After the interview with Tsar Nicholas, Pushkin’s earlier
work began to be published to great acclaim. His release had energised
him, and as if to mark a new chapter in his life he began writing
his novel The Negro of Peter the Great. He had been thinking
about a project involving Abram (in the novel, Ibrahim) for some
time. After leaving school in 1817, he had met the last surviving
son of Abram’s, his grandfather’s brother Peter, and
in 1825 he wrote in his diaries, that he was “counting on
seeing my old Negro of a Great-uncle, who I guess is going to die
one of these fine days, and I must get from him some memoirs about
my great-grandfather”. He did so a week later.
The novel is ostensibly based on his grandfather’s experiences,
but Pushkin referred frequently to his own African blood and his
‘negro’ temperament, and it is impossible not to read
something of his own experience into his account of Ibrahim’s
environment. For instance, in the novel, when Ibrahim leaves France
he writes to his lover asking why she would want to unite herself
to the “unhappy lot of a Negro... a pitiful creature whom
people scarcely deign to recognise as human”. In St Petersburg,
the parents of the girl that the Tsar has picked out for his protégé
can hardly conceal her horror, while her mother whines about the
ugliness of his features.
Pushkin himself had more than once been abused as having a “monkey’s
face”, and in the circumstances it seems significant that
at the time he wrote The Negro Pushkin himself had started
looking for a wife.
Guest-curated for the British Library by Mike Phillips
Next - 'Pushkin takes a wife and writes The Bronze Horseman'