| Marina Tsvetaeva. 1940
And ever since then, ever since when Pushkin was killed right in front of me, in Naumov’s picture, daily, hourly, over and over, right through my earliest years, my childhood, my youth, I have divided the world into the poet and all the others, and I have chosen the poet, I have chosen to defend the poet against all the rest, however this ‘all the rest’ is dressed and whatever it happens to be called.
But even before Naumov’s duel, because every memory has its pre-memory, its ancestor-memory, its great-great-great memory, just like a fire escape ladder which you climb down, never knowing whether there will be another rung – and there always is – or the sudden night sky, opening up ever higher and more distant stars to you – but before Naumov’s The Duel there was a different Pushkin, a Pushkin, when I didn’t even know that Pushkin was Pushkin. Pushkin not as a memory, but as a state of being, Pushkin forever and forever-forth, before Naumov’s Duel there was a morning light and rising out of it, and disappearing into it, was a figure, cutting with its shoulders through the light as a swimmer cuts through a river, a black figure, higher than everyone else, and blacker than everyone else, with his head bowed, and a hat in his hand.
The Pushkin Memorial was not the Memorial-to-Pushkin, but simply the Pushkinmemorial, all one word, and the separate concepts of Pushkin and Memorial were equally incomprehensible, and did not even exist without each other. And there it was, standing there always, eternally – in rain or snow, o how I can see those shoulders heaped with snow, heaped with the snow of all the Russias, those strong African shoulders – with its shoulders facing into the sunrise or the snowstorm, whether I am going towards it or leaving it, running from it, or running up to it, there it is, with its eternal hat in its eternal hand: the Pushkin Memorial.
The Pushkin Memorial was the limit and the extent of our walks: from the Pushkin Memorial, to the Pushkin Memorial, the Pushkin Memorial was also the finishing line of our races: who could run fastest to the Pushkin Memorial. But Asya’s Nanny sometimes shortened it for simplicity’s sake: ‘we’ll have a sit-down by Pushkin,’ and that always drew my pedantic correction: ‘Not by Pushkin, by the Pushkin Memorial’.
The Pushkin Memorial was part of everyday life, as much a character of childhood life as the grand piano, or the watchman Ignat’ev outside, who stood almost as immutable, if not as tall. The Pushkin Memorial was one of two (there was no third) inevitable daily walks: to the Patriarch’s Ponds, or to the Pushkin Memorial. And I preferred the Pushkin Memorial, because I liked to run to it, pulling, and even ripping open as I ran, my Grandfather’s white Karlsbad jacket, and once I’d reached it, to run around it, and then to stand, my head lifted, and to look up at the black-faced and black-handed giant, who did not look back at me, and was unlike anything or anyone in my life. And sometimes I simply hopped around it. And despite Andryusha’s long limbs and Asya’s weightlessness, despite my own plumpness, it was I who ran better than them, better than everyone, simply because my honour was at stake: get there first, and then collapse panting. It pleases me that it was at the Pushkin Memorial I won my first races.
There was another different game at the Pushkin Memorial, my own game, and it was this: placing a tiny white china figure, no bigger that a child’s little finger, next to its pedestal – they were sold in china shops, anyone who grew up at the end of the last century in Moscow will know: gnomes under mushrooms, children under umbrellas – place a tiny figure like that against the giant’s pedestal and then slowly travel my gaze from the bottom to the top of the granite mass, until my head almost fell off, comparing the sizes.
The Pushkin Memorial was my first encounter with black and white: how black! How white! And because black was the giant, and white was the tiny comic figure, and because I definitely had to choose, I chose then, for once and for all, the black, and not the white, blackness and not whiteness: black thoughts, and black possessions, and a black life.
The Pushkin Memorial was also my first encounter with numbers: how many little figures would it take, placed one on top of another, until you had a whole Pushkin Memorial. And the answer was already the same answer as it is now: you could never have enough – still in my modest pride I always added, ‘But if you had one hundred of me, then maybe, because I’m still growing...’ And at the same time: ‘But what if you put a hundred tiny figures one on top of the other, would that be me?’ And the answer: ‘No, because I’m big, and because I’m alive and they’re just china.’
So the Pushkin memorial was also my first encounter with materials: iron, china, granite, and my own.
The Pushkin Memorial, with me under it, and with the tiny figure under me, was my first proper lesson in hierarchy, too. I was a giant next to the china figure, but next to Pushkin, I was – myself. A little girl. But one who would grow bigger. And I was the same for the tiny figure as the Pushkin Memorial was for me. But then what was the Pushkin Memorial for the tiny figure? And after some hard thinking it suddenly dawned upon me: The Memorial was so enormous that the figure simply couldn’t see it. It thought it was a big house, or a rumble of thunder. And the china figure was so tiny that the Pushkin Memorial couldn’t see it either. It thought it was just a flea. But it saw me! Because I was big and plump. And I would soon grow bigger.
My first lesson in numbers, my first lesson in scale and materials, my first lesson in hierarchy, my first lesson in thinking and most importantly, a proper underpinning of all my later experience: that even if you had a thousand figures, even if they were piled one on top of the other, you couldn’t make Pushkin.
...Because I liked walking away from him, down the sandy or the snowy avenue, and walking back to him, along the sandy or snowy avenue, towards his back and his hand, towards his hand behind his back, because he always stood with his back to me as I walked away from him, or as I walked towards him, his back to everyone and everything, and we always walked behind his back, because the boulevard itself with its three avenues approached him from behind his back, and the walk was always so long that every time we forgot, from the boulevard, what sort of a face he had, and every time his face was different, but just as black. (I think with sadness that those last few trees never knew what sort of a face he had).
I loved the Pushkin Memorial for its blackness – the opposite of the white of all our household gods. Their eyes were completely white, but the Pushkin Memorial’s were quite black and quite round. The Pushkin Memorial was completely black, like a dog, blacker even than a dog, because even the blackest dog has something yellowish above the eyes, or something whiteish about the neck. The Pushkin Memorial was as black as a grand piano. And even if they’d never told me that Pushkin was a black man, I’d have known anyway that Pushkin was black.
From the Pushkin Memorial I also have my intense love of black people, which I have carried with me through all my life, and even now, my whole being feels a sense of honour when, quite by chance, in a tram, or some other place, I find myself standing by a black man. My profane whiteness side to side with his divine blackness. In every black man I see and I love Pushkin, the black Pushkin Memorial of my, and all Russia’s, unschooled early childhood.
...Because I liked it that we walked towards him and away from him, but he was always there. In the snow, the flying leaves, the sunrise, the deep blue, the opaque milk of winter – he was always there.
Sometimes, although rarely, our Gods were moved about. And at Christmas or Easter they were flicked with a duster. But he was washed by the rains and dried by the sun. He was always there.
The Pushkin Memorial was my first vision of the immutable, the inviolable.
“Shall we go to Patriarch’s Ponds today, or...?”
“The Pushkin Memorial!”
There were no patriarchs on the Patriarch’s Ponds.
What a strange and wonderful idea – to place a giant amongst children. A black giant, amongst white children. A strange and wonderful idea – to bring down on white children their black kinship.
Those who grew up in the shadow of the Pushkin Memorial will hardly prefer the white race, and I, so very clearly, prefer the black race. The Pushkin Memorial, anticipating what is to come, is a memorial against racism, to the equality of all races, to the supremacy of any race that might bring forth a genius. The Pushkin Memorial is a memorial to black blood poured into white blood, a memorial to the intermingling of bloods, just as rivers intermingle, a living memorial to the intermingling of bloods, and a conmingling of the most remote and the apparently most disjointed spirits of nations. The Pushkin Memorial is living proof of the base and moribund nature of racial theory, living proof of the opposite. Pushkin is the ‘fact’ which confounds all theory. Even before its own conception racism was thrown aside by Pushkin at the moment of his birth. No – even earlier than than – on the day of the marriage between the son of the Negro of Peter the Great, Osip Abramovich Gannibal, and Maria Alekseevna Pushkina. No, no, even earlier than that: on the unknown day, at the unknown hour when Peter turned his black, pale, joyous, terrible gaze on Ibragim, the Abyssinian boy. That gaze was a command to Pushkin to exist. So children growing up in the shadow of the Petersburg Bronze Horseman were also growing up in the shadow of a memorial against racism – and to genius.
What a strange and wonderful idea it was to make Ibragim’s great-grandson black. To cast him in iron as nature had cast his great-grandfather in black flesh. Black Pushkin is a symbol. It was a strange and wonderful idea to give Moscow, in the blackness of a statue, a scrap of Abyssinian sky. Because the Pushkin Memorial stands for certain ‘under the skies of my Africa’. What a strange and wonderful idea to give Moscow the sea under the feet of the poet, with his head bent, one foot forward, the hat removed from his head and held behind his back in a bow. For Pushkin stands not above the sandy boulevard, but above the Black Sea. Above a sea of unfettered natural force. Pushkin’s unfettered natural force.
What a dark idea it was to place the giant in the midst of chains. For Pushkin is among chains, his pedestal is surrounded (‘fenced’) by rocks and chains: a rock, a chain, a rock, a chain, and all of it together made a circle. A circle of Nikolai’s hands, which never embraced the poet and yet never let him go. A circle begun by the words ‘ You’re no longer just Pushkin, you’re my Pushkin’ and only undone by the shot from D’Anthes’ gun.
Translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale