Alexander Pushkin: A Historic Symposium at Harvard

Exploring the Dual Heritage of Russia’s Greatest Poet, Father of Modern Russian Literature and the Black Russians of the 20th Century (Cambridge, April 2008)

Introduction by

Lolita Paiewonsky


     April 2008 brought together scholars, researchers, teachers, artists, de­partmental executives, media professionals, students, residents, visitors, and Harvard alumni from numerous disciplines both within and without the academy, and within and beyond Harvard. They descended upon Cam­bridge to celebrate, present on, bask in, read from, learn more (or in some cases learn for the first time and be set on a future course to learn more) about Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837). Pushkin is Russia’s greatest poet, the father of modern Russian literature, and precursor to Black Russians of the twentieth century. Greetings were extended to our colleagues and visiting scholars each day by Harvard officers and dignitaries. The pro­ceedings were formally opened with welcome remarks by Walter C. Car­rington, 1952 AB, 1955 JD, former U.S. Ambassador and Plenipotentiary to Nigeria and to Senegal. The second day began with remarks on behalf of President Drew Faust by then Associate Vice President James S. Hoyte, Esquire, 1965 JD, 1968 JD, 1972 PMD.


PR12-13 02 PushkinBlackness color     The theme verse might have been the obvious:

Придет ли час моей свободы?
Пора, пора! – взываю к ней;
И средь полуденный зыбей,
Под небом Африки моей […]

When comes my moment to untether?
“It’s time!” and freedom hears my hail.
There, beneath your noonday sky,
My Africa, where waves break high […][1]
(Eugene Onegin, I.1)

     The presenters began arriving on Wednesday, 2 April 2008, from as nearby as Amherst, Massachusetts, and as far away as Sierra Leone, West Africa, and Paris, France.

     Pushkinists, scholars, and conferees represented fourteen universities and seventeen Harvard University departments, faculties, institutes, and the Office of the President and Provost.

     Symposium partners and co-sponsors included eight Harvard Univer­sity departments and faculties: The DuBois Institute for African and Afri­can American Research, founded and directed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, was the lead funder, joined by the Departments of African and African American Studies; Slavic Lan­guages and Literatures; Music; the Davis Center for Russian and Eura­sian Studies; the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at the Law School, a major partner and fiscal administrator founded and directed by Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Jesse Climenko Professor of Law; the Humanities Center; and the Office of the Provost for the Arts.

     The conference was divided into four sessions over two full days, Fri­day and Saturday, 4–5 April 2008, with post-conference proceedings on Sunday morning, 6 April. On Wednesday, 3 April, a welcome reception was held at the Barker Center, hosted by the Department of African and African American Studies professor and conference lead faculty F. Abiola Irele. Saturday evening’s social was a catered dinner of Russian and Chadian (African) cuisines.

     The Symposium theme was explored in four sessions:

I.    Pushkin’s Blackness
II.   Pushkin, Russian Literature, and Music
III. Pushkin and Black America
IV. A. Film Screening and Discussion: Black Russians (2001, Kara Lynch); B. Remembrance of Dr. Josephine Woll (1950–2008); C. The Returning of the Danilovsky Bells to Russia
Post-conference proceedings

The sessions were chaired, respectively, by Professor F. Abiola Irele, Har­vard University, the Departments of African and African American Stud­ies, and Romance Languages and Literatures; Professor Julie Buckler, Acting Chair, Harvard University, the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Dr. Sonia I. Ketchian, Harvard University, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies; Professor Allison Blakely, Boston University and Harvard University W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow (Spring 2008); and Professor William Mills Todd, III, Harvard University, Depart­ments of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Comparative Literature; and Dr. Harold Weaver, The Harvard China Film/Black Film Project. Ad­visers: Allison Blakely, Boston University, and Harvard University W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow (Spring 2008); Richard Sobel, Northwestern University, and Harvard University fellow.

     The following papers were presented:

Session I: Pushkin’s Blackness

1.   Diedonné Gnammankou (Paris—Independent Scholar), “Abra­ham Petrovitch Hanibal: Deconstruction of the Hamitic Theory and Its Consequences”

This paper explored the meanings of various translations of the title Arap Petra Velikogo (Blackamoor of Peter the Great), issues surrounding Pushkin’s African ancestor, his birthplace, and such controversial biographical facts as the “mysterious inscription FUMMO on his coat of arms.”

2.   Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy (Columbia University), “Pushkin as a Poet of Blackness”


Session II: Pushkin, Russian Literature, and Music

3.   F. Abiola Irele (Harvard University), “A Note on Pushkin’s Problematic Hero: A Reading of ‘The Queen of Spades’”

4.   Sonia Ketchian (Harvard University), “Pushkin’s Aestheticized Defense of His African Heritage in His Poem ‘My Genealogy’”

5.   Isa Espadon Blyden (Sierra Leone—Independent Scholar), “The Functions of the African Narrator in Yevgenii Onégin, a Novel in Verse by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin: A Semiotic Reading”

6.   Anna Anatolievna Zayaruznaya (Harvard University), “Shos­takovich Setting Pushkin in the Pushkin Year”

7.   Caryl Emerson (Princeton University), “Arthur Vincent Lourié’s Opera on Pushkin’s Black Great-Grandfather: Three Hypotheses on Black Doubles, a Decadent Don Juan, and the Death of Melody”

8.   Klára Móricz (Amherst College), “Arthur Vincent Lourié’s Opera on Pushkin’s Black Great-Grandfather: Decadent Trun­cation. Liberated Eros in Artur Vincent Lourié’s The Blacka­moor of Peter the Great


Session III: Pushkin and Black America

9.   Caryl Emerson (Princeton University), “Princeton’s Premiere of the Pushkin-Mayerhold-Prokofiev Boris Godunov (2007): The View from the Black Cast”

10.  Joy G. Carew (University of Louisville), “Pushkin, the African Diaspora, and Black Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise”

11.  Kate Baldwin (Northwestern University), “About What?: Yelena Khanga and Ambivalence of Black/Red Encounters in the 1990s”


Session IV incorporated “Remembrance of Dr. Josephine Woll (1950–2008),” Professor of Russian and German literature and film, Howard University, Washington, DC (1977–2008), who was scheduled to chair and present on the film Black Russians. Elegiac remarks were offered by Professors Caryl Emerson and Allison Blakely. Emerson was both colleague and friend of Dr. Woll, and Blakely served with her on the Howard faculty for decades.

     The concluding presentation was “The Returning of the Danilov­sky Bells” to St. Danilov Monastery, Moscow, after 78 years at Harvard’s Lowell House by Professor Diana Eck, House Master.

     The post-conference proceedings included viewing of The Danil­ovsky Bells at the Lowell House belfry and an opportunity not only to hear them before their restoration to St. Danilov, but also to ring them under the guidance of the trained Lowell House bellmeisters.


     The Pushkin Symposium Organizing Committee was comprised of the following persons, some of whom are also named above in other capacities: Professor F. Abiola Irele, Lead Faculty; Professor William Mills Todd, III; Dr. Sonia I. Ketchian; and Lolita Paiewonsky, J.D.; EdM, Harvard Univer­sity, who also conceived the project and served as Project Coordinator. The Fiscal Administrator was Dr. David J. Harris, Ph.D., Managing Director, The Harvard Law School Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.

     The Project Advisers were Professor Allison Blakely, Boston Univer­sity, and Harvard University W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow (Spring 2008); Dr. Richard Sobel, Northwestern University, and Harvard University fellow.


Harvard University


Download: Paiewonsky, Lolita. "Introduction to the Harvard Symposioum on 'Pushkin and Blackness'." Pushkin Review 12-13 (2009-10): 65-69.

[1] Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, rev. ed., trans. Sir Charles Johnston, with an introduction by Michael Basker and a preface by John Bayley (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1979).