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Alexander Pushkin

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Updated: 04.12.2003

Famous Russian poet, novelist, dramatist, and short-story writer; he has often been considered his country's greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature.; born May 26 [June 6, New Style], 1799, Moscow, Russia, died Jan. 29 [Feb. 10], 1837, St. Petersburg.

The early years

Pushkin's father came of an old boyar family; his mother was a granddaughter of Abram Hannibal, who, according to family tradition, was an Abyssinian princeling bought as a slave at Constantinople (Istanbul) and adopted by Peter the Great, whose comrade in arms he became. Pushkin immortalised him in an unfinished historical novel, Arap Petra Velikogo (1827; The Negro of Peter the Great).

Like many aristocratic families in early 19th-century Russia, Pushkin's parents adopted French culture, and he and his brother and sister learned to talk and to read in French. They were left much to the care of their maternal grandmother, who told Alexander, especially, stories of his ancestors in Russian. From Arina Rodionovna Yakovleva, his old nurse, a freed serf (immortalised as Tatyana's nurse in Yevgeny Onegin), he heard Russian folktales. During summers at his grandmother's estate near Moscow he talked to the peasants and spent hours alone, living in the dream world of a precocious, imaginative child. He read widely in his father's library and gained stimulus from the literary guests who came to the house.

In 1811 Pushkin entered the newly founded Imperial Lyceum at Tsarskoye Selo (later renamed Pushkin) and while there began his literary career with the publication (1814, in Vestnik Evropy, "The Messenger of Europe") of his verse epistle "To My Friend, the Poet." In his early verse, he followed the style of his older contemporaries, the Romantic poets K.N. Batyushkov and V.A. Zhukovsky, and of the French 17th- and 18th-century poets, especially the Vicomte de Parny.

While at the Lyceum he also began his first completed major work, the romantic poem Ruslan i Lyudmila (1820; Ruslan and Ludmila), written in the style of the narrative poems of Ludovico Ariosto and Voltaire but with an old Russian setting and making use of Russian folklore. Ruslan, modelled on the traditional Russian epic hero, encounters various adventures before rescuing his bride, Ludmila, daughter of Vladimir, grand prince of Kiev, who, on her wedding night, has been kidnapped by the evil magician Chernomor. The poem flouted accepted rules and genres and was violently attacked by both of the established literary schools of the day, Classicism and Sentimentalism. It brought Pushkin fame, however, and Zhukovsky presented his portrait to the poet with the inscription "To the victorious pupil from the defeated master."

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