Last reviewed: June 2018
June 6, 1799
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. Alexander Pushkin
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.