The strange life of Pushkin's black ancestor

Review Biography

June 18, 2006|By WILL ENGLUND | WILL ENGLUND,SUN REPORTER

The Stolen Prince

Hugh Barnes

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 324 pages / $27.95

Russia has never exactly been a magnet for immigrants, but over the centuries foreigners have kept showing up, and their experiences have been unlike those of strangers anywhere else, certainly anywhere else in Europe. Foreigners can never become un-foreign among Russians, but they can become what you might call adjunct members of Russian society, and even gain a fair measure of respect from the chronically insecure people around them. When I was living in Moscow I knew a scientist named Genrikh Patrikovich Brezlin, the son of an Irish communist who decided to have a look-see at the Soviet paradise in the 1930s and left a family behind when he returned to the bitter reality of the Emerald Isle. Elder and younger Brezlins (or Breslins) fit in fine, though helped no doubt by the Russian-sounding "--in" ending of the family name.

But as much as Russians may accept outsiders in their midst, one thing they won't accept is the letter H, which doesn't exist in their alphabet (though in English transliterations it sometimes gets tucked in behind a K or a C). Thus it was Genrikh Brezlin, rather than Henry, and thus the Soviet victory over Adolf "Gitler," with an assist by the forces attacking from the west under the command of General "Eisengower." And when Peter the Great was presented with the gift of an African slave, bought on the docks of Istanbul - an "Abyssinian" who took his name from the Carthaginian commander celebrated for driving his elephants over the Alps to attack the Romans - the Russians dubbed him "Gannibal."

The Stolen Prince, Hugh Barnes' lively account of Gannibal's life, takes us from Chad and Ethiopia - one of which was apparently his birthplace - to the Bosphorus, Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Then we go onward to Paris - where he studied geometry and artillery - and to the Chinese border and to what is now Tallinn, Estonia, and finally back to Saint Petersburg. Gannibal, who claimed to have been a prince in Africa, rose to become a high-ranking officer in the Russian army and a player in the deadly court intrigues of Russia and France in the 18th century. Barnes calls him Europe's first black intellectual - he ran into snubs and insults and fascination and admiration wherever he went. He published one book, Geometry and Fortification, which was perhaps as interesting as it sounds, and which gave no hint that its author's great-grandson would be the presiding genius of Russian literature.

Alexander Pushkin was descended from Gannibal on his mother's side. He was proud of his African heritage, though at times also prone to a very modern sort of self-loathing on account of it. He wrote a somewhat fabulous biography of Gannibal, The Negro of Peter the Great. Barnes set out to find as much of the real story of Gannibal as he could. The records are surprisingly extensive; the commentary on Gannibal, from the likes of Voltaire, his contemporary, and Vladimir Nabokov, who was unimpressed with the story of the stolen prince of Africa, is equally rich.

A disclaimer: Barnes knows something about being an outsider himself. When I worked briefly at the Glasgow Herald, Barnes was there as a new, young reporter. Three foreigners working in a sea of Scots: my wife and I, who as Americans were treated with considerable hospitality; and Barnes, who as an Englishman was not. We clung together, in part because we could never understand what any of the Glaswegians was saying.

A decade later I walked out of my apartment in Moscow one frosty day and ran right into Barnes, who had just taken up residence in the same building, ostensibly as a reporter for Reuters but actually in pursuit of the truth about Gannibal. So this is a review that you can take as you will.

Barnes' telling is conversational, wry, literate. He poses some interesting riddles for which he can't find answers. He shies away from grand themes - except for the central question of what it means to be an outsider living in an alien society. It's a question that the long-lived Gannibal seems to have shouldered aside; Pushkin, even three generations removed, grappled with it all his short life.

will.englund@baltsun.com

Will Englund is the associate editor of The Sun's editorial page and a former Moscow correspondent for the newspaper.

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