An eerie amount of artists and creative geniuses often have wild personalities and lifestyles that, unfortunately, can all too easily lead to early deaths. Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), the father of Russian literature, was one of these brilliant people who met an early end.
Pushkin was a Russian noble who belonged to a prestigious noble family. From an early age, he was exposed to the great works of literary powerhouses from France and Britain. Throughout the rest of his life, Pushkin would combine what he learned from the literary masters of Europe with the history and folklore of Russia. He would also create new styles of poetry and prose, as well as set the standard for future Russian literary works.
Pushkin was a prolific writer, even from his earliest days—by the time he graduated from the Lyceum of Tsarkoe Selo in 1817, he had already written around 130 poems. Few of these, however, were published. The first major work that brought Alexander Pushkin any nationwide acclaim was his epic poem published in 1820, Ruslan I Liudmila or Ruslan and Ludmila.
That same year, in 1820, Pushkin was sent into exile in southern Russia because of challenges to authority present in his poetry. His years of exile officially ran from 1820-1823, but he would remain under government suspicion for the rest of his life. During these years of exile, Pushkin’s wild side became more pronounced—he drank, gambled and dueled. In 1823 and 1824, Alexander Pushkin spent time in Odessa practicing the vices listed above, as well as pursuing the wife of the local lord, Count Vorontsov. Around this time, he also began his seven-year endeavor of writing his highly-acclaimed masterpiece, Evgeny Onegin or Eugene Onegin, which was finally published in 1833.
As Alexander Pushkin grew older, everything in his life escalated. On the one hand, his writing continued to improve, but on the other, his relationship with the other Russian nobility grew more tense and bitter. One would have hoped that Alexander Pushkin’s marriage to Natalia Goncharova in 1831 would calm down the great poet’s life, but it unfortunately seemed to have the opposite effect. Although the two had three children together, most believe the marriage was not happy for either party.
By 1837, the last year of Pushkin’s life, the poet had already been involved in an estimated 28 duels. In January of that year, Alexander Pushkin and his wife, Natalia, attended a party with other Russian nobles, as well as foreign guests. Among the crowd was a French noble and military officer, named George D’Anthès-Heeckeren, who had long fancied Natalia Goncharova. When, during the course of the party, Alexander Pushkin discovered that his own wife and the Frenchman, D’Anthès, were exchanging flirtatious banter, the great poet decided it was time for a 29th duel.
George D’Anthès accepted the duel and the two men met at a predesignated location to settle their dispute with loaded pistols. The men took their required steps away from each other and prepared to fire. Alexander Pushkin, a veteran duelist, was reported to usually keep calm in his duels. Yet, this time, he charged against the Frenchman to get a closer, deadlier shot. Unfortunately for the father of Russian literature, George D’Anthès was the first to shoot, hitting Alexander Pushkin in the abdomen. Though injured, legend claims that Pushkin still fired his pistol, grazing D’Anthès, but not seriously injuring the man. Pushkin’s own injuries, however, were serious and eventually fatal.
Alexander Pushkin died on January 29, 1837, only two days after the duel. He was buried near the grave of his mother at the Svyatye Gory Monestary. The Russian people immediately mourned his death. Many of Pushkin’s fellow nobles, however, supported George D’Anthès.
Writeen by C. Keith Hansley.
- Museum Secrets Revealed, “Moscow” S2/E8, 2014.