The idea developed in most cultures that a person is punished for his misdeed in the same way that he committed the misdeed. Slap someone and you will be slapped. Insult another and you will be insulted. In English, the notion is called “tit for tat.” In Hebrew it is midah keneged midah, “measure for measure.” It is discussed in the Babylonian Talmud Sotah 8b, 9a; Megilah 12b; and Sanhedrin 90a, b, and 100a, b. Many call the notion superstition: it rarely happens, and when it does it is simply happenstance. Some insist that the punishment is inflicted by God. Others that it is part of nature. People can cite many examples of it, such as the life and death of the Russian Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799 –1837). Who was Pushkin, what did he do wrong, and how did he die?
Pushkin was a highly respected, poet, playwright, and novelist who lived during the Romantic Era. Many, even today, consider him the greatest Russian poet and call him the founder of modern Russian literature. His great-grandfather Ibrahim Gannibal (1696-1781) was kidnapped as a child from Africa and was raised by Peter the Great. Ibrahim became the godson of Peter the Great and was made a Russian prince. He was considered Europe’s first black intellectual and rose to be a general in the Russian army. One who wants to read about him can read “The Stolen Prince” by Hugh Barnes.
Pushkin fictionalized Ibrahim’s life in “The Moor of Peter the Great,” in the book “Novels, Tales, Journeys” and other translations ,of the tale. The translators call this story and the other stories in “Novels, Tales, Journeys” masterpieces. “The Moor of Peter the Great” describes Peter the Great as a hands-on very intelligent leader, working to improve Russia side by side with his workmen. It pictures the very intelligent “Moor” preferring to stay in France because he had a sexual relationship with the wife of another man. But despite his strong affection for the woman, he gave way to Peter’s call to return to Russia. This short story shows the customs of the time in Russia, the backwardness of the country, illicit sexual relationships, and the prejudices against blacks.
Pushkin, like Ibrahim, enjoyed the extremes of pleasure and peril, including having sex with the wives of other men. But he could not accept that his wife loved another man, a French officer, and enjoyed being with him, even though historians could find no proof that his wife committed adultery. He was killed in a duel with the French officer because of the alleged adultery, the very crime that Pushkin committed. It was tit for tat: he committed adultery and died because of it.
Henri Troyat, who wrote a biography of Pushkin called “Pushkin,” described his writings: “He deliberately chooses the hard way. He rubs down his prose, wears it away, aerates it to the point of transparency, to the ultimate resistance of the right word. He makes of it that taut and slender thing in which no line or facet can be altered without shattering the whole.”
Charles Johnston, who translated Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” wrote that Pushkin’s writings are “magic,” “touching lyrical beauty,” “cynical wit,” filled with “psychological insight,” “narrative skill,” “thrilling,” “gusto and swing,” and that the writings have a “compulsive grip.”
Tolstoy wrote that Pushkin’s writings inspired him to write “Anna Karenina.”
The English translation of “Novels, Tales, Journeys” is an easy read book. It reads like the works of a popular twenty-first century writer. The several stories in it are an excellent introduction to one of literature’s great writers. Beside the 28-page “The Moor of Peter the Great,” the book contains the 23-page haunting tale “The Queen of Spades,” which the translators write is one “of “Pushkin’s two most important works of fiction,” the other being his 104-page short novel “The Captain’s Daughter,” a love story in the midst of war, which the translators and others call “the most perfect book in Russian literature.” There are also five short stories with surprise endings called “The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin,” comprising 58 pages, which are somewhat humorous; and also eight other short stories and ten fragments and sketches.