Eight Little-Known Facts About Pushkin

PHOTO by Copy of Pushkin’s portrait by Vasily Andreevich Tropinin
His birthplace, his flight from Russia and the lost chapter of Eugene Onegin: what other mysteries surround Russia's greatest poet?

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin is seemingly the most researched author in history of Russian literature, but scholars are certain that, despite the overwhelming number of known facts, there are still mysteries to solve. As this Wednesday marked 180th anniversary of Pushkin's deadly duel, Afisha.Daily spoke with antique bookseller Alina Bodrova, who talked about empty patches in the Russian great's biography.

Where was Pushkin born?

The published and well-known entry in the parish register of Yelokhovo Cathedral seemingly provides all the answers regarding the future poet’s place of birth, but, actually, one remains. The “Skvortsov house” mentioned in the log was not a clear indication, as it did not have the exact address.

According to archive documents, the collegiate registrar Skvortsov owned two houses: one on Nemetskaya (now Baumanskaya) Street, where building 42 is now located, and one on the corner of Malaya Pochtovaya Street and Hospital Lane (this house was later demolished).

On top of this, he was the steward of Countess Golovkina's estate, so he lived in her mansion on the very same Nemetskaya Street (now Baumanskaya Street, buildings 53-57). Information on Skvortsov’s properties has dripped out over time. Currently the most well-grounded theory is that it was the house on the corner of Malaya Pochtovaya Street and Hospital Lane. However, the statue of young Pushkin by sculptor Yekaterina Belashova is kept at 40 Baumanskaya – the location of the other house.

By the way, Pushkin himself believed that he was born in another place, Bolshaya Molchanovka, where his family lived before he was sent to the Lyceum.

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What did Pushkin know about the Fountain of Bakhchisaray while writing the eponymous poem?

Experts on the poem discovered that the legend of the fountain as a monument to the tragic love of a Crimean khan has no historical grounding: Muslim tradition has no monuments in the form of fountains, and all researchers of the Bakhchisaray legends seem to agree that the tragic story of Qirim Geray is linked not with a fountain, but with a türbe mausoleum located just outside the palace grounds. Pushkin himself dismissed this historic version of the legend in several texts (including the poem) and insisted that he heard the story of the fountain from mysterious “young maidens.” To this day, scholars argue whether these maidens existed and whether they had an influence on this literary mention of the fountain – perhaps Pushkin simply made up the story. It was recently established that by the time Pushkin was finishing his work, he knew that the Bakhchisaray legend was not about the fountain, but about the mausoleum, and that the story of the khan’s wife coming from the Polish Pototsky family was, at best, doubtful. Ivan Ananich, warden of the Bakhchisaray Palace and the city's chief of police was the one who provided Pushkin with these historical facts. His letter was recently discovered in the archives of the poem's publisher, Pyotr Vyazemsky.

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Did Pushkin plan to flee Russia?

Those who read Eugene Onegin and To the Sea, are familiar with the theme of the maritime “poetic escape,” which Pushkin seemed to consider in Odessa. The legend of the poet’s intention to flee Russia stems from stories told by his friend Alexey Wulf. However, the reality of these plans is somewhat dubious. Although Pushkin’s friends seemed to have been quite worried, based on the correspondence, the hints of his looming exile coincide with Pushkin starting work on this very theme in his literary works, so it may have been little more than a projection of his creative mind.

Was Pushkin really planning on traveling from Mikhailovskoe to St. Petersburg ahead of the Decembrist revolt? And did a hare really cross his path?

The story of Pushkin planning to make a secret trip to St. Petersburg from his Mikhailovskoe estate ahead of the Decembrist uprising, but being deterred by bad omens – such as a hare (or several hares) crossing his path – was told by several of his friends, who referred to public statements he had made about it. Scholars, of course, don't believe a hare could have prevented Pushkin from going ahead with his plans (despite this, there is a monument to this mythical saviour of the Russian poet), but the trip he planned to make by impersonating a serf remains part of the writer's canon.

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The monument to the hare which, according to the legend, crossed Pushkin's road in Mikhailovskoe

On the other hand, while Pushkin did produce a ticket for the serf Alexey Khokhlov, there is no indication whether he was actually planning to impersonate him and use it himself – and there are no records proving the theory apart from the ticket itself. At the same time, the hare who stopped Pushkin from participating in the revolt fits well with Pushkin’s discussions on the subject of luck and fate which features in some of his works.

Did Pushkin have dogs and, if so, what breed were they?

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A dog carrying a bird. Pushkin’s lyceum sketch.

Although Alexander Pushkin’s parents’ house had dogs, and his father’s favourite setter is seen in Karl Gampeln’s painting, there is little known about the poet’s own dogs. Anna Kern remembered how Pushkin traveled to Trigorskoye with large wolfhounds, while his Moscow friend Sergey Sobolevsky sentimentally described how Pushkin played with his own dog's newborn puppies. The poet’s wife, Natalia Pushkina, had a dog of unknown breed, but apparently Alexander was not a fan of it. At least, that’s the impression one gets from the story of how the dog went missing – the poet gave a miserly reward to the person who found the hound.

Was the so-called tenth chapter of Eugene Onegin written and, if so, where was it supposed to fit?

The history of the tenth chapter, which currently exists in sixteen coded stanzas and drafts of three more, remains vague to this day. There are theories that the chapter was supposed to cover Onegin’s relationship with the Decembrists and his intention to participate in the revolt. Yuri Lotman believed that the passage was supposed to be “Onegin’s Diary” – a text written from Eugene's perspective. However, since there are so few manuscripts and precious little other evidence exists, we simply don’t have enough information to know how big of a chapter it was, how it fit in with the rest of the story, or why Pushkin burned it in Boldino during the autumn of 1830, writing only a cryptic note on his other manuscript: “Oct. 19, burned song X.”

Could Pushkin and Lermontov have known each other or at least met?

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Pushkin’s sketches on the draft of the Poltava poem. 1828

There are no documents which prove that the two poets ever met. Despite stories from certain biographers, including Pavel Vistovatov, the lack of such evidence suggests it never happened. Still, there exists possibility that in 1832, when both Pushkin and Lermontov were living mostly in St. Petersburg, they could have met – at a social event, in a bookstore, a coffee shop, on the street, even. But, alas, there are no records of any such meeting.

Why are the manuscripts of major works such as Mozart and Salieri and The Queen of Spades missing?

Given the excellent conservation of Pushkin’s manuscripts and the attention of scholars to their future movements across archives, certain cases of mishandling seem quite out of place, such as the missing drafts and even partial manuscripts of major works. For example, the original Mozart and Salieri remains on just one page, with an alternative title to the “little tragedy” – “Envy”. The sixth chapter of Eugene Onegin has only three draft stanzas, and the manuscript of The Queen of Spades exists in a few draft fragments. There is no doubt that the manuscripts existed at one point of time, but their current whereabouts and how they disappeared remain a mystery to this day.

Author: Alina Bodrova