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How Alexander Pushkin Was Inspired By His African Heritage

Alexander Pushkin is often regarded as the greatest Russian author. Many readers are unaware that he was influenced by his African great-grandfather, General Abraham Petrovitch Gannibal. 

“Boyar credentials, African heritage, and a personal link to Peter the Great were all vital to Pushkin’s identity,” says Anne Lounsbery, a Russian literature researcher. To emphasize his connection to Gannibal, the author acquired the moniker “afrikanets,” which means “the African.” His relationship with his relative manifested itself in other ways as well. 

Gannibal (sometimes spelled Hannibal) was a youthful captive who was stolen from Africa and sent to Constantinople. From there, he was transported to Peter the Great’s Court in St. Petersburg by a Serbian Count named Sava Vladislavi.

Abram Petrovic Gannibal Hannibal Abraham Russia Pushkin Statue general

The tiny youngster won the Tsar‘s heart. He made him his godson, giving him the patronymic Petrovitch, meaning “son of Peter,” and sending him to France to study. Gannibal’s rank and talents earned him noble nobility by the time Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth ascended the throne. Gannibal, however, argued in a 1742 letter to the Russian Senate that his noble position was due to his father’s standing as an African chief. “I am of African descent, descended from a prominent local nobility. I was born in the city of Logone, on my father’s estates, which he also ruled over two other cities.

This is the only documented evidence of his African ancestry. The hunt for Logone began in the nineteenth century and culminated in the late-twentieth-century discovery by historian Dr. Dieudonné Gnammankou. Gannibal was most likely born in Logone-Birni, Cameroon, according to the African Institute, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Pushkin Museums in Moscow, St Petersburg, and Mikhalovskoe. 

Pushkin’s African progenitor, who left physical signs of himself, was also evident in his demeanor. Pushkin’s work was critical of society, leading to his exile. Gannibal embodied the experience of being uprooted while living in the center of one’s adopted hometown.

He was both an insider and an outsider, similar to how a poet observes the world in order to write about it. Many of Pushkin’s works, especially The Moor of Peter the Great, his unfinished historical book on Gannibal’s life, reflect this influence. 

Eugène Onegin, Pushkin’s most famous piece, alludes to Russia’s volatile East-West past. Tchaikovsky’s opera (Tchaikovsky, 1879), Cranko’s ballet (Cranko, 1965), and a film have all been based on the story (Martha Fiennes, 1999, starring Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler). It also includes one of his most well-known references to his own Russian and African ancestry. It’s a metaphor about being caught between two worlds:

It’s time to drop astern the shape
of the dull shores of my disfavour,
and there, beneath your noonday sky,
my Africa, where waves break high,
to mourn for Russia’s gloomy savour,
land where I learned to love and weep,
land where my heart is buried deep.

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