One gloomy evening, while at a party in apartments overlooking the Mikhaylovskiy Palace of Tsar Paul I, Pushkin was asked to improvise a poem. A few hours later he had penned a draft of his Ode to Liberty—a subversive poem banned in Russia for the entirety of the nineteenth century.
... You, spoiled children of the flighty Fate,
The tyrants of the world! Beware!
But you, take heart and hear me,
Arise, you outcast slaves!
Read the complete text here.
When the poem reached the ears of the authorities he was summoned to Count Miloradovich, the head of the secret police. He demanded of Pushkin to produce the subversive poems to which the poet replied that it cannot be done, since they have been burned. Then, young Pushkin proceeded to write all his outrageous poetry by memory right in front of Miloradovich. The count was quite impressed with Pushkin’s honesty and petitioned on his behalf to the Tsar who fully intended to exile the poet to Siberia. Instead, his punishment was replaced to by the civil service transfer to the south of the vast empire.
Pushkin was born in Moscow on May 26, 1799. The poet’s father, Sergey Lvovich Pushkin traced his ancestry to the 12th century nobility. The poet’s mother, Nadyezhda Osipovna, née Gannibal, came from a highly unusual parentage. Her grandfather was a child of an Abyssinian prince who was kidnapped by the Ottoman slave traders. He was bought by a Russian diplomat in Constantinople and brought as a gift to Tsar Peter the Great. The Tsar has taken a liking to the child and became his godfather. When he came of age, he was sent to France, where he received a first-class education. Ibrahim, now known as Abram Petrovich Gannibal became Russia’s chief military engineer. Pushkin was proud of his African heritage yet was forced to endure racial slurs to the end of his life.
Tsar Peter the Great
Abram Petrovich Gannibal,
Pushkin's great grandfather
Sergey Lvovich Pushkin,
the poet's father
Nadyezhda Osipovna Pushkina,
Pushkin as a child
Pushkin was educated at the Lyceum--an elite school established in 1811 by Tsar Alexander I. A vigorous curriculum included Russian, classical, and foreign languages, philosophy, ethics, mathematics and natural sciences, history, literature, and even swimming and gymnastics. At the Lyceum, Pushkin developed friendships that were to last him for the rest of his life. His classmates included the poets Delvig, Kuechelbecker and Ivan Pushchin. Many of his friends became the leaders of the Decembrist rebellion of 1825, and later were executed or sent to Siberia.
Недавно, обольщен прелестным сновиденьем,
В венце сияющем, царем я зрел себя;
Мечталось, я любил тебя —
И сердце билось наслажденьем.
Я страсть у ног твоих в восторгах изъяснял.
Мечты! ах! отчего вы счастья не продлили?
Но боги не всего теперь меня лишили:
Я только — царство потерял.
Not long ago I was carried away by a beautiful dream,
I saw myself as a king, wearing a shining crown;
I was dreaming that I was in love with you—
And my heart was beating with delight.
In ecstasy, my passion I declared at your feet.
Dreams! Ah, why have you not prolonged my happiness?
But the gods did not deprive me of everything:
I only lost my kingdom.
(Translation by Anton Belov)
A Dream is Pushkin's free translation from Voltaire. He made it in 1817 at the age of 18.
Count Mikhail Miloradovich
14-year-old Pushkin reciting his poem before old Derzhavin in the Lyceum Painting by Ilya Repin
Upon completion of the Lyceum in 1817 Pushkin moves to Saint Petersburg and spends next three years in careless debauchery. He is a frequent guest at the opera theater, the balls, casinos, and brothels.