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Russian Racial Attitudes Before Pushkin

Robert Coles

By now, most scholars have accepted the fact that Alexander Pushkin, father of Russian literature, was of mixed (or bi)-racial background, and that he was descended from African as well as Russian-Slavonic ancestors. Thus, to cite
Pushkin’s African heritage is to cite his pride in being descended from African people. Yet, before we can assess the racial interplay between Pushkin and his contemporaries, or to examine how his African identity emerged in his work, we need to trace, historically, how and when Russian people developed attitudes about African people; and we need to know how and when the Russian people began
to view themselves as qualitatively different from other people, or how and when Russians began to see themselves in terms of a “race.”

That is, how and when did the Russians see themselves as different from other human groups by virtue of innate and immutable physical characteristics? This paper will attempt to prove
that racially specific attitudes were absent in early Russia (9th century a.d.), and even during the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, race awareness did not exist, due in part to the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which drew no racial distinctions among human beings. This paper will argue that race consciousness as such resulted from the influence of Europeanization, especially as it developed during the Enlightenment era in the 17th and 18th centuries. Race prejudice was introduced in Russia at this time, coinciding with the birth of Pushkin.

I am submitting the above abstract because I am currently engaged in writing a monograph on the premier Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. The primary focus of this text is to examine Pushkin’s racial identity, since he derived partially
from African ancestry, and to define how this identity affected his literary work. Numerous essays on Pushkin’s African heritage have already been published, but to date there is no extensive study on this subject, and no one has yet examined Russian racial attitudes in Pushkin’s day. My work on Alexander Pushkin began in the summer of 1997, in anticipation of his 200th birthday anniversary
in 1999.

As a teacher of African American literature, with particular interest in poetry, I have had a long-standing interest in Pushkin, though my knowledge of him was vague. Pushkin’s impending birthday commemoration pushed me finally to begin my current work, with the original objective of two years given to research after which I would write and hopefully publish a paper. Some of the
initial questions I raised included: Did Pushkin see himself as a black man living in a racist society, with a racial consciousness and identity? Or did Pushkin identify, despite his Negroid appearance and African ancestry, with Russian national consciousness? In other words, was Pushkin totally integrated within Russian culture? Interestingly, the more I engaged these questions, the more I was introduced to a well-known debate among Russian, American, and European scholars about the answers. At the same time, it became clear that information about Russian racial attitudes was lacking. That is, except for
individual essays of excellent quality, in such journals as Euro-Asian Studies, or Eighteenth Century Studies, or The Slavonic and East European Review, or Journal of Russian and East European Psychology; or individual chapters and papers in such texts as Pushkin Today, Russia and the Negro (A. Blakely's pioneering study), Race, Racism, and Psychology, and The Aryan Myth, no one has
published a monograph devoted to the subject of racial thought and prejudice during Pushkin’s era, nor has anyone applied these findings to an understanding of Alexander Pushkin and his race consciousness.

In addition to the research I have already done, aided by Prof. Nepomnyashchy, A. Blakely, Ludmilla Trigos, Dale Peterson, Stephanie Sandler, Joanna Hubbs, Kara Lynch and Mike Ford, I have written an essay, “Pushkin’s Black Consciousness"(CLA Journal, Sept., 1999). To date, I have completed two chapters (rough draft) out of six in my Pushkin monograph. I have also shared my ideas with colleagues at professional conferences. I have also begun a concentrated study of the Russian language and will be able to speak and read intermediate Russian by this summer.

My involvement with Pushkin studies led to a deeper involvement with Russian society and culture. The more I researched the life, work, and times of Alexander Pushkin, the more I realized how little I knew about Russia itself. At
the same time, information began to emerge as to the extended historical involvement between African people, especially North American slaves, and Russians. As early as 1790, Alexander Radishchev’s book, From St. Petersburg to Moscow, called attention to similarities between Russian serfdom and American slavery. Moreover, Russian authors in the nineteenth century, such as Nicholas Turgenev and Alexander Herzen, inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, also drew parallels between black slaves and Russian serfs. Further historical interest between blacks and Russians grew from visits by Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson, who made a huge, and positive, impact on Russians. Thus it
became clear that Pushkin was merely the beginning of a tradition in which blacks have been involved with Russian society. Of course, my fascination with this subject has been an individual one, yet the more I talked with colleagues and students, the more I realized others had similar interests, or they had valuable knowledge to share.

My text, PUSHKIN’S AFRICAN IDENTITY, will develop according to the following plan:

Ch. 1 “Introduction”—thesis statement. Pushkin was imbued with an African identity in part because it was forced on him by emerging racial prejudice
within Russian society, thus race consciousness was not solely a matter of choice fostered by his race pride. I also discuss those scholars whose work comes closest to my own, such as Allison Blakely (Russia and the Negro, Dieudonne Gnammankou (“Pushkin Between Russian and Africa”), and J. Thomas Shaw (“Pushkin on His African Heritage”).

Ch. 2 “Russian Racial Attitudes Before Pushkin”—an examination of how and when racial prejudice emerged within Russian society. I argue that race prejudice developed as a result of Russian “Europeanization,” especially after the era of
Peter I, when Enlightenment philosophy introduced ideas about race and racial inequality. Such ideas were extant upon Pushkin’s birth. At the same time I draw a distinction between the notion of race prejudice and racism as such.

Ch. 3 “Pushkin and His Contemporaries”—an examination of how and where attitudes toward blacks surfaced among Pushkin’s schoolmates, friends, enemies and others within the Russian nobility. I also discuss Pushkin’s response, mainly in his early years, to notions of racial difference. There is some discussion here of
Pushkin’s early writing, mainly his letters, where race consciousness is expressed.

Ch. 4 “Race Consciousness and Pushkin’s Work”—a discussion of how race identity influences Pushkin’s writing as seen in representative lyrical poems and stories. The most apparent texts will be examined, such as his unfinished novel,
“Negro of Peter the Great.”

Ch. 5 “ The Bulgarin Incident”— a look at Pushkin’s well-known polemic with F. Bulgarin in which race played a part. Unlike earlier slurs upon Pushkin’s racial background, this was the first time someone made the attack public in an attempt to undermine the poet.

Ch. 6 “Pushkin’s Death: a Racial Conspiracy?”—an investigation, based on new evidence, of whether Pushkin was provoked by a broader conspiracy of enemies to fight a duel. Was Pushkin provoked to fight an unsuccessful duel by racial insult?

Ch. 7 “Conclusion”—thesis restatement, final comments, etc. Thema/ Titel (Dis)locating Identity, Community, and Citizenship:
A Comparative Approach to the Eritrean Diaspora in Germany and the U.S.

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