#21 - JRL 7062
February 13, 2003
Black Russian's profound effect on literature
By Carl Schoettler
Vivat! St. Petersburg and Black History Month converge this evening in celebration of Alexander Pushkin, the nonpareil Russian poet, at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum.
Pushkin (1799-1837), a world literary figure considered comparable to Shakespeare, was the great-grandson of an African slave named Abram Hannibal, who was brought to Imperial Russia as a boy from Turkey. Hannibal became a favorite of Czar Peter the Great, a brilliant engineer and an illustrious general. Peter's daughter, Empress Elizabeth, granted him vast estates and thousands of serfs. He also married the daughter of a Baltic German officer and fathered 11 children.
At one point, says Allison Blakely, a Boston University historian, when Hannibal returned from six years of study in France, he was "one of the most highly educated people in Russia."
Blakely, 62, speaks at 7 p.m. at the wax museum on The Life and Times of Alexander S. Pushkin. And, he says, he'll talk a bit more on blacks in both Imperial and Soviet Russia. Professor of European and Comparative History at Boston U., he's the author of a pioneer work, Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian Thought and History, which won the American Book Award in 1988.
"I am going to give an overview of the black [presence] in Russia," he says, "at a gallop."
He's a soft-voiced, unprepossessing man not without a sense of humor, or irony. His scholarly resume runs nine pages. He's fluent in Russian (and Dutch, incidentally), and he's visited Russia often, starting in 1965, when it was part of the Soviet Union. He says he's going to try to give his audience members a sense of Pushkin's family in historical context and of his significance in a way they might not be able to get on their own.
Folks of a literary bent, of course, know that Pushkin wrote Eugene Onegin, a long novel in verse that is something like the Russian national epic Boris Godunov, the drama that became inspired operas by Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky, numerous short stories and many more poems.
Pushkin is revered in Russia even more than Shakespeare is in English-speaking countries. Even illiterate Russians can recite his verse, they've heard them read so often. He set the models for the main basic forms in Russian literature: the short story, novel, plays, dramatic poems.
"Pushkin played a special role in the development of the written Russian language," Blakely says. "The literary language didn't really exist before the beginning of the 19th century. And Pushkin was really the first person to popularize a written form of Russian that more closely approximates the spoken language. That's one reason he immediately resonated so widely with the people.
"He was a people's poet and writer," he says. "He could speak to them in their language.
"I compare him to Langston Hughes in the black American culture. Hughes deliberately used jazz and the rhythms that go with [jazz] in writing his poetry, so he captured something that was African that can be reflected in his art."
Because Pushkin's maternal great-grandfather was African, he would have been legally black in parts of the United States. And in general attitude in America, he had the "one drop" of African blood that made him black.
But most Russians don't think of Pushkin as black, nor did his contemporaries, nor did he.
"He was very, very proud of his African ancestry but did not think of himself as black, per se," Blakely says. Pushkin thought of himself primarily as "a proud Russian nobleman."
His father's family had been ennobled for centuries. The Pushkin family was equal to the Romanovs, the professor says, until the Romanovs became czars.
"The kinds of insults he responded to publicly," Blakley says, "had more to do with people ridiculing him for being descended from a slave, as opposed to being black."
Being called a slave cast aspersions on his nobility.
"He was quick to point out that particular slave was a godson of the czar," Blakely says. "And he could list all the accomplishments, not only of his great-grandfather, but one of his grand-uncles who was the founder of a city in the Ukraine, a big war hero against the Turks."
But Pushkin, he says, could be easily identified with liberation, abolitionism and other issues that were of concern to people of black-African descent.
"He was in what you would call the radical part of the intellectual class in Russia. He sympathized with the plight of the American Indian, the liberation movements in Greece and in other parts of the world. He almost was arrested, and he might have lost his life, in connection with a revolt in Russia in 1825. Some of his close friends were actually executed."
Blakely, the son of an Alabama sharecropper, was himself a leading student activist at the University of California at Berkeley during the height of the free speech and civil rights movements of the 1960s. Even more remarkably, although firmly opposed to the war, he served as an Army intelligence officer in Vietnam, where he was wounded in a rocket attack.
"Nobody could give me a way out of Vietnam I was willing to accept," he says. "And so, not willing to run away, not willing to lie, not willing to go to prison ... I finally went."
He spent eight months training at the old intelligence school at Fort Holabird, in Southeast Baltimore near Dundalk.
"Where I was refused housing, by the way," he says, without noticeable rancor, "because I was black, even though I was in uniform."
In his book, Blakely quotes Pushkin's sharp condemnation of American shortcomings: "All that is noble, unselfish, everything elevating the human spirit is suppressed by implacable egotism and the striving for ... comfort; the majority an outrageously repressed society; Negro slavery amidst culture and freedom; genealogical persecutions in a nation without nobility ... "
"I really do think the poet in him took real pleasure in the sort of stereotypical notion of hot African blood," Blakely says.
Pushkin was, after all, a Romantic poet.
"I think that appealed to him a lot, in addition to his sympathies for the oppressed. I do think those kind of sympathies were actually reinforced by the knowledge of his own African ancestry."
Pushkin began a novel based on his great-grandfather called The Negro of Peter the Great. But he never finished it.
He died of a gunshot wound after a duel in which he was defending his wife's honor, which in fact was a bit dubious. He was just 37 years old.