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.