Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg, by Hugh Barnes

The African heart that beat through Russia's soul
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The Independent Culture

Born in 1696, Gannibal is often thought to have been Ethiopian, although Hugh Barnes argues convincingly that he came from Chad. As a boy, Gannibal was taken by Islamic slave-traders to Constantinople. He was either bought or stolen by a Russian diplomat - perhaps at the instigation of Peter the Great, who was always interested in anyone or anything exotic.

Aged eight, "Abram" arrived in Moscow, where Peter ensured that he received the best possible education. Barnes writes that "The Petrine revolution was a vast, utopian project in social engineering. It was an attempt to reconstruct the Russian as a European. In some respects the life of Abram Petrovich Gannibal served as its pilot scheme: an attempt to reconstruct the African as a Russian."

Gannibal proved equally gifted in languages, maths and science. As a young man, he became Peter's most trusted aide. During several years in France he was befriended by Diderot and Voltaire, who referred to him as the "dark star of Russia's enlightenment". Fifty years later, when Diderot needed money, Gannibal persuaded Catherine the Great to buy his library and pay him a pension; Diderot visited Petersburg and had regular meetings with the Empress.

On his return from France, Gannibal was appointed "principal translator of foreign books at the Imperial Court". But he not only translated books about scientific and military matters; he also built fortifications - including Kronstadt in the Gulf of Finland, a fort still important during the Siege of Leningrad 200 years later.

After Peter's death, his godson Gannibal was "orphaned"; he lived to 86 but never regained his previous influence. One year, he would be in semi-exile; another year he would be back to building forts or designing fireworks for some royal celebration. Eventually he retired with his second wife to an estate granted by Catherine the Great. There, in Pushkin's words, "the black African who had become a Russian noble lived out his life like a French philosophe".

Barnes writes engagingly and informedly about many fields: the Islamic slave trade, the construction of Petersburg, even Lake Baikal (Gannibal catalogued its unique fauna for the first time). We also learn about 18th-century attitudes to race. Voltaire thought blacks had only "a few more ideas than animals" yet praised Gannibal's understanding of Leibniz's calculus.

The amount of detail is sometimes dizzying, but what matters is that Barnes succeeds in bringing Gannibal to life. In view of the scarcity of information - Gannibal burnt his autobiography and his son-in-law's memoir is largely fantasy - this is a remarkable achievement.

Andrey Sinyavsky wrote that Pushkin "seized on his Negroid appearance and his African past, which he loved perhaps more dearly than he did his aristocratic (Russian) ancestry". This points to an interesting paradox. Pushkin saw himself as an outsider and defiantly identified with someone he saw as still more of an outsider. Gannibal, however, was not only an outsider; he was very close to Peter the Great and, in his unfinished novel about his black ancestor, Pushkin chose to exaggerate this closeness. Pushkin's identification with Gannibal was also a way of making himself into an insider. It may have helped him to write more freely about one of Russia's strangest and most intimidating rulers - and about Russian history in general.

Robert Chandler's 'Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida' is published by Penguin Classics