Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin – Russian poet, novelist, dramatist, and short-story writer – has often been considered his country’s greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. But did he have Eritrean roots?
Source: History Today
Pushkin’s African Ancestry: A Question of Roots.
Although it is known that the great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin (1799- 1837), was partly of African descent, the exact locality in the ‘dark continent’ from which his ancestors came has long been a matter of uncertainty. Pushkin himself was deeply conscious, and proud, of his partial African roots, though there is no evidence of these exercising any very tangible effect on his thought. He was unaquainted with things African, and apparently repeated, and embroidered on, traditions in his family, without elucidating them. Other Russians of his day were still less well informed, and, aware of his darker skin, conjured up entirely fanciful pictures of his ancestry. One of his enemies, Bulgarin, went so far as to sneer that the poet was descended from a slave bought from a ship’s captain for a bottle of rum.
The question of Pushkin’s African ancestry has over the years attracted the attention of a number of writers, notably Russians, pre-revolutionary, Soviet and emigré. Their studies have, however, suffered from inadequate knowledge of the history and geography of the area of Africa in question. Russian interest in Africa developed much later than that of the Western powers, such as Britain, France, Italy and Germany. Indeed, it was virtually non-existent until the late nineteenth century when the attempt of the Italian Government by the treaty of Wuchale of 1889 to establish a protector- ate over Ethiopia, like Russia a Christian Orthodox country, created a wave of indignation in St. Petersburg. After the Ethiopian mobilisation for war against Italy the Russians despatched a Red Cross mission to Ethiopia, but it arrived after Emperor Menilek’s victory at Adwa in 1896 had brought an end to the war. The doctors instead of going to the front established a hospital in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Several Russian officers, among them Mashkov, Boulatovitch and Leontieff, also went out to Ethiopia in the early 1890s to assist in the training of Menilek’s army and in the consolidation of provincial power, but they travelled almost exclusively in the centre and south of the country – far from the probable place of origin of Pushkin’s ancestor.
Interest in Ethiopia on the part of Russian scholars began only in the wake of these developments. The first two Russian Ethiopicists, Turaev and Kratchkovsky, were linguists, the former primarily concerned with the translation of Ge’ez texts. Neither visited the country. Indeed scholars from Russia did not appear in this part of Africa until the 1950s, and then for the most part only on short visits. Russian field-work to this day has been conspicuous by its absence, and no attempt appears to have been made to investigate locally Pushkin’s African antecedents.
Pushkin owed his African descent to a maternal great-grandfather called Abram (c. 1688-1781), who, while still a child, was taken to Constantinople. From there he was conveyed to Russia by Peter the Great’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Abram was duly baptised into the Russian Orthodox Church, with Tsar Peter as his godfather and Queen Christina of Poland as his godmother. The young man accordingly became known as Abram Petrovich, and, doubtless impressed by the renown of the ancient Carthaginian warrior, subsequently adopted the surname Hannibal.
In attempting to reconstruct Abram’s life it should be noted that our knowledge of it rests essentially on three contemporary or near contemporary Russian documents. Sources on the African side are entirely lacking. The relevant documents comprise, first a petition of 1742 from Abram who by then held the rank of Major-General in Reval, Estonia, applying to the Russian Senate for a nobleman’s diploma and heraldic arms. Next is an anonymous, somewhat fanciful biography based on his recollections, written in German, apparently soon after his death in 1781, by someone obviously unfamiliar with the African scene. The third source of information is a brief curriculum vitae dictated by his son Pyotr Hannibal not long before his death as an old man in 1825.
In addition to these three sources, none of which unfortunately give any dates for the principal events described, there are several references to his ancestry by Pushkin himself. They seem to have been in part derived from the German biography, a rough and abridged Russian version of which exists in his hand, but may also have owed something to the reminiscences of Pyotr Hannibal, for we find the poet writing to a friend in 1835 that he planned to ‘look up’ his ‘old Negro great-uncle’ whom he suspected was about to die, and from whom he hoped to obtain ‘certain memoirs concerning my great-grandfather’. Pushkin’s writings on his African ancestor consists of a short note to his famous poem Eugene Onegin , a ‘genealogical table’ of the Pushkin and Hannibal families, and six chapters of a posthumously published novel entitled Arab Petra Velikogo , or The Blackamoor of Peter the Great . The two notes refer only briefly to Abram’s African origin while the novel does not begin until after its hero’s arrival in Europe, and, being a work of fiction, perhaps obscures more than it illuminates.
The contemporary lack of Russian knowledge of or interest in Africa and its many and varied cultures may perhaps explain why Abram and his descendants do not seem to have been bothered to account for his original nationality or place of birth. Abram in his petition of 1742 spoke of himself, very generally, as ‘a native of Africa’. The curriculum vitae drawn up by his son likewise merely stated that his father was ‘a Negro’, while Pushkin’s note to Eugene Onegin remarks, no less vaguely, that his fore- bear had been ‘kidnapped on the coast of Africa’.
A clearer picture can, however, be obtained by a more careful scrutiny of the documents. Abram’s petition records that he was ‘born in the town of Lagon’, while the country of his birth according to the German biography was Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia. An important clue to the precise region from which he originated is provided by the statement in the biography that Abram’s father had been ‘a vassal of the Turkish Emperor of the Ottoman Empire’, but, ‘because of oppression and molestation, had revolted, with other Abyssinian princes, his countrymen and allies, against his overlord, the sultan’.
These remarks have significant geographical implications. The power of the Turks, which was based on the Red Sea port of Massawa, ebbed and flowed over the years, but never extended far into the Abyssinian highlands. Turkish influence, which was constantly challenged by the rulers of Ethiopia, was, however, felt from time to time on the edge of the plateau, particularly in the province of Hamasen, parts of which were occasionally overrun.
Debarwa, its main commercial centre, had for instance been temporarily occupied by Turkish troops in the late sixteenth century, and was subsequently ceded in 1743 by its local ruler, together with the village of Asmara (the present capital of Eritrea, eighty kilometres to the north), to an Ottoman protege, the Naib of Arkiko. The biography’s reference to the chief s rebellion against Turkish oppression, if true, would thus imply that Abram came from this peripheral area, which though considered as Abyssinia, had been for a time under Ottoman sway. Possible confirmation may be found in the existence thirty kilometres north of Debarwa of a village of Loggo shown on at least one modern map as Lachen – which, it may be argued, could well have been Abram’s birthplace – the Lagon of the German biography!
Abram’s social status in his own country is difficult to determine. The only information about it emanates from his own accounts, and he may, as men do, have been tempted to exaggerate, or romanticise, his family’s importance. He was, if his petition can be believed, ‘of the high nobility’, and his father had ‘under his rule two other towns’ besides Lagon. Abram’s son Pyotr made similar assertions, declaring that his African father had been ‘of noble origin’ and ‘a ruling seigneur’. Such claims were fully accepted by the German biography which states that Abram was the ‘son of a local ruler’ to whom it also refers as ‘the ruling prince’, a man ‘powerful and rich’.
A chief of this rank in Hamasen, a predominantly Christian province, or indeed almost anywhere in Abyssinia, would in all probability have belonged to the prevailing, and dominant, Christian community. The biography goes on to assert that Abram’s father had ‘very many wives (even up to about thirty), with a correspondingly large progeny’, and adds the gloss that this accorded to ‘Moslem custom’. It was, however, not uncommon for Christian rulers of some importance to have a succession of wives, or concubines, and therefore to have numerous offspring. The fact that Abram’s father had many wives and children does not therefore necessarily imply that he must have been a follower of Islam, as the author of the biography suggests.
As for the name Abram, the Russian form of Abraham: if he was, as we have argued, an Ethiopian, it would seem probable that this was merely a modification of his original name. The name Abraham was, and is, common throughout Christian Ethiopia, albeit in the north of the country in its local Tigrinya form Abraha. Pushkin, who was doubtless unaware of this fact and may have been led astray by the above-mentioned reference to Abram’s father’s many wives, chose in his novel to call his ancestor Ibragim, a Russian transliteration of Ibrahim, the variation of the name usually adopted by Arabs and other Muslims. The latter form does not appear, however, in any of the original documents relating to Abram, nor in the poet’s own note to Eugene Onegin . It would thus seem to be without historical justification.
The reasons for Abram’s departure from his native land are noteworthy. According to his son’s testimony, he was taken to the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, as ‘a hostage’. This statement is repeated, with some elaboration, in the biography. It claims that after his father’s rebellion Abram, though ‘still a boy’ in his eighth year, was seized through ‘trickery and intrigue’ at his father’s court. Together with ‘other high-born youths’ he was put on a Turkish vessel bound for Constantinople and ‘the fate that had been assigned to him’.
Abram’s departure from Abyssinia is said to have resulted in a remarkably tragic incident. The biography claims that the young hostage’s only full sister, who was some years older than he and is referred to as Lahann – a name which has not been identified – sought to prevent his being carried away. She accompanied him to the deck of the ship, ‘but when she found that her efforts were in vain she threw herself into the sea, and was drowned, To the very end of his days,’ the text adds, ‘the venerable old man shed tears of the tenderest friendship and love as he recollected her, for though he was still very young at the time of that tragic event, whenever he thought of her this memory would be as if new and complete for him.’ This poignant story left a deep impression on Pushkin, who, referring to his African roots in his note to Eugene Onegin , claim,’ that Abram ‘up to an advanced age’ remembered his ‘beloved sister swimming in the distance after the ship’. The biography goes on to assert that one of Abram’s brothers subsequently travelled to Constantinople, and later to Russia, in an attempt to ransom the ‘hostage’, but failed because the Tsar would not consent to release his godson. No corroboration of this unlikely incident has thus far come to light.
The chronology of Abram’s early life, as Pushkin seems to have realised, cannot be established with precision. The date of Abram’s birth is not recorded, and has been variously placed between 1689 and 1698. Assuming that he left home at the age of eight, as the German biography asserts, his departure for Constantinople must have taken place between 1697 and 1706. The alleged rebellion against Turkish rule must be presumed also to have occurred at about this time. Though no such event is mentioned in the Ethiopian annals, possibly because it was of no more than local significance, the period was undoubtedly one of considerable tension in the Hamasen area. A chronicle of Emperor Iyasu the Great records that, angered by provocations by the Naib, he ordered the people of the province in 1693 to withhold provisions destined for the Turkish-dominated coast. A famine in consequence broke out, and the Naib was eventually obliged to travel to the Emperor’s court to beg forgiveness. Though the chronicler is for the most part concerned only with the monarch’s role in the conflict, it is not inconceivable that one of its local ramifications was the revolt recalled in the German biography.
The remainder of Abram’s eventful life is better known. Gaining his master’s esteem as a page he was, as already noted, received into the Russian Orthodox Church, the ceremony taking place at Wilno in 1707. Ten years later he was despatched by the Tsar to France, with three other young men, all Russians, to study military engineering. In 1719 he participated in a French expedition in Spain where he was wounded and taken prisoner, but on release resumed military studies. After six or seven years absence he returned to Russia in 1723, with a small valuable library of French books, was sent to the Aleksandronevski monastery to brush up his Russian, and rejoined the imperial household in the following year. Subsequently he spent much of his time teaching mathematics and building fortresses, including one at Selenginsk on the Chinese frontier. He was promoted in 1742 to the rank of Major-General, and four years later was granted the estate of Mihaylovskoe in Pskov province which Pushkin was later to inherit. Abram, who won universal respect, lived on to a ripe old age, and died around 1781.
Though Russians have long been conscious of their national poet’s African descent, Abram’s existence was scarcely known in the land from which he is assumed to have hailed. Since the Second World War, however, his life has attracted increasing Ethiopian interest. Two decades ago an Addis Ababa journal that devoted an entire issue to Pushkin’s ‘Ethiopian ancestry’ aroused considerable attention. It is perhaps not without interest that the author of the recently composed Ethiopian national anthem and the present Ethiopian ambassador in London have both named a son after the illustrious Russian poet.
Notes on Further Reading:
Victor Arminjon, Pouchkine et Pierre le Grand , Librairie de Cinq Continents (Paris, 1971); Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Abram Gannibal’, Appendix I to A.; Pushkin, Eugene Onegin , Routledge and Kegan Paul (London, 1964), Vol. III; Richard Pankhurst, An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia , Sidgwick and Jackson (London, 1961), especially Appendix F; ‘Pushkin’s Ethiopian Ancestry’, Ethiopia Observer (Addis Ababa, 1957), Vol. I, No. 8; Henri Troyat, Pushkin, A Biography , Allen and Unwin (London, 1974).
Professor Richard Pankhurst was formerly Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University and is the author of a number of books and publications on Ethiopia.