A new biography of the Moor of Petersburg

Andrew Kahn looks at Hugh Barnes’ new biography of Pushkin’s great grandfather, Abram Petrovich Ganibal.

“The life of Abram Petrovich Ganibal (1697– 1781), the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, reads like a parable of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism, a fable of reason and happenstance perfectly straight out of the pages of Voltaire’s Candide. Abducted as a child from his native homeland somewhere near Chad, he was sold into slavery in Constantinople. A shady Croatian operating as a Russian spy whisked him away from the intrigues of Sultan Ahmed III’s seraglio to the court of Peter the Great in the newly founded St Petersburg. Other blackamoors were named for their owner Tsar, taking both his Christian name (Petr) and patronymic (Petrovich). At some point the child baulked at being just another Petr Petrovich Petrov, gaining permission to retain his name Ibrahim (in the Russian variant, Abram).”