Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet ( 5 December [O.S. 23 November] 1820 — 3 December [O.S. 21 November] 1892), 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 remained uncertain. Even the exact date is unknown and has been cited variously as October 29 (old style), November 23 and 29, 1820.
Brief biographies usually have it that Fet was the son of the Russian landowner Shenshin and a German woman Charlotta Becker, and that at the age of 14 he had to change his surname from that of his father’s to Fet, because the marriage between Shenshin and Becker, registered in Germany, was deemed legally void in Russia. Detailed studies reveal a complicated and controversial story.
In September 1820 a respectable 44-year-old landowner 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 after a year spent on a recreational trip. There he was renting rooms in the house of Karl Becker and fell for his daughter Charlotta Elizabeth, a married woman who had one-year-old daughter Carolina, and was 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, on her 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 a source) she gave birth to a boy who was christened Afanasy Afansyevich Shenshin and registered in the local records as Shenshin’s son (which Shenshin had to concede several years later could not be true). 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 just refused to see that the name ‘Fet’ was now superior to that of Shenshin, and that he himself had created it – the fact which Leo Tolstoy tried in vain to put to him.”
There are numerous marginal theories as to Fet’s origins. One of them, mentioned in a 1937 autobiography by Igor Grabar, 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, thus making Afanasy Fet nothing less than the cousin of Maria Alexandrovna. Sudarushka calls Fet “the third great German on the Russian Parnassus after Khemnitser and Kuchelbecker”.
When Afanasy Fet was 14 years old, official request came from Germany as to the details of his birth certificate. Discrepancies revealed, the consistory in Oryol decided that from then on the boy should go by his German father’s name and be stripped of all the privileges of nobility that he would otherwise might have claimed rights to.
This was a traumatic experience for Afanasy, who by this time completely identified himself with Shenshins. More controversy was added by the fact that, while Shenshin admitted he could not be Afanasy’s biological father, Johann Foeth back in Darmstadt refused to acknowledge the boy as his son.
As a result of long and painful Shenshin-Foeth negotiations, the subject received the name Afanasy Foeth, “a true citizen of Hesse-Darmstadt”. 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.