Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin, [Born. June 6 (N.S.), 1799, Died. Feb. 10 (N.S.), 1837], was Russia’s greatest poet. His use of the vernacular as the language of poetry freed Russian writing from the constraints of tradition and set new literary standards for novelists and poets, and his preference for subjects from history and folklore brought fresh vitality to Russian literature.
Born in Moscow, Pushkin was descended from a family of cultured but impoverished aristocrats. He was taught by his family to love literature, and from an early age he showed great promise as a poet. Pushkin studied at the lyceum in the town of Tsarskoye Selo, later renamed Pushkin, and after graduating (1817), was appointed to a post at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the capital city of Saint Petersburg. Here Pushkin indulged in the glittering social life available to a well-born Russian youth of his day – the life he would eventually satirize in Eugene Onegin (1823-31), a verse novel that describes a shallow, pleasure-loving man’s insensitivity to the love of a noble woman. Despite the somewhat frivolous nature of his social pursuits, Pushkin remained deeply committed to social reform and gained the reputation of spokesman for literary radicals. As a result he angered the government and was transferred from the capital, first to Kishinev (1820-23) and then to Odessa (1823-24).
Pushkin again clashed with his superiors in Odessa and was again exiled, this time to his mother’s rural estate. In 1826 he was recalled to Moscow under the tsar’s protection, but his relations with the government remained strained throughout his life. He married Natalia Goncharova, a society beauty, in 1831. His wife’s social ambitions caused Pushkin to become involved in a reckless social life, put him deeply in debt, and eventually killed him. Early in 1837 he was forced to fight a duel to defend Natalia’s reputation and was mortally wounded.
Pushkin’s early writing is mainly in the 18th-century classical tradition of light, frivolous verse. The verse fairy tale Ruslan and Ludmila (1820) is his first major attempt to use colloquial speech and themes from Russian folklore. This work and other exotic narratives written at that time were very much influenced by romanticism, the movement that was beginning to dominate contemporary English poetry. Pushkin was particularly drawn to the verse of Lord Byron, whose style he emulated in such poems as The Prisoner of the Caucasus (1822), The Robber Brothers (1827), and Eugene Onegin. In Onegin, however, the Byronic hero has been changed by Pushkin into a tragic figure. He disdains the love offered him by a naive and awkward provincial girl, only to fall in love with her later when he meets her in Saint Petersburg, now a poised, married woman prominent in society. Although she still loves him, the heroine remains faithful to her husband and rejects Onegin. The plot is simple, but Pushkin has used it to convey his poignant central theme: the relentless passage of time and the irrevocable nature of past actions.
Pushkin’s deep regard for his compatriots, his interest in history, and his distaste for the rigid class structure of his society, are evident in most of his mature work. In Wasteland Sower of True Freedom, a political tract published in 1823, he deplores the cruelties of serfdom and warns prophetically that reform is necessary to avert revolution. Several of his major dramas recall great Russian heroes of the past, notably BORIS GODUNOV (1831; Eng. trans., 1899), Poltava (1828-29; Eng. trans., 1899), and The Bronze Horseman (1837; Eng. trans., 1899), which depicts the legendary Peter the Great. In later years Pushkin frequently wrote prose. Two of his most widely read works are the novel The Captain’s Daughter (1834; Eng. trans., 1846) and the short story “The Queen of Spades” (1834; Eng. trans., 1894).
Pushkin’s inventive use of language, the subtle blending of sense and sound in his lyrics, and the classic simplicity with which he expresses emotion combine to make his poetry unique. His has remained the single most important influence on Russian literature since the 19th century, and his work has been admired by such Russian masters as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoi, and Chekhov. His writing has, in addition, provided fertile ground for Russian composers, notably Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov.