Monday, September 13, 2021


I recently read The Moor of Peter the Great by Alexander Pushkin, the playwright, poet, and fiction writer who became the central figure of Russian Romantic literature.

The fragmentary historical novel tells the story of Pushkin's great grandfather, Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal. From what we know about Gannibal, he was born in Africa, forcefully brought as either a slave or a hostage to the Ottoman Empire, and then sent by a Russian ambassador to the court of Czar Peter the Great.

In Russia, Gannibal rose to become a prominent member of the czar's court. Pushkin was proud of his  ancestor, and wanted to pay homage to him by writing a fictionalized version of his life. Walter Scott had already made historical fiction popular, so Pushkin also had every reason to believe the book would sell.

The Moor of Peter the Great involves more imagination than fact, but it's still an entertaining read. It begins in Paris, where Ibrahim is carrying on an affair with a fashionable countess. When she gets pregnant with his child, however, they have to arrange for the baby to be switched with the white infant of a poor family so her husband doesn't get suspicious. After this deception, Ibrahim decides to return to Russia, as his godfather the czar has been entreating him to do.

Back in Russia, Ibrahim becomes depressed over his separation from the countess, and wanting to cheer him up, the czar arranges for Ibrahim to marry a charming young woman he danced with at a ball. This turns out to be a terrible idea. The lady in question is already in love with someone else, plus her racist family is not keen on her marrying a black man. Unfortunately, the manuscript breaks off in the middle of chapter seven, and Pushkin never completed the work.

He went on, however, to revolutionize Russian poetry, prose, and drama. Pushkin's writing provided the stories for two of the most famous operas by Peter Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades. Around the time he wrote The Moor of Peter the Great, Pushkin also wrote a historical drama, Boris Godunov. The massive verse tragedy was later turned into an opera by Modest Mussorgsky. During Pushkin's lifetime, however, the play was censored by the government.

Also influential were Pushkin's brief plays known as "little tragedies." One of those dramas, The Stone Guest, tells the story of Don Juan. Another, Mozart and Salieri, later inspired Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus. Toward the end of his life, Pushkin even supplied the plot for a new play to his friend Nikolai Gogol. That play ended up being Gogol's The Government Inspector, one of the most famous comedies in the history of Russian theatre.

Unfortunately, Pushkin was constantly getting into trouble with the czar's government. In 1837, he got into a duel with a French military officer in the employ of Czar Nicholas I. In spite of the fact that duels had been outlawed, the czar's guards declined to intervene. Not being as skilled with a gun, Pushkin was mortally wounded and died two days later. 

Pushkin's death only added to his fame, and today he is revered in Russia as the country's greatest author. He is also remembered for his descent from Ibrahim Gannibal, made famous by one of Pushkin's own works.