The Government Inspector – A study of political incompetence

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The Government Inspector – A study of political incompetence

Nikolay Gogol's The Government Inspector is one of the most influential comedies in the Russian literary canon. Like most political satires, the secret to its success is that it reflects reality without much need for exaggeration. At the premiere of the play Tsar Nicholas laughed heartily and commented: 'It's all true. I know it better than anyone else.' Although subsequent generations of critics have considered Gogol's satires on Russia's bureaucratic dysfunctionalism as a criticism of the Russian state apparatus, in actual fact Gogol was a social conservative whose real target were the sycophantic personalities that populated the political organs of the Russian empire. In his play, Gogol highlights the mutual disconnect between the elites in Petersburg and the rest of the country and the difficulties presented by corrupt public officials obsessed with rank and prestige.

Gogol's plot is simple and quite believable to anyone who has experienced a school inspection. The Governor of a small provincial town in the heart of Russia receives news that an official from Petersburg is coming to make an inspection of the town. He hurriedly gathers the heads of the local public bodies in an attempt to give the best impression to the inspector. He is interrupted by news of an angry St Petersburg gentleman named Khlestakov staying at an inn and refusing to pay for his food. Convinced that Khlestakov is the incognito official from St Petersburg, everyone seeks to make the best impression, while the Governor's wife and daughter both attempt to flirt with Khlestakov. Khlestakov's real identity as a low-ranking copyist is discovered when the postmaster illegally opens a letter sent by Khlestakov, but he has already left town. The real government inspector is on his way.

Many of Gogol's most influential works satirise Russian officialdom's obsession with political rank. The Table of Ranks was introduced to the Russian Empire by Peter the Great in 1722 remained in operation until 1917. Although designed as a meritocratic device by Peter, ranks and offices were bought and sold as individuals sought to increase their prestige and the government aimed to keep its coffers from being empty. The surest way of rising up the ranks was to cosy up to the sovereign, who ended up being surrounded with men of unquestionable loyalty but questionable abilities. In the provinces, the best way to impress the tsar was to give the impression that your town is well-governed and order is kept. 

Bribes are therefore an important part of Russian political life. The town officials give the 'inspector' bribes of different sizes in an attempt to win themselves a fair hearing in Petersburg. Khlestakov happily pockets the money, in the process recovering the stake he lost at the gambling table. Khlestakov declares that he never takes bribes but is happy to receive loans which both parties are aware will never be paid back. This arrangement might remind British readers of the 'Cash for Honours' scandal, when Labour Party donors were granted peerages after making large contributions the party. In order to avoid being identified from the donor list, they offered loans which were later classified as donations. At least that arrangement benefitted both sides. The synchronised sycophancy of Gogol's local officials fails to pay off and Khlestakov heads to Saratov unpunished. 

Throughout the play the reader senses the distance, both literally and figuratively, between St Petersburg and provincial Russian towns. Khlestakov makes known his disdain for the provinces by saying, "Do what you will, I can't live away from St. Petersburg. Really, why should I waste my life among peasants? Our times make different demands on us. My soul craves enlightenment." This is a reflection of the Aristotelian idea that slavery is necessary in order to enable the best and most noble minds to focus on learning and science. His admission that "I'd rather starve than come home without a St Petersburg suit" further points to the fact that he is jealous of his status as a man from the city and nothing could ever bring him from abandoning this appearance. 

The fact that Khlestakov was mistaken for the inspector is down to his sense of entitlement, reminding the servant in the tavern that he is used to better and will not pay for food. A genuine government inspector might also be expected to react in this manner. In reality Khlestakov's unwillingness to pay is based on the fact that he has lost all his money at cards. When he realises that he has been mistaken for a high-ranking court official, Khlestakov shamelessly inflates his rank and prestige. He claims to be higher ranking than a general and a prolific writer, a favoured acquaintance of Pushkin and the author of such works as Robert le Diable and The Marriage of Figaro, all this despite being in his early twenties. The idea that such an important personage is in their midst also gives the local officials an inflated sense of their importance. The fact that Khlestakov's outrageous boasts were believed is emblematic of the fact that in Russia anyone could in theory assume a position of such prestige if they happened to be the tsar's favourite. The Governor and his officials could never be sure that this wasn't a high-ranking official from Petersburg: they are too far away from the court to know what is going on. Other signs that point to Khlestakov's high rank include his 'dignified manners' and his enlightened education. Thus, the gulf between the highest and lowest ranking officials in Petersburg is much smaller than that which exists between the lowest ranking official in the capital and the highest ranking official in the provinces. Indeed, even Osip, Khlestakov's servant, is able to take advantage of his master's supposed status. 

By virtue of their cowering and obsession with creating a good impression, the Governor and his subordinates had made fools of themselves in front of a non-entity. The key message that Gogol was aiming to convey in The Government Inspector is that the inefficiencies in Russia's governance are caused not by the system, but by those who inhabit it and seek to profit from it. A man with a greater sense of morality would not have acted as Khlestakov, but had the town been well governed, the Governor would not have to fear anything or pay any bribes. Gogol's play can therefore be interpreted as a study of political incompetence. Khlestakov is nothing more than a fraudster, but he is able to run circles round the local government of a provincial Russian town. In this respect, The Government Inspector is the forerunner of the political sitcom, where political figures of all types find themselves unable to fulfil seemingly straightforward tasks. In democratic societies, we are more prepared to consider politicians self-interested, even evil, than incompetent. If the people we choose to rule over us are woefully incapable of doing the job – what does it say about our own judgement?

By Jimmy Chen

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Spotlight on: Gogol's Overcoat, Part 3. What's in an Ending?

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Spotlight on: Gogol's Overcoat, Part 3. What's in an Ending?

PART 3

It has been suggested that realist interpretations in general put all their emphasis onto the first part of the story disregarding the fantastic elements of the writing which are particularly apparent in the ending. Ought the ending to be ignored however due to the very fact it creates ambiguity in finalizing interpretations? Some such as Hofmann have gone so far as to say that the story is unsuccessful and spoilt by the fantastic elements of it (Hofmann 1946: 162). Critics going down this social route have suggested that the ending is just an addition, added arbitrarily to satisfy some moral feeling, and it can therefore be generally disregarded. However, Gogol’s method of working was incredibly thorough, and he explained how he amended and copied the text up to 8 times, constantly refining and perfecting his language (Tschizewsky 1982: 37). It therefore seems incredibly unlikely that such an ending was attached without intention or significant thought. Moreover, manuscripts have shown that the original title of The Overcoat was intended to be “The Clerk Who Stole Overcoats” (Gippius 1981: 107). The ending can therefore be considered fundamental in Gogol’s story, and despite its ambiguity, it would seem that it must therefore be included in any attempts to interpret the text.

What is most uncertain is whether the conclusion is meant to be considered fantastic or not. While some critics have veered towards a supernatural understanding of the ending, such as Gippius who claims “it must in fact be regarded as fantastic” (Gippius 1981: 110), others such as Karlinsky have pointed to the mundane (Karlinsky 1976: 141). It seems, therefore, that interpreting the ending is made exceedingly complex by the ambiguous use of a doubly encoded text. It is clear that Gogol was working within the tradition of the supernatural tale in this writing, like many other authors of the supernatural, Gogol makes interpreting the text and its significance complicated through the use of clues which offer a psychological, as well as fantastic, motivation for character behaviour. The description of the thieves, Peppard has argued, suggests that there were two thieves, one big moustached one who stole from Akaky, the other a shorter one, who was then responsible for stealing the coat from the ‘important personage’ and was mistaken for Akaky’s ghost (Peppard 1990: 65). In a similar way to Pushkin’s use of the supernatural as a cover for guilt in the Queen of Spades, it has be suggested that Gogol has used the fantastic ending as a cover for psychological basis of characters behaviour, both cases being related to guilty consciences and consumption of alcohol (Peppard 1990: 69). Overall it can be said that the disagreement amoungst critics in interpretations points to the powerful and continued success of Gogol’s doubly encoded technique. 

CONCLUSION

So what is Gogol’s overcoat all about? There is no doubt that within Gogol’s Overcoat lay a series of complex thoughts and ideas, open to different and often vastly contradictory interpretations, depending on which aspect of the text one focuses. The Overcoat is clearly not devoid of all moral meaning. Neither, however, is it a purely sentimentalist piece of writing. What makes The Overcoat so ambiguous and open to varying interpretations, is the incredible use of detail in the authors narrative technique which is apparent throughout the text, be it social commentaries on censorship, rank, or religious imagery; combined with the use of mocking skaz techniques in juxtaposition to the sentimental passages. Finally, the doubly encoded creates ambiguity not only in the meaning and message, but even in the basic understanding of the plot. It is clear that Gogol’s narrative technique was intended to create a decisively ambiguous story and therefore that any interpretation must be significantly nuanced. Never mind emerging from Gogol’s Overcoat, it seems likely that critics will continue to drown in it for many years to come.

How did you interpret The Overcoat? Religious exploration? Social Criticism? Or something else?

By The Russian Student

 

Gippius, V. V, (1981) Gogol, Trans. and ed. Robert A. Maguire. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis 

Hofmann, M. and R. (1946), Gogol, sa vie, son oeuvre, Paris. 

Karlinsky, Simon (1976), The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press. 

Peppard, Victor, ‘Who Stole Whose Overcoat and Whose Text Is It’? South Atlantic Review, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan., 1990), pp. 63-80 

Tschiiewskij, Dmitri (1982), ‘The composition of Gogol’s Overcoat’, in
Elizabeth Trahan (eds), Gogol’s Overcoat: An anthology of critical essays, Ardis Publishers, pp. 37- 60 

 

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Spotlight on: Gogol's Overcoat, Part 2. A Religious Reading

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Spotlight on: Gogol's Overcoat, Part 2. A Religious Reading

PART 2

Many critics have used the author’s religious and personal beliefs to attribute meaning to the characters and objects in The Overcoat. Tschizewsky argued that if intended at all, protests at the social position of minor official is “strangely elusive in the text” (Tschizewsky 1982: 46). His study of the use of the word ‘even’ argued that it was not only a characteristic of the skaz style narrative of the story, but indeed bound up with the plot and ideas of the work (Tschizewsky 1982:50). Instead of the traditional moral message 19th century readers obtained from the text, he suggests that Gogol’s message was a religious one, namely that man must base his existence on God alone and not on worldly things (Tschizewsky 1982:46). In this view, Petrovich, the tailor, is seen as the devil, with his big toe and deformed nail, in addition to the description of him drinking excessively on all Christian holidays, and the lexical field of devil imagery surrounding him in phrases such as “the devil knows what price”. In Tschizewsky’s opinion, The Overcoat is a religious story of temptation and the coat itself is considered to be the worthless love which tempts Akaky and results in his downfall (Tschizewsky 1982:47).

 

Wisseman on the other hand has argued on the contrary, that Akaky’s main passion is for copying, and instead has a completely normal relationship with clothing as necessary in the given climate (Wisseman 1982: 100). In obtaining the overcoat, he suggests Akaky doesn’t lose himself in the way other religious interpretations have suggested, but instead finds himself, and it is its theft and the protagonist’s treatment by the important person that causes the destruction of the hero.

 

However, the very fact that two critics, both drawing on the same passage, can argue almost polar opposite interpretations is testimony to the ambiguity in the narration, and suggests neither argument is sufficiently powerful.  Therefore, while Gogol’s incredibly careful choice of language in the narrative description of Petrovich has many devilish connotations, it is clear that such detail only creates ambiguity in interpretation. Gogol’s lexical choices are meant to encourage speculation, but are a long way from containing any full meaning in this passage.

By The Russian Student 

Wisseman, Henry (1982), ‘The Ideational content of Gogol’s Overcoat’ in
Elizabeth Trahan (eds), Gogol’s Overcoat: An anthology of critical essays, Ardis Publishers, pp. 86- 105
 
Tschiiewskij, Dmitri (1982), ‘The composition of Gogol’s Overcoat’, in
Elizabeth Trahan (eds), Gogol’s Overcoat: An anthology of critical essays, Ardis Publishers, pp. 37- 60

 

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Spotlight on: Gogol’s Overcoat, Part 1. A Social Criticism?

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Spotlight on: Gogol’s Overcoat, Part 1. A Social Criticism?

PART 1    

Although Dostoevsky has often been wrongly attributed with the quote “We all emerged from Gogol’s Overcoat”, it neatly sums up the 19th century view of the story as the starting point for a distinctive style dominated by social pity, and makes clear the importance of the text in the progression of Russian literature (Driessen 1965: 185). The Overcoat has since, however, been the subject of intense disagreement in interpretation amongst critics, with some arguing that the story is in fact devoid of any social or moral aspect. This is of course due to the ambiguity within both the plot and the narrative. By focussing on varying aspects of the text, including the so called ‘humane passages’, the fantastic ending, the comic devices and skaz, as well as studying the novella and its author from various religious viewpoints, critics have arrived at vastly conflicting interpretations. 

 The first part of this series of articles will explore the the classical social reading of The Overcoat, which saw it as a piece of social criticism, with Gogol playing the part of protestor at the plight of the poor and minor officials. Following this viewpoint, many critics have pointed to the crucial significance of the two ‘humane passages’, which are seen to emphasise the humiliating destiny of the poor clerk (Driessen 1965: 186). One occurs near the beginning of the story, where a new official joins in with his colleagues teasing of Akaky, but is touched by the language and tone of his protest, hearing the words “я брат твой” in their place. Many times in his life since he shuddered “видя, как много в человеке бесчеловечья” (Gogol 1970: 23). The passage, with its Christian undertones, alludes to the cruelty of all men, even those who pass for civilized. The second, less often quoted humane passage, occurs at the end of this section, lamenting Akaky’s death but noting his lack of impact on society. The language of these passages taken individually does indeed point to a strong social and moral criticism, however, the powerful difference between this language and the mocking, even scathing, narration present in the rest of the text, which seems to seek to consistently undermine and dehumanise Akaky, leads to ambiguity in the way in which we should interpret these sections. By focusing efforts on these two sections, critics have neglected seeing the story as a whole, however Graffy rightly asserted that the range of interpretations of the humane passages reflect in microcosm the variety of interpretations of the whole text (Graffy 2000: 109). 

Akaky as a character is also no doubt an ambiguous one, but in analysing his description, it goes some way to clarifying whether we ought to interpret the whole text, as opposed to just the humane passages, as containing a moral message. Akaky, in his mechanical behaviour and robotic existence, lacks almost everything that makes a person human and every element in him is reduced to virtually nothing by Gogol’s narrative. However, the reader continues to see him as human due to his intense love, not of the overcoat which some critics have argued, but of writing (Driessen 1965: 190). As a result of this passion for writing, he is vulnerable and the teasing of his colleagues is particularly cruel as they ‘strike a living being in his purpose in life, in what gives him a right to recognition’ (Driessen 1965: 190). Akaky is systematically undercut and ridiculed, not only by the other characters, but even by the narrator and author. His name, with the “как” sound conjures excremental images, he is described as having garbage on his hat and eating flies, none of which can be claimed create significant sympathy around the character (Karlinsky 1976: 137). However, Karlinsky points to the fact that despite ambiguity in the way in he is consistently ridiculed by not only the society in which he lives, but also by the narrator, the real literary triumph and overwhelming moral message in the text, is the way which Gogol still manages to make the reader feel sympathy for his plight (Karlinsky 1976: 136)

Other aspects of the text have also been studied for their social content. David Sloanes’s analysis highlights an awareness of self-censorship from the narrator throughout the text (Sloane, 1991: 482-3). The constant vague allusions to need for self-censorship in phrases such a ‘один чиновник’, ‘одном департаменте’, ‘какого город’, ‘один директор’ highlight serious political daring (Sloane, 1991: 482-3). Throughout the text, the narrator also shows an enduring obsession with rank and its consequences (Graffy 2000: 104). He insists on discussing it first of all when he states that “ибо у нас прежде всего нужно объявить чин” (Gogol 1970: 20). The narrator also ensures that all characters, however small or irrelevant to the tale, are mentioned by their rank. Akaky’s godparents, therefore, although they don’t actually feature substantially in the plot, are described as being present at the christening. Ivan, the godfather, is noted for being “столоначальником в сенате” while Arina, the godmother,is “жена квартального офицера” (Gogol 1970: 20). While these are examples of excessive mention of rank, the concept plays a more obvious role and is more explicitly condemned with regard to the “значительное лицо” (Gogol 1970: 60). We are told how he was not always important, only recently acquiring the position, and how he has attempted to increase his importance by having other officials meet him on the stairs when he arrives and enforcing the condition that no one should come directly to him, increasing his distance from lowly clerks. Rank is described as the cause of his confusion and lack of good feeling towards inferiors. He struggles in dealing with his rank, not only when it comes to addressing Akaky in an appropriate manner when he has company, but his preoccupation with the concept is also visible in his relief that the party he attends has enough people of his own rank to be able to have an enjoyable time. These details highlight a deep awareness of rank, and its consequences in Russian society, made explicit in the line “так уж на святой руси всё заражено подражанием, всякий дразнит и корчит своего начальника” (Gogol 1970: 49).

This social commentary hides ambiguity however, because the suggestion that these details amount to a genuine social protest seems somewhat too farfetched. There seems to be little effort to resolve the problems of society and indeed Akaky seems, however cruelly, to have very little impact on life in St Petersburg as it continues quite well without him, continuing “как будто в нём его и никогда не было” (Gogol 1970: 55). The cyclical nature of the novel seems therefore to lack any change, which points to the notion that these detailed references to society and rank are intended more as comic devices, heightening Gogol’s humour through the contrast of such excessive detail and the more serious sympathetic commentary as witnessed in the ‘humane passages’. Gogol’s text is therefore not without social awareness, but arguably cannot be seen to extend to any significant protest. Eikhenbaum has continued this analysis suggesting that even the humane passages have little to do with the 19th century sentimentalist interpretation of them, and that instead, they are simply a device motivated by a desire to make contrast with the humorous skaz narration, turning comic into grotesque through their juxtaposition (Eikhenbaum 1982: 30-31)


By The Russian Student

Driessen, F. C, (1965), Gogol as a Short Story Writer, Baarn, Hollandia. 
Eikhenbaum, Boris (1982), ‘How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made’ , in Elizabeth Trahan (eds), Gogol’s Overcoat: An anthology of critical essays, Ardis Publishers, pp. 21-36

Graffy, Julian (2000), Gogol’s The Overcoat, London, Bristol Classical Press.
Karlinsky, Simon (1976), The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press.
Sloane, David, ‘The name as phonetic icon: a reconsideration of onomastic significance in Gogols “The Overcoat”’, Slavic and Eastern European Journal. 35, 1991, 4, pp. 473-88 

 

 

 

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Film: Dead Souls

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Film: Dead Souls

A 1984 Soviet television miniseries directed by Mikhail Shveytser, based on Nikolai Gogol's novel. Available at http://cinema.mosfilm.ru/films/film/Mertvye-dushi/mertvie-dushi1/

Chichikov is a middle-aged middle-class gentleman. He arrives in a small town tries to charm local officials and landowners. Revealing very little about his reasons, he sets about trying to acquire dead souls.



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Remembering Gogol

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Remembering Gogol

So perhaps not quite as many buildings named after him as Pushkin. But here are a few memorials to Gogol. Which ones do you recognise? 

As a side not, there is also one particularly excellent bar named after him, not far from Kuznetsky Most in Moscow. Would highly recommend. (Say hi to the barmen for me)

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Author Profile: Gogol

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Author Profile: Gogol

Name: Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol

Born: 31 March 1809 in the Ukrainian Cossack village Sorochinty, near Poltava

Family: Gogol’s father,  Vasily Gogol-Yanovsky, was an educated man. He wrote plays and poems in Ukrainian and Russian but died when Gogol was 15 years old.  Gogol's mother was a descendant of Polish landowners. His real family name was Ianovskii, but the writer’s grandfather had taken the name Gogol to claim a noble Cossack ancestry. 

Education: From 1818-1819 Gogol attended Poltava boarding school. He then attended Nezhin gymnasium where he started writing literary works, composing plays for students’ theatre and acting in some productions.

Early Work: In 1831-1832 Gogol completed and published Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, a breakthrough work, which was influenced by his Ukrainian upbringing, Ukrainian culture and folklore. They brought success and fame to Gogol. He then taught history at the Patriotic Institute and worked as a private tutor, before becoming an adjunct professor of world history at St. Petersburg University, a job in which he did not succeed. After that became a full-time writer.

Later Work: In 1835 he published two volumes of miscellaneous prose Arabesques (which included articles on history, art, Pushkin, Ukrainian culture and some of his Petersburg Tales). He Also published a new collection of stories Mirgorod. In 1836 Gogol published several of his works, including The Overcoat, “The Carriage” and “Government Inspector”. From 1836 Gogol spent about ten years in Europe, visited Germany, Switzerland, and France, and settled in Rome where he wrote Dead Souls, studied art in art galleries and communicated with artists.

Later Life: Gogol went on to suffer a spiritual crisis, a failed marriage attempts and eventually died of self enforced starvation

By The Russian Student

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Author Profile: Pushkin

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Author Profile: Pushkin

Kiprensky_Pushkin.jpg

Name: Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin

Born: 6th June 1799, Moscow

 

Family: On his father’s side he descended from an impoverished but ancient noble family. On his mother’s side, he was the great great grandson of a black Abyssinian, Abraham Gannibal, who rose to the rank of General en Chef under Peter the Great.

 

Education: Pushkin studied at the Imperial Lyceum at Tsarskoe Selo near St Petersburg from 1811-1817

 

Early Work: His early work was famous for its revolutionary themes. He was exiled from St Petersburg in 1820 and relocated to southwestern Russia. He was friends with many of the Decembrists, and when asked by Nicholas I whether he would have participated, he said he would have joined his friends had he been in St Petersburg.

 

Marriage and Later Work: Pushkin married Natalia Goncharov on February 18th 1831 at the Church of Ascension in Moscow. His later work included The Bronze Horseman, The Queen of Spades and the Captains Daughter. 

By: The Russian Student

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The British Connection: Pushkin and Byron

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The British Connection: Pushkin and Byron

Two impoverished nobles with a penchant for provoking the authorities with liberal penning’s, and a smorgasbord of sexual scandals. On the surface these two look very similar, but how far did Pushkin divulge away from his early romantic tendencies?

Pushkin’s early years, 1820-1825 have often been described as his Byronic Period, where he broke away from the classical tradition of his schooling and took on the romantic style that Byron was so well known for. In his personal life too, these years have been regarded as time of naive infatuation, where the Russian poet modelled not only his political but also his romantic behaviour on the cult of the byronic hero.

In his poetry Pushkin learnt much from Byron, following his tendency for fragmentariness, exotic settings and rapid story development. Arguably one of Pushkins most byronic poems was Bakrhchisaray Fountain, a lyrical poem with a deliberately fragmented style which breaks with the traditional notion of the epic.

But Pushkin didn’t always follow Byron’s well trodden path and by the point of the publication of ‘Gypsies', his treatment of the central character is so ambiguous and ironic that it is clear he is no longer following the standard outline of a byronic hero. 

Upon breaking from Byron’s spell, Pushkin began to give up the structural principles so typical of his early work. This transformation is most apparent in Eugene Onegin, where the hero no longer reigns supreme, the problems of character and milieu emerge, and Pushkin principles of realism begin to assert themselves. Although the structure of Eugene Onegin was inspired by Byron’s Don Juan, it is clear that it is a powerful critique of his former idol.

Despite repeated requests from Pushkin never wrote any work on Lord Byron’s death. In his work, it is clear that his Byronic period was well and truly over.

The irony however is that, in his personal life, Pushkin never really escaped the cult of the Byronic hero. His death after a dramatic duel, defending his and the honour of his wife, is nothing but romantic. 

By: The Russian Student

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I loved you once? (Or I still love you.....)

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I loved you once? (Or I still love you.....)

One of Pushkin's greatest love poems, Я Вас Любил, has captured generations of hearts, and inspired a multitude of translations. A great by Zhuravlev :

 

I loved you once; even now I may confess,
Some embers of my love their fire retain;
But do not let it cause you more distress,
I do not want to sadden you again.
Hopeless and tongue-tied, yet I loved you dearly
With pangs the jealous and the timid know;
So tenderly I loved you, so sincerely,
I pray God grant another love you so.

 

But the original Russian holds a secret that the translation cannot. If we were to pose the question, is the narrator in love?  In studying the Russian below most readers would point to the past tense in verb любить in the first, 5th and 7th lines- “я вас любил” as evidence that this love has passed (aside from a very small amount not yet died in the soul)

 

Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может,
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам бог любимой быть другим.

 

But have a listen to this reading, focussing your attention to the endings of the first four lines.  Быть может is an interesting but rare inversion. 

 

 

In these four lines, hidden French emerges, a language Pushkin was well acquainted with. And in this lies a hidden message. Take the ‘Жет’ ending of может, and combine it with the ‘Ем’ ending of совсем. ЖетЕм. 

Now take the the ‘Жет’ ending of тревожит, and combine it with the ‘Ем’ ending of ничем.

ЖетЕм. Же Т'ем  Je t’aime. I love you. Present tense. Right now. No embers, no small amounts that haven’t yet died. Full on love but hidden in French within the Russian. Wasn’t Pushkin a clever man….

 

 

What is your favourite poem by Pushkin?

 

By: The Russian Student

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Pushkin Remembered

You don't have to look too far to find traces of Pushkin in Russia today!

Can you recognise all these places? Where else have we forgotten?

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Spotlight on: The Queen of Spades, Part 1. Guilt and The Decembrists

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Spotlight on: The Queen of Spades, Part 1. Guilt and The Decembrists

The Queen of Spades has proved to be one of the most exhaustibly scrutinised works by Pushkin, thus it is unsurprising that a great deal of material has been generated surrounding narrative aspects of the novel. There is a plethora of material to be investigated pertaining to the novella's concealed lexical means, much of it situated far further beneath a simple reading of the novella as a straightforward tale of chance and misfortune at the card table.  This first article will discuss Pushkin's use of numerology and gematria in reference the death of his friend, Kondraty Ryodorovich Ryleyev, the Russian poet, publisher and leader of the Decembrist Revolt, which attempted to overthrow the Russian monarchy in 1825.

In several of the novella's key passages, Pushkin incorporates gematria (a Hebrew form of code characterized by a combination of cryptographic and logomachic elements) to reference the death of Kondraty Ryleev . In the passage treating Germann's invasion of the Countess' house is the sentence "ветер выл, мокрый снег падал хлопьями; фонари..." . The segments "мокр" and "онар" contain the syllables "кo" and "oнрa" respectively, with "тер" revealing "тu" (Leighton, 460). Combined with "ве тер" in transposition yielding "рe eв", and "выл" and "крый" combining to form "(k) рыл", these interspersed elements reveal the cryptonym "Кондра́тий Рыле́ев" (Leighton, 460).

The fact that it is Ryleev specifically being referenced thus evokes the idea of the execution of the Decembrist Revolution's leaders (Ryleev included) and the resulting phenomenon of survivor's guilt amongst those involved who did not perish. We can glean a deeper sense of Pushkin's emotional involvement and the huge mental upheaval he suffered as a result of the affair from the word 'пастушки', which contains the word 'cyт', meaning jester, but also a hanged man. The metaphorical force this double-meaning carries (a jester dancing at the end of a hangman's noose) betrays Pushkin's psychological connection to the matter - the graphic nature of the image, whilst naturally being a highly emotive device in its own right within the text, also demonstrates Pushkin's tortured psyche after the event. The sheer (arguably excessive)  viscerality that the image carries, turns its usage by Pushkin into a self-indulgence - it is known that Pushkin dwelled heavily on the fact that he himself was saved from the fate of Ryleev by chance alone (he had previously planned to go to St. Petersburg to join the Decembrists on the 13th December), and thus from this we can reasonably infer that he suffered severely from a sense of survivor's guilt. The use of 'cyт ' in the text therefore becomes a form of psychological self-harm, as an attempt to cleanse himself of the guilt he experienced from having unjustly survived.

Thus this phenomenon constitutes an added dimension to the novella - it is not simply a fictional literary work in its own right, but also a exposition of Pushkin's emotional disarray following the revolution. 


Read more about Pushkin's The Queen of Spades in the second part of this series, coming soon!

Article by the amazing: Will Roscoe

    
Leighton, L. G. (1977). Gematria in 'The Queen of Spades': A Decembrist Puzzle. Slavic and East European Journal , 455-469. 
"Kolman decembrists" by Picture by painter Karl Kolman (1786-1846). / К. Кольман - Copy of [1]. attrib.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kolman_decembrists.jpg#/media/File:Kolman_decembrists.jpg

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Spotlight on: The Queen of Spades, Part 2. Reality vs Unreality

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Spotlight on: The Queen of Spades, Part 2. Reality vs Unreality

In this article we will explore the issue of reality versus unreality in the story and how the narrative voice within the work varies, to constantly leave any attempt at a definitive interpretation of events hanging in an uncertain equilibrium.

Todorov stipulates that a person who experiences a supernatural event must fall back of either one of two possible explanations: either they have fallen victim to an illusion occurring within their own perception of reality, or the event they witnessed did in fact occur and does in fact exist within reality, but is governed by laws of existence as yet undiscovered by humanity (Todorov, 25). Pushkin presides over the reader's reaction to this conundrum exteremly effectively throughout the whole novella in two ways: by varying the narrative position, and by not providing sufficient information to elucidate the reader during moments of uncertainty as to whether an unnatural event was real or fantasy.

The first method is repeated throughout the novella, even from the very first paragraph - in the opening scene, which depicts a group of officers playing cards, the verbs "играли" and "сели" are used, but without clarifying pronouns. Via this omission the reader is therefore not elucidated as to the narrator's position relative to the scene (Whitehead, 107) - in addition to this, no details regarding time, place or participants are mentioned, which thus immediately sets a precedent for mystery and deception. At this point in the novella, the reader is still able to rely on the information provided by the narrator, despite its incomplete and rudimentary nature, since we have been given no reason to surmise that anything is being withheld. However, evidence of the narrator's omniscient privilege can be found in the statement that "Графиня, конечно, не имела злой души" - this insight demonstrates that the narrator has the ability to both see inside the minds of the characters and to evaluate previous deeds in their lives, a depth of knowledge that was conspicuously absent in prior scenes. Although it has been argued that this revelation regarding the exterior narrator's ability builds the implied reader's confidence, it can be asserted that this instead engenders mistrust within the reader - what was the narrator's initial motive for not fully orienting previous scenes, and will they do it again?

At this point in the novella, the uncertainty and inconsistency built up by Pushkin's narrator means that the reader's ability to distinguish between fundamental aspects of narrative aspect, such as reality and unreality, is beginning to be impaired - this developing inhibition comes reaches its zenith at the Countess' funeral. As demonstrated by Germann only seeing the coffin after he had pushed through the crowd, the narrator is has once again renounced their omniscient viewpoint and is beside Germann, and thus the reader's own insight into the subsequent events is constrained by human limitations. These inherent limitations are compounded when the Countess winks at the protagonist. The narrator uses the phrase "В эту минуту показалось ему..." - thus by the use of the word 'seemed' (along with the brevity of the incursion of this apparently paranormal event), the reliability of the information is significantly cast into doubt.

The second technique used by Pushkin to cause the reader to repudiate the authenticity of narrative informartion can also be isolated in this scene. There is noticable lack of any additonal information to assist the reader in establishing whether the wink was an anomalous product of Germann's imagination, or a genuine occurence - in spite of the fact that the narrative voice slips back into an omniscient perspective, being able to catch sight of Liza "в обмороке" and a chamberlain who "шепнул на ухо англичанинa". The same occurs in the Countess' appearance to Germann - in spite of the inevitable doubt left within the reader's mind regarding the reality of such an event (due to it being disparate from the fundamental laws of reality we abide by), the narrator only describes Germann's physical activities subsequent to the apparition. They do not provide any omniscient insight for us to draw upon (which we have already established they are capable of doing) , or give us the means to resolve the conundrum presented (Whitehead, 124).

Overall, the variation of narrative voice and the lack of easily available clarification of certain scenes creates a disparate and fragile relationship between the reader and the narrator. This in turn creates the complexity of the reader still not being able to definitively settle upon a reading of the work at its end. The psychological quandry of whether Germann experienced an abherration in his perception of reality, or whether the events he witnessed were in fact real, but obviously outside what we currently define as the laws of our reality, is left unresolved. 

Article by the incredible Will Roscoe 

 

Todorov, T. (1973). The Fantastic - A Structural Approach To A Literary Genre. New York: Cornell University Press.
Whitehead, C. (1999). The Fantastic in Russian Romantic Prose: Pushkin's 'The Queen of Spades'. In N. Cornwell, The Gothic Fantastic in Nineteenth Century Russian Literature (pp. 103-127). Atlanta: Rodopi.

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Spotlight on: The Queen of Spades, Part 3. Parody

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Spotlight on: The Queen of Spades, Part 3. Parody

In this final article, we will look at the deeper complexity in the book that can be found in Pushkin's extra-textual parodying of the reader. As Emerson stipulates, there are several varieties of parody that can be found in Pushkin's work, for example simple blasphemy in 'Gavriiliada' , or distortion of cliched literary themes, as found in 'The Stationmaster' (Emerson, 32). However, it has been observed that in several works, including the 'The Queen of Spades', that a parodying of the reader's "overreadiness to accept the invitation authors extend" (Morson, 114), a tendency to automatically delve deep into a work in a search for added complexities, that might not neccessarily even be present.

In 'The Queen of Spades', there is a vast amount of study committed to the deencrpyption of the novella: for example, the articles written by Leighton devoted to the cryptological and numerological significance of various elements in the piece, Whitehead's discussion of narrative voice and many other academic investigations. Although Davydov has hypothesisedthat the actual audience being parodyed in the novel is in fact Germann himself, as Pushkin 'surrounds him with uncanny events, teases him with tantalizing anagrams, chronograms and cryptograms that the calculating engineer repeatedly fails to crack' (Davydov, 327), others have argued the contrary. Emerson argues that the actual object of Pushkin's parody is the audience external to the text - not for the failure that Davydov detected in Germann, but for the readers' high aptitude in cracking the numerous codes within the text (Emerson, 35) and thus our inclination to become irrevocably immersed in this pursuit.

The further irony in this search for reason is illustrated by Leighton's comment on what the final function gematria serves in the novella - he concludes that it 'enlarges the tale's lexical means, expanding the work's semantic fields, and adding to its morphological and syntactic texture' (Leighton, 464). Emerson surmises from this remark that Pushkin's entire design in crafting these endlessly intricate codes was precisely not to allow them to direct us to a final solution, but to always have a piece missing, rendering them incomplete and thus unsolvable (Emerson, 36). As a result of this, Germann's tantalizing experience of forever being close to (but not actually at) the final goal of deciphering the puzzle is projected onto the reader - we are incarcerated in the same psychological maze that the hero himself was, poked and prodded down dead ends of investigation by glimpses of a key to the codes.  In this interpretation of the story, the reader pursues the same goal as Germann - to uncover a method of reading future events, predicting them before they unfold. However, it is apparent from the novella's narrative that only true gamblers like Chaplitsky, St. Germain and the Countess (people who are ready to gamble everything on genuine chance) can possess this knowledge (Emerson, 36), and thus every reader, be they academic or casual, becomes the victim of this parody. The extent to which any investigator penetrates the novella, whether it be via a potentially far fetched and contrived theory like Leighton's, or a more traditonal literary discourse suchas Whitehead's or Weber's, is immaterial - the puzzle that Pushkin created is inherently unsolvable, and thus any commentary on the work is rendered futile.

Given also that Germann is a man obsessed with the concept of systematization, the idea of the eradiction of risk and the fundamental neccesity of worldly stability ("я не в состоянии жертвовать необходимым в надежде приобрести излишнее") (Pushkin, 2), another concealed theme within the story could be that Pushkin lauds the nature of the 'true' gambler. Germann ultimately slipped into an abyss of madness because the whole paradigm of unimpeachable security that he had sought to construct was shattered at the very eve of his final victory, a shock he was psychologically unable to absorb - people in Chaplitsky, or St. Germain's position would not have reacted in such a way (even if defeat did entail complete destitution) because they never dismissed the possibility of a loss, and therefore would have been mentally capable of digesting it, had it occurred. Thus, Pushkin praises the embracing of real risk for its romantic purpose, the concept of winning all or losing all on a single card resonating strongly with him.

In conclusion, there is a multitude of complexities to be found within the novella, many of which cannot be explored in such a short space! By analysing fine inter-textual detail, we find a vein of meaning relating to Pushkin's the psychological upheaval follwing the aftermath of the Decembrist movement; via the use of more convential literary analytical methods, the way in which narrative inconsistencies shape the reader's reaction to the occurence of the supernatural in the work can also be isolated. Overarching all branches of investigation in the work however, is the parodying of the reader's tendency to search for deeper meaning in not only this novella, but any other, in order to construct a more appeasing narrative - Pushkin achieves this by implying the existence of solutions to various puzzles within the work, but never providing them.

Hope you have enjoyed this closer analysis of one of Pushkin's most well known stories!

Article by the outstanding Will Roscoe!

Davydov, S. (1999). The Ace in Pushkin's 'The Queen of Spades'. The Slavic Review , 309-328.

Emerson, C. (1993). 'The Queen of Spades' and the Open End. In D. M. Bethea, Pushkin Today (pp. 31-38). Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Morson, G. S. (1981). The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky's "Diary of a Writer" and the Traditions of Literary Utopia. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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Film: Ruslan and Ludmila

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Film: Ruslan and Ludmila

In 1817, while still studying in the Imperial Lyceum at Tsarskoe Selo, Pushkin began writing Ruslan and Ludmila. This romantic narrative poem follows the trials of hero, Ruslan, as he tries to rescue his bride, Ludmila, from the evil magician Chernomor.

This 1972 film has been uploaded in full for all to enjoy (complete with English subtitles) http://cinema.mosfilm.ru/films/film/1970-1979/ruslan-i-lyudmila/

Make sure you explore their website for hundreds more amazing films for free! 

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Eugene Onegin: A Quintessentially Russian Search for Identity

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Eugene Onegin: A Quintessentially Russian Search for Identity

Article by Jimmy Chen

Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin is often regarded by Russians as the greatest work of literature in the Russian language. For the English-speaking world, Pushkin's Onegin is relatively unknown, obscured by the voluminous tomes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Western audiences are usually introduced to the work via Tchaikovsky's operatic adaptation from 1878.

The reasons for Onegin's relative obscurity are easy to imagine. Pushkin described Onegin as a novel in verse: the majority of the work is composed of 14-line stanzas in iambic tetrameter, sometimes known as 'Pushkin sonnets.' This structure is part of the work's appeal in Russian: Pushkin masterfully combines the tragic plot with fleeting verse and light-hearted digressions. For this reason, it is difficult for an English translation to do justice to Pushkin's mastery of the Russian language, and the work loses some of its allure.

This is not to say it is impossible for the English-reading audience to enjoy reading Onegin, especially when armed with a good translation. (My recommendation is James E. Falen's translation published by the Oxford University Press.) At this moment, for the sake of readers who have not read Pushkin's masterpiece, it might be worth summarising the key points of the plot. Those who are familiar with Onegin will have to bear with me:

Eugene Onegin, a Petersburg dandy is seen hurrying to the estate of his dead uncle. Tired of life in the city, Onegin tries his hand at being a country gentleman but soon becomes bored. He befriends the poet Lensky, who is engaged with Olga Larina, from a neighbouring estate. In a fit of boredom, Onegin offers to accompany Lensky to the Larin household, where he meets Olga's older sister Tatiana. Tatiana falls in love with Onegin and declares her affections in a letter, but is coldly rejected. Onegin reluctantly accompanies Lensky to Tatiana's name day, but is soon bored. Hoping to get his own back with Lensky, Onegin casually flirts with Olga. The two friends quarrel and Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel, during which the former is killed instantly. Onegin is forced to leave, but Tatiana remains in love with him and refuses to marry anyone. Her stubbornness is eventually broken and she goes to Moscow, where she catches the eye of an old general. Onegin suddenly appears in Petersburg and sees Tatiana as a princess, one of society's grande dames. He realises that he is in love with her but his appeals are to no avail. Her fate is already decided and she refuses to leave her husband.  

Anyone who has experienced the heartbreak of unrequited love will be able to sympathise with the protagonists as they attempt to make sense of their emotions. But while the key elements of Onegin and Tatiana's relationship can be found in many romantic novels, the ending contains a Russian twist. A French or Italian Onegin would have most likely taken a bullet to the head. Instead Pushkin leaves his protagonists midstream, spending the rest of their lives wondering what might have been. Счастье было так возможно, Так Близко!

Yet more than the plot itself, it is the restlessness of Onegin which encourages the reader to turn the page. Over the course of the novel, Onegin embarks on an odyssey across Russia. Yet unlike Odysseus and his Ithaca, Onegin's final destination is unknown. The so-called лишний человек popularised by Pushkin has since become a key part of Russian literature. In his quest to find his place in Russia (both in a literal and figurative sense), Onegin travels from Petersburg to his late uncle's estate, before travelling all over Russia and ending up back where he started. He has finally found a sense of purpose in his life, but it has taken him too long to discover it.

The search for identity takes place on more than one level. Pushkin himself is also embarking on a journey of self-discovery. In casual observations Pushkin expresses his ennui about the world around him: Привычка с выше нам дана, замена счастию она or Так люди...От делать ничего друзья.   Pushkin started writing Onegin in 1823 and the final chapter was not published until 1832. At the beginning of the period Onegin was exiled in distant Odessa, reflecting on his life in Petersburg with a sense of nostalgia, но вреден север для меня. He dreamt of going abroad and visiting the shores of his 'native' Africa. Yet by the time he finished his magnum opus, Pushkin was back in St Petersburg, a married man who was seeking a stable career. At the beginning of the eighth chapter Pushkin looks back to his past, accompanied by his Muse from Tsarskoe Selo to the wild steppes of Moldavia, before finding himself back in his native Petersburg.

In a larger sense, over the course of Onegin, Pushkin channels his own thoughts about Russia's identity. Straddling the border between Europe and Asia, it has never been easy to describe Russia as either European or Asian. On the one hand, Pushkin regrets the western influences on Russia. He regards society in Petersburg (a city built to imitate European fashions) as corrupted by vanity and idle gossip. He regrets the Frenchification of the Russian language, but at the same time is forced to admit he has no choice but to use some loan words. Pushkin holds up a mirror to Petersburg society, which is forced to laugh at its reflection. Pushkin's defence of Russian culture is coupled with his dissatisfaction with the political situation in Russia. Pushkin's hope for personal and political freedom in the initial chapters of Onegin transforms into a reluctant acceptance of the status quo by the end. Pushkin is aware of the consequences of the failed Decembrist Uprising, both for himself and Russia as a whole. The fate of Tatiana symbolises the fate of Russia. Rejected by Onegin the Petersburg dandy, she eventually casts her lot in with an elderly general. Following the suppression of the Decembrist rebellion, Tsar Nicholas I turns his back on western influences and establishes a militarised state.

The multiple of layers of meaning found in Eugene Onegin is a large part of the novel's appeal, especially for Russians, who are likely to have a greater understanding of both Russia's turbulent history and Pushkin's equally turbulent life. Tchaikovsky's opera, although a musical masterpiece in its own right, reduces Pushkin's three-dimensional text into a one-dimensional romantic tragedy. This was part of the reason why the initial reception to the opera inside Russia was so critical. For anyone who is only familiar with the opera, I can only recommend picking up a copy of the book. A mail-coach is waiting for you on the banks of the Neva. Pushkin is sitting in the driver's box, waiting for you to jump in. He has many stories to tell you. Listen carefully. If you are lucky, you might even discover something about yourself. 

 

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'Under the sky of my Africa' – The Blackamoor of Peter the Great and Pushkin's African Ancestry

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'Under the sky of my Africa' – The Blackamoor of Peter the Great and Pushkin's African Ancestry

Article by Jimmy Chen

Alexander Pushkin's African ancestry is well-known to most people. He was proud of this fact, alluding to it many times in his works, and dreamt of visiting Africa one day. An unfinished novel about his illustrious great-grandfather is testament to his pride in his African heritage. Yet perhaps not surprisingly, Pushkin's African blood also caused him trouble in St Petersburg society.

Abram Petrovich Gannibal was a remarkable individual in his own right, but is best known to history as Pushkin's great-grandfather. Little is known about Gannibal's early life, or indeed where he was born. (Research by Hugh Barnes locates his birthplace in Cameroon, by the shores of Lake Chad.) What is known is that he was ransomed from the Ottoman sultan and presented as a gift to Tsar Peter the Great (1696-1725) in approximately 1704.

Peter, who was fond of the exotic and unusual, took a liking to the young African child (as much as it offends our modern sensibilities, Peter would certainly have regarded the boy in such terms.) The boy was made the tsar's valet and accompanied him on his campaigns during the initial stages of the Great Northern War (1700-1721) against Sweden. In 1705 in Vilnius, the young child was baptised and received the name Abram Petrovich Petrov, with the tsar as his godfather.

Aside from being present with the tsar at his great military victories, including the Battle of Lesnaya (1708) and the Battle of Poltava (1709), the young Gannibal received an extensive enlightened education. In the late 1710s he was sent to France to study mathematics and engineering, where he is said to have met Voltaire and Montesquieu. It was in France where he first adopted the name Gannibal, the Russian translation of the great Carthaginian general Hannibal.

Gannibal returned to Russia to serve as a military engineer, and by the end of his military service held the rank of General-in-Chief. Gannibal's future was uncertain following Peter's death in 1725, and he found himself in Siberian exile. He returned in 1730, before finding himself admitted into the personal circle of Empress Elizabeth (1741-1762), Peter's daughter. In 1742 she ennobled him and he was appointed the Governor-General of Reval (modern day Tallinn), a post he held for ten years. A popular legend tells of Gannibal persuading General Vasily Suvorov to allow his son to join the army.

After an unhappy first marriage, Gannibal had many children with his second wife, one of whom, Osip Abramovich (born in 1744) was the maternal grandfather of Pushkin. Gannibal retired from service in 1762, spending his remaining years at the estate of Mikhailovskoe (granted to him in 1742 by Elizabeth), where Pushkin wrote some of his most celebrated works.

Abram Petrovich Gannibal died in 1781, eighteen years before the birth of his famous great-grandson. Although Pushkin never had the opportunity to meet his distinguished ancestor, he was certainly interested in his life. Many of the details about Gannibal's life are known to us through the research Pushkin carried out by interviewing family members while working on his novel The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, based loosely on Gannibal's life.

Pushkin's novel was left unfinished for reasons unknown to us. It was his first work written in prose and it could have been the case that Pushkin felt unable to further develop the plot.  The work is testament to Pushkin's interest in Russia's history, further borne out by his poetic works Poltava (1829) and The Bronze Horseman (1833), and his prose works The History of the Pugachev Rebellion (1833) and the Captain's Daughter (1836). At the end of his life Pushkin was working on a history of Russia, having been appointed Tsar Nicholas I's court historiographer.

Although Pushkin was undoubtedly proud of his African ancestry, he often found himself the target of racially-charged insults from other members of society. By virtue of the fact that Afro-Russians were extremely rare, Pushkin's race was not as controversial as one might have imagined for 19th century Russia. By all accounts, however, Pushkin lived a relatively scandalous life even for the standards of 19th century St Petersburg. Not only was he a notorious womaniser and a regular duellist (which hardly distinguished him from his peers,) he was prone to fits of anger and seemed unable to conduct himself in polite society. The unhappy victims of Pushkin's sharp wit often associated these qualities with Pushkin's race.

Pushkin's enemies, knowing his character, seemed intent on provoking him to lash out. In late 1836 Pushkin and his close associates received anonymous 'invitations' to a ball organised by the 'Society of Cuckolds.' Pushkin's name appeared on the card alongside notorious cuckolds. The furious Pushkin, convinced that the initiator was his brother-in-law George-Charles D'Anthès (also his wife's suspected lover,) challenged him to a duel. When Pushkin died in February 1837 from the wound inflicted on him by D'Anthès, many tongues in Petersburg said that he had it coming. It was only later that Russia mourned the loss of its greatest literary genius. 

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