Ukraine War: Pushkin Captures the Russian Ethos

Pushkin’s Farewell to the Sea by Ivan Aivazovsky and Ilya Repin, 1877 – Public Domain

If you have not yet read The Queen of Spades, a short story, read it before this commentary ruins its suspense. The author, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), an African-Russian poet and writer, is the founding father of Russian literature, inspiring Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and many others. Putin, Russia’s president, is a Pushkin fan, as were most Soviet leaders who sniffed in Pushkin a genuine fright of Western Europe (now headed by the U.S.) determined, for centuries, to compromise, if not undermine, Russia’s existential authenticity.

In Ukraine, the activists protesting the Russian invasion are dismantling Pushkin’s statue mounted in various cities and changing the name of a village called Pushkino. Removing the Pushkin remnants is a new longing to realign Ukraine from Russia to US-Europe — the home of the French language, German beer brewed under Reinheitsgebot, and the U.S. militaristic capitalism. The Western press is promoting Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, as “a hero of our time,” comparing him with Churchill, Havel, and Walesa.

The Russians see Zelensky as a wretched version of Prinz Myschkin, summoning death through brave rhetoric and poor calculus. For most Russians, tearing Ukraine away from Russia is a much more severe offense than the Russian invasion of Ukraine, like Dostoevsky’s logic in The Idiot that a state-sponsored execution of a killer is a far graver offense than murder. Besides dreams, Ukraine shares a much deeper heritage with Russia than France, Germany, England, and the U.S.

Following the 18th-century Russian literati, Pushkin grew up with the French language and admired Voltaire but called him a “capitalist and owner.” Breaking away from the imported customs of the Russian elite enamored with an enlightened Europe at the time brutally colonizing Africa, Pushkin (resenting the U.S. slavery of African brothers) chose to write in the Russian vernacular that the people spoke — previously considered unfit for elegant literature. Fearlessly, Pushkin gave birth to a language as good as any other in Europe.

The Queen of Spades involves a card game called faro (an easier spelling of Pharaoh), a game designed for no other purpose but gambling, a game that originated in France and spread to Russia. The story opens with the Russian military officers, not privates, playing faro “long winter night,” generating winners and losers until the dawn breaks when they start drinking not vodka but “the good wine,” yet another love of France. Pushkin identifies the corrosive French influence on the Russian officers’ “weary” minds with gambling and wine. You weaken a nation if you corrupt its military officers, who must shield it against external enemies.

In addition to military officers, faro gambling has reached the Russian ruling elite. At dawn, a player discloses that his grandmother, a countess, holds the secret to winning the game, but she refuses to reveal the secret to anyone. The countess learned the game in Paris, “where she was all the fashion. People crowded in the streets to get a chance to see the ‘Muscovite Venus.’” The countess lost her fortune playing faro to the Duke of Orleans, a Frenchman.

How strong is a nation whose military officers and ruling elites surrender to a foreign culture and gamble their fighting ability?

Pushkin points out that the faro game is not random, fair to all players but fixed for the advantage of the bankers dealing the cards. This game aspect is not unique, for the bankers offer gambling to win. What is noteworthy is that there is a secret to beating the bankers. Grandma obtained the proprietary secret from Count Saint-Germain, a legendary French alchemist who can turn lead into gold. Using the secret cards, grandma wins her money back from the Duke of Orleans.

The countess leaves Paris and returns to Russia. Only once does the countess share the secret with one of her four sons when he lost three hundred thousand rubles playing faro. Still, the son dies in poverty. From then on, the countess refuses to share the secret cards with anyone, including her grandson telling the story to military officers.

The story’s protagonist is a young (Russian) officer of German ancestry, Herman, who’d “never touch a card” but spends all night watching the game as a non-player, non-bettor. Pushkin paints Herman as a cold-blooded “economic” man, capable of faking love to find his way and using force to achieve his goals. Faro does not corrupt Herman but excites his imagination to find a way to beat the French game. After listening to the story, Herman resolves to extract the secret from the countess by any means necessary.

In the winter of 1940, one hundred and six years after Pushkin authored the story, the German military, exceeding three and a half million troops, invaded Russia, blatantly breaking the non-aggression treaty signed a year earlier. In search of “Lebensraum,” Hitler, fooling a war-ready Russia, diverts his troops to capture Ukraine for its open land and agricultural resources.

Herman scrawls a love compact with Lisa, a young woman taking care of the old countess. He pirates the text of tenderness and affection from a German novel, word by word, and turns it into a love letter to Lisa, “of course, ignorant” of the trickery. In search of fortune, Herman, fooling a love-stricken Lisa, rivets on gaining access to the countess hoarding the winning cards.

The German reaction to the Ukraine war has been much more complicated, if not cunning. For economic benefits and the continual supply of natural gas, Germany would prefer to sign a non-aggression treaty with Russia, letting the U.S. fight the dirty war. However, the Ukraine war is a godsend for Germany to rearm itself with forbidden weapons in the guise of necessary defense. Saving Ukraine from Russia is the last thing on the Bundestag priorities list, a fact Zelensky, giving sermons on Holocaust, does not comprehend.

Herman enters “the old lady’s bed-chamber without difficulty.” Lisa is waiting for him in a separate room. He watches the attendants preparing the lady for the night. As the helpers leave the room, Herman comes out of the closet to face the countess, rocking in a chair. She looks at Herman in disbelief. “Will you tell me the names of the three magic cards or not?” The countess is stock-still.

If a request does not work, use the threat of force. “Peace is only something we can take for granted if we are prepared to defend it. This is the lesson we have learned from the brutal Russian attack on Ukraine,” said Chancellor Olaf Scholz. However, everyone in Europe believes Scholz is “weak and over-cautious” and hopes to resolve the crisis with bullet-less threats.

Sensing an unwilling countess, Herman, who has “the profile of Napoleon and the heart of a Mephistopheles,” draws a pistol from his pocket, exclaiming: “You old witch, I’ll force you to tell me.” Frightened or committed not to reveal the three cards, the countess slumps in the chair and dies. Little did she know that a weak and over-cautious Herman had not loaded the pistol.

The war is smoldering in Ukraine. As if the countess were dead, Boris Johnson, the U.K. prime minister, conjectures that a Russian woman would not have started the war. In response, Putin bares his chest to show that Western leaders look ugly when they take off shirts and says he has not even started deploying lethal weapons to extinguish Ukraine’s resistance.

Herman attends the funeral and peeks into the casket, but the countess stares back at him, drinks a lot to make sense of what has happened, dines alone, comes home exhausted, and drops on the bed. In the middle of the night, the countess dressed in white appears in his bedroom to disclose the three winning cards, which, she says, Herman must play but no more than one card a day.

The plan is foolproof. You bet on the first secret card, and you win. You bet big on the second card, and you win big. You bet everything you have on the third card and empty the bank.

For winning the Ukraine war, President Biden arrays three goals on the table. One, Ukraine shall not concede any portion of its territory to Russia. Two, the U.S. and its allies will provide Ukraine with competent defensive weapons, including a long-range rocket system. Three, the U.S. will unite the world against Russia to deter future wars.

A confident Herman, equipped with the secret information, goes to play the faro at a club in St. Petersburg. The game begins; Herman says to the banker, “permit me to choose a card.” Herman bets forty thousand rubles while a stunned audience looks at Herman. The banker reveals the cards. Herman wins, collects the money, and leaves the club.

On the second day, Herman returns and bets big to win ninety-four thousand rubles.

On the third day, Herman arrives at the club, and in the narrator’s words: “His appearance was the signal for the cessation of all occupation,” whatever that means. As per the instructions of the countess, the third winning card is an ace. Herman bets everything he has. The banker deals the cards, and the winner is an ace. It’s the end of the game.

This time, however, Herman makes a mistake and has selected the queen of spades, not an ace. Like an old witch, the queen of spades “winks one eye at him mockingly.” While the croupier sweeps away all his money, Herman looks on in “stupid terror.” After losing his money and mind, Herman is admitted to the hospital, where he endlessly murmurs the three cards: “The tray, seven, ace! The tray, seven, queen!”

In March 2022, the U. N. General Assembly passed a resolution to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Cameroon and Ethiopia –one of the countries from which the Ottomans enslaved Pushkin’s great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, and later gifted him to Peter the Great (1672-1725)—abstained from voting for the “Aggression against Ukraine” resolution as did several other African countries.

Dying at 37 by a pistol shot in a duel over love, Pushkin could not finish the biography of his great-grandfather, The Moor of Peter the Great.

Like the faro, history goes in circles, making winners and losers. In 1709, in the Battle of Poltava, a fortress in Ukraine, Russia defeated Sweden to establish Russian control over Ukraine. In his long love poem, Poltava, Pushkin extols Peter the Great for the decisive victory that finished the Swedish empire as a great European power. Western critics of Poltava accuse Pushkin of being an imperialist. In May 2022, reacting to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sweden applied for NATO membership.

“Two fixed ideas cannot exist in the brain at the same time any more than two bodies can occupy the same point in space,” says The Queen of Spades.

L. Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy and an Emeritus Professor of Law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. He welcomes comments at