The death of a Romantic dualist

PUSHKIN: The Man and His Age by Robin Edmonds, Macmillan £17.50
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IN 1823, Pushkin wrote to a friend, "If you come to Odessa in the summer, I will introduce you to a Greek girl kissed by Byron." The obscure object of Pushkin's desire bore the fetching name of Calypso Polychroni. A refugee from the Turks, she had escaped from Constantinople. Apparently, Calypso had a gift for singing Turkish love songs, which amused Pushkin, though his feeling for her was not very deep or lasting. Perhaps he was just attracted to her by the idea of Byron, as Edward Bulwer Lytton is said to have derived a peculiar satisfaction from an affair with a woman Byron had previously loved in a different language.

No biographer can ignore the hundreds of women in Pushkin's life, but Robin Edmonds declines to play Leporello to his subject's Don Juan. Instead, he puts the dissipated life of Russia's greatest poet into historical context. Pushkin was born into the Moscow aristocracy in 1799. His father came from one of the oldest families in Russia. His mother was descended from Abram Gannibal, an Ethiopian slave acquired by Peter the Great in Constantinople. From this maternal great-grandfather Pushkin inherited recognisably African features, of which he was proud, though his striking appearance earned him the nickname "Monkey" in xeno- phobic circles.

By virtue of his birth, Pushkin was assured an entre to Russian court circles, just as the country was entering a turbulent period in its history. The 19th century began with the assassination of Tsar Paul, 1812 saw Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, and the unsuccessful Decembrist uprising occured in 1825. At first, Paul's successor, the young Tsar Alexander I, promised much in the way of liberal reform, but he abjectly failed to deliver. As a result, his reign is often seen as a turning point in Russian history, or perhaps - to adapt Lewis Namier's epigram about Germany in 1848 - as the point at which Russian history failed to turn.

The young poet's early ambition was to pursue a diplomatic career. He worked briefly as a functionary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1819, but he wasn't really suited to the more intriguing aspects of foreign policy, as Robin Edmonds, a former diplomat who served as Minister in Moscow, skilfully makes clear.

Pushkin was too rebellious to be respectful, and his friends were not unduly surprised when, in 1820, he was dispatched to the south of Russia as a punishment for dissent. Ironically, the unwelcome assignment was a blessing in disguise. It rescued Pushkin from a life of drinking and gambling - he once lost the manuscript of Eugene Onegin in a game of cards - and gave him the freedom to write more or less full-time.

In 1824, the authorities opened one of Push- kin's letters in which he remarked that he was "taking lessons in atheism". As a result, he was formally expelled from government service and ordered to live on his mother's small estate at Mikhailovskoye. In exile, Pushkin continued to work on Eugene Onegin, a poem which can be read as a sort of map of his existential predicament, and, beyond that, as a representation of the dilemma of the Russian aristocracy, forced to acquiesce in a system to which it owed its privileges yet which exacted a heavy price in terms of self-abasement.

Pushkin's formal connection with the Decembrist uprising has yet to be satisfactorily explained, though his short revolutionary poem, "The Dagger", was popular among the conspirators, and he was on the fringes of the movement led by Colonel Pavel Pestel, who advocated the abolition of serfdom and the killing of the Tsar. In 1822, Pushkin had written in his diary: "Only a revolutionary like M Orlov or Pestel can love Russia, in the same way as only a writer can love language. Everything must be created in this Russia and in this Russian language." Ironically, the poet was saved from the dire consequences of involvement in the uprising of December 1825 by the fact that he was still in exile at Mikhailovskoye. The five leading Decembrists, including Pestel, were hanged; 120 conspirators, including Kuchelbecker and Bestuzhev, Pushkin's schoolmates, were exiled to Siberia. Among various illustrations in the book, Edmonds reproduces the sketches of hanging men which appear in the margins of Pushkin's notebooks at the time, one with the phrase, "And I too might have dangled like a clown."

A reluctant mutineer who nevertheless acquired a taste for the mutinies of others, Pushkin often masqueraded as a liberal sympathiser. Towards the end of his life he became increasingly disillusioned with the patronage of Tsar Nicholas. He also objected to the constant surveillance by Benkendorff, the Tsar's chief of police. It was as if, given the situation as it stood in Russia after 1825, Pushkin's sympathies for the republican cause and his reservations about it were aroused simultaneously, and struggled with each other thereafter.

In the Soviet era, critics used to argue that the end of Eugene Onegin is muffled because discretion before the censor made Pushkin suppress his true meaning. Sometimes they even made use of cancelled drafts and fragments to "reconstruct" a Decembrist future for Onegin. However, it is equally possible to interpret the famous scene at the end of the poem, in which Tatiana rejects Onegin in order to stay faithful to her husband, as a metaphor of the acceptance by Pushkin of the political realities under the new Tsar. To resist authority - symbolised here by the institution of marriage - is immoral, a quasi-Napoleonic act of self-aggrandisement.

The poet's own marriage in 1830 ultimately proved fatal. His wife, Natalia Goncharova, a well-known society beauty, was a favourite of the Tsar. A banal, small-minded woman, she took no interest in her husband's work, but her popularity at court meant that Pushkin was forced to attend official functions he detested. Edmonds neatly describes the St Petersberg imbroglio that culminated in the poet's rivalry with Baron d'Anths, a French royalist migr and the adopted son of the Dutch ambassador, who boasted of cuckolding the poet. In 1837, Pushkin challenged d'Anths to a duel and was severely wounded. He died from his injuries two days later, aged 38.

Official celebrations of the poet's life and death have developed into an important national phenomenon. The Pushkin monument was unveiled in Moscow in 1880, followed shortly afterwards by the 50th anniversary of his death, in 1887. The centenary of the poet's birth a dozen years later was the occasion of innumerable symposia throughout the Russian empire, and even under Soviet rule significant celebrations took place in 1937 and 1987. Pushkin is for Russians as Shakespeare was for Ben Jonson, "not of an age, but for all time", and these festivals are intimately bound up with a perception of the writer as part of the national identity. Robin Edmonds speculates as to how post-Soviet Russia will celebrate the bicentenary of the poet's birth in 1999.

In some ways, the fin-de-sicle tone of this bio-graphy is ideally suited to its subject. The theme of death, of the end, of the dnouement of one's own plot, became a major theme in the psychological self-definition of European Romantics. "We will die, brothers; ah, how gloriously we will die!" exclaimed Alexander Odoevsky to his fellow conspirators as they marched onto the Senate Square of St Petersburg in l825. Eugene Onegin introduces a feature which came to typify the 19th-century Russian novel, that of the living dead man, and, as Robin Edmonds shows, the image of the super- fluous hero who seeks death but does not die was imbued with significance for Pushkin, as a survivor of the Decembrist uprising.