Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet, later changed his name to Shenshin was a Russian poet regarded as one of the finest lyricists in Russian literature.
The circumstances of Afanasy Fet's birth have been the subject of controversy, and some uncertainties still remain. Even the exact date is unknown and has been cited as either October 29 (old style), or November 23 or 29, 1820.
Brief biographies usually maintain that Fet was the son of the Russian landlord Shenshin and a German woman named Charlotta Becker, an that at the age of 14 he had to change his surname from his father's to that of Fet, because the marriage of Shenshin and Becker, registered in Germany, was deemed legally void in Russia. Detailed studies reveal a complicated and controversial story.
It began in September 1820 when a respectable 44-year old landlord from Mtsensk, Afanasy Neofitovich Shenshin, (described as a follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ideas) returned to his Novosyolky estate from the German spa resorts where he had spent a year on a recreational trip. There he had rented rooms in the house of Karl Becker and fell for his daughter Charlotta Elizabeth, a married woman with a one-year-old daughter named Carolina, and pregnant with another child. As to what happened next, opinions vary. According to some sources. Charlotta hastily divorced her husband Johann Foeth, a Darmstadt court official, others maintain that Shenshin approached Karl Becker with the idea that the latter should help his daughter divorce Johann, and when the old man refused to cooperate, kidnapped his beloved (with her total consent). One thing is certain: in the autumn of 1820 the 22-year old Charlotta Foeth found herself at Shenshin's Novosyolky estate. In October (or November, depending on another source) she gave birth to a boy who was christened Afanasy Afansyevich Shenshin and registered in the local metrics as Shenshin's son (a fact which Shenshin had to concede could not be true several years later). The pair married in 1822 .
The question of Fet's ethnicity has been a matter of some debate too. People who knew Fet well (among them were the poet Yakov Polonsky and members of Leo Tolstoy's family) referred to Charlotta Foeth as 'a German Jew'; according to Tatyana Kuzminskaya (Sophia Tolstaya's sister), Fet's "greatest grievance in life was the fact that he was not a legitimate Shenshin like his brothers (who treated him as a brother) but the illegitimate son of a Jew named Foeth. He refused to understand that the name 'Fet' was now superior to that of Shenshin, and that he himself had created it - a fact that Leo Tolstoy tried in vain to convince him of. There are numerous marginal theories as to Fet's origins. One was mentioned (in a 1937 autobiography) by Igor Grabar who asserted that "?it was a well-known fact that Fet's father, a Russian 1812 army officer, who was returning from Paris through Königsberg, met a Jewish beauty near Korchma, fell in love, bought her from her husband, took her to Russia and married her". According to another (advocated by the Russian women's magazine Sudarushka), Charlotta Elizabeth Becker came from an "ancient aristocratic family based in East Germany" while Johann Becker was an illegitimate son of Louis I, Grand Duke of Hesse, who insisted on Johann and Charlotta's marriage, making Afanasy Fet none other than the cousin of Maria Alexandrovna. Sudarushka calls Fet "the 3rd great German on the Russian Parnassus after Khemnitser and Küchelbecker".
When Afanasy Fet was 14 years old, an official request came from Germany as to the details of his birth certificate. Discrepancies were revealed, and Oryol's consistory decided that from then on the boy should go by his German father's name and be stripped of all the privileges of nobility he otherwise would have had rights to. This was quite a traumatic experience for Afanasy who by this time completely identified himself with Shenshin and not Foeth. More controversy was added to the case by the fact that, while Shenshin admitted he indeed could not possibly be Afanasy's biological father, Johann Foeth back in Darmstadt refused to consider him his own son. As a result of the long and painful Shenshin-Foeth negotiations, the boy was finally given "the true Hesse-Darmstadt citizen" name of Afanasy Foeth. Even this rather humiliating outcome was a merciful alternative: otherwise, as an illegitimate child, he'd have fallen to the bottom of the Russian social hierarchy.
Education and literary debut
At the age of 14 Afanasy was sent to the Livonian town of Werro, where he was accepted (allegedly through the influence of Vasily Zhukovsky) into a German boarding school owned by a man named Krummer. While there he received a letter informing him that from then on his name was Foeth and not Shenshin; without a name, a family, a nationality or anything to hold on to, the teenager felt, in his own words, "like a dog who'd lost its master". It was this cruel transformation, scholars later opined, that accounted for all the idiosyncrasies and the totally pessimistic outlook of a man who spent most of his life contemplating suicide. Once, on a trip in the countryside at Werro, close to the Russian border, young Afanasy got off his horse, ran up to where the Russian land was supposed to begin, kneeled down and started to kiss the soil. These were the years, though, when the youngster was beginning to discover a poetic gift within himself; something to shield him from oppressive reality. "In quiet moments of total carelessness I was beginning to feel flowery spirals whirling inside of me, as if some unknown blossoming was coming to the surface. Each time only stems appeared, without any flowers on them. I scribbled verses on my slate desk and wiped them off, finding them unworthy", Fet wrote in his autobiography.
In 1837 another change took place, this time much for the better. Fet's stepfather Afanasy Shenshin took the boy from the Krummer's institution and sent him to a boarding school in Moscow, owned by Mikhail Pogodin, a respected historian and professor at Moscow University. In the autumn of 1838 Fet enrolled in the University to study first the law, then philology. In his first year he started writing poetry (and produced quite a lot of it, Goethe, Heine and Yazykov being his major influences) and met Apollon Grigoriev, a fellow student and also an aspiring poet. "Aphonia and Apollosha", as the pair were known, became close friends. Soon Afansy moved to Grigoriev's house at Malaya Polyanka in Zamoskvoretchye and settled in a small room on the upper floor, often visited by friends, young Yakov Polonsky and future historian Sergey Solovyov among them. Later critics regarded Apollon Grigoriev's ideas and poetry technique (namely the romance-like structure and melodism) among Fet's major influences of the time.
In the late 1830s Pogodin received some verses from the boy and gave them to Nikolay Gogol. "Undoubtedly gifted"; such was the verdict of the writer, and it did a lot to boost Fet's creativity, and prompted him to publish a book. It was in Apollon Grigoriev's room that the two friends compiled Fet's first collection, The Lyrical Pantheon (1840), signed "A.F." The book, in which the author began to develop a unique style of poetry dealing with the twin subjects of love and nature, caused only a slight stir, but was welcomed by some "thick journal" critics. In Otechestvennye zapiski young critic P.Kudryashov, Vissarion Belinsky's protégé, praised the debut, and his opinion was soon endorsed by Belinsky himself. For the next few years Belinsky continued to maintain that "of all the living Russian poets Fet is the most gifted".
It was in Grigoriev's house that some of Fet's better known poetry was created, now signed A. Fet. This fuller signature first appeared in late 1841 under the poem called Poseidon, published by Otechestvennye zapiski. Later historians of literature argued whether it was due to a type-setter's mistake that the Russian letter ? (as in Foeth) in the poet's surname turned into e (as in Fet), but, according to Tarkhov, "this change was significant: in just one moment the name of a 'true Hesse-Darmstadt's citizen' was transformed into the pseudonym of a Russian poet".
In 1842 Fet's poems started to appear regularly in Moskovityanin and Otechestvennye zapiski magazines, instantly making their author a literary sensation. One of the young poet's mentors was the Moskovityanin's editor Stepan Shevyryov, also a Moscow University professor, who often invited the young man to his home. Critics couldn't get enough of the young master, praising the "whiffs of joy" and "fragrant freshness" of his verse. Some of his poems were featured in the collection The Best of Russian Poetry compiled by Aleksey Galakhov in 1843. Don't wake her up at dawn..., put to music by Aleksander Varlamov, became the hit of the time. But for Fet those were troubled years. "Never in my life have I known a person so tormented by depression and for the life of whom I've been so worried. I greatly fear the possibility of him committing suicide. I've spent hours by his bedside, trying somehow to dispel the terrible, chaotic movements of his psyche... He had to either kill himself or become the sort of man he turned out to be later", Apollon Grigoriev wrote, referring to Fet's much talked about dichotomy, the poet and the real man coming across as totally different, conflicting personas.
In 1844 Fet graduated from the University. This year he had to suffer two more heavy blows. First his uncle Pyotr Neofitovich Shenshin died. A large sum of money he prepared to transfer to the young man after his death has never been found. Later that year, after long suffering, mother Charlotta died of cancer. Early next year Afanasy Fet left Novosyolky estate forever: he went to the Kherson gubernia and on April 21, following the tradition of Shenshins, joined the Imperial Cuirassier regiment as a junior officer. Fet's goal was to retrieve the name and all the privileges of nobility he'd lost with it, and he indeed started to progress in ranking but the process was too slow: the nobility granting bar was being continuously risen too.
The one thing Fet enjoyed in the army was discipline, everything else he loathed, complaining bitterly in his letters of utter cultural isolation and financial difficulties "bordering on poverty", calling his experience "life amongst monsters" when "once an hour a