By BARRINGTON A. MORRISON
Africans in the Diaspora have a long and varied history on several continents. There is a tendency, during Black History Month in Canada, to focus only on the biographies of famous Black personalities and events on the North American continent, while ignoring the significant contributions of Blacks elsewhere.
For example, very few scholars and laymen are aware that Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837), was of African descent.
Pushkin was the grandson of Abram Hannibal, an African man who achieved greatness in the armies of the Czars. Captured in Africa at the age of eight and sold to a Russian nobleman in Constantinople, Abram Hannibal was given as a slave to Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. The strikingly handsome young Abram became a court favourite and was brought up in the Russian Orthodox Church where he was baptized Abram Hannibal.
After Abram completed his formative schooling in 1716, the Tsar sent him to Paris to study military engineering with the expectation that he would join the Tsar’s army on his return. While in Paris, Abram distinguished himself as a military engineer, and he was soon permitted to join the French Army where he quickly climbed the ranks to attain the title of commander. After seven years of service in Paris, to the regret of the Duke of Orléans, Hannibal returned to Russia and joined the Tsar’s own guard regiment as an engineer lieutenant.
While in Russia, Abram Hannibal married a German girl who gave him five sons. One of these sons would grow up to become the father of Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin.
For his early education, Pushkin was sent to the Imperial Lyceum at Tsarkoe Selo near St. Petersburg in 1811. He left this school in 1818 and joined the Russian foreign ministry as a clerk. His early poems “Ode to Freedom” and “Noel” were thought to be critical of the government of Tsar Alexander I, and he was subsequently sent to the city of Ekaterinoslav in the south of Russia. While there, he wrote Ruslan and Ludmila, a six-part epic containing 3,000 lines.
Pushkin was well versed in French language and literature and showed early signs of poetic genius in works such as “To My Friend the Poet” (1820), which demonstrated his allegiance to Romantic literary styles.
After two years in Ekaterinoslav, Pushkin was transferred again, this time to the small village of Kishinev in the Caucasus region where he began writing Eugene Onegin. This novel, written in verse, was clearly influenced by the English poet, Lord Byron.
Poetry became Pushkin’s lifelong passion and in 1831 he finished Boris Godunov, a Russian historical tragedy written in the Shakespearean tradition. Both Eugene Onegin and Boris Godunov would later become legendary operas. In 1834, Pushkin wrote a fictionalized biography of his grandfather titled, The Negro of Peter the Great, and an unfinished version was published in 1837. In this biography, Pushkin represented his grandfather, Hannibal, in a completely positive manner, making the novel one of the earliest to promote the African as a hero in world literature.
His novel, The Captain’s Daughter (1836), was to influence greatly subsequent writers of Russian literature who considered him the progenitor of modern Russian literature.
Pushkin died tragically on February 10, 1837, from wounds that he suffered in a duel at St. Petersburg. Stilled by death at the age of 37, Pushkin still speaks to the world through his impassioned poetry.