Adapted from J. Thomas Shaw's biographical sketch in The Letters of Alexander Pushkin, Volume 1
Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin was born in Moscow on May 26, 1799 (Old Style). In 1811 he was selected to be among the thirty students in the first class at the Lyceum in Tsarskoe Selo . He attended the Lyceum from 1811 to 1817 and received the best education available in Russia at the time. He soon not only became the unofficial laureate of the Lyceum, but found a wider audience and recognition. He was first published in the journal The Messenger of Europe in 1814. In 1815 his poem "Recollections in Tsarskoe Selo" met the approval of Derzhavin, a great eighteenth-century poet, at a public examination in the Lyceum.
After graduating from the Lyceum, he was given a sinecure in
the Collegium of Foreign Affairs in Petersburg. The next three years he
spent mainly in carefree, light-hearted pursuit of pleasure. He was
warmly received in literary circles; in circles of Guard-style lovers of
wine, women, and song; and in groups where political liberals debated
reforms and constitutions. Between 1817 and 1820 he reflected liberal
views in "revolutionary" poems, his ode "Freedom," "The Village," and a
number of poems on Aleksandr I and his minister Arakcheev. At the same
time he was working on his first large-scale work, Ruslan and Liudmila.
In April 1820, his political poems led to an interrogation by
the Petersburg governor-general and then to exile to South Russia, under
the guise of an administrative transfer in the service. Pushkin left
Petersburg for Ekaterinoslave on May 6, 1820. Soon after his arrival
there he traveled around the Caucasus and the Crimea with the family of
General Raevsky. During almost three years in Kishinev, Pushkin wrote
his first Byronic verse tales, "The Prisoner of the Caucasus"
(1820-1821), "The Bandit Brothers (1821-1822), and "The Fountain of
Bakhchisaray" (1821-1823). He also wrote "Gavriiliada" (1821), a light
approach to the Annunciation, and he started his novel in verse, Eugene
With the aid of influential friends, he was transferred in July
1823 to Odessa, where he engaged in theatre going, social outings, and
love affairs with two married women. His literary creativeness also
continued, as he completed "The Fountain of Bakhchisaray" and the first
chapter of Eugene Onegin, and began "The Gypsies." After postal
officials intercepted a letter in which he wrote a thinly-veiled support
of atheism, Pushkin was exiled to his mother's estate of Mikhaylovskoe
in north Russia.
The next two years, from August 1824 to August 1826 he spent at
Mikhaylovskoe in exile and under surveillance. However unpleasant
Pushkin my have found his virtual imprisonment in the village, he
continued his literary productiveness there. During 1824 and 1825 at
Mikhaylovskoe he finished "The Gypsies," wrote Boris Godunov , "Graf
Nulin" and the second chapter of Eugene Onegin.
When the Decembrist Uprising took place in Petersburg on
December 14, 1825, Pushkin, still in Makhaylovskoe, was not a
participant. But he soon learned that he was implicated, for all the
Decembrists had copies of his early political poems. He destroyed his
papers that might be dangerous for himself or others. In late spring of
1826, he sent the Tsar a petition that he be released from exile. After
an investigation that showed Pushkin had been behaving himself, he was
summoned to leave immediately for an audience with Nicholas I. On
September 8, still grimy from the road, he was taken in to see Nicholas.
At the end of the interview, Pushkin was jubilant that he was now
released from exile and that Nicholas I had undertaken to be the
personal censor of his works.
Pushkin thought that he would be free to travel as he wished,
that he could freely participate in the publication of journals, and
that he would be totally free of censorship, except in cases which he
himself might consider questionable and wish to refer to his royal
censor. He soon found out otherwise. Count Benkendorf, Chief of
Gendarmes, let Pushkin know that without advance permission he was not
to make any trip, participate in any journal, or publish -- or even read
in literary circles -- any work. He gradually discovered that he had to
account for every word and action, like a naughty child or a parolee.
Several times he was questioned by the police about poems he had
The youthful Pushkin had been a light-hearted scoffer at the
state of matrimony, but freed from exile, he spent the years from 1826
to his marriage in 1831 largely in search of a wife and in preparing to
settle down. He sought no less than the most beautiful woman in Russia
for his bride. In 1829 he found her in Natalia Goncharova, and presented
a formal proposal in April of that year. She finally agreed to marry
him on the condition that his ambiguous situation with the government be
clarified, which it was. As a kind of wedding present, Pushkin was
given permission to publish Boris Godunov -- after four years of waiting
for authorization -- under his "own responsibility." He was formally
betrothed on May 6, 1830.
Financial arrangements in connection with his father's wedding
gift to him of half the estate of Kistenevo necessitated a visit to the
neighboring estate of Boldino, in east-central Russia. When Pushkin
arrived there in September 1830, he expected to remain only a few days;
however, for three whole months he was held in quarantine by an epidemic
of Asiatic cholera. These three months in Boldino turned out to be
literarily the most productive of his life. During the last months of
his exile at Mikhaylovskoe, he had completed Chapters V and VI of Eugene
Onegin, but in the four subsequent years he had written, of major
works, only "Poltava"(1828), his unfinished novel The Blackamoor of
Peter the Great (1827) and Chapter VII of Eugene Onegin (1827-1828).
During the autumn at Boldino, Pushkin wrote the five short stories of
The Tales of Belkin; the verse tale "The Little House in Kolomna;" his
little tragedies, "The Avaricious Knight," "Mozart and Salieri;" "The
Stone Guest;" and "Feast in the Time of the Plague;" "The Tale of the
Priest and His Workman Balda," the first of his fairy tales in verse;
the last chapter of Eugene Onegin; and "The Devils," among other lyrics.
Pushkin was married to Natalia Goncharova on February 18, 1831,
in Moscow. In May, after a honeymoon made disagreeable by "Moscow
aunties" and in-laws, the Pushkins moved to Tsarskoe Selo, in order to
live near the capital, but inexpensively and in "inspirational solitude
and in the circle of sweet recollections." These expectations were
defeated when the cholera epidemic in Petersburg caused the Tsar and the
court to take refuge in July in Tsarskoe Selo. In October 1831 the
Pushkins moved to an apartment in Petersburg, where they lived for the
remainder of his life. He and his wife became henceforth inextricably
involved with favors from the Tsar and with court society. Mme.
Pushkina's beauty immediately made a sensation in society, and her
admirers included the Tsar himself. On December 30, 1833, Nicholas I
made Pushkin a Kammerjunker, an intermediate court rank usually granted
at the time to youths of high aristocratic families. Pushkin was deeply
offended, all the more because he was convinced that it was conferred,
not for any quality of his own, but only to make it proper for the
beautiful Mme. Pushkina to attend court balls. Dancing at one of these
balls was followed in March 1834 by her having a miscarriage. While she
was convalescing in the provinces, Pushkin spoke openly in letters to
her of his indignation and humiliation. The letters were intercepted and
sent to the police and to the Tsar. When Pushkin discovered this, in
fury he submitted his resignation from the service on June 25, 1834.
However, he had reason to fear the worst from the Tsar's displeasure at
this action, and he felt obliged to retract his resignation.
Pushkin could ill afford the expense of gowns for Mme. Pushkina
for court balls or the time required for performing court duties. His
woes further increased when her two unmarried sisters came in autumn
1834 to live henceforth with them. In addition, in the spring of 1834 he
had taken over the management of his improvident father's estate and
had undertaken to settle the debts of his heedless brother. The result
was endless cares, annoyances, and even outlays from his own pocket. He
came to be in such financial straits that he applied for a leave of
absence to retire to the country for three or four years, or if that
were refused, for a substantial sum as loan to cover his most pressing
debts and for the permission to publish a journal. The leave of absence
was brusquely refused, but a loan of thirty thousand rubles was, after
some trouble, negotiated; permission to publish, beginning in 1836, a
quarterly literary journal, The Contemporary, was finally granted as
well. The journal was not a financial success, and it involved him in
endless editorial and financial cares and in difficulties with the
censors, for it gave importantly placed enemies among them the
opportunity to pay him off. Short visits to the country in 1834 and 1835
resulted in the completion of only one major work, "The Tale of the
Golden Cockerel"(1834), and during 1836 he only completed his novel on
Pugachev, The Captain's Daughter, and a number of his finest lyrics.
Meanwhile, Mme. Pushkina loved the attention which her beauty
attracted in the highest society; she was fond of "coquetting" and of
being surrounded by admirers, who included the Tsar himself. In 1834
Mme. Pushkina met a young man who was not content with coquetry, a
handsome French royalist emigre in Russian service, who was adopted by
the Dutch ambassador, Heeckeren. Young d'Anthes-Heeckeren pursued Mme.
Pushkina for two years, and finally so openly and unabashedly that by
autumn 1836, it was becoming a scandal. On November 4, 1836 Pushkin
received several copies of a "certificate" nominating him "Coadjutor of
the International Order of Cuckolds." Pushkin immediately challenged
d'Anthes; at the same time, he made desperate efforts to settle his
indebtedness to the Treasury. Pushkin twice allowed postponements of the
duel, and then retracted the challenge when he learned "from public
rumour" that d'Anthes was "really" in love with Mme. Pushkina's sister,
Ekaterina Goncharova. On January 10, 1837, the marriage took place,
contrary to Pushkin's expectations. Pushkin refused to attend the
wedding or to receive the couple in his home, but in society d'Anthes
pursued Mme. Pushkina even more openly. Then d'Anthes arranged a meeting
with her, by persuading her friend Idalia Poletika to invite Mme.
Pushkina for a visit; Mme. Poletika left the two alone, but one of her
children came in, and Mme. Pushkina managed to get away. Upon hearing of
this meeting, Pushkin sent an insulting letter to old Heeckeren,
accusing him of being the author of the "certificate" of November 4 and
the "pander" of his "bastard." A duel with d'Anthes took place on
January 27, 1837. D'Anthes fired first, and Pushkin was mortally
wounded; after he fell, he summoned the strength to fire his shot and to
wound, slightly, his adversary. Pushkin died two days later, on January
As Pushkin lay dying, and after his death, except for a few friends, court society sympathized with d'Anthes, but thousands of people of all other social levels came to Pushkin's apartment to express sympathy and to mourn. The government obviously feared a political demonstration. To prevent public display, the funeral was shifted from St. Isaac's Cathedral to the small Royal Stables Church, with admission by ticket only to members of the court and diplomatic society. And then his body was sent away, in secret and at midnight. He was buried beside his mother at dawn on February 6, 1837 at Svyatye Gory Monastery, near Mikhaylovskoe.
A little bird
As freedom's sower in the wasteland...
Deep in Siberia's mines, let naught...
I have endured my desire...
I loved you and this love by chance...
In a Beauty's Album
On hills of Georgia lies the covering of night...
Rose-maiden, no, I do not quarrel...
Should this life sometime deceive you...
The Old Man
The Tenth Commandment
The Upas Tree
To My Nanny
To the Sea
Verses composed during a night of insomnia...
Wandering the noisy streets...
What means my name to you?..
When in the heat...