On 10 February 1837, or 29 January by the Russian calendar, the great poet Alexander Pushkin lay dying on a couch in his apartment overlooking the River Moika, having been wounded in a fatal duel two days earlier. At 2:45pm, having received assurances that all his affairs were in order and his family would be provided for, Pushkin breathed his last. The tragic death of Pushkin has subsequently been regarded as a great loss for Russian literature. Alas, how many great works which could have flowed from Pushkin’s quill were lost forever! Nevertheless, some members of high society believed that the tempestuous poet long had it coming.
The dispute had arisen in late 1836, not long after Pushkin was appointed imperial historiographer by Nicholas I, who sponsored Pushkin to write a history of Peter the Great and granted him access to the state archives. Pushkin received an anonymous letter which stated that he had been appointed as official historiographer of the Most Honourable Society of Cuckolds. Pushkin was outraged by the insult to his and his wife’s honour and issued a challenge to a duel. The missive was sent to a French officer in Russian service by the name of Georges Charles d’Anthès.
In 1830 Pushkin had married the 19-year-old Natalia Goncharova, one of three sisters and considered one of the most beautiful women of her time. The marriage produced four children, and it appears that the couple were relatively happy, despite the debts accumulated by Pushkin – which obliged him to become a courtier to Tsar Nicholas I. It was said that Nicholas himself was enchanted by Natalia, and had appointed Pushkin to his court in order to see Natalia more often. There were also rumours that Natalia was engaged in a romantic liaison with d’Anthès, the adopted son of the Dutch minister to the Russian court, Baron Jacob van Heeckeren. While there is no evidence of any improper relationship between Natalia and d’Anthès, they maintained a lively correspondence and she sent him several French sentimental novels – an ironic gift considering she was married to one of the greatest writers in European history.
Pushkin was convinced that the anonymous letter – sent not only to Pushkin but also to his close friends – was the work of Heeckeren. Pushkin could hardly challenge a foreign diplomat to a duel, so he challenged d’Anthès instead – the man rumoured to be having an affair with his wife. Although duels had been made illegal in Russia, the measure was honoured more in the breach than the observance and leading Russian aristocrats continued to duel in order to protect their honour. It was rare, however, for anyone to be killed. While Pushkin himself was involved in approximately thirty duels, usually challenges had been issued and accepted over small incidents which escalated out of control. More often than not, the seconds appointed by the respective parties would come to an agreement acceptable to both sides and cancel the duel. Even when the seconds were unsuccessful the participants usually aimed to miss, reconciled with each other, and carried on with their lives.
D’Anthès accepted the challenge, delivered in November 1836. Soon afterwards, however, Baron Heeckeren intervened in an effort to diffuse the situation. It emerged d’Anthès had been courting Natalia Pushkina’s younger sister Ekaterina Goncharova, who had accepted his marriage proposal. Thus, d’Anthès would become Pushkin’s brother-in-law. The duel was called off. Yet by the beginning of the following year rumours continued to swirl around the streets of Petersburg and it was suggested that d’Anthès had married Ekaterina to remain close to Natalia and to continue their presumed affair. Pushkin, suspecting that Heeckeren was once again behind the rumours, fired off an indignant missive to the ambassador laden with insults. Heeckeren was incensed in turn and the duel was renewed.
Since duels were illegal, they usually took place in the early hours of the morning beyond the city boundaries. At six Pushkin and his opponent met at Chernaya Rechka (Black River) to the northeast of St Petersburg. The opponents stood ten steps from each other, an unusually short distance. D’Anthès fired first and his bullet wounded Pushkin in the stomach. Pushkin fell to the ground and d’Anthès rushed up to meet him. Having cursed his opponent and warned him to stand back, Pushkin proceeded to fire at point-blank range at d’Anthès’s chest, who had raised his arm to defend himself. The poet then fell back unconscious. Despite Pushkin’s shot, d’Anthès received only a slight wound on his arm. Conspiracy theorists later suggested that d’Anthès had been wearing some form of protection underneath his jacket. Perhaps the bullet ricocheted off a button on his sleeve – either way, d’Anthès was not heavily wounded.
The wounded Pushkin was carried back to his apartment on the Moika embankment in the centre of St Petersburg, a short distance from the Winter Palace. Pushkin’s friends gathered round and summoned a doctor, who informed his patient that the wound was fatal. Fully aware that his time was running out, Pushkin made sure to get his family affairs in order. He begged Tsar Nicholas for forgiveness and requested financial assistance for his family. The Tsar sent word that Pushkin was pardoned and his wife would be granted an annual pension of 10000 roubles. After Pushkin died, a funeral ceremony was held in a nearby church in St Petersburg, before his body was transported to the Svyatogorsk monastery in Pskov province, where he was buried beside his mother.
In the aftermath of the duel, Heeckeren’s diplomatic credentials were withdrawn by Nicholas I, and d’Anthès was dismissed from Russian service. He returned to his native France with his wife and embarked on a political career which saw him eventually serve in Napoleon III’s Imperial Senate. In 1844, Pushkin’s widow Natalia married Pyotr Petrovich Lanskoy, a cavalry general and commander of the Life Guard Cavalry Regiment, with whom she had three further children.
It is impossible to know what other masterpieces might have issued from Pushkin’s quill had he lived another thirty years. In the final years of his life he was turning his attention to works of prose, including the histories he had been contracted to write for the Tsar. Pushkin had published The Captain’s Daughter in 1836, a fictionalised tale set during the Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-74. Around the same time he produced his History of the Pugachev Rebellion, the result of scholarly research on the uprising about Catherine the Great. On several occasions he expressed a desire to write a tale set during the Napoleonic invasion in 1812 – perhaps Pushkin would have authored a masterpiece that outranked War and Peace.
Ultimately, these counterfactual speculations are meaningless. Though his life was cut short, Pushkin bequeathed to Russian and world literature an outstanding and wide-ranging opus – including the fairytale Ruslan and Lyudmila, the novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, the narrative poem The Bronze Horseman, the short story The Queen of Spades, the play Boris Godunov, and many more besides. The tragic circumstances of Pushkin’s death – foreshadowed and backshadowed by the many duels which fill the pages of Russian literature – is an essential part of Pushkin’s legacy. Pushkin might have left the mortal world on 10 February 1837, yet his reputation as the greatest writer Russia has ever produced, though occasionally challenged, has endured despite the turbulence of Russian society and politics over the last two centuries.