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Alexander Pushkin arrives in Asmara

Pushkin in Asmara
Tsigye Hailemichael, Nov 26, 2009

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was born in Moscow on May 26, 1799. On his father’s side, he belonged to a long line of Muscovite aristocracy. On his mother’s side, he was the descendant (the great-grandson) of General Abraham Hannibal (1698-1781), who is said to be originally from a village called Logon, near Debarwa, in Eritrea. At an early age, he was abducted and taken to Constantinople before finally landing in Russia at the Court of Peter the Great who took him under his wings. Pushkin’s great-grandfather, Abraham, studied military engineering in France and attained a brilliant military career in Russia and founded a family whose most famous member is the poet Alexander Pushkin.

In recognition of his Eritrean ancestry, a statue of Alexander Pushkin will be erected and inaugurated in Asmara on the 28th of November 2009.

Alexander Pushkin is considered to be one of Russia’s greatest writers. Indeed, he is recognized as the founder of modern Russian literature. This iconic figure in Russian culture died on January 1837, in a duel, at the age of 37. Although he tried his hands at various literary genres, he was foremost a poet. His work is comprised of lyric poetry, narrative poems such as Ruslan and Lyudmila, The Captive of the Caucasus, The Fountain of Bakhchisaray, The Gypsies; a novel in verse, Eugene Onegin; a drama in verse, Boris Godunov; short stories such as The Queen of Spades, The Tales of Belkin., The Capitan’s Daughter, Peter the Great’s Blackamoor, etc. He also wrote historical novel and essays. Politically affiliated with the Decembrist movement, an underground revolutionary movement, some of his writings caused him to be sent into exile several times within his homeland (in Kishniev, Odessa, and Mikhailovskoye, his home estate)

Lonely as child he developed a deep affection for his nanny who inculcated in him the love of rural Russia with its folktales and songs. It is often said that his work is infused with a keen observation both of the manners and ways of Russia’s aristocracy, and of the life of the people in rural Russia. His position in the Russian aristocracy, his peculiar link to Peter the Great, led him to write on historical events, such as Peter the Great’s Blackamoor, The Bronze Horseman, the Capitan’s Daughter and the historical drama Boris Godunov, said to be inspired by Shakespearian dramas. He also undertook in-depth research on historical events and wrote on the Pugachev uprising, a peasant rebellion in 1773-1774, and the Story of Peter the Great, which however remained unfinished.

Proud of his African roots, he often alluded, in his poetry, to the imagined shores of Africa, the land of his ancestors. A romantic poet with political inclinations, he was admired by his contemporaries for his lyric poetry and for the love and aspirations he held for the Russian culture. As a Russian aristocrat, he was raised to speak perfect French and was influenced by French literature and phraseology. But the writer who most influenced Pushkin’s romantic poetry was the English poet, Lord Byron, whose Don Juan inspired Pushkin’s most famous work, the novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. It is known that he has had a lasting influence on many Russian writers notably, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, among others, and also Nabokov who translated Pushkin into English. Great works of Pushkin were also used to create operas, some of the most famous being Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and the Queen of Spades; Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila; Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov; and Rimsky-Korsakov's Mozart and Salieri, among many others.

To appreciate Pushkin’s poetic style, and his literary genius, we will conclude this brief overview with two of his most famous poems:

The Prophet

Athirst for spiritual good,
I dragged my steps through wastelands weary,
Until a six-winged seraph stood
Before me on a crossroads dreary;
He touched my eyes, or so it seemed,
With fingers light as if I dreamed:
Now armed with a prophetic power
They opened wide like birds that cower.
His touch then lighted on my ears,
Which filled with music of the spheres;
I heard the heavens’ subtle shaking,
The flight of angles up above,
The tread of sea beasts as they move,
The life in valley vineyards waking.
And now toward my lips he bent,
From whence my sinful tongue he rent,
With all its slanders, idly blurted,
And now a wise old serpent’s sting
Into my mouth, a nerveless thing,
His skilled and bloody hand inserted.
Then with a sword my breast he split,
Drew out my very heart, still racing,
A blazing coal instead of it
Within my gaping chest then placing.
As corpse-like on the sand I lay,
The voice of God I heard to say,
“Arise, O prophet, watch and listen,
To execute my will and plan,
Cross land and sea, fulfill your mission,
With words ignite the heart of man!”

(Exegi Monumentum)

A monument I’ve raised not built with hands,
And common folk shall keep the path well trodden
To where it unsubdued and towering stands
Higher than Alexander’s Column.

I shall not wholly die–for in my sacred lyre
My spirit shall outlive my dust’s corruption –
And honour shall I have, so long the glorious fire
Of poesy flames on one single escutcheon.

Rumour of me shall then my whole vast country fill,
In every tongue she owns, my name she’ll speak.
Proud Slave’s posterity, Finn, and – unlettered still –
The Tungus, and the steppe-loving Kalmyk.

And long the people yet will honour me
Because my lyre was tuned to loving-kindness
And, in a cruel Age, I sang of Liberty
And mercy begged of Justice in her blindness.

Indifferent alike to praise or blame
Give heed, o Muse, but to the voice Divine
Fearing not injury, nor seeking fame,
Nor casting pearls to swine.

Sources: “An Age Ago, A selection of Nineteenth-Century Russian Poetry” Alan Myers.
And “Alexander Pushkin selected works, Raduga Publishers, Moscow.

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