"The Moor of Peter the Great" by Alexander Pushkin

Aug 28, 2019

Much literature that enacts racism, enacts it by images of overt violence and discrimination. Rarely, however, is racism enacted in a quite subtle manner: that of praise and exaltation - or so it seems on the surface. Alexander Pushkin was a Russian poet, born an African in an aristocrat family in Russian society. Pushkin is hailed by many as the greatest Russian poet in history and the father of modern Russian literature. He wrote the “The Moor of Peter the Great” from 1827 to 1828 as his first attempt in prose. First published in 1837, the novel follows the story of Ibrahim, an African slave who fascinates many and was greatly favored by Tsar Peter the Great. Many seem to share the Tsar’s sentiments, but some are apprehensive of his involvements in intimate relationships with European women. Regardless, throughout Pushkin’s entire writing, rife is a creeping discrimination towards him, an affront on sides unexpected.

A critical disclaimer: for reasons unknown, Pushkin left the novel unfinished. Hence, the discussion that follows is bound only by as much as what has been written. Further, said discussion is rooted in a particular topic, that of racism. For this reason, chapter seven of the novel does not bear discursive value, since it lacks substance of narrative substance per se and thematic substance relative to the discussion.

In its core, racism is discrimination. Inherent and manifest within is inferiority, but what is not manifest is a notable aspect of its form. Inferiority is often viewed latitudinally; to say that one is “inferior” is to say that one is “below” - below someone, it is most likely meant. Most definitely, it means to be “below what is warranted of one’s own value.” However, viewed latitudinally as well, more often than not is being “inferior,” being “beyond what is warranted of one’s own value.” In a word, racism is in one way, to condemn them to a cesspit below, and in another, to put them on a pedestal - not to have a statue fashioned after them, but rather in a pillory. The discriminated, his head and hands locked in place, unable to move any more from a position of humiliation, is a scapegoat, patronized by his oppressors.

This pillory does not seem to be present in “The Moor of Peter the Great.” What can be confirmed is that Ibrahim the Moor is put on a pedestal. His wartime achievements allowed him to gain much favor and praise from Peter the Great as to have him taken in as his godson. Absent is any mention or allusion of Ibrahim’s race in all of their interactions. One might say their relationship is platonic; it appears so genuine, one cannot think to question its authenticity. It stands unbothered amid whispered apprehensions on the smiling faces of the Tsar’s people. In some manner, the relationship between Ibrahim and Peter the Great can be likened to the parable of the prodigal son in the Bible.

Ibrahim, recognizing Peter, rushed forward to him in delight, but respectfully stopped short. The Tsar drew near, embraced him and kissed him on the forehead.

Such dynamic is similar to that in Ibrahim’s relationship with Countess Leonara - his first romantic relationship. As with Peter the Great, their relationship is one of wholesomeness, nearing consummation where it not of the Countess’ already existing marriage with a man for whom she feels nothing - this, despite the dormancy of scandal among the Parisian public. When the Countess undergoes labor and conceives a black baby, she and Ibrahim express joy, much more than when she conceived a white baby which most likely belonged to the Countess’ husband.

There is a part where the Tsar ordered the Rzhevsky family to have one of its children, Natalya, be betrothed to Ibrahim, against the strong wishes of the family due to his dark complexion and low class - racism, manifested clearly. Even here, there is no pillory. Rzhevsky relents to the Tsar’s dictate and forced themselves to accept Ibrahim’s advances to court Natalya.

It does not mean that racism is a minor force in the novel - it is an overbearing one. Some significant details are of note here. Though Ibrahim and the Tsar may seem to share a firm relationship, it is more a one-sided one to Peter the Great. All of the Tsar’s sentiments and wishes for Ibrahim are nothing short of a father; Ibrahim, however, does not accede to being like a son. The novel indicates points in the story which demonstrate that, unlike the Tsar, Ibrahim does not feel fulfilled from the relationship. One of the first is found in his letter to the Countess, informing her of his departure.

Good-bye, Leonora, good-bye, my dear and only friend. I am leaving you, you, the first and last joy of my life. I have neither country nor relatives. I am going to sad Russia, where my total solitude will be a consolation to me.

On its own, whether Ibrahim writes this with the sole reason of alluring the Countess is unclear. If, rather, it is an indication of the lack of his fondness in the relationship, it is a sufficient supplement. Even earlier in the novel, allusions to this lack had been described.

Peter was extremely pleased with him and more than once summoned him back to Russia; but Ibrahim was in no hurry . He used various pretexts to postpone his departure: now his wound, now a wish to improve his knowledge, now a shortage of money; … 

A point of concession: there is a strong case that argues for Ibrahim’s fondness developing genuinely, as parts of the novel attest to his gratitude for the Tsar’s fatherly advice. This is granted; however, one should consider the reservations which Ibrahim expressed towards the Tsar, as exemplified at one point in his return to Russia. Shown below is a previous line from above, with emphasis supplied.

Ibrahim, recognizing Peter, rushed forward to him in delight, but respectfully stopped short.

From Ibrahim to have “respectfully stopped short” is not out of reverence for him, but his obligation as his slave. Supplied below is an outburst from an old prince from the Rzhevsky family upon the Tsar’s order to have Ibrahim and Natalya married, also with emphasis added.

"What!" exclaimed the old Prince, who was by now wide awake. "Natasha, my granddaughter, to be married to a bought negro!"

This outburst is not one far from the truth. It is a strong indication that though there exists some fondness in the relationship between Ibrahim and Peter the Great, nevertheless it is rooted in a slave-master relation. When the Tsar discusses to Ibrahim a girl which the latter takes a liking into, he reveals that he has already arranged for his marriage without his consent.

"It's all fixed, my friend!" Peter said, taking him by the arm. "I have betrothed you… “

In a word, Ibrahim is given some illusion of freedom, but in truth he has little agency. Though the Tsar’s fondness in Ibrahim is genuine, part of it is because of his wartime achievements. There are other notable individuals in high European society who have similar or even higher stature. The Tsar’s fondness, genuine as it is, is more deeply rooted from his fascination towards Ibrahim as a Moor.

It is also because of this fascination that led the Tsar to prepare for such a society, come the time that he himself is deceased and can no longer support him.

“… If I were to die today, what would become of you tomorrow? You must get settled while there's still time; find support in new ties, marry into the Russian nobility."

The Tsar himself acknowledges Ibrahim’s stature as a Moor in European society; his status is dangerously low, so he must establish it among nobility.

Renowned writer Edward Said wrote in his book “Orientalism” about the tendencies of the West to appropriate the East into an amalgamated image that simplistically represents the East into what is called the “Orient.” The term itself inherently implicates a position of inferiority, one that speaks an “exotic” characteristic of the Orient - “exotic” being the descriptor set by the West that further alienates the East to the Other: an object of scrutiny, not a fellow subject in discourse.

While “Orientalism” was written nearly a century after Pushkin’s novel, and while the original scope of Said’s arguments barely stretches into Africa as part of the East, it nevertheless has substantial discursive value in discussing racism in the novel. The existence of the “Other” is clear in the character of Ibrahim: he is the prized possession of Peter the Great, a spectacle which the Tsar attempts to aggrandize and prepare for high society to receive. The Parisians demonstrated this; some members of Russian high society demonstrated this; the Countess demonstrated this. And it is not because he is decorated with wartime achievements - it is all because he is a Moor, an exotic species.

Thus situated the pillory - and a glorified one at that. Instead of tomatoes and other fruits, thrown Ibrahim’s way are praises, pretenses of fascination. Much like the pillory of overt racism, his hands and head are bound; he has no agency. He cannot move anymore than what society had put him into, what Peter the Great has imposed upon him amid his fascination. He is seemingly placed “beyond” what his value truly is - a “beyond” that is degrading. No matter how it seems, it is ultimately discriminating - and though it is not manifest, it is very much humiliating.

Pushkin’s intentions for writing the novel are unclear - he never finished it. Perhaps, he meant well; perhaps, he never meant well at all. He himself, after all, was born in Russian nobility. What he wrote, comes from the lens of a privileged African. The discussion made above is not meant to definitively frame the novel. As it is eternally unfinished, so its intent is eternally vague. Regardless, “The Moor of Peter the Great” allows readers a glance of European high society and the tendencies of racism which creep through its roots. Simultaneously, it demonstrates how racism can be found even in praise and applause.

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