One of the things (besides poetic genius) that has always made Pushkin stand out from the Russian literary crowd is his African ancestry; his mother’s grandfather Abram Gannibal was taken as a boy from somewhere in Africa to the court of the Ottoman Sultan as a hostage, from whence he was ransomed by the deputy of the Russian ambassador, baptized in Vilna (now Vilnius), sent to Paris for an education (while there he fought with the French army, rose to the rank of captain, and adopted his surname in honor of Hannibal), and brought to Russia, where he became prominent at Elizabeth‘s court and retired in 1762 a major-general and a rich man. It has never been clear where exactly he came from; Nabokov devoted a longish appendix to his four-volume Eugene Onegin to him (published separately as half of this book) and considers several possibilities, ending by saying “I am inclined to assume that it was situated in the general region of Northern Abyssinia, where we have been following, through the bibliographic dust, the mules and camels of several adventurous caravans.” (It is in the course of this discussion that he makes the following astonishing declaration in a footnote: “This writer fervently hopes that the Cyrillic alphabet, together with the even more absurd characters of Asiatic languages, will be completely scrapped some near day.”)
However, in the mid-1990s Dieudonné Gnammankou, a historian and Slavist from Benin, published a book claiming that the mysterious “Lagon(e)” that Gannibal mentioned as his birthplace was actually the sultanate of Logone-Birni, now in the extreme north of Cameroon; the theory, at first controversial, has apparently won some acceptance in Russia itself, and has been given official recognition on a plaque recently affixed to a wall of the barracks of the former royal artillery academy at La Fère, France. You can read all about it in Serge Schmemann’s New York Times article, which I found linked in a post at Jamie Olson’s The Flaxen Wave.


  1. See also: Anne Lounsbury, “Soul Man: Alexander Pushkin, the Black Russian,” Transition 9.4 (2000), 42-61.

  2. Black Russians – ransomed or escaped black Ottoman slaves – must have been a more frequent phenomenon in the 18-19th century than one would think. Here is for example a late 19th-c. photo of a Karabagh mountaneer of African origins by Dmitri Ermakov.

  3. The NYT/IHT article is published in Russian on the Golos Rossii/Voice of Russia site. The close-up photo there of the iconic Pushkin monument in Moscow captures his African features.
    I think there is a small inaccuracy there. When the author says Gannibal initially used ‘Petrov’ as his surname, it was more likely the adopted patronymic, literally meaning ‘of Peter’, son of Peter. Nobility had patronymiccs and surnames, ordinary people used only nicknames or patronymics which later, mostly in 19th Century became the basis of ‘proper’ surnames. Ending -ov/ev (or -in/yn) for a patronymic indicated one’s humble origin, while -ovich/-evich showed status (the early tsars were Ryurikoviches, descendandts of the Norman Prince Ryurik). This is the meaning of Bazarov using the form when he introduces himself to his friend’s father as ‘Evgeny Vasilyev’, not ‘Vasilyevich’, which immediately makes the gentleman-landowner slightly bristle (Fathers and Sons), here in Russian and here in English, see beginning of Chapter 2.
    Black Africans were called ‘Araps’ with a ‘p’ (and there were ‘white Araps’ in folklore, the Persians). There is a film version of the story of Peter’s relationship with Gannibal, played by the legendary poet-singer Vladimir Vyssotsky.

  4. oopsy-daisy, the Russian link is inactive, here’s the youtube one, beginning with Gannibal fathering an illegitimate baby with a French countess. And there is a chatul madan in the opening titles.

  5. “‘Araps’ with a ‘p'” is the Greek word for Arab, so I imagine that’s where the Russian word comes from. (Well, technically, it’s ‘Araps’ with a Psi – alpha, rho, alpha, psi. The plural is ‘Arabes’. There’s an acute accent on the first letter.)
    The Latin word ‘Arabs’ is pronounced as if it had a P, because the general rule in classical Latin is that B sounds like P before S or T. (‘obstat’, “stands in the way”, was pronounced ‘opstat’, and ‘obtinet’, “obtains”, was pronounced ‘optinet’.) As in Greek, the plural has a B both visually and in pronunciation: ‘Arabes’.
    Anyway, it looks to my historico-linguistically ignorant eye as if:
    a. The Russians didn’t distinguish between Arabs and black Africans.
    b. The word they used for both was borrowed (not necessarily directly) from the Latin or (more likely) Greek word for ‘Arab’, which would explain the P.

  6. Nope, it was borrowed from one of the Turkic languages (Tatar, Chagatai, etc.) that have arap for ‘Arab.’ The Russian word is attested as far back as 1580.

  7. Were many male African slaves traded into the Islamic world not castrated?

  8. marie-lucie says

    “his African features”
    Apart from his curly hair, he does not look particularly African to me.

  9. Is the Abyssinian Lake Langano linguistically similar enough to have its hat thrown in the ring?
    The Russians didn’t distinguish between Arabs and black Africans.
    There were a huge number of Arabs and people of Arab descent living in Africa, especially around the port cities. Arabs were great sea traders, and comparatively wealthy. From what I’ve read, liaisons with Arab traders were considered to be desirable.

  10. Were many male African slaves traded into the Islamic world not castrated?
    He was not a slave but a hostage.

  11. marie-lucie says

    Were many male African slaves traded into the Islamic world not castrated?
    Perhaps, but the future Gannibal was a hostage, not a slave.

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