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  • Writer's pictureAmy GB

Russia, Eugene Onegin, and Alexander Pushkin

Again, never reading things in the order I promised I would in my last post.

I ordered my Mongolian book, The Green-Eyed Lama (and learned it is Lama like Dalai, not Llama like alpaca) but it took a while to arrive. So in the meantime, I went to another of China's bordering countries, Russia.


First Glance

Written by a Russian, set in Russia, and the first Russian-language novel to describe contemporary Russian society, Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin seemed a pretty good pick out of a very rich literary field. (Also I've tried Tolstoy before and found him very boring.)

It is at its heart a love story, between the titular Eugene Onegin (pronounced EU-gene o-NYE-gin) and his neighbour Tatiana Larina, written and set in the 1820s. I chose a recent translation, believing that dated English would irritate me and cloud my appreciation of the book. Stanley Mitchell's 2008 translation is written in verse, and matches the stanza structure of the original.

The story is not that complicated but does have a few surprising moments. I'll write as much as I can without spoilers, and then warn you when to stop reading this if you want to savour the plot unfolding for yourself the first time.

Who or What is Russia

A Beloved, conflicted Homeland

Just as with my rumination on China, national identity is a contested topic in Eugene Onegin. Pushkin is a very present narrator within the poem, so his biography seems relevant. He was a part of the conversations and conflicts, which culminated with the Decembrist uprising, over how Russia should be governed, and was exiled for writing revolutionary poetry. He began Eugene Onegin while away from Russia, and to me he seems homesick. He describes specific Russian traditions that Mitchell's footnotes kindly explicated for me, and paints beautiful pictures of the passing of the seasons in the Russian countryside.

There is also a sense of narrator-Pushkin feeling "past it"; that all his joys are behind him. He attributes this (very eloquently) to the passing of youth, but he was only in his late twenties and thirties during the writing of this novel. On the one hand, from personal experience I know that is a time when you leave youth behind and start adulthood proper. On the other, I also know how empty a new life in a new land can feel, and Pushkin's exile from a vibrant Moscow literary and political life must surely be influencing his belief that everything good is over.

Russia and Europe

In the 1820s there wasn't a pre-existing tradition of writing novels about Russia in Russian - Pushkin started it! Rather it seems the background to this novel is that the Russian upper classes are trying very hard to be as European as they possibly can. French is the language of the aristocracy; the aristocratic social traditions are very similar to those of Britain and France. Eugene Onegin is littered with references to contemporary Russian figures next to British, French and Ancient Greek characters and writers.

Pushkin speaks about Russia's sociolinguistic codes, and his challenges and pride in writing in Russian. Then he reluctantly admits to Tatiana writing love letters in French:

"What's to be done? Once more I say
A lady's love up to this day
Has not expressed itself in Russian.
Up to this day our proud tongue shows
It's still not used to postal prose."

Russia and Asia

Remember how I chose this book next for my read-around-the-world because it borders China? You'd never guess from how not-Chinese this society feels. The huge size of Russia must also be influencing this - the novel, and perhaps Russian life, centres around the big cities in the west of the country, not the more sparsely populated, distant Asian borders. There is only one tiny nod to Asia in this book, in the form of a servant character, who appears once and doesn't speak, from a Mongolian ethnic group.

The Russia of this novel, geographically lying between Europe and Asia, seems actively choosing to be European rather than Asian. Pushkin, however, seems to be arguing: what if we were Russian? A European Russian, sure, but not a try-hard France.

Spoilies Ahead!

Definitely stop here now if you haven't read Eugene Onegin and want to experience the plot twists yourself. I'll see you next time. It might be in Mongolia, or somewhere else because I never read things in the order I say I will (and because I'm currently reading Homer for another project so we might end up in Greece.)


The Plot

  1. Eugene, a slightly aimless young-man-about-town in Moscow, learns he has inherited a country estate from an old relative.

  2. He moves in to his new abode, befriending the local Larina sisters Tatiana and Olga, and another neighbour Vladimir Lensky, who is mad for Olga.

  3. Tatiana falls for Eugene hard, but outside a ball one night he rejects her. Feeling in an odd humour after this interaction, Eugene dances with Olga.

  4. Vladimir cracks the shits about this and challenges Eugene to a duel. Eugene shoots first, killing his friend. He gets the hell out of Dodge.

  5. Tatiana grieves. (Olga, surprisingly, only grieves a little bit before marrying someone else. Women, huh?) Tatiana's family decide the best cure for her depression is to travel by carriage for seven days in the Russian winter, do a season in Moscow, and get married.

  6. Time passes. Eugene is back in Moscow, hobnobbing with his old pals. At one party he spots a stunning princess, and asks the chap he's talking to - who is she? The chap responds, a) she's Tatiana Larina, and b) she's my wife.

  7. Tatiana is cold as ice to Eugene. (Maybe she never recovered from the carriage journey.) He declares his love for her. She cries and confesses she's still in love with him BUT she doesn't appreciate his "I'll love you only when you're taken" vibes. Also, she's a princess now. She's got other shit to do. Tatiana 1, Eugene 0.

The Characters

Tatiana, a.k.a. the Naive Country Flower

Our sensitive heroine has an incredibly rich inner life. Again and again Pushkin describes the nuances of her feelings beautifully ("she found a secret pleasure in very terror"). She's constantly being assailed by sudden fears and fragile hopes and running out into the garden in tears. Then at the end of the novel Pushkin describes

"How changed Tatiana is, adapting
So resolutely to her role.
With what alacrity accepting
The codes of rank that cramp the soul."

Her journey is very satisfying, with a touch of heartbreak at the end as we feel how painful but how necessary it is for her to reject Eugene's love.

Eugene, a.k.a. the Jaded City Fuckboi

Eugene, on the other hand, is often inexplicable. His rejection of Tatiana is attributed to jadedness ("he'd had enough of [women] for years") but, why the hell does he dance with Olga? Why does he shoot so early in the duel, and why shoot to kill? A large portion of the novel is from his perspective but the answers to our questions about him often lie deep in the subtext. Perhaps mirroring Tatiana's feelings about him, we just get frustrated and can only wonder about his motivations. This seems deliberate on the part of the author, who imagines the following conversation between his audience and himself. It seems a good final word on the hero of this novel:

"You know him, then?" "Well, yes and no."

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