Alexander Pushkin

The Negro of Peter  the Great
Originally prepared for: RUS 493 - "African-American Literary Ties to Russian Intellectual Thought"

By the iron will of Peter
Was Russia transformed.
Contents: (Note p.42- A number of these tales are unfinished.)
Chapter Three
Like clouds in the sky,
Our thoughts change at the slightest breeze,
And what we love today, we hate tomorrow.
The next day Peter woke Ibrahim as he had promised, and congratulated him on his promotion to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Grenadier company of the Preobrazhensky regiment, of which he himself was the Colonel. The courtiers surrounded Ibrahim, each in his own way trying to flatter the new favourite. The haughty Prince Menshikov pressed his hand in a friendly way; Sheremetev inquired after his Parisian acquaintances. Golovin invited him to dinner; and others followed his example, so that Ibrahim received invitations for at least a month.

 Ibrahim began to lead a monotonous but busy life and, consequently, did not suffer from boredom. He grew daily more attached to the Tsar and became better able to appreciate his lofty mind. To follow the thoughts of a great man is a most rewarding study. Ibrahim saw Peter in the Senate, arguing with Buturlin and Dolgoruky; deciding important questions of legislation at the Admiralty Collegium, which was consolidating Russia's naval power; he saw him with Feofan, Gavriil Buzhinsky and Kopievitch in his hours of leisure, inspecting translations of foreign publications or visiting some merchant's factory, a craftsman's workshop or a scholar's study. Russia presented herself to Ibrahim as one huge workshop, where only machines moved and where each workman, subject to a fixed plan, was occupied with his own job. He considered it his duty to work hard at his own bench also, and tried to regret the gaiety of Parisian life as little as possible. But it was more difficult to dispel from his thoughts that other, dear recollection: he often thought of the Countess D**, imagined her justifiable indignation, her tears and her grief.... But at times a terrible thought oppressed his heart: the distractions of the haut-monde, a new attachment, another happy man-he shuddered; jealousy began to set his African blood boiling, and hot tears were ready to course down his dusky face.

He was sitting in his study one morning, surrounded by business papers, when he suddenly heard a loud greeting in French; Ibrahim turned round quickly, and the young Korsakov, whom he had left behind in Paris, amid the whirl of society, embraced him with joyful exclamations.

"I have only just arrived," said Korsakov, "and have dashed straight here to you. All our Parisian friends send their best wishes, and regret your absence; the Countess D** ordered me to summon you back without fail, and here is a letter for you from her."

 Ibrahim seized it with trembling hand and looked at the familiar handwriting of the address, not daring to believe his eyes.
"How glad I am," continued Korsakov, "that you haven't yet died of boredom in this barbarous Petersburg! What do people do here? How do they occupy themselves? Who is your tailor? Have they at least opened an opera-house?"
Ibrahim answered distractedly that the Tsar was probably working at that moment in the dockyard. Korsakov laughed.
"I can see you don't want me here just at the moment," he said; "we'll be able to talk to our hearts' content some other time; I'll go and present myself to the Tsar."

With these words he turned on his heel and hastened out of the room.

 Ibrahim, left alone, hastily unsealed the letter. The Countess tenderly upbraided him, charging him with dissimulation and distrustfulness. She wrote:

You say that my tranquillity is more dear to you than anything in the world. Ibrahim, if this were true, could you have driven me to the condition to which the unexpected news of your departure reduced me? You were frightened that I would detain you; be assured that, in spite of my love, I would have known how to sacrifice it to your well-being and to what you consider to be your duty.
The Countess ended her letter with passionate assurances of her love, and besought him to write to her from time to time-even though there should be no hope of their seeing one another again.

 Ibrahim read the letter twenty times through, kissing the precious lines with rapture. He was burning with impatience to hear about the Countess, and was on the point of setting out for the Admiralty in the hope of finding Korsakov still there, when the door opened and Korsakov himself appeared once more; he had already presented himself to the Tsar and, as usual, seemed to be highly pleased with himself.

"Entre nous," he said to Ibrahim, " the Tsar is an exceedingly strange man. Imagine, I found him in some sort of sackcloth vest, on the mast of a new ship, whither I was forced to clamber with my dispatches. I stood on a rope ladder, and without room enough to make a decent bow, I became utterly confused-a thing that has never happened to me before. However, the Tsar, having read my papers, looked me over from top to toe and was no doubt pleasantly struck by the taste and elegance of my clothes; at least he smiled, and invited me to this evening's Assembly. But I am a total stranger to Petersburg and during my six years' absence have completely forgotten the customs of the place. Pray be my mentor; call for me this evening and introduce me."

Ibrahim agreed and hastened to turn the conversation to a subject more interesting to him.

"Well, and how is the Countess D**?"

"The Countess? At first she was naturally most upset at your departure; and then, of course, she gradually became more cheerful and took on a new lover - do you know whom? That longlegged Marquis R**. Why do you show the whites of your Moorish eyes like that? Does it seem strange to you? Surely you know that lasting grief is not an expression of human nature - particularly feminine nature. Think it over while I go and rest after my journey; don't forget to call for me."

 What feelings filled Ibrahim's heart? Jealousy? Rage? Despair? No, but deep, oppressive grief. He kept on repeating to himself: "I foresaw it; it had to happen." Then he opened the Countess's letter, read it through once more, hung his head and wept bitterly. He wept for a long time. His tears relieved his heart. Looking at his watch, he saw that it was time to go. Ibrahim would have liked to have excused himself from attending the Assembly, but it was a matter of duty, and the Tsar was strict in his demand for the presence of those in his confidence. He dressed and went to call on Korsakov.

 Korsakov was sitting in his dressing-gown, reading a French novel.

"So early? " he said, on seeing Ibrahim.

"Heavens above," replied the other, "it's already half-past five; we shall be late; get dressed as quickly as you can and we'll go."

Flustered, Korsakov jumped up and began to ring with all his might; servants came running in; he hurriedly began to dress. His French valet handed him a pair of scarlet-heeled slippers, blue velvet breeches and a pink coat embroidered with spangles; his wig was hastily powdered in the hall and brought in to him. Korsakov fitted it on his cropped head, demanded his sword and gloves, turned round about ten times before the looking-glass, and announced to Ibrahim that he was ready. The footmen handed each man his bearskin cloak, and they set off for the Winter Palace.

Korsakov overwhelmed Ibrahim with questions. Who was the most beautiful woman in Petersburg? Who was known as the best dancer? Which dance was at that time in fashion? Ibrahim satisfied his curiosity with extreme reluctance. In the meantime they reached the palace. A number of long sledges, old-fashioned carriages and gilded coaches already stood on the grass. Liveried coachmen with moustaches were crowded around the steps; as were fast-moving footmen, glittering with tinsel and plumes, and with maces in their hands; hussars, pages, ungainly footmen, piled up with the fur cloaks and muffs of their masters-a retinue which was held by the noblemen of that time to be quite indispensable. At the sight of Ibrahim, a general murmur went up among them: "The Moor, the Moor, the Tsar's Moor!" He hurriedly led Korsakov through this motley crowd. A palace lackey opened the door wide to them and they entered the hall. Korsakov was dumbfounded.... In the great room, fit by tallow candles burning dimly amid the clouds of tobacco smoke, magnates with blue ribbons across their shoulders, ambassadors, foreign merchants, officers of the Guards in their green uniforms, shipmasters in jackets and striped trousers moved backwards and forwards in crowds, to the uninterrupted sound of the music of wind instruments. The ladies were seated around the walls; the young ones glittered with all the splendour of fashion. Their dresses were brilliant with silver and gold; from exuberant farthingales their slender figures rose like flower-stems; diamonds sparkled in their ears, in their long curls and around their necks. They glanced gaily to right and left, waiting for their cavaliers and for the dancing to begin. The elderly ladies had slyly endeavoured to combine the new fashions of dress with the now banished style of the past; their bonnets resembled the small sable head-dress of the Tsaritsa Natalya Kirilovna and their gowns and mantillas somehow recalled the sarafan and the dushegreika. They seemed to attend these newly instituted entertainments more with astonishment than with pleasure and cast vexed glances at the wives and daughters of the Dutch skippers who, in dimity skirts and red jackets, sat knitting their stockings and laughing and conversing among themselves as if they were at home. Korsakov could not come to his senses.

 Noticing the new arrivals, a servant went up to them with beer and glasses on a tray.

"Que diable est-ce que tout cela?" Korsakov asked Ibrahim in a whisper.

 Ibrahim could not help smiling. The Empress and the Grand Duchesses, resplendent in their beauty and their dress, strolled among the rows of guests, talking affably to them. The Tsar was in the adjoining room. Korsakov, wishing to present himself to him, could scarcely make his way through the ever-moving crowd. In this room there were mainly foreigners, who sat solemnly smoking their clay pipes and downing the contents of their earthenware jugs. Bottles of beer and wine, leather pouches of tobacco, glasses of punch and chess-boards were disposed on the tables. At one of these Peter was playing draughts with a broad-shouldered English skipper. They were zealously saluting each other with volleys of tobacco smoke, and the Tsar was so puzzled by an unexpected move on the part of his opponent that he failed to notice Korsakov as he darted around them. At this moment a fat man with a large bouquet on his chest came bustling into the room and announced in a loud voice that the dancing had begun. He left again instantly, followed by a great number of the guests, Korsakov among them.

Korsakov was struck by an unexpected spectacle. Along the entire length of the ballroom, to the sound of the most melancholy music, ladies and gentlemen stood in two rows facing each other; the gentlemen bowed low; the ladies curtsied even lower, first to the front, then to the right, then to the left, to the front again, to the right again and so on. Korsakov stared wide-eyed at this fanciful way of passing the time and bit his lips. The bowing and curtsying continued for nearly half an hour; at last they stopped, and the fat gentleman with the bouquet proclaimed that the ceremonial dances were over, and ordered the musicians to play a minuet. Korsakov was delighted and prepared to shine. Among the young guests present, there was one that particularly pleased him. She was about sixteen, dressed expensively but with taste, and was sitting next to an elderly gentleman of imposing and stern appearance. Korsakov flew up to her and asked her to do him the honour of dancing with him. The young beauty looked at him in confusion and seemed lost for an answer. The gentleman sitting beside her frowned still more. Korsakov was awaiting her decision when the gentleman with the bouquet came up to him, led him into the middle of the ballroom and said in a pompous voice:

"Sir, you have done wrong: in the first place, you approached this young lady without making the necessary three bows to her; in the second place, you took it upon yourself to choose her, when, in a minuet, it is the right of the lady and not the gentleman to choose. For this, you must be severely punished-that is, you must drain the Goblet of the Great Eagle."

 Korsakov grew more and more astonished. He was immediately surrounded by the other guests, who noisily demanded the immediate execution of the law. Peter, hearing the laughter and shouting, came through from the adjacent room; he was extremely partial to being personally present at such punishments. The crowd parted before him, and he entered the circle where stood the culprit and, before him, the marshal of the Assembly holding a huge goblet filled with malmsey wine. He was vainly trying to persuade the offender to comply willingly with the law.

"Aha!" said Peter, seeing Korsakov. "So they've caught you, brother! Come on, monsieur, drink up and no wry faces!"
There was nothing for it. The unfortunate dandy, without pausing for breath, drained the entire contents of the goblet and handed it back to the marshal.

"Listen here, Korsakov," Peter said to him. " Your breeches are made of velvet, such as I myself don't wear, and I am far richer than you. That's extravagance; take care I don't quarrel with you."

 Hearing this reproof, Korsakov made to leave the circle, but he staggered and nearly fell, to the indescribable pleasure of the Tsar and the whole merry company. This episode did not in the least spoil the entertainment and smooth running of the main function, but enlivened it yet more. The gentlemen began to scrape their feet and bow and the ladies to curtsy and click their heels, with great zeal, no longer paying the least attention to the rhythm of the music. Korsakov was unable to take part in the general gaiety. The young lady whom Korsakov had chosen, on the instruction of her father, Gavrila Afanassyevitch, went up to Ibrahim and, lowering her blue eyes, shyly offered him her hand. Ibrahim danced the minuet with her and then led her back to her place; afterwards, having sought out Korsakov, he conducted him out of the ballroom, sat him down in his carriage, and drove home. At the start of the journey, Korsakov kept muttering incoherently:

"Damned Assembly!... Damned Goblet of the Great Eagle!"

But he soon fell into a heavy sleep, and was not aware of how he got home, or how he was undressed and put to bed. Waking with a headache on the following morning, he had but a dim recollection of the bowing and curtsying, the tobacco smoke, the gentleman with the bouquet and the Goblet of the Great Eagle.

Chapter Four

Unhurriedly our forebears ate,
Unhurriedly were passed around
The jugs and silver bowls
With steaming beer and wine.
              -RUSLAN AND LUDMILLA
I must now acquaint my benevolent reader with Gavrila Afanassyevitch Rzhevsky. He was descended from an ancient noble family, possessed huge estates, was hospitable, was a lover of falconry, and had a great number of household servants-in a word, he was a Russian nobleman through and through; as he himself put it, he could not endure "the foreign spirit" and endeavoured to preserve in his house the ancient customs that were so dear to him.

 His daughter was seventeen years old. She had lost her mother while still a child. She had been brought up in the old style-that is, surrounded by governesses, nurses, playfellows and maidservants; she was able to embroider in gold, but could neither read nor write. In spite of his aversion to everything foreign, her father could not oppose her wish to learn German dances from a captive Swedish officer living in the house. This estimable dancing master was about fifty; his right leg had been shot through at the battle of Narva and he was therefore not very accomplished at minuets and gallops; his left leg, however, executed the most difficult pas with amazing skill and agility. His pupil did credit to his efforts. Natalya Gayrilovna was known as the finest dancer at the Assemblies, and this fact added to Korsakov's offence. Korsakov himself had called the following day to apologise to Gavrila Afanassyevitch, but the jaunty elegance of the young dandy had not endeared itself to the proud nobleman, who wittily dubbed him "The French monkey".

 It was a holiday. Gavrila Afanassyevitch was expecting some relatives and friends. The long table in the old-fashioned dining hall was being laid. The guests were arriving with their wives and daughters, who had at last been emancipated by the edicts and personal example of the Tsar from the domestic enslavement they had previously suffered. Natalya Gavrilovna carried a silver tray laden with gold cups round to each of the guests, and as each man drained his cup, he regretted that the kiss, formerly received on such occasions, was no longer the custom. They sat down at the table. In the place of honour, next to the host, sat his father-in-law, Prince Boris Alexeyevitch Lykov, an old nobleman of seventy; the other guests arranged themselves according to the antiquity of their family, thus recalling the happy times when such respect was generally paid-the men on one side of the table, the women on the other. Occupying their customary places at the end of the table, sat the housekeeper in old-fashioned costume and head-dress; a prim and wrinkled dwarf of thirty, and the captive Swede in his faded blue uniform. A host of servants bustled around the table, which was laid with a great quantity of dishes; among them was the steward, made conspicuous by his severe expression, large paunch and lofty immobility. The first few minutes of dinner were devoted solely to the appreciation of our old-fashioned Russian cooking; the sound of plates and the clinking of spoons alone broke the general silence. At last, the host, seeing that the time had come to entertain his guests with some pleasant conversation, turned and asked:

"And where is Yekimovna? Call her here!"

 Several servants rushed off in various directions, but at that moment an old woman, powdered and rouged, adorned with flowers and tinsel, and wearing a low-necked brocade gown entered the room, singing and dancing. Her appearance excited general enthusiasm.

"Good day to you, Yekimovna,"Prince Lykov said to her. "How are you?"

" Happy and well, friend: singing and dancing and looking for sweethearts."

"Where have you been, fool?" asked the host.

"Arraying myself, friend, for our dear guests, for this holy day, by order of the Tsar, by command of my master, to be, in foreign style, a laughing-stock for all the world."

A loud burst of laughter went up at these words, and the fool took her place behind the host's chair.
"The fool talks a great deal of nonsense, but on occasions her nonsense has some truth in it," said Tatyana Afanassyevna, the host's eldest sister, whom he greatly respected."Indeed, our present-day fashions are the laughing-stock of the world. But since you gentlemen have shaved off your beards and put on short coats, there is, of course, no point in making a fuss about women's rags; but it really is a pity about the smock, the maiden's ribbons and the female head-dress! Just look at our modern beauties it's as pitiable as it's laughable: their hair frizzed like tow, greased and covered with French chalk; stomachs so tightly laced that they almost snap in two; farthingales so blown out with hoops that they have to enter a carriage sideways, and stoop to get through a door. They can't stand, they can't sit, and they can't breathe-martyrs indeed, the poor things!"

"Ah, Tatyana Afanassyevna," said Kirila Petrovitch T**, a former governor of Ryazan where, in somewhat questionable manner, he had acquired three thousand serfs and a young wife. "As far as I am concerned, my wife can wear what she pleases - provided she doesn't go out and order new dresses every month and then discard the others while they're still practically new. In the old days, the grandmother's sarafan used to form part of her granddaughter's dowry, but nowadays the gown worn by the mistress today you'll. see on the back of her servant tomorrow. What's to be done? Alas, it spells the ruin of the Russian nobility!"

With these words he sighed and looked across at his wife, Marya Ilyinitchna who, it seemed, was not in the least pleased with his praise of the past or his condemnation of the latest customs. The other ladies shared her displeasure, but they were silent;. since modesty was deemed at that time to be an essential attribute in a young lady.

"And who is to blame?"said Gavrila Afanassyevitch, filling a bowl with some effervescing kvass. "Aren't we ourselves? The young women play around, and we encourage them."

"But what can we do when we're not free to do as we want? retorted Kirila Petrovitch. "Any husband would be only too glad to shut his wife up in her rooms but, to the sound of beating drums, she is summoned to the Assembly. The husband goes after the whip, but the wife after clothes. Ah, these Assemblies! The Lord has sent them upon us as a punishment for our sins."

 Marya Ilyinitchna sat as if on needles; her tongue itched to speak; finally she could bear it no longer and turning to her husband, she asked him, with a sour smile, what he found so wrong about the Assemblies.

 "This is what I find wrong about them," her husband replied heatedly " since their institution, husbands have no longer been able to control their wives; wives have forgotten the words of the Apostle: 'Let the wife reverence her husband.' No longer do they busy themselves with domestic affairs, but with new dresses; they do not think of ways in which to please their husbands, but of ways in which to attract the attention of frivolous officers. And is it becoming, madam, for a Russian nobleman or noblewoman to associate with tobacco-smoking Germans and their maidservants? Have you ever heard of such a thing as dancing and talking with young men far into the night? It would be all very well with relatives, but with strangers, with people one doesn't even know!"

"I should like to say just a word, although perhaps I shouldn't," said Gavrila Afanassyevitch, frowning: "I confess-these Assemblies are not to my liking; before you know where you are, you are knocking up against some drunkard, or being made drunk yourself to become a general laughing-stock. And. then you've got to watch out that some rake doesn't start fooling around with your daughter-the young people of today couldn't be more spoiled. At the last Assembly, for instance, the son of Evgraf Sergeyevitch Korsakov made such a fuss about Natasha that it brought the blood to my cheeks. The next day I see someone drive straight into my courtyard. I thought, who in the name of heaven is it? Can it be Prince Alexandr Danilovitch? No such thing! It's young Ivan Evgrafovitch Korsakov ! He could not stop at the gate avd make his way up to the steps on foot- oh no! He flew in, bowing and chattering. The fool, Yekimovna, can do a marvelous imitation to him-here, fool, do an imitation of the foreign monkey."

The fool, Yekimovna, seized a dish-cover, and putting it under her arm as if it were a hat, began to twist about and bow and scrape in every direction, repeating:

"Moniseur ... Mademoiselle... Assemble ... pardon."

General and prolonged laughter again showed the guests' pleasure.

"Exactly like Korsakov," said the old Prince Lykov, wiping away tears of laughter when calm had been gradually restored. "But why conceal the truth of the matter? He is not the first; and nor will he be the last to return to Holy Russia from abroad as a buffoon. What do our children learn abroad? To scrape and chatter in heaven knows what gibberish, to show disrespect to their elders, and to chase after other men's wives. Of all the young men educated abroad (the Lord forgive me !) the Tsar's Moor shows the most resemblance to a man."

"Of course," observed Gavrila Afanassyevitch,"he is a level-headed and decent man, and not simply a weathercock...But who's that who's driven through the gates into my courtyard? Not that foreign monkey again? What are you gaping for, you dolts?" he continued, turning to the servants. " Run and stop him, and in future..."

"Are you raving, graybeard?" interrupted the fool Yekimovna. "Or are you blind? That's the imperial sledge-the Tsar's come."

Gavrila Afanassyevitch hurriedly stood up from the table; everybody rushed over to the windows, and indeed they saw the Tsar, leaning on his orderly's shoulder, mounting. the steps. There was a general confusion. The host rushed forward to meet Peter; the servants dashed hither and thither, as if demented; the guests took fright, and some even began to think of how to leave for home as soon as possible. Peter's thundering voice was suddenly heard in the hall; all fell silent, and the Tsar entered, accompanied by his host, overcome with joy.

 "Good day, ladies and gentlemen," said Peter cheerfully.

Everyone bowed low. The Tsar's sharp eyes sought out the host's young daughter in the crowd; he summoned her to him. Natalya Gavrilovna advanced boldly enough, even though she was blushing not only to her ears, but also down to her shoulders.

"You become more beautiful every day," the Tsar said to her, and as was his habit, he kissed her on the forehead; then, turning to the guests, he said:

"I have disturbed you? You were dining? Sit down again, I beg of you, and give me some aniseed-vodka, Gavrila Afanassyevitch."

The host rushed over to his stately steward, snatched the tray from his hands, and himself filled a golden goblet and handed it to the Tsar with a bow. Peter drank the vodka, ate a biscuit and for the second time invited the guests to continue with their dinner. All resumed their former places with the exception of the dwarf and the housekeeper, who did not dare to remain at a table honoured by the presence of the Tsar. Peter sat down next to his host and asked for some soup. The imperial orderly handed him a wooden spoon mounted with ivory and a knife and fork with green bone handles, for Peter never used any cutlery other than his own. The dinner, which a moment before had been noisy with laughter and conversation, was continued in silence and constraint. The host, through respect and delight, ate nothing; the guests also stood on ceremony and listened with reverence as the Tsar conversed in German with the captive Swede about the campaign of 1701. The fool, Yekimovna, spoken to on one or two occasions by the Tsar, replied with a sort of shy hauteur, which, be it noted, was by no means a sign of natural stupidity on her part. The dinner finally came to an end. The Tsar stood up, and after him all the guests.

 "Gavrila Afanassyevitch," he said to his host, "I'd like a word with you in private."

 And taking him by the arm, he led him into the drawing-room, and shut the door behind him. The guests remained in the dining room, whispering to each other about this unexpected visit and, for fear of being indiscreet, quickly dispersed one after another for home, without thanking their host for his hospitality. His father-in-law, daughter and sister conducted them quietly to the door and remained alone in the dining-room, waiting for the Tsar to come out.