From Russia With Love : Pushkin & Gannibal

When you think of Russia, what comes to mind? If you are of a certain age, the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia With Love starring Sean Connery or Ian Fleming’s novel by the same name – a Cold War story with elaborate duels between the British and the Russian intelligence agencies. By the way, this was one of President Kennedy’s favorite reads.

However, before James Bond, there is and was Russian literature and its earliest great classical poet and author, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). Pushkin lived a short but extraordinarily dramatic life, composing the first great masterpieces of Russian poetry and short stories, before he was killed in a duel. Pushkin: a Biography by T.J. Binyon recounts the poet’s life in all its tawdry, romantic detail –Pushkin’s reckless gambling, several duels, exile for inflammatory poetry, alcohol and drug excesses, and womanizing. Not to mention his art.

Despite all his excesses, Pushkin managed to compose the first masterpieces of Russian literature: Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse; The Bronze Horseman, often considered the greatest poem in the Russian language; several historical novels, short stories, and the play Boris Godunov – upon which Modest Mussorgsky based his opera.

Tchaikovsky wrote an opera Eugene Onegin based on Pushkin’s poem of the same name. We have the DVD of the Metropolitan Opera 2007 performance with RenĂ©e Fleming as Tatiana, Onegin’s lost love. Or, you can listen to a compact disc recording with Kiri Te Kanawa as Tatiana and Thomas Hampson singing Onegin.

It may be a little known fact to Americans, but Pushkin is the great-grandson of an African who came to be known as General Abram Petrovich Gannibal. Gannibal was captured by Turks as a child and sold to the Russian court in 1704. He rose to the rank of general in the Russian army and married the daughter of a Swedish officer. As a child, Gannibal rapidly became a favorite and godson of Tsar Peter the Great. In the Tsar’s service, he later lived in France for seven years studying military fortifications. Upon his return to Russia, Gannibal was eventually granted a large country property that included Mikhailovskoe, the estate where Pushkin was to spend two years in exile, from 1824 to 1826. As a general, Gannibal was in charge of military engineering throughout Russia and supervised the building of the Ladoga canal and the fortification of Kronstadt. Two centuries later these fortifications opposed the advance of the Nazi armies on St. Petersburg. Gannibal‘s granddaughter, Nadezhda, was the mother of Pushkin. What to know more? Check out this recent biography that reads like a novel: The stolen prince: Gannibal, adopted son of Peter the Great, great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, and Europe's first black intellectual by Hugh Barnes.

- Karen S.


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