“Pushkin’s Button” – Serena Vitale

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

August 20th, 2009

Russia’s Greatest Poet. The Most Beautiful Woman In St. Petersburg. A Handsome, Bisexual Cavalry Officer. An Illegal Duel To The Death. These are the ingredients that make up the fascinating story of the fateful duel that killed Alexander Pushkin in 1837. In an ironic twist to Pushkin’s life, he was shot by a French cavalry officer, Baron George d’Anthes, a mercenary in the pay of the Tsar’s army, in a scene that comes straight out of Pushkin’s own poem, “Eugene.Onegin”. He was just 37 years old, his wife, the beautiful Natalya Goncharova, just 24, and their four children were left without a Father. Quite how Pushkin got himself into a duel with a crack shot remains a strange story, and one that would haunt both Puskin’s wife, and d’Anthes, for the rest of their lives following his death. It had certainly been noticed by St. Petersburg society that d’Anthes was flirting with Natlaya, and not unreasonably, Pushkin took offense, albeit in a manner that warranted a duel. D’Anthes however, was in the wrong, and should have been honor bound to at least allow Pushkin, a mere poet unfamiliar with handling weapons, a decent crack. Missing would have seen honor served on both sides. But d’Anthes didn’t miss, and Pushkin lay crumpled in the snow.

The public outrage that Russia had lost its poetic soul and favorite son in such a manner was intense, and d’Anthes was lucky to escape without being lynched. His family would continue to bear the stigma for generations afterwards. The events that lead up to this appalling waste of literary talent are well told in Vitale’s excellent book. I for one, couldn’t put it down, and if a part detective story, part historical novel, and part Russian Tsar-led high society is to your taste, then this is a cracking read.