ALEXANDER PUSHKIN AND THE AFRICAN PRESENCE IN RUSSIA
DEDICATED TO DR. LILY GOLDEN AND JOHN OLIVER KILLENS (1916-1987)
"Pushkin was the Russian spring. Pushkin was the
Russian morning. Pushkin was the Russian Adam." (A.V. Lunacharsky)
From the most remote times there has existed in Russia
people of African descent. Indeed, perhaps the earliest distinct African
presence in Russia may be traced to the reign of the Twelfth Dynasty African
king Senusret III. On June 9, 1999 I returned from a nine-day study tour
of Russia. It was my first visit. The tour celebrated the 200th birthday
of the brilliant Russian writer of African descent Alexander Sergeievich
Pushkin and included a two-day Symposium on Pushkin at Moscow State University
and visits to some of the major sites in Pushkin's brief life. The majority
of tour was spent in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Born in Moscow on May 26, 1799 (several different birthdates have been
offered for Pushkin) the patriarch of Russian literature was descended
on his mother's side from Major-General Abraham Petrovich Hannibal--an
African prince who became a favorite of Russian Czar Peter I (1682-1725).
By all accounts Hannibal was an outstanding figure and it is quite interesting
that he assumed the name Hannibal--himself an African and one of the most
outstanding figures from antiquity. In an unfinished work, The Moor of
Peter the Great, Pushkin paid great homage to his illustrious ancestor,
repeatedly referring to Hannibal as "the Moor", "the Black"
and the "African."
Alexander Pushkin has been identified as the father of Russian literature
and composed in Russian during an era when most Russian writers composed
in French. The most distinguished Russian writers offer Pushkin effusive
praise. Feodor Dostoevsky wrote that, "No Russian writer was ever
so intimately at one with the Russian people as Pushkin." Maxim Gorky
wrote that, "Pushkin is the greatest master in the world. Pushkin,
in our country, is the beginning of all beginnings. He most beautifully
expressed the spirit of our people." I. Turgeniev wrote that, "Pushkin
alone had to perform two tasks which took whole centuries and more to
accomplish in other countries, namely to establish a language and to create
a literature." According to N.A. Dobrolyubuv:
"Pushkin is of immense important not only in the history of Russian
literature, but also in the history of Russian enlightenment. He was the
first to teach the Russian public to read."
Pushkin died prematurely on January 29, 1837 at 2:45 p.m., resulting
from wounds suffered defending his honor in a duel. Czar Nicholas I, who
hated and feared Pushkin, called him "the most intelligent man in
Russia." Allison Blakely has written that "Pushkin was truly
the counterpart to Shakespeare." Among his most significant works
translated into English are: Eugene Onegin, The Ode to Liberty, The Captain's
Daughter and Boris Godunuf.
Bronze statues of Pushkin can be found throughout Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Cities, town squares and museums are named after him. His portraits are
everywhere. He is much beloved and remains one of Russia's national heroes.
During the bicentennial tributes and celebrations Pushkin was honored
by hundreds of thousands of people. I personally gave two presentations
on Alexander Pushkin and his historical significance, and had the opportunity
to visit the school that Pushkin attended and two of his residences. I
found it quite interesting that on the desks upon which Pushkin wrote
were placed figurines depicting African people.
Russia was a highly interesting experience. All of the members of the
tour, largely African-American, appreciated the significance of the trip.
We felt that we were honoring Pushkin--a great African. His presence seemed
palpable to us, almost tangible. I learned a great deal, took many photographs,
asked a lot of questions and even tried to teach. I felt that it was my
mission, during the course of my presentations, to stress that, first
of all, Pushkin was not an isolated entity in European history and that
many, many Africans before, during and after Pushkin had made their mark
in Europe and had left brilliant, even if sometimes little-known, legacies
in the northern part of the world. In addition, I was determined to demonstrate
to Africans and Russians alike that our history around the world, including
Europe, did not begin in bondage. Opinions expressed seem to indicate
that I was successful on both counts, and I felt as though I was honoring
and championing not only Pushkin himself--our great ancestor--but African
Overall I found Russia to be a very interesting place. Major cathedrals
abound with scores of dark-skinned icons. In St. Petersburg, on the shores
of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, it remained light outside until
3:00 am. I visited the famed Hermitage--reputed to be the world's largest
museum. Egyptian motifs are common. I visited the Kremlin, Red Square
and Lenin's Tomb. The trip, like all journeys, however, was not without
its share of headaches and problems, and Russia is not the most pleasant
place that I've visited during the course of my global travels. Not for
a minute, however, do I regret the tour. Afterall, Russia was the home
of Abraham Hannibal and Alexander Pushkin. On the other hand, however,
English is very little spoken and racist skinheads roam the streets. Poverty
is visible and seems to be growing. The cost of living is high and old
women and children beggars are commonplace. I must say that it did seem
a little strange to see White people begging. When the tour ended I was
more than ready to leave. Russia is not the place for African people.
I left with the strong feeling that Russia is a White man's country and,
in the in words of Mutabaruka, "it's not good to stay in a White
man's country too long."