Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
1837Russia's Quiet Revolution$

Paul W. Werth

Print publication date: 2021

Print ISBN-13: 9780198826354

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2021

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198826354.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 20 January 2022

He Fell, Slandered by Rumour

He Fell, Slandered by Rumour

(p.9) 1 He Fell, Slandered by Rumour

Paul W. Werth

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Recounting the famous duel in January 1837 that killed Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, this chapter identifies this episode as one of the most important events of 1837 and indeed in Russia’s history. In light of censorship and official prohibitions on duelling, the precise circumstances of Pushkin’s death remained a mystery in public discourse for decades. Questions remain even today. But his demise in a duel punctuated with romantic intrigue proved central to his cult, which in turn became a critical resource for defining modern Russia and uniting its population in the late empire and the USSR. The episode helped to produce a cultural mythology that eventually made the poet Russia’s ‘everything’.

Keywords:   Alexander Pushkin, duel, Georges d’Anthès, Nicholas I, mythology, canonization, narodnost, Natalia Pushkina

Let us imagine that it is February 1937 and that we are in the USSR. Our senses are assaulted. On the one hand, we are confronted by Stalin’s Great Terror, in which hundreds of thousands are arrested for fantastical crimes and dramatic show trials provide dubious edification. At the very same time, however, we witness an elaborate celebration. Its organizers declare its object, Alexander Pushkin, to be ‘the great Russian poet, creator of the Russian literary language, and founder of the new Russian literature, who enriched mankind with his immortal creations in artistic language’.1 The poet’s works are published in millions of copies. Gala performances occur throughout the Union. Pushkin is everywhere: printed on posters, painted on lacquer boxes, woven into shawls and rugs.2 This remarkable, all-encompassing commemoration can occur precisely now only because Pushkin managed to get himself killed in a duel exactly one century earlier.

The duel, precipitated by the romantic attentions of another man towards Pushkin’s wife, Natalia, occurred on the outskirts of Petersburg on 27 January 1837. The mortally wounded poet was returned to his home, the famous Moika 12, where he expired after two days of agony, still only 37 years old. The next day the newspaper Northern Bee carried a brief announcement of his death expressing its ‘deepest sorrows’ and declaring, ‘Russia owes a debt of thanks to Pushkin for his contributions of 22 years to the world of Letters, a series of the most brilliant and most beneficial successes through compositions of various kinds’.3 In light of censorship and official prohibitions on duelling, the precise circumstances of Pushkin’s death remained a mystery in public discourse for decades. Questions remain even today. Pushkin was of course already famous in Russia in 1837 for his exceptional literary talent. He presumably would have been venerated in some form even had he lived longer. But as it was, the manner of his death proved central to his cult, which in turn became a critical resource for defining modern Russia and uniting its population in the late empire and the USSR. ‘No story has offered the promise of greater national coherence than has Pushkin’s,’ writes Stephanie Sandler,4 and his death helped to produce a cultural mythology that eventually made the poet Russia’s ‘everything’. No history of Russia in 1837 is possible without an account of this episode.

(p.10) Frenchman Went A-Courtin’

Broadly regarded as the father of the modern Russian language, Alexander Pushkin was born in 1799. He was at once of ancient Russian noble lineage and African descent—his great-grandfather, possibly from Abyssinia, had served under the Peter the Great—and he took pride in both. He was in the first class of the famed Lyceum at Tsarskoe Selo beginning in 1811, and with the completion of his romantic epic Ruslan and Liudmila in 1820, Pushkin was already earning laud. Exiled that same year for freethinking epigrams, Pushkin spent three years in Russia’s south—the Caucasus, Crimea, and Bessarabia—which provided material for his Captive of the Caucasus, Fountain of Bakhchisarai, and The Gypsies. By 1824 Pushkin occupied a unique position in Russian letters, with Vasilii Zhukovskii, an older poet (and a central protagonist in the chapters to follow), declaring in November: ‘By the power vested in me I offer you the foremost place on Russia’s Parnassus’. His freethinking having once again gotten him into trouble in 1824, Pushkin was restricted to his mother’s estate, Mikhailovskoe (Pskov province). This seclusion allowed for much productivity and also kept Pushkin at a safe distance from the Decembrist insurrection in 1825, though his personal ties to many of the rebels engendered suspicions about his political sympathies. In 1826, the new emperor summoned the young poet to Petersburg, pardoned him, and became his personal censor. After the completion of his masterful ‘novel in verse’, Eugene Onegin, and as he was finishing his narrative poem, The Bronze Horseman, Pushkin ventured into prose, producing among other works ‘The Queen of Spades’ and The Captain’s Daughter. In his last years, he took growing interest in Peter the Great and also founded a journal called The Contemporary. By meeting the demand for a modern literature in Russian; by completing an epic credited with expressing the spirit of the people in literary form, and by exploiting both old practices like imperial patronage and newer ones involving markets and publics, by the 1830s Pushkin had claimed his place at the head of Russian letters.5

At the centre of the drama leading to the poet’s duel stood his wife, Natalia, whom Pushkin wed in 1831. Just 18 years old at the time of her marriage, Natalia distinguished herself by her exceptional beauty. Dolly Ficquelmont, the Russian wife of the Austrian ambassador, wrote of her in 1832, ‘One could hardly picture a more beautiful woman’—someone who merited lengthy contemplation ‘as a perfect work of the Creator!’ Pushkin himself wrote to Natalia in 1833 from his estate in Nizhnii Novgorod province, ‘The glory of your beauty has reached the priest’s wife here, who certifies that you are ideal in your figure as well as your face’. Admitting that he had fallen senselessly in love with Natalia the first time he saw her, a young contemporary recounted, ‘At the time there was essentially not a single young man in Petersburg who did not secretly pine for Pushkina’. In 1834 the emperor designated Pushkin a (p.11) ‘gentleman of the chamber’ (an honor the poet resented) supposedly so that he could invite the pair—and above all her—to court balls.6

He Fell, Slandered by Rumour

Figure 1.1. Alexander Julius Klünder, Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin. Lithograph, February 1837. Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo.

Among Natalia’s many admirers was a certain Frenchman in Russian service, Georges d’Anthès, the adopted son of Baron Louis van Heeckeren, a Dutch diplomat accredited to Petersburg.7 By early 1836 Natalia had turned the young Frenchman’s head, and eventually society began to notice his efforts to court her at the balls and salons of Petersburg’s winter season. ‘Forgetting all delicacy and violating society’s sense of propriety’, recounted Madame Ficquelmont, d’Anthès (p.12) began to show Natalia ‘signs of admiration completely inadmissible in relation to a married woman’.8 Nor could Pushkin himself fail to notice, and he increasingly regarded d’Anthès’s impunity as a challenge to both his own honour and that of his wife. In October, Natalia rejected d’Anthès decisively in order to preserve her reputation, and at one point d’Anthès threatened, in Natalia’s presence, to kill himself if she refused to give herself to him. By November 1836, the situation was rife with passion and intrigue.

At this moment, on 4 November, Pushkin received an anonymous mock certificate proclaiming his election to an ‘Order of Cuckolds’. In light of what Natalia had by then related, Pushkin immediately suspected d’Anthès and Heeckeren of this despicable stunt, and he accordingly challenged the former to a duel. The two foreigners understood that such a contest would ruin their careers in Russia, and for their part Pushkin’s friends, as they became aware of the situation, made strenuous efforts to effectuate reconciliation (Zhukovskii in particular). The task was devilishly difficult. Pushkin was adamant about protecting his and his wife’s honour, while d’Anthès was open only to a resolution that would not make him look like a coward. (‘Never in my life have I racked my brains like that’, wrote one participant in the effort to resolve the affair.9) A solution—secured only after false starts and extensive negotiation—was for d’Anthès to propose marriage to Natalia’s older sister, Yekaterina, thereby creating the impression that she had been the true object of his affection all along. Yet even this scheme did not put the matter to rest. When the marriage was announced, some in Petersburg society concluded that the Frenchman’s proposal represented a noble act of self-sacrifice designed to save Natalia’s reputation. Other complications threatened to renew the averted duel. Though the precise circumstances remain unclear, it appears that Zhukovskii, otherwise sworn to secrecy on the matter of the duel but lacking any other way of preventing it, appealed for intercession directly to the emperor, who met with Pushkin on 23 November. The emperor apparently managed to assuage the poet’s concerns, and, if we may believe the well-informed Yekaterina Karamzina, Pushkin ‘promised the sovereign, after the history with the first duel, not to fight for any reason’.10 It looked as though the contest had been averted.

Alas, it had only been postponed. Pushkin was by no means reconciled with d’Anthès even after the Frenchman married Natalia’s sister on 10 January 1837. He refused to treat the newly-weds as part of his own family, but still encountered them frequently in social settings. Nor did it help that Natalia was visibly jealous of her sister—d’Anthès was after all a dashing fellow much closer to Natalia’s age than was Pushkin. d’Anthès’s advances continued and tongues again started wagging. As Sophia Karamzina wrote, in Pushkin’s presence Natalia ‘pretends that she is not on speaking terms with d’Anthès and does not even look at him, but when her husband is absent she takes up her previous coquetry with downcast eyes and nervous embarrassment in conversation, while he, standing across from her, directs lengthy glances at her and, it seems, forgets completely about his bride’. (p.13) Another attempt at reconciliation in mid-January failed, after which d’Anthès’s actions became even more impudent, fuelled in part, apparently, by his knowledge of Pushkin’s promise to the tsar not to duel. Between the two interpretations of d’Anthès’s marriage proposal—that it had been a cowardly way to avert the duel, and that it had been an act of self-sacrifice for Natalia’s sake—the latter was gaining the upper hand. This situation became intolerable for Pushkin, who declared that he needed his reputation to be ‘inviolable in every corner of Russia, where my name is known’.11 Few even among Pushkin’s closest circle appear to have fully understood what was occurring and what it meant to the poet. The emperor might have intervened to restrain d’Anthès or to end all the gossip, but instead he chose to admonish Natalia to take more care in protecting her reputation.

For Pushkin, this intervention by the tsar was likely the last straw. On 25 January, his earlier promise notwithstanding, he resolved to renew the duel by sending an offensive letter to Heeckeren, in which he accused the adoptive father of instigating all of the son’s ‘wretchedness’ and ‘foolishness’. ‘Like a lewd old woman’, Pushkin averred, ‘you waylaid my wife in every corner, to speak to her about your illegitimate or so-called son’. He demanded that Heeckeren put an end ‘to all these escapades’.12 By directly offending the Dutchman, Pushkin made a proponent of the duel someone who would otherwise have sought to thwart it (again). And by maintaining fuller secrecy this time, he prevented his friends’ intervention (Zhukovskii apparently knew nothing). Once Heeckeren had shared news of the letter with d’Anthès, the latter challenged Pushkin. There was nothing now to prevent the contest from occurring.13

The Duel

The duel took place on 27 January on the outskirts of the capital (a monument by a railway overpass marks the spot today). It was clear, windy, and cold that day, and the location, selected for its seclusion, was initially knee-deep in snow. The rules worked out by the combatants’ seconds called for the following: the opponents were to stand twenty steps apart, with barriers five steps in front of each and ten steps between them. On a signal, each of the two was to begin walking toward the other and to fire whenever it suited, though without crossing the barrier and without retreating after his shot. The exercise would repeat itself by the same rules until a result was secured.14 Though Pushkin reached the barrier first, d’Anthès took the first shot and wounded his opponent fatally: the bullet passed through Pushkin’s entire body, near the bottom of the right side of his belly, and stopped under the skin on the other side. Not yet dead, the poet propped himself up on his left arm and managed to fire his own shot and injure his opponent, though not seriously. As d’Anthès’s second reported, Pushkin’s wound ‘was too serious to (p.14) continue’. Having fallen again after taking his shot, the poet ‘half fainted twice and for several moments was in a daze. He regained consciousness completely and did not lose it again. In the sledge, being jolted during the half-mile trip on a very bad road, he suffered without complaint’.15 On the longer trip home from a transfer point to his apartment, the carriage had to stop several times, as Pushkin frequently fainted. He was now sensing the seriousness of his wound.16

Deposited in his apartment at around 6 p.m., Pushkin had to suffer for almost two days before expiring around 2.45 p.m. on the 29th. In the accounts we have of those 45 hours, three central issues appear. One is Pushkin’s tremendous physical suffering and the stoicism with which he endured it. On the morning of the 28th, the family doctor Spasskii described his ideal as ‘genuine torture. Pushkin’s physiognomy altered; his gaze became wild, and it seemed as though his eyes were ready to leap from their sockets’.17 Pushkin’s friend Alexander Turgenev remarked of that same night that Pushkin ‘screamed frightfully; he nearly fell on the floor in convulsions of suffering’. Later that day Turgenev reported: ‘He is suffering, repeating the words, “My God, my God! What is this?” and clenches his fists in convulsions’. At one point Pushkin even sought to acquire a pistol so that he could end his ordeal by suicide. Yet even as the poet ‘experienced frightful torment’, Spasskii remarked, the ‘uncommon toughness of his soul revealed itself to the fullest’. Zhukovskii concurred: ‘On the whole, from the beginning to the end of his sufferings (aside from two or three hours the first night, when they surpassed every measure of human endurance) he was amazingly tough’. He cited one of Pushkin’s doctors, Arendt, as saying that he had been in thirty battles: ‘I have seen many people dying, but little comparable to this’.18

A second issue is the concern that Pushkin exhibited for his wife. Whatever Natalia’s actions leading up the duel (and views on the matter vary), Pushkin was apparently convinced of her innocence and determined to spare her shock. Even in the carriage ride home, he was already considering how not to alarm her, telling his second, Constantine Danzas, to assure her that his wound was light. When doctors told him that the matter was serious, he asked them not to inform her. He called her to his bed and told her: ‘Don’t worry, you’re not responsible for this’. As doctors attended to him, with Pushkin insisting that Natalia not be present during their inspection of his injury, she suffered terribly in the next room, especially once Pushkin let out a cry of pain. During the worst two hours of his suffering, Natalia had mercifully fallen into ‘a heavy, lethargic sleep…as if purposely sent from above’. Yet when he was encouraged to moan in order to ease the suffering, Pushkin replied, ‘No, I shouldn’t moan, my wife will hear it’. Summarizing, Yekaterina Meshcherskaia-Karamzina recounted that ‘amidst the most frightful physical suffering’, the poet ‘thought only of his wife and of what she would feel on account of him. During each intermission between bouts of tormenting pain, he called her and attempted to console her, repeating that he regarded her as innocent in his death and that he never, for one minute, deprived her of his trust (p.15) and love’.19 The dying man’s friend and fellow poet Peter Viazemskii reported a week after Pushkin’s death that the poet had imposed on his friends ‘the sacred obligation to protect his wife’s name from slander’.20

Finally, Pushkin sought to come to terms with his patron and censor, the emperor. Duelling was a hanging offence, and by 1837 Pushkin had contracted significant debts. The future of his wife and four children was now in doubt, and his second, Danzas, faced prosecution for his participation in the duel. Recall, moreover, that Pushkin had promised the tsar in November not to duel; now, fatally wounded, ‘he sent the good Zhukovskii to ask the sovereign’s forgiveness for having failed to keep his word’.21 When for his part a doctor told Pushkin that he had no choice but to inform the sovereign, the poet initially requested only that Nicholas not prosecute Danzas. Two hours later, the doctor returned with a hand-written note from the emperor encouraging Pushkin to ‘die as a Christian’ and agreeing to take his wife and children into his charge (the exact contents of the note remain unknown).22 Though he said nothing directly about Danzas, the emperor also expressed his desire to cover all of Pushkin’s debts. The tsar’s solicitude for Pushkin’s family after the poet’s death earned renown and praise in both Russia and abroad (which presumably was the intent).23

Although it appeared momentarily that Pushkin was on the mend, his wound eventually overcame him. Having requested cloudberries and having consumed them with satisfaction, he died.24 For two days the body remained in his apartment, during which time throngs came to pay respects. On the night of 30–31 January, instead of being transferred for a funeral service at St Isaac’s Cathedral (to whose parish Pushkin belonged), the body was transferred, secretly and without spectacle, to the church of the imperial stables. A requiem there occurred on 1 February with large numbers in attendance, despite official efforts to limit the crowd. ‘Anyone and everyone in St Petersburg who thinks or reads thronged to the church where the mass was being sung for the poet’, wrote the diarist (and censor) Alexander Nikitenko that day.25 Two days later the body travelled to Pskov province, again secretly, for internment, at the poet’s request, beside his mother at the Sviatogorskii monastery. Natalia requested that Danzas be allowed to accompany the body in transit, but the emperor refused: Danzas had participated in a duel, which was illegal, and was therefore subject to prosecution. Nicholas specified that Alexander Turgenev, who was not involved in the duel, could accompany the corpse. Nikitenko recorded that his wife, travelling to Petersburg, encountered the body at a depot outside the capital, where gendarmes were scurrying about, eager to get the carriage on its way, with the coffin under straw and wrapped in bast matting. A peasant there explained, ‘You see, some fellow by the name of Pushkin was killed, and they are speeding him away on this post chaise in matting and straw—may God forgive them!—like a dog’. Turgenev was one of a tiny (p.16) handful of people present at dawn on 6 February when, after a final liturgy, Pushkin’s casket was lowered into a shallow grave: the earth was frozen solid, and the coffin buried properly only after the spring thaw.26

He Fell, Slandered by Rumour

Figure 1.2. V. A. Zhukovskii, Pushkin in His Coffin, 30 January 1837. © The National Pushkin Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.

For all that we know about the duel, many questions about Pushkin’s death remain unanswered. We still do not know, for example, who sent the mock certificates to Pushkin in November. Natalia’s attitude in all of this is also a mystery—we have virtually no sources in her own voice. It seems possible that Pushkin actively sought death. In one reading, his spiritual development, discernible in his poems of 1835–6, brought him to a greater belief in, and acceptance of, Providence and his own early demise.27 But it is also true that he continued with literary activity right up until the duel, which implies that he sought redemption rather than death.28 So numerous are the unanswered questions that one interpretation proposes that the true object of Pushkin’s resentment was the emperor himself. In this reading, Nicholas, something of a womanizer, had paid court to Natalia and had secured his desires, leaving Pushkin with only the extreme outlet to which he resorted.29 This version of events helps to explain a number of the drama’s otherwise inexplicable features, but direct evidence for it is scarce. Assessing its viability is something that this author leaves to true Pushkinists, among whom he does not count himself.

(p.17) The Immediate Aftermath

In print, the reaction to Pushkin’s death was muted. As noted, Northern Bee reported the death the day after it had occurred, but it did so on the second page of the paper, with no headline and no explanation as to how or why the poet had died. A few other papers followed suit. That same day the literary supplement to Russian Invalid printed an obituary by Vladimir Odoevskii that declared, ‘The sun of our poetry has set’. The next day, St Petersburg News concurred: ‘Russian literature has not experienced such an important loss since the death of [Nikolai] Karamzin’ in 1826.30 Neither of these publications could refer to the duel, although it is worth noting—and this can scarcely be coincidental—that on 17 February Moscow News carried a story about a ‘Society Against Duels’ in the Belgian city of Liège, praising its members for their ‘moral restraint’.31 In its first issue of 1837, Pushkin’s own journal, The Contemporary, printed Zhukovskii’s letter to Pushkin’s father, which constituted the first published account of the poet’s death. But here as well, the story began from the moment that Pushkin was brought to his apartment, without any explanation for his dire condition. The real cause of Pushkin’s death was first openly mentioned—and then only in passing—with the publication in April of the verdict of d’Anthès calling for his ejection from the country.32 This is not to say that people were unaware of what had happened. In fact, there was an extensive epistolary production unfolding even as Pushkin lay dying, and its authors actively encouraged broad distribution of their accounts.33 Indeed, letters were so central to the manner in which Pushkin’s death was originally written that the story bears comparison to an epistolary novel.34 As a consequence, many people had a reasonably accurate understanding of what had transpired, including even detailed information on Pushkin’s bodily wounds and suffering.35

Those first weeks and months after January 1837 revealed a concerted effort by various parties to shape the meaning of Pushkin’s death, in part by plumbing the nature of his views while still alive. Lamenting that the ‘mystery’ surrounding the last stage of Pushkin’s life provided endless fuel for misconception, Viazemskii wrote on 14 February to the emperor’s brother, the Grand Duke Michael, that it was incumbent upon Pushkin’s friends ‘to expose all that they know on that account, and thereby to reveal his personality in its true light’. It was especially important for Viazemskii to establish Pushkin’s devotion to the emperor. Concerned that some were inclined to see in Pushkin (and his friends) opposition to the government and the order it upheld, he was sure to recount that Pushkin’s words on his deathbed ‘revealed the degree to which he was attached, devoted, and thankful to the sovereign’. The poet was fundamentally apolitical, not a ‘political activist’. ‘He was above all a poet, and only a poet.…He was deeply, truly devoted to the sovereign, he loved him with all his heart’. Perhaps Pushkin (p.18) had attacked the government in his youth (‘like any young person’), but by taste and conviction he was ‘not a liberal but an aristocrat’. He regretted the fall of France’s old regime, disliked that country’s July Monarchy (after the revolution in 1830), and wrote verse in direct opposition to the Polish insurrection of that same year. ‘Jokes, a certain independence of character and opinion—that is still not liberalism and not systematic opposition’. The best works of his later years—Boris Godunov, Poltava, and History of the Pugachev Rebellion—were all distinctly ‘monarchist’, Viazemskii insisted.36 Writing in the same vein and charged with going through Pushkin’s papers, Zhukovskii reported to the head of the Third Section, Alexander Benckendorff, that there turned out to be nothing hostile to the government and good morality, ‘of which I was certain beforehand, knowing Pushkin’s manner of thought in his last years’. Pushkin’s ‘credo’, wrote Zhukovskii, included ‘decisive conviction in the necessity for Russia of pure, unlimited autocracy’, hostility to the July Revolution, and a fanatical opposition to ‘the Polish revolution’. In short, Pushkin’s friends quickly set out to secure not only his personal rehabilitation after the duel, but also his political rehabilitation—for his sake and their own.37

As the very urgency of these assertions suggest, however, there was another way of interpreting Pushkin’s views. Particularly intriguing in this regard are the remarks of the Prussian ambassador August von Liebermann, who already on 2 February reported to his government that public opinion would compel Nicholas to punish Heeckeren. ‘Pushkin’s death presents itself here as an incomparable loss for the country, as a public calamity. National pride has been riled up all the more by the fact that the opponent, who has survived the poet, is of foreign origin’. Liebermann recounted a great outpouring of emotion on Pushkin’s behalf at his funeral, with many wishing to bear the body or even unbridle the horses and pull the funeral carriage themselves. He added that Pushkin ‘was well-known as an atheist’, and that there were grounds for supposing ‘that a significant portion of the ovations to which Pushkin’s death gave occasion may and should be ascribed to that distinct popularity that the departed acquired among some people in certain layers of society for his ideas of contemporary liberalism’. Liebermann went still further: ‘I know for a fact that under the cover of hot patriotism over the course of several days people in Petersburg are holding highly unusual speeches, asserting among other things that Pushkin represented the only support, the only representative of popular freedoms’. A letter of Heeckeren himself to his government the same day stated that the death had revealed to the authorities ‘the existence of an entire party, of which [Pushkin] was the head’—a ‘reformist’ party. Some foreign newspapers that covered Pushkin’s death similarly drew attention to his opposition, liberal thought, and even atheism.38 The extent to which all of this is accurate remains an open question, though if the matter concerns Pushkin’s views in the 1830s, his friends were probably closer to the mark.

(p.19) As we shall see, Nicholas was indeed concerned about potential public reactions to Pushkin’s death. But his personal response tended towards indifference. As he wrote in one letter on 4 February, ‘Here everything is quiet, except that Pushkin’s tragic death occupies the public and serves as food for various stupid gossip. He died from a wound for an impudent and stupid challenge that he issued, though, thank God, he died as a Christian’. Four days later he wrote laconically to his brother Michael (the same grand prince to whom Viazemskii had written), ‘Since my last letter nothing important has happened here, except for the death of the famous Pushkin from a wound in a duel with d’Anthès’. Acknowledging that to a point Pushkin had conducted himself as any honourable man would, Nicholas criticized his ‘impudent letter’ to Heeckeren, which had ultimately made d’Anthès ‘right in this matter’. The event, the emperor continued, gave birth ‘to countless rumors, the vast majority of them stupid and among which censure of Heeckeren’s behavior alone is just and warranted; he definitely conducted himself like a vile scoundrel’.39 The emperor thus expressed neither deep emotion at the loss of a great literary talent nor relief that an intellectual resource for political opposition had conveniently disappeared.

Pushkin’s death generated interest abroad, all the more in light of foreigners’ prominence in the drama. Unburdened by Russia’s censorship, foreign newspapers could more openly discuss the duel. True, some of the details were off. The German press reported that Pushkin’s estate Mikhailovskoe was on the banks of the Neva River (it was actually in Pskov province), and that he had been exiled from Russia for his liberal thinking (his exile had been within the country). Some of the details of the duel were inaccurate—for example, that Pushkin died on the spot or fatally wounded d’Anthès. Even Pushkin’s name appeared in curious forms, for example ‘Musin Alexander von Pushkin’ (based apparently on confusion with the prominent noble family Musin-Pushkin). Nor were foreigners always aware of Pushkin’s literary status, as few of his works had been translated. Still, it is noteworthy that foreign publications took an interest, even if it was the duel above all that captured their imagination. There was clearly recognition, as one German paper reported, that ‘Russian literature has suffered a great loss with the death of its renowned poet Alexander von Pushkin’.40

Soon there were also attempts to raise funds for the poet’s family. The emperor had agreed to take them under his protection, but soon the idea appeared that selling Pushkin’s works could also cover those costs. The interior ministry thus notified marshals of the nobility in various provinces in May 1837 about the impending publication and their role in its sale. Given ‘how much the talent of good writers facilitates the perfection of language, cultivates taste, and elevates the sense of elegance’, said marshals were instructed to promote the sale of that forthcoming publication among the nobles in their jurisdictions. ‘One cannot doubt, it seems, that Russians will honor the memory of the great poet and at the same time facilitate help for his children’. Yet to judge by the results in one (p.20) province (Kursk), doubt was very much in order: in six of the province’s fifteen districts no nobles at all agreed to the purchase (two other districts failed to respond). By extending the deadline once, the marshal managed to sell 36 of the 40 sets entrusted to him, sending the other four back to Petersburg.41 By 1838 new provincial gazettes (see Chapter 5) could encourage such purchases as well.42 On the whole, though, the enterprise became, to quote Marcus Levitt, ‘one of the most famous failures in Russian publishing’.43 A literary elite already idolized Pushkin as a genius, but a broader cult of Pushkin did not yet exist.

Of Myths and Cults

Part of the issue is that state authorities were determined to prevent the poet’s demise from becoming an occasion for protest. They therefore asserted strict control over the body and the funeral process. Noting the gendarmes that had appeared in Pushkin’s apartment during the day before the proposed transfer of his body that night, Viazemskii asked Grand Duke Michael in frustration, ‘Against whom was this force mustered, this full military parade?’ That police were needed to maintain order outside the building was undeniable. ‘But what could they fear from us? What intentions, what ulterior motives did they ascribe to us, if they considered us neither madmen nor scoundrels?’44 Head of the Third Section Benckendorff provides something of an answer, commenting on the many who wanted to follow the funeral convoy to the burial site in Pskov province: it was difficult to determine whether these gestures represented veneration for ‘Pushkin the liberal or Pushkin the poet’. Best not to take chances: Fearing that popular expressions of grief ‘might develop into a deplorable spectacle of triumph for the liberals’, Benckendorff asserted the need ‘to adopt secret measures to suppress all honours’.45 He and minister of education Sergei Uvarov—a comrade of Pushkin in earlier days who had since become a foe—moved to block all other forms of public reaction and even had destroyed those portraits of the poet produced for mourning. When the literary supplement to Russian Invalid published the obituary cited earlier (‘The sun of our poetry has set’), Uvarov gave the publisher a dressing down through Petersburg’s head censor: Uvarov, the censor explained, ‘is very, very cross with you. Why this publication about Pushkin? Why this black frame around the news of the death of a person of low rank, without any real position in state service?’ Uvarov objected to the expression ‘sun of our poetry’ (‘For pity’s sake, why such an honour?’) and the assertion that Pushkin had died ‘half-way through his great career’ (writing ‘little verses’ did not constitute ‘a great career’).46 Even the publisher of the Northern Bee, Faddei Bulgarin, received a reprimand for publishing the words quoted at the start of this chapter. On 12 February, the censor Nikitenko remarked, ‘The measure prohibiting the publication of anything about Pushkin is still in effect and the public is very disturbed (p.21) by it’.47 In short, the government was determined to ensure that, publicly at least, no one was able to make too much of Pushkin.

Nor did people immediately agree on the meaning of Pushkin. The poet had left an ambiguous legacy, and his proximity to the court rendered him suspect in the eyes of the next generation of intellectuals, who were more eager to promote socially conscious art. The result was that for a time two prominent value systems in Russia—a new ‘nihilism’ on the left and government claims to monopoly over Russian intellectual life—shared an aversion to the poet. In his novel Nests of the Gentry (1859), set in 1842, Ivan Turgenev remarked of his protagonist reading a different poet, ‘At that time Pushkin had not yet managed to come back into fashion’.48 Even two decades after the duel, the writer Nadezhda Sokhanskaia could lament, ‘The twenty-first year since the fateful day on which our first great poet died has arrived, and what have we done for his memory? Nothing’.49

Gradually, though, a broader cult of Pushkin began to emerge. A critical stage began in 1855, when Pavel Annenkov’s new edition of Pushkin’s work began to appear. In 1859 the literary critic Apollon Grigoriev made the indelible statement—‘Pushkin is our everything’ (Pushkin—eto nashe vse)—that would encapsulate the poet’s universal veneration in the twentieth century.50 In 1862, Pushkin appeared in the famous Millennium of Russia Monument in Novgorod, as part of a new government effort to include artists and writers in the national pantheon.51 By then graduates of the Lyceum at Tsarskoe Selo, Pushkin’s alma mater, had also begun to agitate for the poet’s proper commemoration. Though it took almost two decades, these efforts culminated in the erection in 1880 of a famous monument to Pushkin in Moscow, the poet’s birthplace. Its unveiling drew a crowd of between 100,000 and 500,000 (estimates vary), and an electrifying speech by Fyodor Dostoevsky generated a tumultuous reaction that surprised even the speaker himself.52 The termination of copyright on Pushkin’s work in 1887 generated a flood of new editions, many of them intended for an audience of newly or partially literate masses. The year 1899 brought the centenary of the poet’s birth, by which time almost 7.5 million copies of Pushkin’s works had been printed. This commemoration became an official affair, with the state more actively aspiring to make Russian literature part of official culture. Its success was only partial, but the tsarist regime had in any event recognized the potential unifying nature of Pushkinism.53 The Soviet one would exploit it more fully.

Yet to acknowledge that a full-blown Pushkin cult emerged only gradually is not to deny that many of its crucial elements were present early on. We have seen that a literary elite already celebrated Pushkin as a genius during his lifetime, and Nicholas also recognized the poet’s importance by becoming his personal censor. The poet himself laid further groundwork. Especially striking is his most intensely canonized poem of 1836, ‘I have built myself a monument’, which with uncanny prescience established the terms for Pushkin’s shared national admiration. The poem proposed that its author ‘shall not wholly die’ and ‘shall be famous so long (p.22) as in this world beneath the moon / Lives even a single poet’. As if predicting the Pushkin cult in its full-blown Soviet incarnation, Pushkin wrote,

  • News of me will pass through the whole of great Russia
  • And every language in her realm will speak my name…
  • And long shall I be loved by the people.

As Sandler comments, Pushkin’s prediction of immortality ‘seems proleptically to console his mourners’. The consensus among Russians is that the poem represents Pushkin’s ‘testament’, a work expressing the poignancy of Pushkin’s position as an unappreciated hero addressing posterity.54 The poem seems also to presage the erection of the monument in Moscow, a central moment in the emergence of the Pushkin cult in tsarist years. Indeed, lines from the poem are inscribed on that monument’s base.

If Pushkin’s own verse initiated the process of mythologization, then the work of others drove that process on to the next stage. Zhukovskii offered a short poem that gazed intently on the dead poet’s body. Written in melancholy, it fixates on the transition from life to death and also supposes that future readers will want to know specific details and physical attributes. On Zhukovskii’s request, countess Yevdokiia Rostopchina produced two poems in 1838–9, including one, set at a ball, that sought to read the features of Pushkin’s face: his ‘uneven features’, his ‘Southern eyes’, and his ‘exhausted smile’.55 Mirza Fatih-Ali-Akhundov, an Azeri poet and a founder of Azerbaijani literature, likewise offered verse (originally in Persian) ‘on Pushkin, the head of the cathedral of Poets’, thus revealing the bard’s ability to speak across cultural divides.56 Yet undoubtedly the most important poetic tribute was Mikhail Lermontov’s Death of a Poet, possibly written even while Pushkin still lay dying. Lermontov’s angry verse accused above all high society for his loss, as the very first lines attest: ‘The poet has perished!—a prisoner of honor / He fell, slandered by rumour’.57 This poem, unpublished but circulated in numerous copies, catapulted Lermontov to fame, though it also earned him (like Pushkin earlier) exile to the south, where he himself perished in a duel in 1841.

Early tribute took other forms as well. Even before Pushkin’s passing, many came to his apartment to learn of his condition. Most important were his most immediate friends: Zhukovskii, Viazemskii and his wife, and others.58 The antechamber of his apartment was swamped with people as well. The public crowded the street outside the apartment, so that a guards unit was needed to maintain order. Viazemskii recounted that it was ‘impossible to count all of those who came from various directions to inquire about his health during his illness’ (one estimate suggested 4,000 people per day), and after his passing the apartment proved far too small to accommodate all those who wished to pay respects. Sensitive to public sentiment in light of his role in the duel, Heeckeren reported (p.23) to his government, ‘Upon Pushkin’s death public opinion has expressed itself more strongly than expected’, and he ascribed these views to ‘the third estate’—that is, ‘men of letters, artists, lesser civil servants, the nation’s big wheel merchant class, and so on’.59

Implicated in the mourning and commemoration were growing aspirations for national expression in Russia, which rendered Pushkin’s death especially timely. It was in the 1830s that the ideal of narodnost—translated variously as ‘nationality’, ‘national character’, ‘folk character’, and other variants—thoroughly took root in Russia. Reflecting a shift in the discursive framework of Russian culture that now defined ‘the people’ (narod) unambiguously as the Russian popular masses, the term narodnost was devised by Viazemskii in 1819 as a translation of the French nationalité, combining the ideas of both ‘national’ and ‘popular’.60 The concept narodnost offered a new way of thinking about the distinctiveness of Russian national character and the ways in which it could be explored and expressed. It also held out the prospect of joining Europe on equal terms. As the critic Nikolai Nadezhdin wrote in 1836, in Europe the idea of narodnost had been made ‘a pinnacle of civilization’. ‘If we truly wish to be Europeans’, he asserted, ‘then we should start by learning from them how to respect ourselves’.61 High culture became one area in which people increasingly aspired to see narodnost embodied. Pushkin himself remarked as early as 1825, ‘For some time it had been customary among us to talk about narodnost, to demand narodnost, to complain of the absence of narodnost in works of literature’. Pushkin was frustrated that ‘no one has thought to define what he means by the word narodnost’, but the poet seems to have accepted the basic premise at its foundation: ‘Climate, faith, and form of rule give each people a particular physiognomy, which is more or less reflected in the mirror of poetry’.62 Endowed with exceptional gifts and romanticized through his death in a duel over love and jealousy, Pushkin could easily quench the thirst of Russia’s young nationalists for narodnost and offer proof of their country’s artistic prowess. His cult thus reflected the emergence of a Russian nation.


Apollon Grigoriev was perhaps premature when he declared in 1859, ‘Pushkin is our everything’. But the remark was ultimately prophetic. From 1880 or so, Pushkin has stood unchallenged at the apex of Russia’s hierarchy of culture. As Lydia Ginzburg wrote in the late Soviet era, ‘The love of Pushkin, which is incomprehensible to foreigners, is the true sign of a person born of Russian culture. You can like or dislike any other Russian writer—that is a matter of taste. But Pushkin as a phenomenon is obligatory for us’.63

It is hard to deny Irina Surat’s assertion that Pushkin’s death represents ‘the most significant event of his biography’. Positing that national heroes typically (p.24) win their cherished status only in death, Sandler concurs: The poet ‘became Pushkin only when he died in duel’, and his death ‘has fascinated Russians in every generation since 1837’. Its timing was enormously important for making Pushkin the national poet. Pushkin appeared at that moment in the early nineteenth century when post-Napoleonic romantic nationalism made it imperative that every nation have its native genius. Indeed, the cult of artistic genius—with ‘genius’ now encompassing the whole person rather than constituting merely one of his attributes—was a central feature of the era’s Romanticism.64 No doubt the brilliance of Pushkin’s writing was critical to his appointment to this role, but his death in a duel marked by romantic intrigue was also essential to him becoming the most appealing figure. His death ‘was itself a poetic subject’, as the verse of Lermontov and others attest, and was thus ‘especially conducive to the myth-making process’.65 Which is another way of saying that Pushkin became what he did—not just a great poet but a mythical figure—because of 1837.

The assertion may warrant contesting, but I will advance it here nonetheless: Russia’s greatest contributions to world culture have come in the realms of literature and music. This initial sketch has touched on the first of these, so it is time now to address the second. Our transition proves wonderfully seamless, for—as luck would have it—the hero of our second sketch has been described as ‘our musical Pushkin’.


(1.) Cited in Stephanie Sandler, Commemorating Pushkin: Russia’s Myth of a National Poet (Stanford, CA, 2004), 87.

(2.) For accounts of the event, see ibid. 107–18; Karl Schlögel, Moscow, 1937, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Malden, MA, 2012), 144–59; Karen Petrone, Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades! Celebrations in the Time of Stalin (Bloomington, IN, 2000), 113–48; and Kevin M. F. Platt and David Brandenberger (eds), Epic Revisionism: Russian History and Literature as Stalinist Propaganda (Madison, WI, 2006), 193–229.

(3.) L. Iakubovich, Severnaia Pchela 24 (30 Jan. 1837): 94.

(4.) Sandler, Commemorating, 5.

(5.) Abram Reitblat, Kak Pushkin vyshel v genii: Istoriko-sotsiologicheskie ocherki o knizhnoi kul’ture Pushkinskoi epokhi (Moscow, 2001), 51–69 (citation at 59).

(6.) Ficquelmont, cited in Serena Vitale, Pushkin’s Button, trans. Ann Goldstein and Jon Rothschild (New York, 1998), 47–8; letter of 11 Oct. 1833 in I. L. Levkovich (ed.), Pis’ma A. S. Pushkina k zhene (SPb, 2019), 60; and V. A. Sollogub cited in P. E. Shchegolev, Duel’ i smert’ Pushkina: Issledovanie i materialy, 2nd edn (Petrograd, 1917), 55.

(7.) On their backgrounds, see Shchegolev, Duel’ i smert’, 13–30. After his adoption in 1836, d’Anthès became a Heeckeren as well, but I use his pre-adoption surname to distinguish the two men.

(p.25) (8.) Dolli Fikel’mon, Dnevnik, 1829–1837: Ves’ Pushkinskii Peterburg, ed. V. V. Savitskii (Moscow, 2009), 355.

(9.) This was Pushkin’s second, V. A. Sollogub, as quoted in Stella Abramovich, Predystoriia poslednei dueli Pushkina (SPb, 1994), 117.

(10.) Yekaterina Karamzina to her son Andrei (2 Feb. 1837), in Pushkin v pis’makh Karamzinykh 1836–1837 godov (Moscow, 1960), 170 (Russian) and 300 (French original).

(11.) Quoted in Abramovich, Predystoriia, 170–1, 178.

(12.) The letter is in A. N. Ammosov, Poslednie dni i konchina Aleksandra Sergeevicha Pushkina so slov byvshego ego litseiskogo tovarishcha i sekundanta Konstantina Karlovicha Danzasa (SPb, 1963), 47–9.

(13.) My account is based principally on Shchegelov, Duel’ i smert’ and especially Abramovich, Predystoriia. For accounts in English, see Vitale’s idiosyncratic Pushkin’s Button, and Walter N. Vickery’s, Pushkin: Death of a Poet (Bloomington, IN, 1968).

(14.) The precise conditions are in Shchegelov, Duel’ i smert’, 143.

(15.) Duel’ Pushkina s Dantesom-Gekkerenom: Podlinnoe voenno-sudnoe delo 1837 g. (SPb, 1900), 53.

(16.) P. V. Annenkov, Materialy dlia biografii Aleksandra Sergeevicha Pushkina (SPb, 1855), 420.

(17.) Spasskii in V. V. Versaev, Duel’ i smert’ Pushkina: Sistematicheskii svod podlinnykh svidetel’stv sovremennikov iz knigi ‘Pushkin v zhizni’ (Moscow, 1927), 29.

(18.) Turgenev in Veresaev, Duel’ i smert’, 30, 32; Spasskii, ibid. 29; Vasilii Zhukovskii, ‘Poslednie minuty Pushkina’, Sovremennik 5 (1837): vi.

(19.) Ammosov, Poslednie dni, 27–8; Turgenev in Veresaev, Duel’ i smert’, 28; Zhukovskii, ‘Poslednie minuty’, esp. iv–viii (citation at vii); Vladimir Dahl and Meshcherskaia-Karamzina in Veresaev, Duel’ i smert’, 35–7.

(20.) Cited in P. E. Shchegelov, ‘Duel’ Pushkina s Dantesom (Novye materialy)’, Istoricheskii vestnik 94 (Jan. 1905), 175.

(21.) Yekaterina Karamzina to her son Andrei (2 Feb. 1837), in Pushkin v pis’makh Karamzinykh, 170 (Russian) and 300 (French).

(22.) Ammosov quotes this note in Poslednie dni (31), but this was based only on Danzas’s recollection of its content.

(23.) Shchegelov, ‘Duel’ Pushkina’, 954; Abramovich, Predystoriia, 155.

(24.) Ammosov, Poslednie dni, 37.

(25.) Aleksandr Nikitenko, The Diary of a Russian Censor, ed. and trans. Helen Saltz Jacobson (Amherst, MA, 1975), 70.

(26.) Ammosov, Poslednie dni, 38–40, 68; Nikitenko, Diary, 71; Zhukovskii, ‘Poslednie minuty’, vxii–vxiii; Irina Surat, ‘“Da pristupliu’ ko smerti smelo…” O gibeli Pushkina’, Novyi mir 2 (1999): https://magazines.gorky.media/novyi_mi/1999/2/da-pristuplyu-ko-smerti-smelo.html.

(27.) This is Surat’s assertion in ‘“Da pristupliu”’.

(28.) Abramovich, Predystoriia, 158–68, 201.

(29.) Igor Yefimov, ‘A Duel with the Tsar’, Russian Review 58 (1999): 574–90.

(30.) Both cited here from M. Venevitinov, Nekrologi Pushkina v nemetskikh gazetakh 1837 goda (SPb, 1900), 5.

(p.26) (31.) ‘Obshchestvo protiv deulei v g. Liezhe’, Moskovskie vedomosti 14 (17 Feb. 1837): 95.

(32.) Severnaia Pchela 81 (12 Feb. 1837): 521.

(33.) Surat, ‘“Da pristpliu”’; Shchegelov, ‘Duel’ Pushkina’, 174.

(34.) Such is Leslie O’Bell’s contention in ‘Writing the Story of Pushkin’s Death’, Slavic Review 58(2) (1999): 393–406.

(35.) Irina Reyfman, ‘Death and Mutilation at the Dueling Site: Pushkin’s Death as a National Spectacle’, Russian Review 60 (2001): 72–88.

(36.) Shchegelov, ‘Duel’ Pushkina’, 173–95 (citations at 177, 183, 189–90).

(37.) Ibid., citations at 193 and 194.

(38.) Ibid. 944–72 (citations at 966–9); Venevitinov, Nekrologi Pushkina, 12, 15, 18, 26, 28.

(39.) Nicholas to Prince Ivan Paskevich and Grand Duke Michael, in Shchegelov, ‘Duel’ Pushkina’, citations at 956–7.

(40.) Venevitinov, Nekrologi Pushkina (citations at 8, 12, 27).

(41.) A. Tankov, ‘Rasprostranenie sochinenii Pushkina v Kurskoi gubernii v 1837 godu’, Istoricheskii vestnik 26 (1886): 630–3 (citations at 631).

(42.) E.g. Voronezhskie GV 11 (12 Mar. 1838): 62–3.

(43.) Marcus C. Levitt, Russian Literary Politics and the Pushkin Celebration of 1880 (Ithaca, NY, 1989), 23.

(44.) Cited in Shchegelov, ‘Duel’ Pushkina’, 188.

(45.) Cited in Levitt, Russian Literary Politics, 19.

(46.) Cited in Irina Reyfman, How Russia Learned to Write: Literature and the Imperial Table of Ranks (Madison, WI, 2016), 63. Reyfman interprets this and other evidence to show that Pushkin’s service record, which was indeed far from impressive, was more important to both him and contemporaries than is generally allowed. See ibid. 44–85.

(47.) Nikitenko, Diary, 70–71 (citation at 71).

(48.) I. S. Turgenev, Romany (Moscow, 1975), 229.

(49.) Levitt, Russian Literary Politics, esp. 4–10, 26–33 (citation of Sokhanskaia at 33).

(50.) Cited in Sandler, Commemorating, 10.

(51.) Olga Maiorova, From the Shadow of Empire: Defining the Russian Nation through Cultural Mythology, 1855–1870 (Madison, WI, 2010), 66–8.

(52.) Levitt, Russian Literary Politics; Neil Stewart, ‘Pushkin 1880: Fedor Dostoevsky Voices the Russian Self-Image’, in Joep Leerssen and Ann Rigney (eds), Commemorating Writers in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Nation-Building and Centenary Fever (Basingstoke, 2014), 203–23.

(53.) Marcus C. Levitt, ‘Pushkin in 1899’, in Boris Gasparov, Robert Hughes, and Irina Paperno (eds), Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism (Berkeley, CA, 1992), 183–203. On the larger problem of Pushkin and copyright, see Ekaterina Pravilova, A Public Empire: Property and the Quest for the Common Good in Imperial Russia (Princeton, NJ, 2014), 215–33.

(54.) Sandler, Commemorating, 21–5 (citations at 22 and 25); Levitt, Russian Literary Politics, 24–5.

(55.) Sandler, Commemorating, 31–46 (citation of Rostophina at 39).

(56.) ‘Na smert’ Pushkina: Sochinenie v stikhakh sovremennago Persidskago Poeta’, Moskovskii nabliudatel’ 2 (1837): 297–304 (citation at 300).

(p.27) (57.) Sandler, Commemorating, 31.

(58.) Most are listed in Ammosov, Poslednie dni, 30.

(59.) Ammosov, Poslednie dni, 36; Shchegelov, ‘Duel’ Pushkina’, 185, 969.

(60.) Nathaniel Knight, The Ethnographic Tradition: Science, Empire and Ethnicity in Tsarist Russia, 1725–1870 (forthcoming); Maureen Perrie, ‘Narodnost’: Notions of National Identity’, in Catriona Kelly and David Shepherd (eds), Constructing Russian Culture in the Age of Revolution, 1881–1940 (Oxford, 1998), 28–36.

(61.) ‘Evropeizm i narodnost’, v otnoshenii k russkoi slovesnosti’, in I. Manna (ed.), N. I. Nadezhdin: Literaturnaia kritika, estetika (Moscow, 1972), 441.

(62.) A. S. Pushkin: Sobranie sochinenii v 10–i tomakh, vol. 6 (Moscow, 1962), 267–8.

(63.) Surat, ‘“Da pristupliu”’; Lidiia Ginzburg, ‘Iz zapisei 1950–1970-kh godov’, in Literatura v poiskakh real’nosti: Stat’i, esse, zametki (Leningrad, 1987), 331.

(64.) Tim Blanning, The Romantic Revolution: A History (New York, 2010), 24–30.

(65.) Sandler, Commemorating, citations at 2, 8–9.