Only thirty-seven when he challenged his wife’s suspected lover to a duel, Alexander Pushkin was shot in the spleen and died two days later. Acknowledged as Russia’s greatest poet and the founder of Russian literature, Pushkin will be remembered for his two monumental works, Eugene Onegin and Boris Goudonov.
Born June 6, 1799, to an aristocratic family in Moscow, Pushkin was the great grandson of an African slave who was brought to Russia a century earlier as a gift for Tsar Peter the Great and who worked his way up in the imperial court. Like many young people born into privilege, Pushkin became a radical rebel and was often in trouble with the Tsar’s political police.
Pushkin attended the Imperial Lyceum near Saint Petersburg, and then plunged into the raucous intellectual milieu of the city on the Neva, a life that included heavy drinking, gambling, and womanizing. When he was twenty-one, he published his first major poem, Ruslan and Lyudmila, which made a major splash in literary circles. His activism for social reform resulted in his exile to various provinces and ultimately to seclusion on his mother’s estate. Meanwhile he finished his epic play Boris Goudonov in 1825, but it was suppressed by the government until 1831—and was never produced in its uncensored form until 2007. Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, followed in 1833.
An atheist in his youth, by the time he was in his thirties he had settled into a fairly conventional Russian Orthodoxy, although his beliefs very likely edged toward deism. He also was a member of a militant Masonic lodge known as Ovid.
In 1831, at the age of thirty-two, Pushkin married the sixteen-year-old Natalia Goncharov, with whom he had four children in rapid succession. Natalia was a flighty spendthrift, and Pushkin continued to gamble recklessly, so the family finances were always strained.
Pushkin was notorious for engaging in duels to defend his honor, having fought some twenty-nine, so when he heard that his wife had been propositioned by her brother-in-law, he challenged him to fight, although dueling had been outlawed. Whether Natalia, who had been known to flirt with others including Tsar Nicholas, reciprocated the proposition in any way is an open question. Nonetheless, Pushkin and Georges d’Anthès met at sunset on January 27, 1837, in a wooded area on the banks of the Neva half-an-hour’s sleighride outside St. Petersburg.
Both men were wearing some sort of protective gear, and D’Anthès was wearing the uniform of the Tsar’s Horse Guards regiment with large, shiny buttons. Both men carried pistols, and at ten paces they turned and fired. Both shots were true, but a button on D’Anthès uniform deflected the shot and he received only a slight flesh wound in his arm. Pushkin took a shot in the belly, piercing his spleen and his femoral artery. He died two days later of internal hemorrhaging.
Pushkin’s funeral was originally scheduled for the St. Petersburg cathedral, but was moved at the last minute to a smaller church because it was feared the many mourners might pose a threat to public order. The Tsar gave orders for a handsome stipend to support Pushkin’s family, who thereafter lived in far greater comfort than Pushkin was ever able to provide.