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Pushkin       Pushkin and the GypsiesGypsy Camp

Article by Chuck Todaro


Gypsy Blood

Chaplin's Carmen

Carmen Jones

   In 1827 Alexander Pushkin’s original poem The Gypsies took the world by storm. It would go on to inspire dozens of other works of fiction including Georges Bizet’s famous opera Carmen that went on to inspire yet another generation of passionate Gypsy themed stories.

   Pushkin’s The Gypsies was seen as a gritty, brutally honest story of boy meets gypsy girl, falls in love, gypsy girl has an affair – boy kills girl. It all started in boorish Moldova where Pushkin had found himself exiled by the tsar for the showing of his liberal views. He was passing the time in relative comfort staying with wealthy landowners when he spotted a passing tribe of Gypsies on the hillside and decided to do what others dared not – go towards the rising smoke and see what goes on over there inside the secretive gypsy camp…

   He got more than he bargained for; he fell in love with a beautiful Gypsy girl. Later, after having returned to the gay Russian city life he took to the pen to answer that burning question plaguing all who have loved and lost - “what if I had made her my own”.

  “During Pushkin’s stay there did exist a Gypsy camp on the hill, in the glade by the stream.” says resident historian, Raisa Siritanu at the village museum at Dolna where Pushkin was staying when he met the Gypsies. “Pushkin went to see them and stayed ten day with the Gypsies, eating and sleeping with them. Zamfira was the daughter of the Bulibasha. They say that she was a very beautiful girl and that she didn’t like to wear the long dresses like the others, but preferred to walk around in pants. She smoked a pipe and wore a shepherd’s hat. She loved to sing and had a beautiful voice.  Because she spoke only the Gypsy language and Moldovan (Pushkin knew only a little Moldovan) they communicated mostly with their hands, eyes and smiles. He fell in love with her.”

   As always there are two sides to any story. The Moldovan version is a bit subdued in comparison to the passionate Gypsies take as told by Anna Lepadatu who grew up only a few miles from the site and who had heard the story of Zamfira and her gajo lover from her grandmother:

     “The love between Pushkin and Zamfira was real. Zamfira was the daughter of the Bulibasha (Gypsy chief) and had been promised to another man, a man she didn’t love. When Pushkin came to the camp he spoke beautiful words to her and she fell in love with him. One night they disappeared together to a private spot in the forest and made passionate love.  There was an uproar in the camp after it had become known because Pushkin had stolen another man’s bride and by Gypsy law he could be put to death by the knife, but the Bulibasha, fearing troubles from the gendarme, forced Pushkin to quickly leave the camp and not ever return.”

  Between Moldovian settlements
In clamorous throngs the Gypsies wander. 
Tonight they spread their tattered tents
Encamped beside the river yonder...

    Puskin’s begins his story about the protagonist Aleko who has left the city life due to a conflict with the law (resembling Pushkin’s exiled status). While strolling through the forest he meets the beautiful Gypsy girl Zamfira.  It is love at first site.

    Zamfira brings him to the camp:

  I bring a guest, found in the distance
beyond the barrow as I went;
I bade him slumber in our tent.
He wants to share our own existence,
And I shall be his Gypsy love;
For where he dwelt, the law pursued him.
His name – Aleko. He will rove,
He vows, where I rove; and I choose him.”…

 “He will be mine;
and who is there to drive him from me?”

Ursari Gypsy

  But love is fleeting and Zamfira soon falls in love with another man more lovely than the aging Aleko.  One evening he wakes to find her missing from their bed. He sets out and finds her in the graveyard in the arms of another.

“While I am away, my husband may wake up,” he overhears her telling her young love.

 Aleko speaks: “He may. No, stay, you two, where are you flitting? The graveside here is fine, is fitting.” He plunges his knife into the young man’s chest. 

 “Now go and drink your lover’s breath,” he orders Zamfira

 “Ah, no – I am not frightened of your rage!” cries the defiant Gypsy girl. “I scorn it, I abhor it. Your bloody deed, I curse you for it”…

 “Then die you too!” He stabs her.

 “I die in love,” are Zamfira’s last words.

   Pushkin soon returned to Russia where he went on to great fame. He married a great beauty of noble Russian blood, but he was a jealous man, like his alter ego Aleko, and when suspecting a young soldier of having an affair with his wife he challenged him to a dual. It would be his 28th “honorable” fight yet this would be his last; shot through the spleen he died two days later.


Pushkin's duel

    Pushkin’s death at the young age of 37 sent shock waves through Russia; the authorities, fearing demonstrations, buried Pushkin in secret. He died before his time though his memory lives on through his many writings and the stories shared by those who knew him well. The life of Zamfira, who was brought to western consciences through Pushkin and then lost in the obscurity of the Gypsy world perseveres through the Gypsies vast network of oral traditions. According to Anna Lepadatu’s grandmother Zamfira had lost her value after her affair with Pushkin and was ultimately given away to a passing tribe of Gabor Roma from Transylvania.  The Gabor belong to the caste of Roma traditionalist following arranged marriages, strict dress codes and social roles where women walk in the shadows of their men (quite literally, at least two paces in the rear).  Zamfira’s free-spirit would have ultimately been crushed.

    A final point of interest is that which drew Pushkin to “going to the Gypsies” before “going to the Gypsies” was cool. Some might say that physically Pushkin was a little bit like a Gypsy in that he didn’t fit the typical Russian physiognomy. He was dark with thick lips and kinky black hair – features he inherited from his great grandfather, Abram Gannibal, an African slave. Tsar Peter the Great had stolen the boy from the sultan and raised him like his own son. He was educated in the best schools. It is said Peter wanted to shame Russians for their prejudice towards other races and prove that any man given the opportunity can rise above.

    "…he (Peter the Great) wished to make examples of them and put Russians to shame by convincing them that out of every people and even from among wild men - such as Negros, whom our civilized nations assign exclusively to the class of slave, there can be formed men who by dint of application can obtain knowledge and learning and thus become helpful to their monarch", was written by a family member shortly after Abram Gannibal’s death.

Young Pushkin

Pushkin was proud of his African heritage and perhaps looked to further that point of man’s equality another level through the concept of the noble savage. What better group to demonstrate that theory than with the despised Gypsies.  Aleko is caught with blood on his hands, but instead of following the European “eye for an eye” justice, the humble Gypsies turn him away, banishing him from the clan, leaving him to suffer alone with his own conscience…

Zamfira’s father speaks:

“Depart from us, oh man of pride!
We are but wild, a lawless nation,
We keep no rack or hempen knot,
Need neither blood nor lamentation –
But live with slayers we will not.
The heathen freedom you have known,
You claim it for yourself alone;
Your voice henceforth would awe and grieve us,
For we are meek and kind of heart,
And you are fierce and wicked – leave us,
And peace be with you as we part.

Article by Chuck Todaro

The End