Pushkin and his wife met George D’Anthès in 1834.
D’Anthès was the adopted son of the Dutch ambassador,
a handsome and dashing Frenchman who had joined the Tsar’s
army to advance his career. He began paying court to Natalya in
1835, and the whole affair came to a head when Pushkin received
a letter informing him that he had been elected to ‘The Most
Serene Order of Cuckolds’. Pushkin immediately issued a challenge,
but the duel was put off and delayed by a complex series of negotiations
initiated by D’Anthès’ adoptive father. Although
it was never proven that Natalya, who had also flirted with Tsar
Nicholas, had been unfaithful, the inevitable duel took place on
the afternoon of 27 January 1837 and Pushkin was killed.
The grief that broke out on the news of Pushkin’s death was
unprecedented and took the authorities by surprise. The funeral
was transferred from the cathedral at the last moment to a smaller
church, every effort was made to play down public mourning, and
in the repressive atmosphere of the century Pushkin, even in death,
continued to be viewed as a threat to public order and a source
of dangerous ideas. It was more than 30 years later that the poet’s
genius received public acknowledgement, when a statue of Pushkin
was unveiled in Moscow during 1880. Since then Pushkin has been
all things to all men. In the rest of the world the operas of Tchaikovsky
and Rimsky-Korsakov brought Pushkin’s imagination to a wider
public. In Russia the Soviet authorities highlighted his friendship
with the Decembrists to claim his posthumous support.
Nowadays, in a continent struggling with the different claims of
ethnicity and nationality, he seems to be, above all, a towering
figure who was capable of using the different strands of his identity
to create and inspire new modes of seeing and new cultural achievements.
References and further reading
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Guest-curated for the British Library by Mike Phillips