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I get a kick out of this. When I googled “birthplace of…” in Russian several options leaped out at me. The first was “birthplace of Christ.” The second was “birthplace of Aphrodite.” The third was “birthplace of Pushkin.” He’s in good company, which is what we would have expected.
The little plaza fronting School No. 353 at 40 Baumanskaya Ulitsa in Moscow does a fine job of commemorating the birth of Russia’s first great, and still greatest, poet. A cute little bust of prepubescent Pushkin stands in the middle of a neat ensemble combining pedestals, protective chains and small, parallel flower beds. Pushkin’s African heritage and his curly hair – already forming into the shape of a laurel wreath – are very much in evidence. There is a smart, witty kid hiding behind that gaze. The bust was sculpted by Yekaterina Belashova and was unveiled in 1967. Almost directly behind it is a memorial plaque that hangs next to the entrance to the school, which, we are told, is located where the house in which Pushkin was born once stood. Precisely, the text on the plaque reads: “Here was the house, in which A. S. Pushkin was born on May 26 (June 6), 1799.” The plaque also features the image of little Sasha – a bas relief of him, perhaps, sitting at a school desk and gazing out the window as he daydreamed about modernizing the Russian language. Or maybe not.
For those who don’t know about Russia’s thing with dating, let me explain. Until the Revolution Russia used the Julian calendar, while most of the rest of the world had long gone over to the more precise Gregorian calendar. Thus, Russian dates before the switchover in 1918 are often give in a dual manner, as above. I.e., it was May 26 in Russia when Pushkin was born, but, looking back retroactively, we know it was June 6 almost everywhere else around the world that day.
So, although it may be slightly confusing, we can, indeed, say what day, what date, Pushkin was born. The question of where that happened, the bust and plaque here notwithstanding, are another thing altogether.
It seems safe to say that the great event did not happen here where it is commemorated at present. This address – which is currently 40 Baumanskaya Street but would have been known as Nemetskaya Street at the time of Pushkin’s birth – is almost certainly mistaken information. (Real buffs of Russian literature will immediately recall that in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Vershinin recalls how he lived at one time on Nemetskaya Street. It’s a nice little added bit of color.)
To cut to the chase I will say it is now more or less accepted that Pushkin was born in a structure that stood at the intersection of Malaya Pochtovaya [Small Post] Street and Gospitalny [Hospital] Lane. This was verified by the Moscow historian Sergei Romanyuk, whose books and articles I have used often in putting together these blogs. He wrote a long essay detailing Pushkin’s many different birth addresses in Science and Life magazine in 1999. I refer to that piece repeatedly here.
There have been other addresses as well. Until the time of the Revolution it was thought the birthplace was located in the back lot at 57 Baumanskaya Street [Nemetskaya Street]. A plaque, which is apparently lost now, once hung there. The plaque we see on the current school building, and which is seen in two photos here, was made in 1927.
Pushkin himself used to say that he was born on Bolshaya Molchanovka Street located near Sobachya [Dog’s] Square and Borisoglebsky Lane. But, according to Romanyuk, it is likely that this merely meant that Pushkin lived here when he was young and it was, perhaps, the first place he remembered living in. As Romanyuk points out, it is easy to confuse the addresses. Pushkin’s parents occupied 12 different addresses between the years of 1798 and 1812. There was one year during that period when they lived at three different locations. During that 14 year period they had six children. So one might be willing to admit that nobody in the family really remembered who was born when and where.
To add to the fun – because I love chaos, legends and fractured facts – let us enter for the record that it was thought during Pushkin’s life that he was born in St. Petersburg. The philologist and journalist Nikolai Grech, author of a textbook on new Russian literature in Pushkin’s time, wrote that Pushkin was born in the city on the Neva River. As Romanyuk tells it, “Grech’s textbook was published in early 1821 when Pushkin was in Bessarabia, and in October 1822, in a letter to his brother Lev, Alexander Sergeevich asked him to send Grech’s book. That book is still held in Pushkin’s library.”