Monday, December 23, 2019

Literature and Legacy of Alexander Pushkin

Located in central Moscow, this famous statue of Alexander Pushkin was dedicated in 1880 by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
The wild story of Alexander Pushkin’s life resembles characters from dramas written by the author himself. Pushkin was born in Moscow in 1799 to a family with a long and complicated history in Russia. His father descended from an ancient aristocratic line who had fallen on hard times. On the other side, Pushkin’s maternal great-grandfather was the nobleman and military leader Abram Petrovich Gannibal. Kidnapped as a child from present-day Cameroon, Gannibal was brought to Russia as a gift for Peter the Great, who ended up adopting him as a godson. When Peter’s daughter Elizabeth assumed power, Gannibal served as a member of her court. Pushkin celebrated his storied lineage, even as his African heritage at times alienated him from Russian society.


Largely neglected by his parents, young Pushkin divided his time between the family’s extensive library of French literature and conversations with the household serfs. This early education in Western literature and colloquial Russian speech would serve him well, as his later works were prized for their introduction of everyday Russian into literary forms. Shortly after the successful publication of his mock epic poem Ruslan and Lyudmila in 1820, Pushkin was arrested for his liberal writings and exiled from the centers of Russian culture. Though pardoned and allowed to return to Moscow in 1826, Pushkin continued to face censorship and a tense relationship with the court for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, the following years were productive and in 1831 Pushkin completed Eugene Onegin, a verse novel on which he had been working for almost eight years. That same year, Pushkin married Natalya Goncharova and the pair moved to St. Petersburg. It was there Pushkin would challenge Baron Georges d’Ant├Ęs to a duel after suspecting the Frenchman was wooing Goncharova. Mortally wounded in the duel, Pushkin died February 27, 1837.

Duel Between Onegin and Lensky, an illustration by Ilya Yefimovich Repin, 1899.

His Legend Lives On

Though the duel ended Pushkin’s life, it ignited his legend. Ukrainian-born humorist, dramatist, and novelist Nikolai Gogol had already deemed Pushkin “the Russian national poet,” and the dramatic circumstances of his death only deepened the allure. Celebrating the anniversary of the poet’s birth, novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky stood in front of a monument to Pushkin in Moscow in 1880 and declared him a prophet and the “embodiment of Russia’s national ideals.” Pushkin remained a favorite across generations. Vladimir Lenin defended his work against critics, Joseph Stalin celebrated him as a hero, and Soviet propaganda highlighted Pushkin’s African heritage as evidence of a tradition of ethnic diversity. Today, Pushkin remains known as “Russia’s Shakespeare,” schoolchildren continue to memorize passages of his verse, and contemporary Russian rappers point to the poet as a forefather of hip-hop. Repeatedly cast as an embodiment of Russianness, Pushkin is both timeless and ever changing. In this, he is as enigmatic as Russia itself.

Uniquely Russian

Much like its creator, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin has captivated generations of Russians. Built around a plot that mirrors the life of its author—complete with disaffected poets, romantic ideals, and tragic duels—Eugene Onegin not only helped create a new Russian literary language, but also introduced character types that became fixtures in Russian culture. Dostoevsky described Eugene Onegin as “tangible and realistic,” and insisted that in the novel’s verse “real Russian life is embodied with creative power and perfection.”

What, we might ask, makes Eugene Onegin “realistic” and so very Russian? Part of this sense of realism is born of Pushkin’s innovative incorporation of contemporary Russian speech and recognizable characters into his work. Prior to Pushkin, Russian literature was largely beholden to models from Western Europe. In embracing the language and legends of Russia, Pushkin created a new, native form. Whether drawing on medieval history and folklore in Ruslan and Lyudmila or pioneering a unique verse form that came to be known as the “Onegin stanza” in Eugene Onegin, Pushkin made the Russian language literary.

Production photo of the opera Eugene Onegin
Lyric Opera of Kansas City, 2017 © Cory Weaver
From this new Russian verse emerged Eugene Onegin’s iconic characters—particularly, Tatyana and Onegin. The characters understand each other through the lens of the books they have read. Tatyana sees Onegin as a hero from her favorite novels. As much as the novel offered a reflection on the role of stories and culture in shaping identity, it also became a story that continues to shape Russians’ understandings of themselves. Tatyana typified a strong, idealistic, and self-sacrificing vision of the Russian woman that would echo through Russian literature for the next century. She was, Dostoevsky claimed, the “apotheosis of the Russian woman.” Onegin became a prototype of the “superfluous man.” Talented, but unable to fit into social norms, the alienated and ineffectual superfluous man reflected the social conditions of the time and populated many 19th-century Russian novels, including those of Ivan Turgenev, Mikhail Lermontov, and Ivan Goncharov.

From Page to Stage

Pushkin’s influence on Russian culture was not only literary. Almost immediately, the beauty of his verse and the power of his stories inspired performers and composers to adapt Pushkin for the stage. Passages from Eugene Onegin were performed by Russian actors not long after its publication, Mikhail Glinka premiered his version of Ruslan and Lyudmila in 1842, and Modest Mussorgsky's masterpiece, Boris Godunov, derives from a play by Pushkin. Even before composing Eugene Onegin, Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky himself had turned to Pushkin’s works for inspiration, using passages from Pushkin’s 1824 poem The Gypsies in his Zemfira’s Song. Tchaikovsky also would return to Pushkin later in his career, drawing from the author’s texts as the basis for both 1884’s Mazeppa and 1890’s The Queen of Spades.

Despite Tchaikovsky’s experience setting Pushkin’s verse to music and the precedent set by Glinka and Mussorgsky, the decision to create an opera based on the novel initially seemed a “wild idea” to the composer when the singer Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya suggested it in 1877. Not only was the text sacred to the Russian reading public, it also lacked the high dynamic drama so often characteristic of the operatic stage. Despite his initial reluctance, Tchaikovsky purchased a copy of Pushkin’s text later that night, and by the following day had begun work on the scenario for the opera. In Eugene Onegin, he found an “infinity of poetry” and characters who felt “real” and “whose feeling are like [his] own.” Rather than dealing with “Ethiopian princesses” and “Pharaohs” who were “so remote,” Tchaikovsky was happy to tell a story that resonated with his own experience. Like so many before and after him, Tchaikovsky found himself in Pushkin’s characters, not only as a Russian, but also as someone who deeply understood the experience of loneliness and frustrated romantic desires.

Almost two hundred years and an ocean away from Pushkin’s Russia, Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Eugene Onegin brings the poetry, beauty, and humanity of the Russian classic to Seattle.

Alena Gray Aniskiewicz is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Her research and teaching explore the maintenance and manufacture of literary history and cultural heritage in contemporary popular culture. She is currently completing a book on Polish hip-hop and the nation's poetic tradition.

Seattle Opera’s Eugene Onegin plays January 11–25 at McCaw Hall.
Tickets and info: seattleopera.org/onegin