Although the vast majority of African Americans are unfamiliar with Pushkin’s monumental works, most students of literature are at least aware of his “Blackamoor of Peter the Great,” an unfinished romance which relates the biographical data of the poet’s great-grandfather, Ibrahim Petrovitch Gannibal his black great-grandfather.
Some early critics wrongly suspected that Pushkin attempted to aggrandize the African lineage of this black forebear by playing up the family tradition that he was an Ethiopian princeling. However, Pushkin certainly did not need to embellish his ancestor’s own personal history. For the accomplishments of Ibrahim Petrovitch Gannibal are proof of what any man – despite his colour – could rise to, given the opportunity. Ibrahim was treated as no less than a member of the royal family at court and, in the biographical notes on him written either by his wife or by someone in her family shortly after his death, the following statement is made:
“….he (Peter) wished to make examples of them and put (Russians) to shame by convincing them that out of every people and even from among wild men – such as Negores, whom our civilized nations assign exclusively to the class of slave, there can be formed men who by dint of application can obtain knowledge and learning and thus become helpful to their monarch.”
To a divine rights monarch like Peter whose relationship to a nation of serfs was entirely paternalistic, a child as a personal gift or possession could only be regarded as one of his own kith and kin. Indeed, at the eight-year old Ibrahim’s baptism, the Emperor himself was his godfather, while his godmother was the Queen of Poland.
Although, as we now realize, no Blackamoor at any 18th century European court was merely decorative, in Ibrahim’s case, Peter’s expectations for him were as loaded with responsibility as those he would have had for his own son. If he was the Emperor whose patriotic duty it was to drag Russia spiritually and intellectually out of its Byzantine backwardness and into the future of the Enlightenment, then it would literally be Ibrahim’s responsibility to care for his adopted country’s physical formation and his defence of it. In 1717 the young blackamoor was sent to France for an education in both civil and military engineering. He studied at the Ecole d’Artillerie of La Fere under the brilliant Bernard Forest de Belidor and afterwards, at the Ecole d’Artillerie of Metz, an institution founded by the illustrious Sebastien Le Preste, Marquis de Vauban.
Besides the education which prepared him for his long life of government service, Ibrahim returned from France with something he obviously regarded just as importantly – a name. Like any black kid today reaching back through time to clutch at whatever historical straw of affirmation he can reach for, Ibrahim not only identified as his model but appropriated as his surname that of the Carthaginian general, Hannibal. Although it could be argued that like Hannibal, he knew that he too would soon enough attain the rank of general, Ibrahim’s choice probably betrayed an almost adolescent edge of race conscious defiance considering the threat this Punic potentate had once posed to Rome. Perhaps a better understanding of what Ibrahim intended to imply with his new name can be gathered from what we know today regarding one of the stock theatre characters of his time. Sofonbisba, a relative of the historical Hannibal, was easily the most popular of the 18th century heroines. During that period alone more than forty works, either operas or dramas, were composed with hers as the central story. It would appear that the proud African queen who fought Roman occupation to the point of committing suicide had become the personification of independence for a number of European states that were growing increasingly irritated with Hapsburg hegemony.
Considering that the defining line in a family’s history was its patrilineal descent as it was just about anywhere else in the western world, Pushkin’s preoccupation with his African ancestry is all the more telling since Ibrahim Gannibal was his maternal great-grandfather. Furthermore, Nadja, his mother, was through her own mother, a descendant of the same Pushkin forbear from whom her husband Serge descended. This is genetically interesting since it explains why the poet, who is generally but mistakenly accepted as an octoroon, looks perceptibly blacker.
A contemporary chapter on Pushkin’s lineage: The Mountbattens
Although most of the above history is related in discussions about Pushkin’s African ancestry, no works – at least those translated or written in English – have ever commented on the descendent of the great poet. And this, despite the fact that Joel Rogers in “Sex and Race” (a privately-published work which has turned into a cult classic) traced the line of one of Pushkin’s daughters into the Mountbatten branch of the British Royal family.
(Perhaps the fact that Pushkin’s daughter Natalie married a prince was too much for either the Bolsheviks or the West’s liberal intellectuals who saw in the proletariat sentiments which had on occasion been expressed by the national poet, a spiritual source of the Revolution. Even if it was a well-known fact that Pushkin sold the serfs he had inherited so that he could afford the pampered wife he wished to wed, standard Soviet doctrine was that he had been the first to dip his pen in red ink.)
Because she herself was not royal, Natalie Pushkin’s wedding to Prince Nicholas of Nassau in 1868 was officially designated a morganatic marriage. The term ‘morganatic’ is a hold-over from a stricter hierarchical time. This term of precedence became more familiar as an increasing number of European royalty towards the end of the last century were slowly forced to adjust to the social changes that had begun to affect the rest of the world. The morganatic title created for Natalie was Countess of Merenberg with the right to bear the title of Count or Countess of Merenberg by her children. A good indication of just how strict the old order had been can be seen from the fact that even though her husband was a prince of the House of Nassau, when it came time for her daughter in turn to wed, her marriage to a member of the Imperial Russian family was also declared a morganatic one. Although the wife of Grand Duke Mikhail, Sophia and the children she bore him were officially known as the Counts and the Countesses de Torby. (No matter how tempting to attribute it as an example of racism in high places, the fact that he was the offspring of a morganatic relationship was probably what prevented Sophia’s brother, George, from succeeding his uncle William as Grand Duke of Luxemburg. Faced with a choice between George, Count of Merenberg and the abrogation of the Sallic Law, which excluded females from the succession, the Luxemburg parliament chose the latter allowing Charlotte to claim the throne as Grand Duchess of Luxemburg.)
Interestingly enough, Sophia’s daughter, Nadjeda, on the other hand, married someone of exactly her own social standing. George Battenberg was the grandson of Queen Victoria (the name would not be changed to Mountbatten until the outbreak of World War II). However, he too was descended from a royal morganatic line. Battenberg was the principality bestowed on the Countess Julie Hauke and her children after her husband, the Prince of Hesse, had been reconciled with his father for having eloped with her.
On the day of Nadja’s wedding in the Chapel Royal at Buckingham Palace the majority of the stories covering the event hysterically pointed to Nadjedja’s African ancestry and snidely speculated about the probability of this branch of the Royal Family producing black babies. It should be pointed out, however, that the Times maintained both its integrity and its dignity. As was to be expected from a journal of such literary standards,the fact that the bride was a descendant of the great Russian poet was duely mentioned but what editorializing they did was instead centered on the morganatic backgrounds of both spouses.
With so many published memories and histories of the Mountbattens available today, it is disconcerting to find so few references to Nadja. As the Marchioness of Milford Haven, she was not only Prince Phillip’s aunt, she also was actually his stepmother during a period of his adolescence.. When his parents, the Prince and the Princess Andrew of Greece, were exiled at the beginning of the war, Prince Phillip was sent to the Mountbattens of Milford Haven since the Marquis was his mother’s elder brother. (Incidentally, his mother’s title, ‘The Princess Andrew of Greece,’ is an indication that hers too was a morganatic marriage like the others referred to above.)
Intriguingly, the little published information on Nadjeda available can be found in a biography of Gloria Vanderbilt. Because of the kind of work it is, I cannot help but suspect that the few glimpses we get of Nadjeda are highly coloured. Not only is the reader given a detailed description of the negroid quality of her hair, (a highly implausible observation considering how many generations distant Nadjeda was from her Abysinian ancestor), but, to make for obviously even racier reading, she is portrayed as bisexual. Whether or not, as the author would have us believe, she along with her husband were earlier examples of the racous royals that ‘Fergie’ and ‘Di’ became will have to be verified for she also alludes to the extensive and priceless collection of erotica for which the Marquis and Marchioness of Milford Haven were supposedly famous. Until I have a chance to check sources for myself, I might have to accept that this, and not what I would be inclined to think, could be the reason why so little is related about her in the biographical works on Prince Phillip or other members of the Mountbatten clan.
Since both her husband and his brother, Louis, who would in time be made Viceroy of India, were Navy men during the earlier years of their marriage, Nadja and her sister in law grew quite close and in fact made news together when they piloted a two seater De Haviland on a jaunt of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Even though the press does not appear to have commented on the combination at the time, it should be pointed out that Alice represented another racial addition to the Mountbatten bloodline since she was the granddaughter of Lord Temple, a scion of the banking house of Ashley which like the Hambros had converted from Judaism in the late l8th century. If there is any truth to the speculation about her relationship with Nehru, then there is a third racial element which, even with an association such as this, expands the ethnic ethos of the Mountbattens into something of almost global proportions.
Taking this particular perspective on his background into consideration, we are provided with at least an inkling of what Prince Phillip’s liberalism is perhaps based on. Given both the anti-black and the anti-semetic sentiments so pervasive during his formative years, he could not have been unaware of whatever pain or social embarrassments his family might have had to endure because of these two aunts’ genealogies. Much has been made of how both the Queen’s and his mother’s families had to change their names (the House of Hanover to that of Windsor and that of Battenberg to Mountbatten) to cope with the anti-German propaganda of the First World War. But no one has offered any insights as to how the Royal Family might have dealt with two ethnic strains which, if they had not been who they were, would certainly have caused them to be ostracized from those circles that wielded political power.
If we play along with the protocols by which this echelon of society is governed, Prince Phillip’s choice of best man at his wedding to the Queen, could be explained by the fact that as head of the house of Mountbatten, David, 3rd Marquis of Milford Haven, was his only option. Since the 2nd Marquis was already deceased, David, according to the rules of this game, had to be recognized head of the entire Mountbatten family, even if his uncle Louis had precedence over him at court due to the powerful position he occupied as Viceroy of India. Phillip’s choice, however, was probably based on the simple reason that since he and David were, for at least a part of their adolescent years raised together, David was as much of a brother Phillip ever knew. Nevertheless, because of all the throat clearing the press had done at his aunt and uncle’s wedding, and because of the scrutiny the members of his own wedding to the future Queen of England would be subjected to, I cannot help but suspect that Prince Phillip’s decision was also a socio-political one. The very idea of the Mountbattens leaving themselves that wide open as targets to whatever racial slurs were possible during the early fifties, had to have been carefully calculated.
Considering the fact that Pushkin was well aware of the kind of impact his literary success could have on the institution of slavery in the new world, I think we can be fairly certain that, for the same racial reasoning, he would have been quite pleased to know that a branch of the British Royal Family would today be numbered among his descendants. As a 19th century man he probably regarded any European royal family member as some sort of genetic distillate of political world power that could trace its origins, even in a few rare instances, to the Roman Empire.
Finally, Pushkin would have found it humorously ironic that if only he had stressed his royal Ethiopian ancestry, he might have removed the stigma of ‘morganatic’ from the marriages of his daughter and his granddaughter. For after all, his great-grandfather was an Ethiopian prince. Furthermore, since the Ethiopian Royal House belonged to the dynasty founded by Menelik, the son of the Old Testament King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, this wedding from a religious perspective could have been seen as a particularly propitious one for it introduced the blood line of the Messiah into the tightly intermarried royal gene pool of Europe.
Interestingly enough, the Gannibal was not the first black noble family of Russia. Because the name itself, “abach” means Abysissinian, the princely house of the Abachidze has long been known to be Ethiopian in origin. With the rise of Paata to political prominence in the early 17th century, they intermarried with and became lineal ancestors of the royal houses of Imerithia and Georgia of the Caucuses.
The Arapov also claim that they derived their name from the word, “arap” or arab, the Russian for Negro. Beginning in 1613, they have filled military posts as generals and such court positions as a governor and a member of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Another family that tradition and legend have traced back to Africa is that of the Axakov. They apparently came to Moscow in the entourage of Prince Danila Alexandrovitch of Souzdal,1251-1303.
An even earlier black immigrant was Chimon Afrkanovich who arrived in Russia at the beginning of the XI century and entered the service of the Grand Duke Iaroslav Vladimirovich of Kiev. A number of his descendants who carried the name, Isleniev, held high ranking positions in the army. Petr Alexeevitch, for example, was aide de camp to Catherine the Great.
(1999 LA Times Article about the 200 year celebration of Alexander Pushkin)
Pushkin Turns 200, but Never Grows Old
Russia’s most revered writer touches his country’s psyche like no other. Culturally, he’s Shakespeare, Jefferson and Elvis rolled into one.
June 04, 1999|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER
MOSCOW — In Russia, a country rich with writers, one literary figure towers above the rest–above Dostoevsky, above Chekhov, above Tolstoy.
These days, he literally towers. His picture is draped from the top of skyscrapers, his verses strung across the capital’s boulevards. His writings are recited on every stage, from the Bolshoi to the corner soapbox to national news broadcasts.
And if you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably never heard of him.
He is Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s national poet. But he’s so much more. Like Shakespeare in English, Pushkin is considered the greatest master of the Russian language. Like Thomas Jefferson, he is honored as a founding father of Russia and its culture. And like Elvis Presley, he inspires popular devotion, both lofty and kitschy.
“Pushkin is our everything,” says President Boris N. Yeltsin, repeating what has become a popular aphorism.
Russia marks the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth Sunday, and the celebration has convulsed the nation. Candy makers are molding Pushkin chocolates. Distilleries are bottling Pushkin vodka. Smokers are lighting up with Pushkin matches.
“He’s an idol. He’s a god,” says Yuri G. Bogucki, deputy director of Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. “Why do people believe Elvis is still alive? Because people don’t want their gods to die.”
It may seem odd that Russians can get so worked up over a writer born in 1799. But one of the many ironies surrounding Pushkin is that the older he gets, the more mighty his legacy grows.
Especially now. For people living in a country whose name, borders and leadership have changed irrevocably in the last decade, Pushkin is an important touchstone of national identity. If nothing else, Russia remains the land of Pushkin.
In fact, no matter how many superlatives one uses, it is impossible to overstate the power Pushkin still exerts on the Russian mind.
“He just gets bigger and bigger,” says Vyacheslav S. Skotorenko, secretary of the national Pushkin commemoration commission. “He is a part of our life, our heart, our soul.”
Stop a Russian on the street and he or she can rattle off at least a few verses, maybe a few hundred. Although Pushkin wrote in all genres, he is best loved for his poetry, which is marked by an unnerving simplicity, clarity and precision of sentiment.
That helps explain why he is little known to the rest of the world: He is practically impossible to translate. When his verse is rendered into English, it comes out sounding exactly the opposite–fusty and trite.
As a result, outside of Russia his works are best known secondhand, after they were turned into operas by various composers. These include Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and “The Queen of Spades,” Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” and Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila.”
Some of these stories are based on history, some on folklore; others are pure fiction. But what they all have in common is quintessentially Pushkin: a graceful, romantic sentimentality combined with a profound understanding of tragedy.
This combination was eerily repeated in Pushkin’s own life and death, which only enhanced his literary legacy. After a life of high society, political exile and contemplative solitude, he was shot in a duel in 1837 defending his wife’s reputation. He died a day later of his wounds, a martyr for the ideals of honor and romance.
Westerners will have a fresh opportunity to experience Pushkin later this year when a new film version of “Eugene Onegin” is released in English, starring Ralph Fiennes. The movie, titled “Onegin,” is also the first movie produced by Fiennes, who says he fell in love with the novel-length poem while he was in drama school.
“I was mesmerized by the emotional intensity of the story,” Fiennes said of the story of a bored Byronic hero who spurns the simple-hearted Tatyana and lives to regret his caddish behavior.
“Pushkin’s verse-novel was such a powerful narrative about love and loss, and it completely took me over,” Fiennes explained as he headed to St. Petersburg for a special screening in honor of the anniversary. “It was his wisdom and humor that drew me–that and the great tragedy at its core.”
An Influence on Every Writer Who Followed
Pushkin’s influence on the rest of Russian literature also cannot be exaggerated. His words and ideas are the spring from which all the rest of Russian literature flowed. At one time or another, most of Russia’s great writers took a turn at praising Pushkin.
“For the very first time, he gave us the artistic models of Russian beauty which come directly out of the Russian soul, living in our national truth, on our national soil,” wrote Dostoevsky.
“Pushkin is a unique expression–and perhaps even the only expression–of the Russian soul,” wrote Gogol.
In some ways, Pushkin might seem an odd choice for a Russian hero. For one thing, he was hardly a moral paragon in his short lifetime, known as a flirt with the ladies and a hothead with the lads.
Alexander Pushkin by Vasily Tropinin
|Born||Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin
6 June 1799
Moscow, Russian Empire
|Died||10 February 1837 (aged 37)
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
|Occupation||Poet, novelist, playwright|
|Alma mater||Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum|
|Period||Golden Age of Russian Poetry|
|Genres||Novel, novel in verse, poem, drama, short story, fairytale|
|Literary movement||Romanticism, pre-realism|
|Notable work(s)||Eugene Onegin, The Captain’s Daughter, Boris Godunov,Ruslan and Ludmila|
|Spouse(s)||Natalia Pushkina (1831–1837)|
|Children||Maria, Alexander, Grigory, Natalia|
|Relative(s)||Sergei Lvovich Pushkin, Nadezhda Ossipovna Gannibal|
Portrait of A. Pushkin by P. Sokolov (1836)
Portrait of A. Pushkin byKonstantin Somov (1899)