Aleksandr Sergeyeviçh Pushkin was a Russian poet, playwright and novelist. He was born in 1799 in Moscow and died aged on 37 in St Petersburg. Hie was fatally wounded on a duel fought with his brother in law, a soldier who had attempted to seduce Pushkin’s wife.
Pushkin’ great-grandfather was African, kidnapped from Africa, probably Cameroon, by the Turks and taken to Russia where he became the favourite of Peter the Great and rose to be a famous military engineer.
Pushkin is rightly considered to be one of the greats of Russian literature and he was massively talented. He was a supporter of greater political freedom and so came under the surveillance of the Russian Tsar’s secret police, leading to his exile.
The Queen of Spades story is very well written and there seems no superfluous detail or incident. The first scene of the gamblers sets up the story and Herman, who Pushkin leaves in the background while the story of the mystical St Germain and his grandmother’s magic secret of winning at cards is discussed. We realise, that though Herman is strangely quiet during this sequence it is because he is taking it all in.
Herman begins to stalk the Countess and his sly plot is to get at her by the seduction of her young companion Lisa. Herman is so sly that he persists against Lisa’s initial refusal and Pushkin comments wryly that Herman knows the female heart. Be persistent, boys, is the message, and you will win her round.
Many legal cases of stalking and harassment have begun with this mentality, of course.
There is nothing admirable about Herman at all, which is important because we as readers know right from wrong and we want the villain to get his just rewards.
I have a memory that some versions of the Queen of Spades have her winking, and so her wink, which might otherwise be comic, is sinister here.
I also wonder who commands the grandmother to give the secrets of the cards to Herman against her will from beyond the grave? Is the ghost just saying this, or is she in league with another mysterious supernatural power who both want to see the scoundrel punished?
Finally, it is the Queen of Spades, who must represent the spectral countess, that brings him down, winking as she does so.
The Count de St Germain
The Count of St Germain was a real historical figure who lived in the 18th Century. One story claims he was the son of a prince of Transylvania. The Count was educated in Italy by the Medicis. Later in the 19th Century it was said that the Count was of Jewish origin, born in Alsace by the Rhine.
He was a bit of a trickster and used many names. He is one of the late alchemists, but like them claimed to have discovered the Elixir of Life, or the Philosopher’s Stone, the goal of alchemy and claimed to have lived for five hundred years. Tales of his skill at magic abounded and so Pushkin incorporates him into his story.
A later rumour has him arrested as a Jacobite spy in 1749 in London, just after the. Highland Rebellion for all you fans of Outlander. Later he appeared at the French court of Louis XV. Later still, he appeared in Holland during the Seven Years War.
A man of mystery indeed: a man who knows secrets!
Faro also known as Pharaoh is a card game of French origin that generally was played for money rather than pure fun. It was popular in the 1800s, but gradually Poker became the favoured game for gamblers. Faro was popular among gamblers because it was easy to learn and gave good odds for gamblers. However, it was easily rigged by the gambling houses and caused a great deal of hardship and loss.
The banker has an entire deck of cards and the players, known as punters. The first card of the deck was burned off, called ‘soda’ and then the banker dealt two cards, one to the left and one to the right. The right card was the bankers card and the left card, the players. If the player had the left hand card in his possession, he won.
The Queen of Spades
The Queen of Spades is said to be a sign of intelligence. In the Tarot, the Queen of Spades is known as the Queen of Swords and is said, in some interpretations to be a cruel, vindictive woman.
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