A painting of Puskin on the hallway to the lobby of the Geneva Hotel A painting of Puskin on the hallway to the lobby of the Geneva Hotel Jeffree Benet

Alexander Pushkin, his life and times in Odessa

Western ideas and books, which had been flooding into Russia since the 17th century reign of Tsar Peter the Great, had caused tremendous intellectual ferment.

Reacting to these ideas, writers created a number of powerful works. Perhaps no other nation, in one point of time, has produced more great novels, poems and plays.

The man who ignited the explosion was Alexander Pushkin, recognised as the nation's greatest poet. Born in Moscow in 1799, he grew up to be small, wiry, precociously clever and irresistible to women, with his exotically dusky skin - inherited from his great-grandfather, Ibrahim Hannibal, an Ethiopian prince who was adopted by the great Peter himself.

So great was his impact on the people of Odessa, that today, his bust faces the promenade in front of the Mayor's Office, and there is major road named after him. If you are interested in this famous Odessite, there is the Odessa Pushkin Museum is a museum dedicated to him.

This museum is in an apartment where Pushkin lived in 1823 during his thirteen months in the city. Whilst he was here he seems to have enjoyed himself but the local governor was not a fan. Irritated by Pushkin's behaviour he had his mail intercepted. He managed to find passages in letters that supported Atheism and with these he was able to get the Tsar to ban Pushkin from Odessa as well.

Opened in June of 1961, the museum displays original manuscripts from Pushkin's writings, and a copy of a page from his book Eugene Onegin .

Pushkin published his first verses at the age of 15 and was famous before he was 20, both for his poetry and for his pursuit of nobel women, ballerinas and prostitutes. He soon began keeping a list of his conquests, dividing them into two categories, "Platonic" and "Sexual". His wicked wit and magnetism made him the darling of St. Petersburg's drawing rooms, much like the fashionable young man he portrays in his great novel in verse, Eugene Onegin:

His hair cut in the latest mode,>

He dined, he danced, he fenced, he rode.

In French he could converse politely,

As well as write; and how he bowed!

In the mazurka, 'twas allowed,

No partner ever was so sprightly.

What more is asked? The world is warm

In praise of so much wit and charm.

The world was warm to him, but the officials around Tsar Alexander I were anything but charmed by the poet: his womanising involved him in duels and he gambled and drank to excess. Nor were they enamoured of his clever epigrams mocking church and state, or of the audacious Ode to Liberty that he wrote in Russian - in a magically lucid, elegant way. He was hustled into exile in faraway Kishinev, a forlorn outpost in southern Russia.

But exile did not quiet Pushkin. He wrote more clever and subversive poems, gambled and drank with the Kishinev Army garrison, and flirted with the local women. He also took part in more duels. He arrived at one such dawn appointment - with a man whom he had accused of cheating at cards - nonchalantly munching some cherries. He topped one into his mouth just before the signal to fire. His adversary fired and missed. Pushkin, who had not deigned to shoot, dropped his pistol, spat the cherry stone in his enemy's direction and coolly strolled off.

The Tsar's officials eventually transferred their problem poet to Odessa to work in a government office, but then banished him to his family's estate near Pskov, west St. Petersburg. There, Pushkin read voraciously, absorbed Russian folk tales told by his boyhood nurse and wrote prodigiously. So great is the power of Pushkin's best tales and poems that more than 20 operas - including the popular Boris Godunov - have been based on his works.

With the accession of a new Tsar, Nicolas I, in 1825, Pushkin was summoned back to the capital, where he became the Tsar's private and captive poet. The starchy and militaristic Tsar appointed him to various court positions but also insisted on personally overseeing his writing. The secret police kept tabs on his after-hours escapades. Pushkin continued to produce fine poetry and prose despite his imperial censor, and he resumed his rousing lifestyle, although his philandering was tempered by marriage in 1831 to a beautiful, if vacuous, 16-year-old (according to Pushkin, this was the 113th time he had fallen in love).

His bride, Natalya, was a dazzling addition to the court, and before long the Tsar himself was discreetly flirting with her while his poet quietly fumed. Pushkin was further humiliated when the Tsar made him a gentleman of the chamber, a post he could not refuse, primarily to ensure his wife's presence at court.

Soon Natalya and a glamorous French baron named Georges-Charles d'Anthes began to spend an eyebrow-raising amount of time together. Pushkin continued to fume but did nothing until he received anonymous letters mocking him as a cuckold.

Suspicion has since arisen that government officials, perceiving a stratagem that might rid them of the obstreperous poet, arranged for the letters to be sent. This insult spurred Pushkin to challenge d'Anthes. The French baron's bullet struck Pushkin in the upper thigh, shattering the bone. After two days of agony Pushkin died, aged 37, while by his bed his wife blubbered, "Forgive me! Forgive me!".

His death prompted an outpouring of public grief; more than 30,000 people filed past his casket in a single day. Notables and newspapers eulogised the poet, but the most moving tribute was offered by an elderly citizen seen weeping bitterly by the coffin.

Asked if he had known Pushkin, the man replied: "No, but I am a Russian".

Pushkin set the stage for the great writers that would follow, especially in one of his last works, a long poem called The Bronze Horseman. His themes - the conflict between the individual and the state, the powerlessness of frail humans in the face of the forces of nature, the dangerous irrational depths within all human beings - preoccupied his two immediate successors, the poet Mikhail Lermontov and the playwright and novelist Nikolai Gogol.


- Nina Spring is a native Russian who lives and works in the UK. She likes to write on Russian historical places and nature. She usually indulges in gardening and site building. Along with writing on Russian historical places and nature Nina Spring writes about gardening and coffeemakers.

Nina Spring
Written by  Nina Spring
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Last modified on Thursday, 08 February 2018 18:03
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