On this day in 1837 Aleksandr Pushkin died at the age of thirty-seven, from a gunshot wound received in a duel two days earlier. As the event remains something of a puzzle in Russia, those of us who still regard that country as the Churchillian "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" can't really hope for much, but it is a fascinating story. There have been three recent biographies, each telling it in different ways. T. J. Binyon's Pushkin (2003), winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize in England, is comprehensive and highly-praised, while Elaine Feinstein's Pushkin (1998) is half the size, a "precise, cool biography." The third book, Serena Vitale's Pushkin's Button (1995), is a story-driven account of Pushkin's last months, a tale in which duelists and duel are swept up in the salon and court intriques of St. Petersburg -- a 19th century Dangerous Liasons, or Pushkin's own "Mozart and Salieri" story in an Amadeus key.
The murdering Salieri, in this case, had only charm, and the jealous self-destructiveness was all Pushkin's. George d'Anthès was an officer in the Tsar's Horse Guards, a soldier-of-fortune Frenchman living in St. Petersburg -- the riddles start here -- as the adopted son and probably lover of the homosexual Dutch ambassador to Russia, Baron Heeckeren. D'Anthès was handsome in a uniform; Pushkin's wife was one of the beauties of St. Petersburg, and a flirt; they were both a dozen years younger than Pushkin. Their long walks and close talks titillated St. Petersburg society for months, and pushed all of Pushkin's buttons.
Vitale titled Pushkin's Button from the one which some observed to be missing on his bekesh, a fur-trimmed overcoat that had seen better days. We are to regard this detail as symbolic of a larger duality. Pushkin is the moody, debt-ridden, pre-occupied romantic. Once rebel-in-exile, and still voice-of-the-people, he allowed himself to become man-about-town in St. Petersburg and co-opted by the attentions of the Tsar (though the Tsar may only have wanted to keep an eye on him and his pretty wife). D'Anthès is an idler, a foreigner, one who exploits all the unwarranted prestige given him in a snobby, militarist, Westernized society. His buttons are in polished rows, and his only decision is whether to wear the single- or the double-breasted officer's jacket to that night's party. As Pushkin became the soul and "father of Russian literature," so d'Anthès shot him as a representative of all that was wrong and unhealthy with the country: "It wasn't d'Anthès's bullet that killed Pushkin," wrote Alexander Blok later. "It was lack of air."
D'Anthès's buttons turn out to be much more than metaphor. The duel was Pushkin's idea, and illegal; it was career- as well as life-threatening to d'Anthès. He could hardly not show up, but he may have arrived to the appointed moment-sunset, a half-hour's sleigh ride out of town along the frozen Neva River, a wooded area knee-deep in snow, a short track trampled down by each man's seconds -- wearing some sort of armor. This, some say, is the real interpretation for what is reported to have happened: the downed and fatally-wounded Pushkin rallying enough to take his shot, his direct hit to d'Anthès chest from ten paces giving only a flesh wound to d'Anthès raised arm before it was deflected away by one of his shiny buttons.
The wider drama of the duel includes anonymous, public letters which mocked Pushkin as a cuckold, and private letters exchanged in high society which mocked him as an Othello -- he had some African blood -- and darker hints of political plotting. In any case, his book sales soared immediately afterwards, and ten thousand came to the house to file past his body -- so many of them poor or students that the Tsar's secret police saw portents of revolution all about them. Over a century later the writer Evgenia Ginzburg said that no one went to the Gulag without a copy of Pushkin's poetry, so Stalin's spies might have felt the same way.