On Your Own in Russia

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National Archives
Frederick Bruce Thomas, a black American who became a millionaire nightlife entrepreneur in pre–World War I Moscow, circa 1896

After the Decembrist uprising of liberal officers in Russia in 1825, the imperial government restricted where the young Alexander Pushkin could go and what he could publish. In 1827, he began “The Negro of Peter the Great,” a novella about his great-grandfather Ibrahim Hannibal that he left unfinished. It is not among Pushkin’s best work, but it was his first attempt at fiction in prose.

Pushkin’s story begins with Hannibal, the tsar’s Moor, having been sent in the early eighteenth century from St. Petersburg to Paris to further his military education. The libertine court of the regent, the duc d’Orléans, treats him as a tantalizing freak. After an unhappy love affair, he returns to St. Petersburg, where his promotion at court is swift. Nevertheless, when the tsar chooses a bride for him, her family is distraught that she is to be sacrificed to “a black devil,” “a bought negro.” They are not consoled by the legend that Hannibal is a sultan’s son, captured by Turks and taken in captivity to Constantinople, where the Russian ambassador rescued him. Hannibal hopes that marrying into the nobility means that he won’t be a stranger in his adopted fatherland any longer. A friend from his Paris days cautions that with his thick lips and woolly head, Hannibal shouldn’t expect fidelity from a wife. Pushkin abandons his subject at that point.

Recent biographers agree that Abram Gannibal, as he’s called in Russian, came originally from what is now Eritrea, but contrary to Pushkin’s story, he was brought, by way of Amsterdam, to Russia in 1703, where he caught the tsar’s attention. Peter had purchased a number of blacks himself when in Amsterdam in 1697 to bring back to Russia as artisans. Peter stood as Gannibal’s godfather in 1707. That he was given an education is an early example of an Enlightenment-era experiment. It proved that black people possessed the necessary mental powers. But Gannibal’s fortunes declined after Peter’s death in 1725. He spent three years working on fortifications in Siberia, a type of exile, and was briefly arrested in 1729. He resigned from the military in 1733, but returned under Peter the Great’s daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, who made him major general of fortifications in 1752.

Gannibal’s first marriage to a Greek sea captain’s daughter was a disaster. His divorce took twenty years. He married bigamously the daughter of an army officer from a German family, by whom he had eleven children. One of his granddaughters was Pushkin’s mother. Gannibal retired from public life in 1762, just before Catherine’s coup, and died in 1781, when thought to be in his early nineties. Though Gannibal had known Voltaire and Montesquieu and excelled at mathematics, Vladimir Nabokov, in a lengthy note to his translation of Eugene Onegin …

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