Pushkin's Aestheticized Defense of His African Heritage in His Poem "My Genealogy"

Sonia I. Ketchian


I treasure the past in my home,
I secretly conjure up the past.
– Anna Akhmatova, “They came and said…”[1]


     This study concentrates on Pushkin’s masterpiece of rebuttal “My Geneal­ogy” (“Moia rodoslovnaia”), crafted in defense of his Pushkin ancestry, on the one hand, and his African progenitor Abram Gannibal (c. 1696–1781), on the other. I first consider the background to Pushkin’s poem, scholarly and personal alike, so vital to understanding the full import of the anon­ymous feuilleton attack by Faddei Bulgarin (1789–1859), by no means the first but rather the “last straw.” Then I enlist the poet’s brilliantly mar­shaled specific vocabulary and literary devices that effectively refute the vicious transparent attacks. The indirect nature of Pushkin’s self-defense augments its impact. By laughing in the familiar humorous manner of a young “know-it-all” adult at his ostensibly risible Pushkin ancestors, the poet disarms his audience’s vigilance and attention so that they hardly sense the mounting intensity of laughter amidst defense and praise of Gannibal until the final indisputable, but anonymous counterattack on Bulgarin (under the name of Figliarin) at the very end—achieved without a coda.

     The Pushkin ancestry in the poet was “concentrated” in view of the fact that Pushkin’s father, Sergei Lvovich, and mother, Nadezhda Osi­povna, were second cousins once removed, related on the Pushkin side. His mother was born a Gannibal to Abram Gannibal’s son Osip and a Pushkin on her mother Sara’s side. According to J. Thomas Shaw, Push­kin was sensitive about the fact that though his blackness did not hinder his acceptance as a man of letters, his entry to royal society was through his wife’s beauty and family connections rather than his own ancient line­age and artistic accomplishments.[2] At court, as is well known, Pushkin was assigned the rank of kammerjunker (junior chamberlain), appropriate for an eighteen-year-old but demeaning for a renowned poet of venerable pedigree. Yet scholars opine that even in the Lyceum young Pushkin was somewhat of an outsider.[3]

     It would seem that other members of Pushkin’s immediate family were spared the extent of his social difficulties and comparable attacks. Active in high society, Pushkin’s parents hosted many writers, including Vasily Zhukovsky and Nikolai Karamzin, and foreign ambassadors, among others. As far as we know, his mother, who is alluded to dispar­agingly in Bulgarin’s attack, was well accepted in society and referred to as the “prekrasnaia mulatka” (beautiful Creole), though that seemingly positive sobriquet sets her apart through her African blood. Catharine Ne­pomnyashchy notes that the poet’s siblings, Olga and Lev, were better adjusted in society.[4] Possibly they were better adjusted socially, perhaps because they were not as flamboyant, ambitious, and accomplished. Ap­parently, Pushkin’s detractors were angered, first and foremost, by his genius, exceptional talent, and outspokenness—qualities that average per­sons and even some intelligent litterateurs found difficult to tolerate and accept. Moreover, his slightly African features, offset by dark blond or sandy-colored hair and blue eyes, were less prominent in comparison with his mother; therefore, he had to be brought down several pegs through attacks on what visually set him apart only to a degree—his African ancestry.

     Much of Pushkin’s difficulty in his final years is believed to have stemmed from this unpublished poem of December 1830, directly involv­ing his black ancestry[5] and, I would add, his ancient independent-minded and recalcitrant Pushkin boyar heritage. It will be seen from the wording of Nicholas I that Pushkin offends the tsar in particular through the facts offered in defense of the poet’s Pushkin forebears rather than those up­holding the honor of Gannibal.[6]

     Shaw summarizes the general scholarly impression of the author of the prose pamphlet that instigated Pushkin’s poem as follows: “Bulgarin is the most unsavory figure in Russian nineteenth-century literary life, and publishing this anecdote was perhaps the most unsavory deed of all.”[7] An agent for the Imperial Secret Police, Bulgarin had protection for his writ­ings. The offensive lampoon bears quoting for better comprehension of Pushkin’s poem and the extent that this Russian poet’sovert admiration of Lord Byron’s ancient pedigree served to enhance his own.

Byron’s title of lord and his aristocratic pranks and his God-knows-what way of thinking have led a multitude of poets and ver­sifiers in various lands to lose their minds and … they have all be­gun talking about a 600-year-old nobility!… A joke is making the rounds that a certain poet in Spanish America, also an imitator of Byron, who descends from, I can’t recall, a mulatto or a mulatto woman,[8] was trying to prove that one of his ancestors was a Negro prince. In the town hall it was discovered that in olden times there was a lawsuit between a skipper of a ship and his mate for this Negro, whom each of them wanted to claim as his own, and that the skipper tried to prove that he had bought the Negro for a bottle of rum. Could they fathom at that time that a poet would acknowledge connection with that Negro? Vanity of vanities…[9]

In response to the malicious attack on the unnamed target’s aristocracyand his African heritage, Pushkin composed and circulated “My Geneal­ogy,” though he did not publish it. This action was not only due to the piece’s incendiary contents, but also due to doubly stringent censorship for him personally at this time in his life (1830)—the official censor as well as Tsar Nicholas I performed constraining dual, parallel censorship for the poet’s work. Pushkin presented his poem to the censor AleksandrBenken­dorf and the tsar over the objections of his friend Anton Delvig, who advised against publication. The tsar’s complete agreement with the latter was conveyed through the censor; his singling out of the poem’s “bile” demonstrates a tacit understanding of the barbs directed against the Romanovs themselves, to be elaborated below (if not a veiled threat):

You can tell Pushkin from me that I completely agree with the opinion of his late friend Delvig: such mean and base insults that were heaped upon him dishonor not the one to whom they refer but the one who pronounces them. The only weapon against them is scorn. That’s how I would react in his place. In Pushkin’s satiri­cal poem I find wit but even more bile. For the honor of his pen and especially for the honor of his reason, it would be best not to disseminate it.[10]

     Pushkin responds to a scurrilous prose lampoon with seemingly lofty poetry. First, as in the lampoon, the poem’s eight octets highlight the de­cline in influence by Peter’s time of the Pushkin ancestors, while the five quatrains of the “Post scriptum,” as if in afterthought, concern Abram Gannibal, thus paralleling the Bulgarin piece, in which the strongest barbs were directed against the African progenitor at the end. So Pushkin builds up in terms of facts, images, vocabulary, and literary and rhetorical devices for the most intense part of his refutation that is enhanced by what precedes it.

     Pushkin’s rebuttal to his detractor Bulgarin, rather than first address­ing the crueler distorted attack on his African origins,[11] consists of an ex­ceptionally well-documented account of the Pushkin heritage from the point of view of their bygone pomp, circumstances, exceptional service to the Crown, and power. In their pellucid article “Pushkin’s Life” David Bethea and Sergei Davydov note that the Pushkin nobility dates back to the twelfth century, rather than the thirteenth, as Pushkin believed, and that the Pushkin name is cited twenty-one times in Nikolai Karamzin’s monumental History of the Russian State (1818), which was in Pushkin’s time the authoritative historical work on Russia.[12] The poet’s tour through the glories of ancient boyar Russian history centers on his Pushkin ances­try, among whom no fewer than four were signatories to the 1613 charter installing the first Romanov tsar, Mikhail Fedorovich, on the throne.[13] This fact is probably what most riled Nicholas I. Overlooked is the fact that Mikhail’s father, Fedor Stradalets (the sufferer), was the Russian patriarch at the time, which suggests that much paternal maneuvering must have preceded the boyars’ choice.

     The poem pivots on the many moods and modes of the key word and concept of meshchanin (which David Bethea translates as “bourgeois”) and it serves Pushkin as an “innocuous” rebuttal in first addressing his Push­kin line. In earlier writings Bulgarin had demeaned Pushkin by referring to him through the title of Moliere’s comedy “Le bourgeois gentilhomme.” Pushkin neutralizes the force of this word by applying it to himself in each of the eight octets and in lines 18 and 20 of the quatrains. The meaning of meshchanin reflects varying nuances for the utterances of the speaker in each of the octets, as well as in the concluding quatrain of the “Post scriptum”:

1.  He (the speaker)is humbler than the new nobility (to be repeated in the concluding quatrain);

2.  The Pushkins are no longer powerful or influential at court or in government;

3.  The Pushkins have no social climbing to be ashamed of;

4.  The Pushkins stand on a par with the brave Minikh of non-Rus­sian origins;

5.   The Pushkins are kingmakers of the Romanovs but, dispos–sessed of their erstwhile power, are now submissive out of necessity;

6.  Currently the poet is submissive for his own good;

7.  The Pushkins’ power was lost in the wrong side of the coup that brought to power Catherine II;

8.  Pushkin earns his living by writing, so the speaker is humbler than the new nobility;

9.  The word meshchanin next occurs in line 18 (of 20) of the “Post scriptum” (i.e., not in the final line of the concluding quatrain, in contrast to the octets), as if to distance the speaker from Bul­garin, now shown to be lowly by association with the name of the street—Meshchanskaia. It is Bulgarin’s demeaning words that Pushkin uses against the Pole in the punchline of the con­cluding quatrain.

     We suddenly realize that Pushkin admits to being a bourgeois, but only among the aristocracy, not the new nobility. In response to crude journalistic or lampooning prose, Pushkin seeks to distance himself within the loftier genre of poetry by subduing personal anger and defending not himself—outwardly he humbles himself—but his ancestors. In so doing, he is indirectly defending himself. His manner opens as self-deprecating amusement with a tinge of irony that remains in force even in octet 8, where “gramotei” (an ironic and now obsolete term for “educated person”) continues to sustain the adopted mood that facilitates the acceptance of history’s inevitable permutations over time and through the politics of suc­cessive imperial reigns. The recalled changes escalate to passing mention of the Pushkins as king makers of the Romanovs in octet 5 as a poignant presentation of Pushkin clan history, but the speaker manages to check himself on time, outwardly to purge himself of pride for the time being—to speak as a humble or modest bourgeois. His “checking” himself in the next line from saying more than how much his clan was valued through the repetition of “byvalo,” literally verbal doubling of the key reminiscing word (“Byvalo”—“It used to be” and the “no”—“but,” followed by dots open up unspoken possibilities), will transform to its counterbalance in the pero­rating line where the Russian “no” transposes to its mirror reverse image “on,” so this device should be borne in mind until then.

     Thus Pushkin opens his poem of refutation by jocularly repeating rather than glossing over the taunts against his Pushkin heritage—for first he must disassociate this aspect of his aristocratic pedigree from that of the newly minted Russian “nobles,” to which group the Gannibals be­long. In contrast to others, the newer nobility of the Gannibals was be­stowed by Peter, is richly deserved, earned, and warranted, as will be demonstrated by their unique heroic military patriotism (which matches that of the Pushkins) and their brilliant scientific contributions. In other words, Pushkin’s true objective is tacitly to separate through emphasis the deserved new Russian nobility of his Gannibal progenitor from those up­starts who have acquired nobility from lowly status and through the un­conscionable social climbing listed in the first and third octets. He does so in line 4 to an informal, intimate as it were, audience with colloquial, un­poetic words such as vzdor (nonsense), pozhalui (if you will), considered good middle style, and the familiar second person singular form smotri (look).

     In rejecting the Russian “aristocrat” title here in favor of the unex­pected “meshchanin,” Pushkin uses lines from the song of the French poet Pierre Jean de Beranger (1780–1857), “Le Vilain,” that stand as epigraph to the poem “My Genealogy” in the Russian poet’s manuscript: “Je suis vilain et tres vilain, / Je suis vilain, vilain, villain.”[14] So the poet takes his cue from French literature, as well. Pushkin also underscores the fact that he earns his living through his publications— and is the first aristocratic Russian poet to do so—which makes him a bourgeois born in Moscow, the stronghold of the ancient aristocrats, the boyars, whom Peter attempted to deprive of power. In other words, by describing through the literary figure of antenantiosis, i.e., negation, that in fact showcases positive features of his ancient heritage, Pushkin actually prepares the ground to highlight the worthy, fairly new nobility of the Gannibals at the very end. Pushkin’s objective is to demonstrate how worthy a match Gannibal, championed and esteemed by Peter I, was for the illustrious Pushkins of yore. Given that not all the new nobility was undeserved, the speaker merely avoids hobnobbing with the upstarts, the parvenus, so tacitly he is already pre­paring the distinction between the new Russian noble Gannibal and the other nobles of his time. Moreover, Gannibal was the son of an African prince, i.e., of established African nobility; there would probably have been less resentment if Gannibal had arrived in Russia as an adult specialist in warfare, mathematics, etc. But Gannibal was nurtured in the same environment as the other courtiers and their progeny, the majority of whom failed to achieve his personal dazzling heights despite their family connections.[15]

     The poem enlists effective literary devices, some already demon­strated: negation, contrast, anaphora, contrast and dichotomy, a pivotal play on the nuances of words, such as “meshchanin,” parallelism (of mor­phology, syntax, and notions), encirclement, pauses, and repetition. Their role is further elaborated below, as is that of meaningful names. Moreover, the alliteration of numerous “s” sounds apparently speaks volumes for the poet, suggesting as they do snake-like hissing on the part of his detractors. “S” occurs fourteen times in the opening octet, with four “s” sounds in the opening line itself. This is counterbalanced in the first two lines of octet 2 with the person of Peter through the repeated consonants “p, t, pr, t, pr, pr.” This allusive alliteration recalls the symbolism in the famous Bronze Horseman statue to Peter I where his steed is successfully throttling a serpent. Pushkin is hinting through alliteration that Peter’s majesty will vanquish the hissing of the poet’s detractors as well.

     A principal device is Pushkin’s refutation of the veracity of the attacks through degrees of emotion that receives articulation in words conveying varying types of laughter, ranging from the gentle or restrained laughter of ironic amusement to mounting laughter. This will be elaborated upon below. Other devices are contrast, as in the nostalgic last line of octet 5 and the poem’s final line in the “Post scriptum,” of barely suppressed strong choking laughter. This forms a nostalgic counterbalance to the ear­lier repetition and pause in octet 5—“It used to be” (byvalo), followed by a shorter pause after “but” (no) that with its open passageway in Russian pronunciation and the pause invites further deliberation below.

     To repeat, Pushkin opens his poem with an amused tone by lightly mocking and ironizing, but his playfully amused stance grows progres­sively stronger while remaining apparently devoid of anger in the octet body of the poem for anyone unaware of the true biographical situation. Justified outrage for the derision of Gannibal is deftly muted and re­tarded, as the most pressing part. It is left for the time when appropriate, irrefutable loftiness enforced by facts, and hence the resultant pride, enter with overt dismissal, rather than debate, of the accusations leveled against his African progenitor, culminating in the revelation of Peter as sovereign choosing Gannibal as confidant. There is no place or need for Pushkin’s personal indignation in the given documented historical con­text. The facts speak for themselves with what would seem a gentle nudge through recollection from Pushkin. To add insult to injury, as Shaw notes, Bulgarin’s anonymous lampoon on the unnamed Pushkin stops with the mention of the trumped-up purchase and possession of the “ancestor,” whereas Gannibal’s phenomenal rise and accomplishments are covered in silence.[16] Pushkin unobtrusively fills in the lacunae with irrefutable facts.

     Pushkin’s choice of iambic tetrameter for the poem’s meter, with alter­nating feminine-masculine rhymes in the eight octets that deal with the contrast of his Russian boyar ancestors and undeserving parvenus, seems to shade into a mock-ode. This may explain in part why the “Post scriptum” differs in structure: it consists of quatrains and a separate title, or rather a subtitle where only the first word is capitalized, while it shares all other features with the main part of the poem (the meter and rhyme-scheme). Of course, five quatrains do not lend themselves into fashioning as octets, for the last four lines would have remained dangling, and setting the final quatrain apart could have detracted attention from its contents, if not have made it too evident. No self-mockery or even gentle irony to­ward his ancestor (and even Peter) enters this last section of lofty presen­tation of Gannibal and Peter I—who are presented in strict opposition to Figliarin’s present.[17]

     Accordingly, at the very conclusion of the poem, Pushkin deals his ma­jor irrefutable blow to Bulgarin who anonymously dared to sully his moth­er’s person by reference in a feuilleton—a terrible insult which he counters with the questionable past of the Pole Bulgarin’s wife and the hints of prostitution. Pushkin was not the first to refer disparagingly to Bulgarin through his wife’s family. In fact in a letter to his brother Lev from Odessa exile in January 1824, he shows familiarity (10: 80) with Decembrist Kon­dratii Ryleev’s agitation ditty of 1822 or 1823, “Oh, where are those is­lands” (“Akh, gde te ostrova”), that mocks Bulgarin through his mother-in-law:

Gde Bulgarin, Faddei
Ne boitsia kogtei

Where Bulgarin, Faddei
Does not fear the claws
                                     Of Tanta [his mother-in-law—S.K.].

At the time Meshchanskaia Street in Moscow was a red-light district. What is more, in his poem Pushkin chooses a hilarious surrogate surname for Faddei Bulgarin. Accordingly, here is a Pole with Bulgarian roots liv­ing as a Russian, even more foreign than Gannibal was. Bulgarin’s sur­name is close to the Russian bolgarin—a Bulgarian, so his origins are probably not even genuinely Polish, especially taking into account the Russian –in ending for his own surname; ethnic Poles never have that –in ending. In choosing this alternate surname with imbedded secondary meaning, twice removed in foreignness, Pushkin has preserved the Rus­sian –in ending as well as the –ar suffix in Bulgarin’s surname (a soft consonant precedes the suffix in Bulgarin’s name, as in pushkar´ – gun­ner; pisar´ – clerk, writer; pekar´ – baker,” which means a human per­former of something, an occupation, profession, in contrast to words with a preceding hard consonant, e.g., maliar – [house] painter; gusliar –psaltery player; stoliar – joiner, shkoliar – a schoolboy)].[19] He also retains in re­verse order the consonants “l” and “g.” It is accepted that the basis for the surrogate surname is a Russian borrowing from the Polish: figliar (mountebank, magician, acrobat, jester; clown, poseur; Polish figlarz – Russian shutnik), to which Pushkin appends the Russian surname ending –in. Pushkin, however, injects much more—he encodes into it the poem’s concluding line. To that end, Pushkin’s choice of a surname for his de­tractor has preserved the first consonant of the first name Faddei; how­ever, the first three letters in the name Pushkin has chosen or concocted for his adversary derives from the Russian borrowing fig or figa,[20] which is defined in Russian dictionaries as kukish, an obscene gesture meaning a clenched fist with the thumb thrust between the closed index and middle fingers. The Russian-English Dictionary defines kukish as the English “fig” (pokazat´ kukish—give the fig; a contemptibly worthless trifle; the Webster Dictionary has the locution: “not worth a fig”). So this darkens the past of Bulgarin’s wife, of whom the gentleman Pushkin makes no overt mention, nonetheless emphasizing the Pole’s non-Russianness and dubious lifestyle.

     So Pushkin begins with apparent self-deprecating amused objectivity (but seething inwardly), as he relates by negation (the form recalling the Russian epic songs—bylinas) what his aristocratic Pushkin ancestors were not. By employing the archaic pronoun onyi to modify the charter install­ing the Romanov tsar in octet 5, he brings to light a nearly obliterated fact. Yet already unobtrusively the poet mentions in octet 4 the Pushkins’ valorous achievements that pre-date and parallel those of the Gannibals, and then in the “Post scriptum”[21] the poet exacts potent revenge through irrefutable facts and sublime pride. To this end, he effectively resorts to anaphoric use of the lofty archaic pronoun “sei” in lines 5 and 9 of the “Post scriptum,” each of which open a quatrain to highlight his African progenitor’s unparalleled service to Russia and proximity to the exalted Peter. Further powerful positive contrast to the two anaphoras is engen­dered in the negation in line 16: “A confidant to the tsar, but not a slave” (in contrast to Bulgarin’s total subjugation to Nicholas I). And by enum­erating the martial victories at Navarin of Gannibal’s son, the poet raises those deserved accomplishments to a level of lofty military respect even after Peter, at a time when the Pushkins had fallen out of favor, but this mitigating comparison is not articulated. It is at this high point of accom­plishment, never achieved by any ethnic Russians, that the poet takes his revenge through contrast in the concluding quatrain by laughing all the way through his elaboration, even as his deserved pride in his ancestors wells up to present the fact in defense of Gannibal. Pushkin’s laughter wells up and mounts to turn Homeric (of epic proportions, gargantuan) at the end as he seems to be gasping for breath, while choked with laughter, as indicated by the repetition of he that sounds like laughter in English and may at first seem better than the Russian pronoun on. However, he opens the speaker’s or reader’s passageway, whereas the Russian on closes the passageway each time to physically imitate choking with laughter, heightened by the pauses after each of the two identical pronouns in succession (repetition) that convey difficulty continuing in the concluding lines (recall the contrast in “byvalo” earlier when he wisely refrained from desired nostalgic elaboration—now he speaks his mind and punctuates it with unnamed laughter). The eruption of Homeric laughter both masks and conveys the poet’s emotional and cultural outrage.

     Accordingly, three overarching threads structure contrast to reach a certain cohesion in this poem:

1.  My once powerful ancient Pushkin ancestors, now in decline, versus others of the undeserving new nobility (especially some of those established after Peter—unlike Gannibal).

2.  That implied new nobility elevated by dubious means, mostly after Peter, versus some of the new nobility elevated by Peter through richly deserved service and talent—i.e., Gannibal and sons.

3.  The powerful scribblers (note how he deflates them by using this demeaning word) of the anti-Pushkin lampoon versus the poetic speaker as bourgeois, specifically the speaker as respect­able bourgeois versus Bulgarin on the red-light district street “Meshchanskaia.”[22]

     Thus, Pushkin has through vocabulary and literary and rhetorical de­vices, such as contrast and negative comparison, effectively turned the tables on the unnamed Bulgarin through convincing and documented (he has the stacks of documents to prove everything) refutation in verse of false accusations that are trumped by cleansing Homeric laughter that his readers will join in unless they are its butt. Whereas the poet’s Pushkin and Gannibal ancestors fought as leaders in major battles for Russia (co­hesion), Bulgarin—Figliarin sits at home in a place of dubious reputation(contrast). Through these unarticulated parallels between the patriotic ancient Pushkins and the valorous Gannibals, the poet shows the latter rising to the level of the former. Pushkin has also placed his ancient Push­kin progenitors on a par with the Romanovs, if not higher, seeing that four Pushkins “made” (or created) the first Romanov tsar. When Peter, who hanged a Pushkin ancestor,[23] elevates Gannibal to prominent Russian nobility, the emperor would seem to be merely recompensing the ancient Pushkins for the hanged man; since he has unwittingly made amends, Pushkin is able to come to terms with and even to forgive him in part. Pushkin, the poet and man, has come full circle in his understanding of and relation to Peter and power and state, as well as his own portrayal and defense of his ancestry, particularly his African progenitor. None­theless the dichotomy still remains in force, albeit now muted. Peter I’s hanging of an aristocrat likens him to Nicholas I and the hanging of the five aristocratic Decembrist leaders. Contrast remains in Pushkin and for Pushkin, but a resolution of sorts, where dichotomy is concerned, occurs within the poet himself.


Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University


Download: Ketchian, Sonia I. "Pushkin's Aestheticized Defense of His African Heritage in His Poem 'My Genealogy'." Pushkin Review 12-13 (2009-10): 105-16.

[1] “Ia proshloe v dome moem beregu, / Nad proshlym taino kolduiu” (“Prishli i skazali…”). Anna Akhmatova, Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, comp. V. M. Zhirmunskii (Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel´, 1979), 270–71.

[2] David M. Bethea, ed., Puškin Today (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993), 121–35. Republished with minor changes in Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness, ed. Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, Nicole Svobodny, and Ludmilla Trigos  (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 79-98; 81, 89—90. In this essay I quote from the article in Under the Sky of My Africa. See also David M. Bethea, “How Black was Pushkin?: Otherness and Self-Creation,” Under the Sky of My Africa, 136. For recent discoveries on Ganni­bal see Dieudonné Gnammankou, Abraham Hanibal: L’aieul noir de Pouchkine (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1996).

[3] Richard F. Gustafson, “Ruslan and Liudmila: Pushkin’s Anxiety of Blackness,” Under the Sky of My Africa, 99–100. David M. Bethea, “How Black Was Pushkin?” 134–35.

[4] Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, “The Telltale Black Baby, or Why Pushkin Began The Blackamoor of Peter the Great but Didn’t Finish It,” Under the Sky of My Africa, 167.

[5] Shaw, “Pushkin on His African Heritage,” 93.

[6] Following Sam Driver, I use the term “aristocrats” for the pre-Petrine ancient boyars and the term “nobles” for the newer privileged class first created in the reign of Peter I. See Sam Driver, Puškin: Literature and Social Ideas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 4, 10–15. Pushkin called the older boyars dvor­iane, and the new ones aristokratiia. B. P. Gorodetskii, Lirika Pushkina (Moscow-Leningrad: AN SSSR, 1962), 336 n. 149.

[7] Shaw, “Pushkin on His African Heritage,” 89.

[8] Here not being specific is further degrading, as is dwelling on the word and dismissively declaring not recalling it.—S. K.

[9]Severnaia pchela, no. 104, 1830. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from Russian are my own. The source for the “bottle of rum” story was S. S. Uvarov, Minister of Enlightenment, as told at the home of A. N. Olenin in the presence of Bulgarin. See Gorodetskii, Lirika Pushkina, 340.

[10] Ariadna Tyrkova-Vil´iams, Zhizn´ Pushkina, vol. 2, 1824—1837, 2nd ed., corr. (Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1999), 394.

[11] The well-known story goes that young Gannibal was presented as a gift from the Russian ambassador in Constantinople to Peter I.

[12] David Bethea and Sergei Davydov, “Pushkin’s Life,” in The Cambridge Com­panion to Pushkin, ed. Andrew Kahn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 11.

[13] Driver, Puškin, 22.

[14] Pushkin, PSS,3: 513–14. Michael Wachtel’s translation in his work in progress is: “I am ignoble and very ignoble / I am ignoble, ignoble, ignoble.”

[15] Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Ludmilla A. Trigos, “Introduction: Was Pushkin Black and Does It Matter?” in Nepomnyashchy and Trigos, eds., Under the Sky of My Africa, 5.

[16] Shaw, “Pushkin on His African Heritage,” 130–31.

[17] Pushkin intimates a well-known unsavory past for the man’s wife and his own dubious reputation. Following earlier attacks, Pushkin had already made clear in his epigram “Ne to beda, chto ty poliak” (“The problem is not that you are a Pole,” 1830) that the Pole Figliarin was Bulgarin. See Pushkin, PSS 3: 167, 507—508.

[18] K. F. Ryleev, Sochineniia, comp. S. A. Fomichev (Leningrad: Khudozhestven­naia literatura, 1987), 371.

[19] Charles E. Townsend, Russian Word Formation (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 179.

[20] In English fig stems from the Old French and modern French from Latin ficus—“fig tree”), but its third definition is “A small, valueless, or contemptible thing. A rare or obsolete meaning: An insulting gesture, in which the thumb is thrust be­tween two of the closed fingers or into the mouth” (Shorter Oxford English Diction­ary). The Oxford Dictionary notes hints of the obscene in fica.

[21] The Latin script of this locution underscores the Latin script of Polish.

[22] The street’s name, of course, has in Russian the same root as Pushkin professes for himself and a few other historical figures: Minikh and Prince Iakov Dolgoruky.

[23] Fedor Pushkin was hanged in 1697 by Peter I for complicity in a plot. For an aristocrat hanging was added degradation, just as it was for the five hanged Decembrist leaders in July 1826, all of whom Pushkin never stopped mourning.