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.

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