MY mother introduced me to poetry as a child by reading, in Russian, from Pushkin's verse novel, ``Eugene Onegin.'' She read the work's best-known passage: the letter-writing scene when Tatiana declares her love for Onegin. The works of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) greatly influenced the major Russian writers. At the time of his death, Gogol wrote: ``With him goes the greatest joy of my life.''
Lermontov composed a poem in his honor. The 16-year-old Dostoevsky went into mourning. Pushkin was a favorite of both Tolstoy and Chekhov. Pasternak declared Pushkin's tetrameter to be ``a measuring unit of Russia's life, a yardstick, as if it had been patterned after the whole of Russia's existence....''
Pushkin's origins are as extraordinary as his life. His maternal grandfather, an African of noble birth, as a boy was taken hostage by Turkish invaders in Abyssinia and carried to Constantinople; then spirited away to Russia where he became a servant, and godson, to Peter the Great, and later in life, chief of the Russian engineer corps, with the rank of major general.
On his father's side, Pushkin came from an old Russian family. He was a poet, novelist, short-story writer, historian, and dramatist. Tsar Alexander I exiled him to southern Russia for his political views. At age 37, he died in a duel.
PUSHKIN occupies a unique position in literature. No other writer, except, perhaps, Dante or Shakespeare, so influenced the language and literature of his country.
As Henri Troyat points out in his excellent biography, when Pushkin began to write, there was no Russian literary language. ``Culture was entangled in a web of French, English, and German affectations.'' Pushkin ``was first in time, and first in quality. He was the source. Neither Gogol nor Tolstoy could have existed without him, for he made the Russian language; he prepared the ground for the growth of every genre.''
To give but one example of his widespread influence, Pushkin's impact on Russian opera is extraordinary.
Virtually all the great Russian operas are based on his works. ``Ruslan and Ludmila'' by Glinka. ``Eugene Onegin'' and ``The Queen of Spades'' by Tchaikovsky. ``Boris Godunov'' by Mussorgsky. ``The Golden Cockerel'' by Rimsky-Korsakov.
As events unfold today in the Soviet Union, how timely his words seem. At age 24, he wrote:
Like the lamp that pales
In the dazzle of dawn,
False knowledge flutters
and is consumed
By the sun of the mind.
Long live the sun!
And down with night!
In the poem, ``The Bronze Horseman,'' Pushkin wrote of an earlier Russian reformer, Peter the Great: ``Hauling on iron reins,/You pulled Russia onto its haunches.''
Toward the end of his short life he wrote: ``I shall long be deemed congenial/For having taught my voice to sing/Of noble hearts, and freedom in a cruel age.''
A FEW years ago I decided to visit the dueling ground where Pushkin was mortally wounded. Neither my Intourist guide nor anyone at the hotel in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) knew the location of the spot.
After questioning various people to obtain the necessary information, we set off on a lengthy trolley ride to the edge of the city, followed by a walk through torn up streets and over railroad tracks. Hidden away in a small wooded area surrounded by dreary apartment buildings, we came upon an obelisk bearing a medallion with a portrait of Pushkin.
From here we proceeded to the house where he had lived at No. 12 Moika Embankment overlooking a canal in the heart of the city.
A crowd - young, middle-aged, and old people - stood in reverential silence waiting to enter. We stood with them for about 11/2 hours. The tour of the Pushkin apartment was conducted in Russian, a language which, to my shame, I do not know. (To my shame, because I am Russian on my mother's side.)
There I saw his walking sticks; a painting of the Caucasus, where he had spent a part of his exile; and, in the library, his writing desk. On the desk stood a statuette of a black man leaning on an anchor surrounded by two ink wells. Pushkin was not one to deny his African background.
Following the duel, Pushkin was taken home. As he lay on a sofa in the library, with his life ebbing away, he looked at the shelves containing his books. To them he addressed these words: ``Farewell, my friends.''