Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin became a literary figure of national importance at the age of 15, when Gavriil Derzhavin, the grand old man of Russian letters, listened in rapt attention as Pushkin read his composition for the junior examinations at the Tsarskoe Selo Lycée. Derzhavin proclaimed that the young man would assume his mantle, and St Petersburg’s leading littérateurs immediately recognized his talent: ‘The rascal will crush us all!’ wrote Prince Petr Viazemskii, later a close friend of Pushkin. Throughout the rest of Pushkin’s brief, turbulent life, both acclaim and criticism were freighted with a sense of national expectation; he was perceived by many to be not only Russia’s most gifted writer, but also an embodiment of its literary destiny. The process of mythologization had begun even in his lifetime: in 1834 Nikolai Gogol described him as a ‘unique manifestation of the Russian spirit’, claiming that ‘the countryside, soul, language and character of Russia are reflected in him with the purity and the spotless perfection with which a landscape is reflected through the convex surface of a lens.’
Gogol’s choice of metaphor is revealing: Pushkin rapidly became a prism through which others could refract mythologies of their choice—most famously Dostoevsky, who claimed, at the unveiling of a monument to Pushkin in Moscow in 1880, that the poet embodied precisely that quality of ‘universal responsiveness’ that would enable Russia to redeem mankind through Christian brotherhood. Since the late nineteenth century, anniversaries of Pushkin’s birth in 1799 and death in 1837 have been marked with great fanfare by Tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet regimes alike—and with corresponding distortions of the realities of his life and the meanings of his art. T. J. Binyon’s handsomely produced and impressively detailed biography takes as its aim, ‘in all humility, to free the complex and interesting figure of Pushkin the man from the heroic simplicity of Pushkin the myth.’ Binyon has undertaken several years of archival research, providing a wealth of intersecting documentary trails he follows with admirable forensic clarity. But Pushkin is portrayed here through the triangulation of people, events and circumstances, rather than by the evolution of his thought or attitudes; the result is a readable, scholarly work that firmly resists sentimental mystifications, but whose close attention to tangible facts and connexions can shed only a partial light on the complexities it describes.
Pushkin was born in Moscow on 26 May 1799, to parents from sharply contrasting backgrounds of which Pushkin was equally proud. His mother was descended from Abram Petrovich Gannibal, Peter the Great’s black servant, and later an important figure at the Imperial court; he is usually referred to as Abyssinian in origin, but more recent scholarship suggests he may have come from the northeast of present-day Cameroon. The Pushkin family, by contrast, claimed descent from the old Muscovite nobility that had been, in Binyon’s words, ‘submerged in the influx of the newly ennobled’ after the introduction of the Table of Ranks in 1722. The economic circumstances of both families were relatively straitened—Abram Gannibal had fallen from favour long before his death, and the Pushkins were, like declining gentry elsewhere, accustomed to a life now beyond their means. Throughout his life Pushkin was to retain a sense of infringed aristocratic pride, whose material corollary was a constant financial insecurity that was only to increase in later years.
An awkward, plump child, Pushkin enjoyed the love of neither of his parents, and was largely left to the care of his grandmother, Mariia Gannibal. The family moved apartments with unsettling frequency, but Pushkin’s passion for reading remained constant: by the age of ten he had consumed Racine, Molière, the Iliad and Odyssey, and was a devotee of Voltaire—writing a parody of the latter’s Henriade at around the age of eight. He had also dipped into his uncle Vasilii’s collection of French erotica. It was perhaps as much his precocious knowledge of sexual matters as his acquaintance with French literature that earned him the nickname ‘the Frenchman’ at the Lycée in Tsarskoe Selo—Catherine the Great’s former retreat fifteen miles south of St Petersburg; the town now bears the name Pushkin. The Lycée, which he attended from 1811 to 1817, and whose progressive curriculum aimed to suffuse the nation’s elite youth with notions of civic rights and duties, furnished Pushkin with many lifelong friends—notably his future literary collaborator Anton Delvig; Konstantin Danzas, who was to act as his second in the duel that took his life; and the future Decembrists Wilhelm Küchelbecker and Ivan Pushchin. Pushkin floundered academically—he was generally towards the bottom of the class; his best subjects were Russian and French literature and fencing—but flourished poetically, producing epigrams and quatrains ‘almost without conscious thought’. Binyon relates how one pupil taken ill awoke to find four lines of rhymed verse scrawled on the wall above his bed. The impression is above all one of ceaseless, fervid energy, of a highly inventive mind ‘more ardent and subtle than deep’, in the words of one of Pushkin’s school reports from 1812.
Pushkin arrived in St Petersburg in 1817 already de facto a member of the capital’s literary set, thanks to poems published while still at the Lycée. He was nominally in the employ of the Foreign Ministry, but seems barely to have put in an appearance at the office. Instead, the next three years passed in a flurry of social and literary activity that Binyon evokes with obvious relish. In his parents’ lodgings in the unfashionable St. Petersburg district of Kolomna—the family had moved from fire-ravaged Moscow in 1814—Pushkin led a dissipated life: his neighbour, Baron Korff, described him as representing ‘a type of the filthiest depravity’. Although Pushkin’s moral standards were not exceptional for a man of his age and social class, his thorough dedication to dissoluteness was more unusual. The frequent bouts of illness that resulted from his brothel visits did, however, at least give him plenty of time to read, and write. The mock-heroic epic Ruslan i Liudmila was written over several periods of convalescence in 1818–20, a good-humoured counterweight to Karamzin’s eight-volume History of the Russian State (1818), which Pushkin devoured at this time. In his frock coat and top hat, with curly hair and unusually long fingernails, Pushkin also did his best to cut a dash in the beau monde, issuing challenges to duel at the slightest excuse and picking quarrels where he might flex his rapier wit. During an argument in a theatre, for instance, he announced he had only refrained from slapping his opponent because the actors might take it for applause. Rash gestures were one constant of Pushkin’s behavioural repertoire, and seemed to stem from the same combination of restlessness and incaution that could be seen in his Lycée years. He was prone to abrupt changes of mood and enthusiasms, his volatility often overflowing into self-destructiveness. He was apt to lash out when frustrations accumulated, in Binyon’s words ‘caring little—on the contrary rather hoping—that he might, like Samson at Gaza, bring the whole edifice of his life crashing about him.’