship as Alchemy: Subversive Writing in Pushkin, Scott, Hoffmann. Stanford UP, 1994. A discussion of the social institution of authorship. Focuses on Pushkin’s creation of an invented persona, Belkin; addresses Pushkin’s author as a textual or semiotic entity; discusses the story “The History of the Village of Foriukhino.” Lezhnev, Abram. Pushkin’s Prose. Ardis, 1974. In one of the rare examples of Russian scholarship translated into English, Lezhnev presents views of a native scholar on Pushkin’s prose as seen in the thought and criticism of Pushkin’s contemporaries. O’Toole, Michael L. “‘The Post-Stage Master.’” “‘The Pistol Shot.’” Structure, Style, and Interpretation in the Russian Short Story. Yale UP, 1982. A structuralist discussion of “The Post-Stage Master” in terms of a fable (fabula), and of “The Pistol Shot” in terms of plot. O’Toole bases his approach on the analytical model of Russian Formalists and on their belief that serious discussion of literature must start with the “text” itself. The result is a lively analysis of the two stories. Rosenshield, Gary. “Choosing the Right Card: Madness, Gambling, and the Imagination in Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades.’” PMLA 109 (October 1994): 995-1008. A discussion of madness in the story; argues that Hermann’s vulgar imagination devalorizes madness; claims that in taking the queen of spades instead of the ace, Hermann chooses the right card, for it constitutes for him a victory of the imagination and thus of life over death. Ryfa, Juras T., ed. Collected Essays in Honor of the Bicentennial of Alexander Pushkin’s Birth. Edwin Mellen Press, 2000. A selection of scholarly essays devoted to various works by Pushkin and his influence on his literary descendants. Shaw, J. Thomas. Pushkin’s Poetics of the Unexpected: The Nonrhymed Lines in the Rhymed Poetry and the Rhymed Lines in the Nonrhymed Poetry. Slavica Publishers, 1993. This is a highly specialized study of Pushkin’s poetic technique that will be of most use to specialists. Terras, Victor. “Pushkin’s Prose Fiction in an Historical Context.” Pushkin Today, edited by David M. Bethea. Indiana UP, 1993. Discusses Pushkin’s importance in the ascendancy of prose fiction in Russia in the nineteenth century. Comments on the basic characteristics of Pushkin’s prose style. Terras, Victor. “The Russian Short Story, 1830-1850.” In The Russian Short Story: A Critical History, edited by Charles A. Moser. Twayne, 1986. Contends that Pushkin’s tales are parodies of early nineteenth century prose fiction. Argues that parodic deconstruction, like that in Pushkin’s tales, was a common feature of the Romantic tale. Tertz, Abram. Strolls with Pushkin. Yale UP, 1994. Tertz offers a free-flowing and sometimes irreverent analysis that critically contests the major works, artistic habits, and persisting cultural legacy of the prominent Russian poet and novelist. Troyat, Henry. Pushkin. Pantheon Books, 1950. This standard biography of Pushkin by the French author Troyat reads like a novel. Literary works are mentioned without extended discussion. Unfortunately, the critical discussion, as well as the extensive bibliography, have been omitted from the original. Vitale, Serena. Pushkin’s Button. Translated by Ann Goldstein and Jon Rothschild. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. A cultural history and narrative of the last months of Pushkin’s life before his fatal duel. Vitale brings to life the world of St. Petersburg in the 1830’s using her own research with information gleaned from secondary literature and the memoirs and letters of Pushkin’s contemporaries.

Categories: Authors