Powell's Books - Review-a-Day - Gannibal: the Moor of Petersburg by Hugh Barnes, reviewed by Times Literary Supplement


Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, October 2nd, 2005


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Gannibal: the Moor of Petersburg
by Hugh Barnes

Black Russian
A Review by Andrew Kahn

On a recent visit to the New York Public Library I was struck by the non-Slavonic shelfmark of a work on Pushkin. To my query the reference librarian replied, "Honey, that book is in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture because everybody knows that Pushkin was black". What she meant, of course, was that Pushkin's great-grandfather, the subject of Hugh Barnes's lively study, Gannibal: The moor of Petersburg, was a black African. There have been two previous modern lives of Ganibal (wrongly transliterated in this book), the first a potted biography by Vladimir Nabokov in his great commentary to Eugene Onegin (1964), and the second the still definitive study by Diedonne Gnammankou (Abraham Hanibal: L'aieul noir de Pouchkine, Paris, 1996). In his new, first full-length life in English, Barnes tells the story with novelistic, colourful flair. The life of Abram Petrovich Ganibal (1697-1781), the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, reads like a parable of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism, a fable of reason and happenstance perfectly straight out of the pages of Voltaire's Candide. Abducted as a child from his native homeland somewhere near Chad, he was sold into slavery in Constantinopl. A shady Croatian operating as a Russian spy whisked him away from the intrigues of Sultan Ahmed III's seraglio to the court of Peter the Great in the newly founded St Petersburg. Other blackamoors were named for their owner Tsar, taking both his Christian name (Petr) and patronymic (Petrovich). At some point the child baulked at being just another Petr Petrovich Petrov, gaining permission to retain his name Ibrahim (in the Russian variant, Abram).

Practical ability rather than birth ensured success in Peter's reign. Driven by military ambition against the Swedish empire and Ottoman dominance in the Crimea, he undertook a titanic reconstruction of the Russian state. He needed a greater pool of talent in the applied sciences than Russia could supply. Abram proved to be exceptionally able and individual. His evident gift for mathematics as well as cryptography secured his future. His valour at Narva against the Swedes was commemorated in a hyperbolic inscription on a column erected at Tsarskoe Selo. Legends also make something of a hapless Leporello figure of him. It was his fate to sleep in a chamber adjacent to the insomniac Peter. On one occasion, the Tsar unjustly had him flogged for disturbing his sleep when in fact a sailor was to blame. Peter promised to make amends and not punish Abram when he was next genuinely at fault.

Once Peter became a player in European geopolitics he assumed the diplomatic stage with a mixture of shrewdness and macabre showmanship. Abram accompanied the Tsar on his European tour, visiting the Netherlands in December of 1716, and present at the embassy to Paris in the spring of 1717, when the gigantic Peter famously greeted the young Louis XV by lifting him into the air. Saint-Simon's pages on this visit contain memorable and valuable descriptions of the Tsar's appearance and deportment, noting his gargantuan appetite and capacity for drink. Abram remained in France, keen to improve his technical knowledge of firearms at the artillery school at La Fere. There is some evidence to suggest that he fell in with the Duc de Maine's faction, possibly plotting with the Sceaux circle against the Regent. He also speculated with John Law who bankrupted both Abram and France. Bailed out by Peter's agents, after six years abroad he returned to Russia, in a new capacity as keeper of the Tsar's architectural plans, books and maps. Peter enlisted him in the elite Preobrazhensky Regiment where he taught mathematics and wrote a two-volume textbook of geometry and fortification. The manuscript of this unpublished work, assumed to be lost, was found in the 1950s. Importantly, it contained a preface by the author that shed new light on his life.

Ganibal fell victim to political intrigues after Peter's death in 1725. He became the tutor of the future Peter II, but in 1727 was exiled to Siberia's easternmost border by the rival courtier Menshikov. In the hope of weakening his association with Peter the Great, he changed his surname in 1727 to Ganibal (spelt with a single "n"), gesturing towards Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general and fellow African. Repatriated for his engineering skills in 1730, his career resumed its momentum. He flourished during the reign of Peter's daughter Elizabeth I, saw promotion to the rank of major-general and was made governor-general of Revel in Estonia. He married Eudoxia Dioper, the daughter of a Greek adventurer. Her infidelity led to a notorious divorce and allegations that, as a slave-owner and wife-owner, Ganibal was exceptionally cruel even by the standard of the day. Soviet apologists for this side of his character argued that it reflected his frustration and anger at the racial discrimination he suffered as a black man (to some degree attested by a reference in a surviving legal document where his first wife complains that "the blackamoor (arap) is not of our ethnicity"). Once remarried and in possession of a patent of nobility, he withdrew to the distant estate at Mikhailovskoe, where Pushkin eighty years later wrote some of his greatest poems while also renegotiating debts by selling off the land. Ganibal's name was remembered at the court of Catherine II as late as 1778 in connection with affairs of the Admiralty.

Opinions on Ganibal's race have changed in tandem with the status of his poet great-grandson who had an evident fascination with his ancestor. Pushkin's first foray into historical fiction was with The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, a delightful biographical tale of advancement in the progressive state of Peter's Russia. While Pushkin's skin colour was white, his literary enemies made vicious racial slurs about his pedigree, prompting the poet to reply proudly in the bitter poem "My Genealogy". The writer of the first scholarly Life of Ganibal (1899) was the ethnographer D. S. Anuchin, whose racial theories led him to conclude that a genius like Pushkin could not be of black ancestry. Based on evidence from the unreliable memoir of Ganibal's German son-in-law, Anuchin asserted that Ganibal was African only in the sense of coming from the African continent, and identified his ethnicity as Abyssinian or Ethiopian and therefore light-skinned. Pushkin himself wrote in a gloss on a line of Eugene Onegin that he was of African extraction on his mother's side (meaning black). For Marina Tsvetaeva, in the 1920s, the poet's "blackness" was entirely symbolic, a mark of his incompatibility with the autocratic regime under which he suffered. Most scholars since Nabokov have rejected the view that Ganibal was of princely Abyssinian blood. In the 1960s, at a time when the Soviet Union supported Marxist regimes in Africa, the normally factual Ilya Feinberg expressed certainty about Ganibal's black ethnicity because he discerned a stunning resemblance between the Africans living in his Leningrad apartment block and images of Pushkin.

This well-researched book contains plausible new conjectures, such as the account of the hero's captivity in Constantinople and journey to Russia. Other speculations are fanciful and even quasi-fictional. While Barnes succeeds in showing that Ganibal was a model "new man" of Peter's transformed Russia, he goes too far in characterizing him as a full-fledged European, a philosophe and cultural observer straight out of Montesquieu's Persian Letters. There is, for example, no evidence that Ganibal associated with Voltaire and Diderot, and Hugh Barnes's polemical views on Enlightenment racial theories are highly questionable. Even so, for the way in which it sets its subject's life in the social history of Russia's institutional transformation under Peter Gannibal makes an entertaining and original contribution.

Andrew Kahn teaches Russian Literature at the University of Oxford. He has edited Pushkin's fiction for Oxford World's Classics.

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