Russian Studies

Fall 2013



“The Queen of Spades” (1834) Pushkin (1799-1837)


Pushkin’s impact on Russian literature during the nineteenth century is equivalent to the influence on English literature of Shakespeare and Chaucer combined. He created the prose language in which the great masterpieces of 19th century Russian fiction were written, but he also excelled in every European literary genre: verse epics in imitation of Byron, Shakespearean tragedy, historical novels ala Walter Scott, and even analytical works of history. Pushkin imbued Western literary forms with the Russian soul. He taught the intelligentsia how to speak out when all traditional forms of political discourse had been muzzled by censorship. Pushkin invented the ‘fantastic- realist’ style that inspired the writers we will be reading in this course.


His personal life even reads like an epic poem. His father, who came from an old, impoverished noble family, had taken an independent and rebellious attitude toward the autocracy, and Peter the Great had him hanged. His mother was the descendant of Abraham Gannibal, a black Abyssinian prince brought as a hostage to the court of Peter the Great, who had been raised by the emperor and served in the Russian army.


Pushkin’s childhood had both French and Russian influences: French tutors introduced him to the ideas of the Enlightenment, but his Russian nurse and grandmother filled his youthful imagination with folktales of the supernatural. Later, he was educated at an exclusive school. His youthful imagination was fed by stories of intrigue in the Russian aristocracy and by literary competitions with his ambitious classmates. He read voraciously and wrote constantly. Pushkin’s first poem was published in 1814, while he was still a student, and he had become known in literary circles by his 18th birthday.


Pushkin’s politics were influenced by his encounters with the army officers returning from the Napoleonic Wars who sought to force the tsar to accept a liberal constitution. After his graduation from the university, Pushkin worked in St. Petersburg as a clerk, pursuing a debauched life full of parties, love affairs, duels, poetry and politics. His political epigrams drew the displeased attention of Alexander I’s censors.


Pushkin was exiled to the South from 1820-24 and traveled in the Crimea where he associated with other political radicals. He studied the English poet Byron and imitated him in satirical narrative poems like Eugene Onegin whose hero became the model for many subsequent Russian writers. While working in a government post in the Southern port city of Odessa, he befriended the woman who would later marry one of the leaders of the 1825 Decembrist Rebellion.


In 1824 Pushkin was expelled from Odessa and moved to his father’s estate in the northern province of Pskov, deep in the Russian hinterland. He began experimenting with prose styles influenced by the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott and the psychological realism of Shakespeare. He immersed himself in a study of Russian history. In 1824-25 Pushkin wrote Boris Gudonov, his Shakespearian tragedy.


After the Decembrist Rebellion had been crushed, the new tsar Nicholas I recalled Pushkin to Moscow. There Nicholas pardoned the poet and promised to protect him by serving as his personal censor. During this period of his life, Pushkin imitated the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz and wrote some of his most famous poems including The Bronze Horseman. Pushkin had become disillusioned with the West after the failed Polish Rebellion of 1830-31.


While at court, Pushkin fell in love with Nathalie Goncharov, a great beauty, but initially she refused his proposals. Pushkin left St. Petersburg and traveled to the Caucasus where he wrote about the Russo-Turkish War. In 1830 Nathalie finally accepted his proposal and they married. The couple spent the autumn in Boldino, an estate in the country, where Pushkin wrote many of his greatest works including The Tales of Belkin.


The couple married in 1831 and returned to St. Petersburg where Nathalie achieved immediate social success. She drew the attention of Tsar Nicholas who awarded Pushkin a title, thus enabling his beautiful wife to attend court balls. Pushkin became financially indebted to the Tsar and was regarded in society as a sycophant. During these court years, Pushkin studied the Pugachev rebellion of the 1770’s and wrote an historical account of the period as well as a historical novel, The Captain’s Daughter. In 1834 he wrote his short masterpiece, “The Queen of Spades”.


In 1836 George d’Anthes, a French nobleman in the service of the Tsar began openly courting Nathalie. Pushkin received an anonymous letter announcing his appointment as “the Great Master Naryshkin of the Order of the Cuckolds.” Pushkin challenged d’Anthes to a duel, and on January 27, 1837, he was mortally wounded. Pushkin died on January 29th, and the Tsar, fearing public demonstrations, had his body buried with no special ceremonies.


When the news of Pushkin’s death spread, all Russia mourned.



Study Questions for “The Queen of Spades”


1.      Carefully analyze how Pushkin depicts his characters. Remember that this is not only a psychological study but also a political allegory. From which social class does each character come?

2.      As you read the story, observe how Pushkin has taken a Western story based on the Cinderella fairytale and refracted it through a Russian imagination. What happens when he casts Russian types as the story’s leads?

3.      Is there a way out of Russia’s dilemma that is suggested by the conclusion to the story?



What is Faro?


"Faro." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2003.  Encyclopædia Britannica Online School Edition. 16 Sep, 2003  <>.


                One of the oldest gambling games played with cards, supposedly named from the picture of a pharaoh on French playing cards imported into Great Britain. A favorite of highborn gamblers throughout Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Faro was the game at which the young count Rostov, in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, lost a fortune. Faro was introduced to the United States in New Orleans. Common in American gaming rooms, especially in the West, until 1915, the game had all but vanished by 1925, except in a few Nevada casinos.

            In the game the 13 cards of the spade suit, representing the ranks of all suits, are enameled on a layout on which the bets are placed against the house. A bet may be placed on any rank to win or (by coppering the bet—i.e., placing a copper counter on the chips) to lose; or, by the manner in which the chips are placed on the layout, a bet may cover several ranks. A shuffled pack of playing cards is placed face up in a dealing box. The top card is removed and not used. The next card taken from the box loses (the house pays the coppered bets placed and takes in bets placed on the card to win). The card left showing in the box wins, and the house pays the amount of any bet placed on that rank to win. The two cards constitute a turn. The dealer then removes the exposed card from the box, puts aside another card (which loses), and leaves exposed another card (which wins). The game continues in this fashion through the pack. The last card in the box does not count. When cards of the same rank appear in the same turn and so both win and lose, the house takes half of each bet on that rank, whether to win or to lose. This is called a split.

Stuss is a variant of the game in which the cards are dealt from a pack held face down in the dealer's hand, not from a dealing box. When a split occurs the house takes all the bets on that rank instead of only half of them.