Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) was born in Moscow and brought up mainly by tutors and governesses. One of his great-grandfathers, Abram Gannibal, was an African slave who became a favorite and godson of Peter the Great. Like many aristocrats, Pushkin learned Russian mainly from household serfs.
As an adolescent, he attended the new elite lyceum at Tsarskoye Selo, outside St. Petersburg. In his early twenties he was exiled because of his political verse, first to the Caucasus, then to Odessa, then to his mother’s estate in the north. Several of his friends took part in the failed 1825 Decembrist revolt, but Pushkin did not—possibly because his friends wished to protect him, possibly because they did not trust him to keep the plot secret. In 1826 Pushkin was allowed to return to St. Petersburg. During his last years he suffered many humiliations, including serious debts and worries about the fidelity of his young wife, Natalya Goncharova. In 1837 he was fatally wounded in a duel with Georges-Charles d’Anthès, the Dutch ambassador’s adopted son, who was said to be having an affair with Natalya.
Pushkin’s position in Russian literature can best be compared with that of Goethe in Germany. Not only is he Russia’s greatest poet; he is also the author of the first major works in a variety of genres. As well as his masterpieces—the verse novel Eugene Onegin and the narrative poem The Bronze Horseman—Pushkin wrote one of the first important Russian dramas, Boris Godunov (1825); one of the finest of all Russian short stories, “The Queen of Spades” (1833); and the first great Russian prose novel, The Captain’s Daughter (1836). His prose style is clear and succinct; he wrote that “Precision and brevity are the most important qualities of prose. Prose demands thoughts and more thoughts—without thoughts, dazzling expressions serve no purpose.”
For God’s sake, let me not go mad, far better beggar’s staff and plaid, far better toil or hunger choose. But not that I would grimly cling to intellect as to a thing I greatly fear to lose: Were I but left at liberty …