Alexander Pushkin and the African Presence In Russia

By Runoko Rashidi

This Global African Community History Notes document is dedicated to Dr. Lily Golden and John Oliver Killens (1916-1987).

Pushkin was the Russian spring. Pushkin was the Russian morning.
Pushkin was the Russian Adam.
—A.V. Lunacharsky

From the most remote times there has existed in Russia people of African descent. Indeed, perhaps the earliest distinct African presence inRussia may be traced to the reign of the Twelfth Dynasty African king Senusret III. On June 9, 1999 I returned from a nine-day study tour of Russia. It was my first visit. The tour celebrated the 200th birthdayof the brilliant Russian writer of African descent Alexander Sergeievich Pushkin and included a two-day Symposium on Pushkin at Moscow StateUniversity and visits to some of the major sites in Pushkin’s brief life. The majority of tour was spent in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Born in Moscow on May 26, 1799 (several different birthdates have beenoffered for Pushkin) the patriarch of Russian literature was descended on his mother’s side from Major-General Abraham Petrovich Hannibal—anAfrican prince who became a favorite of Russian Czar Peter I(1682-1725). By all accounts Hannibal was an outstanding figure and itis quite interesting that he assumed the name Hannibal—himself anAfrican and one of the most outstanding figures from antiquity. In an unfinished work, .”The Moor of Peter the Great,” Pushkin paid great homage to his illustrious ancestor, repeatedly referring to Hannibal as “the Moor”, “the Black” and the “African.”

Alexander Pushkin has been identified as the father of Russian literature and composed in Russian during an era when most Russian writers composed in French. The most distinguished Russian writers offer Pushkin effusive praise. Feodor Dostoevsky wrote that, “No Russian writer was ever so intimately at one with the Russian people as Pushkin.” Maxim Gorky wrote that, “Pushkin is the greatest master in the world. Pushkin, in our country, is the beginning of all beginnings. He most beautifully expressed the spirit of our people.” I. Turgeniev wrote that, “Pushkin alone had to perform two tasks which took whole centuries and more to accomplish in other countries, namely to establish a language and to create a literature.” According to N.A.Dobrolyubuv:

Pushkin is of immense importance not only in the history of Russian literature, but also in the history of Russian enlightenment. He was the first to teach the Russian public to read.

Pushkin died prematurely on January 29, 1837 at 2:45 pm, resulting from wounds suffered defending his honor in a duel. Czar Nicholas I, who hated and feared Pushkin, called him “the most intelligent man in Russia.” Allison Blakely has written that “Pushkin was truly thecounter part to Shakespeare.” Among his most significant works translated into English are: Eugene Onegin,The Ode to Liberty, The Captain’s Daughter and Boris Godunuf.

Bronze statues of Pushkin can be found throughout Moscow and St.Petersburg. Cities, town squares and museums are named after him. His portraits are everywhere. He is much beloved and remains one of Russia’s national heroes. During the bicentennial tributes and celebrations Pushkin was honored by hundreds of thousands of people. I personally gave two presentations on Alexander Pushkin and his historical significance, and had the opportunity to visit the school that Pushkin attended and two of his residences. I found it quite interesting that on the desks upon which Pushin wrote were placed figurines depicting African people.

Russia was a highly interesting experience. All of the members of the tour, largely African-American, appreciated the significance of the trip. We felt that we were honoring Pushkin—a great African. His presence seemed palpable to us, almost tangible. I learned a great deal,took many photographs, asked a lot of questions and even tried toteach. I felt that it was my mission, during the course of my presentations, to stress that, first of all, Pushkin was not an isolated entity in European history and that many, many Africans before, during and after Pushkin had made their mark in Europe and had left brilliant, even if sometimes little-known, legacies in the northern part of theworld. In addition, I was determined to demonstrate to Africans andRussians alike that our history around the world, including Europe, did not begin in bondage. Opinions expressed seem to indicate that I was successful on both counts, and I felt as though I was honoring andchampioning not only Pushkin himself—our great ancestor—but African people everywhere.

Overall I found Russia to be a very interesting place. Major cathedrals abound with scores of dark-skinned icons. In St. Petersburg, on the shores of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, it remained light outside until 3:00 am. I visited the famed Hermitage—reputed to be the world’s largest museum. Egyptian motifs are common. I visited the Kremlin, Red Square and Lenin’s Tomb. The trip, like all journeys, however, was not without its share of headaches and problems, and Russia is not the most pleasant place that I’ve visited during the course of my global travels. Not for a minute, however, do I regret the tour. After all, Russia was the home of Abraham Hannibal and Alexander Pushkin. On the other hand, however, English is spoken very little and racist skinheads roam the streets. Poverty is visible and seems to be growing. The cost of living is high and old women and children beggars are commonplace. I must say that it did seem a little strange to see White people begging. When the tour ended I was more than ready to leave. Russia is not the place for African people. I left with the strong feeling that Russia is a White man’s country and, in the in words of Mutabaruka, “it’s not good to [stay] in a White man’s country too long.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Runoko Rashidi is a historian, writer and traveler engaged in a love affair with things African worldwide. For the latest news on the activities of Runoko Rashidi please link to his web pages.