Cover image for Pushkin : a biography
Pushkin : a biography
Feinstein, Elaine.
Personal Author:
First Ecco edition.
Publication Information:
Hopewell, N.J. : Ecco Press, 1999.

Physical Description:
viii, 309 pages, 12 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, facsimiles ; 24 cm
Format :


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PG3350 .F45 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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British poet, novelist, and biographer Feinstein recounts the short life of Alexander Sergeevish Puskin (1799-1837), widely recognized as the father of Russian literature. She finds in him an impudent genius, libertine, wounded son, jealous husband, victim of snobbery and censorship, and above all a writer of inexhaustible vision and vitality.

Author Notes

She is a prize-winning poet, novelist & biographer was made a fellow of the royal Society of Literature in 1980 & has written biographies of D. H. Lawrence, Marina Tsvetayeva & Aleksandr Pushkin.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Shackled by police surveillance and czarist censorship, Alexander PushkinÄarguably the Russian Shakespeare, although few realized it during his lifeÄcould publish little that was both safe and up to his standards. Despite penury and political banishment, he produced works like Evgeny Onegin (1823-1831), the Byronic saga of a rake something like his young self, as well as Boris Godunov and The Bronze Horseman. As poet and novelist Feinstein (A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetayeva) implies in her accessible biography, Pushkin was his own worst enemy. The impulsive, reckless, disheveled great-grandson of an African slave who was a favorite of Peter the Great, was his own worst enemy. He died, at 37, in a probably unnecessary duel, defending the honor of his wife, a frivolous, flirtatious St. Petersburg court beauty unworthy of his jealousy. The bicentennial year of Pushkin's birth in 1799 will spur other books, but very likely none in English will be more up-to-date in exploiting still-emerging documents about Pushkin's life and death. Feinstein's well-chosen extracts from the poet's writings illuminate his bawdy wit, his lyric intensity, his sensitivity to his attenuated but obvious African heritage, and his melancholy introspection. He once described a passionate woman he had bedded as "A Comet without laws among/ The calculated round of stars"; in Feinstein's biography the words apply just as aptly to the great Russian writer himself. 22 b&w illustrations. (May) FYI: Serena Vitale's Pushkin's Button, one of Feinstein's sources for her account of the fatal duel, was reviewed in Forecasts, January 11. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Aleksander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia's greatest poet, belonged to an old royal family that was trying to keep up with high society on a very meager income. Throughout his life, he battled his lack of funds and his African heritage. Feinstein, a poet, biographer (e.g., The Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetayeva), and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has written a very readable volume, accurately noting Pushkin's lack of activity in the Decembrist Revolution of 1826 but chronicling his literary support for that effort. She vividly describes his marriage to the beautiful Natalia Goncharova and her flirtations at court with Georges-Charles d'Anthes, which led to Pushkin's premature death in a duel protecting her honor. Feinstein liberally quotes from Pushkin's poetry to demonstrate his feelings and actions. The Soviet period (1917-89) distorted Pushkin's writings and influence on Russian society; here, Feinstein takes advantage of recently discovered materials and access to Soviet archives to shed new light on Pushkin's last years. Recommended for public and academic libraries.ÄHarry V. Willems, Southeast Kansas Lib. Syst., Iola (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Three full-length biographies of Pushkin in English (all titled Pushkin) precede this one: Ernest Simmons's volume (1937) is scholarly but now outdated; David Magarshack's (CH, May'70) is solid but without notes; Robin Edmonds's (1994) is sober and circumstantial but contains none of the valuable material about the Anthes-Heeckeren affair unearthed by Serena Vitale (Eng. trans., Pushkin's Button, 1999). Feinstein tries to fill these lacunae--and partially succeeds. Uninhibited, gossipy, and replete with piquant details (this is definitely a warts-and-all likeness), this biography provides the reader with a Portrait of the Artist as Juvenile Delinquent: a child prodigy, who, neglected by cold and frivolous parents, grew into a mercurial and fiery troublemaker (both politically and socially), whose pursuit of beautiful women was surpassed only by his passion for poetry. Although Feinstein's writing--not always graceful, sometimes repetitious, and pocked by small, irritating errors--is not up to her subject in places, what emerges is a persuasive portrait of a basically attractive but tragically flawed genius, whose death in a duel was partly of his own making. Feinstein's volume will not replace Edmonds, et al., but it can serve as their lively complement. For university libraries serving upper-division undergraduates through faculty. R. Gregg emeritus, Vassar College



Chapter One Imperial Russia The visible symbol of Imperial Russia was St Petersburg itself, built on marshy, frozen wastes at the edge of the Baltic in the early eighteenth century. It was the location chosen by Peter the Great as his window on to Europe, mainly because Peter hated Moscow, the ancient Russian capital, for its backwardness, crooked streets and murderous rebellions. He intended his city to have architecture of classical proportions, with broad streets, open, clean and eminently easy to police. The lives of innumerable peasants, soldiers, convicts and prisoners of war were sacrificed to that ambition. In sunshine, St Petersburg is one of the most glittering cities on the face of the earth, yet even at the time of its creation Peter's first wife put a curse upon it, and it remains at the mercy of floods to this day. As Nikolay Karamzin, the great historian whose life was in part contemporary to Pushkin, remarked, `Petersburg is founded on tears and corpses.'     The Court in St Petersburg, however, with its brocade coats from France, lace ruffles from the Netherlands and buckled shoes from England, was as splendid as any in Europe. The splendour concealed the violence that held the autocracy in place. Peter had declared his intention to break with the Asiatic barbarism of Moscow, but he used torture to impose his will, and sometimes even took part in person. Offenders were burned with hot irons, broken on the rack and had their tongues torn out. Peter had his own son, Alexis, tortured to death for alleged treason. The man whose `will founded the city beneath the sea' unquestionably wanted to make Russia great. He founded an Academy of Sciences, a Russian public museum, a library and the first newspaper. He was physically inexhaustible and immensely gifted. However, the bulk of the population of his empire lived in poverty and illiteracy. Most of his people were peasants, and throughout the eighteenth century almost all of these were either serfs of private landowners or in bondage to the state. There was no bourgeoisie of a Western European kind. Very few Russians lived in towns, and of those who did most were desperately poor. Merchants depended on the patronage of the nobility, and had little opportunity for enterprise of their own. Bureaucrats were either of noble origin or ennobled on gaining high position, and there were very few intellectuals. All power lay in the Tsar, and the noblest officers of the land gained their power only from the confidence of the Emperor.     Tyranny was easy to justify by the danger of rebellion, which was real enough. Weak rulers, such as those who succeeded Peter the Great, were murderously deposed in a series of palace coups, usually instigated by favourites with the support of the Guards regiments. Even Catherine II (r. 1762-96) who had come to power with the intention of reforming the condition of the peasants, gave up all idea of radical reform after the great peasant uprising (1773-5) under the Don Cossack Emelyan Pugachev. In any case, Catherine was less liberal than Western admirers, who knew of her correspondence with Voltaire, liked to believe. Not only did she extend Russia's Imperial rule over several neighbouring peoples, she enacted a system of laws which put well over half the population of Russia in bondage to their owners. In Western Europe there had been no serfdom since the Middle Ages, and by the last quarter of the eighteenth century ideals of self-government and individual freedom had led to the establishment of the United States, a revolution in France and constitutional monarchy in Great Britain. Catherine wanted no such ideas to gain currency inside her own empire. In 1790 Aleksander Radishchev, who denounced the moral evils of serfdom in `A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow' was sent to Siberia in chains for beliefs Catherine might once have praised for their compassion. Pushkin knew the skills she used and wrote of her: `If ruling means knowing human weakness and using it, then Catherine deserves the awe of posterity.' Neither then nor in Pushkin's time were her sexual appetites, any more than those of later rulers, regarded other than indulgently by her Russian subjects.     The power of Imperial Russia was at its height when Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin was born in the last year of the eighteenth century, three years after Catherine's reign ended, during the short rule (1796-1801) of her son Paul I. As a Grand Duke, Paul had run his own estate with a private army dressed in Prussian uniform. As a Tsar, Paul became dangerously capricious. His closest advisors, even his wife and the mistress who adored him, all fell under Paul's suspicion. Some idea of his need to impose formal respect can be gained from Pushkin's story that when Paul met him as a year-old child in his pram, the Tsar reproached his nurse for not seeing that his cap was doffed in respect. It was said Paul peered anxiously at sentinels to make certain the guards had not been changed without his instructions. It was in this mood that he fortified the Mikhaylovsky Palace in St Petersburg and took up residence there on 13 February 1801, but his fears did not preserve him. Count Peter von Pahlen joined with several other officers to remove Paul forcibly from the throne and install his son, Alexander, who was thought to have liberal sympathies. Alexander was forewarned of the conspirators' intentions and assured that no harm would come to his father, but in the event Paul was strangled during the attempt to put him under arrest.     Born under Paul I, Pushkin lived more than the first half of his life under the rule of Tsar Alexander I, an altogether more complex character than his father. Alexander's accession to the throne was greeted with tears of joy and people embracing in the streets of the capital. Nor was their enthusiasm altogether misplaced. The early years of Alexander's reign were relatively liberal; he was a dreamer with blue eyes, whose principal tutor as a child had been the Swiss Cesar Laharpe. Alexander began his rule with a genuine hatred of despotism, and at first turned for advice to Mikhail Speransky, a thinker dedicated to removing social injustices.     Internal affairs, however, were not Alexander's only problem. After a series of military defeats he had to sue for peace with Napoleon on a raft on the river Niemen at Tilsit in 1807. The French invasion of 1812 aroused a great wave of patriotic indignation among the Russian people, though Westernisers among the aristocratic elite had been very sympathetic to French political aspirations. The invasion led to slaughter without parallel in the history of warfare. As seen by Tolstoy in War and Peace , the military commander Kutuzov encouraged the French army to advance far into Russia, and even allowed Moscow to burn so that winter would destroy Napoleon's troops. Certainly Alexander made little contribution to such military decisions -- throughout the war he sought comfort in reading the Scriptures, praying the while to be forgiven for his own complicity in the deposition of his father.     After the victory against Napoleon there was a brief upsurge of hope for some improvement of Russian society, but Alexander had by this time turned away from any concern with temporal change towards the Church and reactionary clerical mystics. He brought Count Aleksey Arakcheev, whom he had met while still a child on his father's estate at Gatchina, back into power. Arakcheev was a man described by Pushkin as `without wit, without feelings, without honour'. Arakcheev had small, cold eyes, a reputation for cruelty and a belief that Russia needed to be controlled with brutality. Another man of extremely conservative views, Admiral Shishkov, was made both Minister of Education and head of the Censorship Department. It was in response to this disappointing reversal of policy that secret societies began to be formed to work for some measure of reform, and it was Alexander's unexpected death at Taganrog that gave an opportunity for an uprising in favour of constitutional government on 14 December 1826. It was an uprising which had been dreamed about for a decade, but in the event was both spontaneous and ill organised. The rebels on Senate Square were put down with great ruthlessness by Alexander's brother, Nicholas I, who set up the notoriously oppressive Third Department under General Alexander Benckendorf to control any other stirrings of revolt among the intelligentsia. The rising of those who came to be called Decembrists was the single most important political event in Pushkin's short life, though accident prevented him taking any part in it.     In Pushkin's lifetime St Petersburg was pre-eminently a city of balls, display and pride in rank. It took little account of artists of any kind, or even ancient lineage unless accompanied by wealth. When, some twenty years after Pushkin's death, the composer Glinka left St Petersburg for ever in 1856, he got out of his carriage and spat on the ground that had never given him his due. It was not a rejection Pushkin was ever privileged to make. Copyright © 1998 Elaine Feinstein. All rights reserved.