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Meet Alexander Pushkin, Russian poet and great-grandson of a Cameroonian chief

May 26, 2019 at 09:00 am | History

Nduta Waweru

Nduta Waweru | Contributor

May 26, 2019 at 09:00 am | History

Photo: Wiki CC

Born on May 26, 1799, Alexander Pushkin, who nicknamed himself Afrikanets, is considered one of Russia’s greatest poets and the founding father of Modern Russian literature.

Pushkin started writing at 15, creating waves within the Russian literary scene.  He attributed his talent to his African ancestry, specifically the inspiration of his African great-grandfather, General Abraham Petrovitch Gannibal.

Gannibal was a little boy when he was kidnapped from his native Cameroon. He was a nobleman, the son of a chief in Logone in modern-day Cameroon (although some reports place him as a page boy).  Gannibal was then taken to Russia as a gift to Peter the Great, who not only freed him but also made him his godson. He adopted the name Petrovich and accompanied the Tsar on his sojourns.

Gannibal married Christina Regina Siöberg, with whom he had 10 children, one of which was  Ossip Abramovich Gannibal, Alexander’s grandfather.

Ossip’s daughter, Nadezhda (Nadya) Ossipovna Gannibal married Sergei Lvovich Pushkin, a Russian nobility,  and had Alexander on May 26, 1799.

In his works, Alexander evoked the life and times of his great-grandfather, who represented the duality of a black man living in an adopted country.  Alexander even went ahead to write an unfinished historical novel on his ancestor called The Moor of Peter the Great.

Alexander was not afraid to question the society’s outlook on life, calling on the reform on various issues. He was also credited with developing Russian literature with his stylised language that included everyday colloquialisms, natural French inflexions as well as parody.

This style of language is used until today.

Alexander wrote in many genres, making him one of the broad-writing authors of all time. From odes to fairy tales, from travel journals to drama, he wrote it all. His novel Eugene Onegin, known as the encyclopedia of Russian life has been adapted to other forms of art including an opera and ballet. This particular piece of work featured a reference to his African heritage:

“It’s time to drop astern the shape
of the dull shores of my disfavour,
and there, beneath your noonday sky,
my Africa, where waves break high,
to mourn for Russia’s gloomy savour,
land where I learned to love and weep,
land where my heart is buried deep.”

Alexander was exiled in 1820 after his poem, Ode to Liberty was found among the possessions of the rebels of the 1825 December Uprising.  He was unable to travel and some of his publications were under strict control by the government.

Alexander married Natalia Goncharova in 1831 and was bestowed the Gentlemen of the Chamber, a lowly title, by the Tsar.

Alexander’s wife, Natalia Nikolaevna Pushkina-Lanskaya

He died on January 29, 1837, after a duel against George D’Anthès, with whom, he believed, his wife had had an affair. He left behind four children and a number of grandchildren, one of whom was married to the uncle of the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband.

Alexander became one of the biggest writers admired and discussed across the world for his contribution to Russian and European literature. He achieved an icon status, with the second biggest diamond in USSR named after him and a statue in his honour erected in Asmara, Eritrea in 2009 and in Manila, the Philippines in 2010.  A planet, 2208 Pushkin and a crater on Mercury were also named after him.

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