Pushkin: Eugene Onegin (1833) The Russian Dissolution
There is a superb scene in the third chapter of Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin in which Tatiana, the landowner’s daughter character that Dostoevsky deemed a model of Russian womanhood, is sitting up all night at her desk, writing out her heart to Eugene Onegin, an aristocratic intellectual who has traded the grand monde of St. Petersburg for the petit monde of the countryside, and unwittingly won her girlish affections. She sits writing until, in Stanley Mitchell’s translation, dawn, “Streams silver and a shepherd’s horn wakes villagers to rise and rally. It’s morn all bustle here and there, but my Tatiana does not care.” For the young, love is music that drowns out all the noise of the world. She is pure in her single mindedness.
She’s also a much more likable character than Eugene Onegin. He is not detestable, because he would have to have more substance to be detested; but he embodies, for as much as he rejects it, all of the charming superficiality of high culture, the sharp witted words and supple ballerina’s feet that Pushkin tells us lie and cheat. Pushkin’s contempt shines through for the frivolous western styles that dominated enlightened Russian culture as he evokes the traditions, institutions, and values that once held sway, and which he implies provided the average Russian with a mooring since lost and leaving them adrift. Earth was traded for air.
There is a persistent sense of barrenness in the text, of empty fields under snowcover and hearts emptied out of all substance. Pushkin tells us the dead body of Eugene’s friend Lensky, killed in their duel over Tatiania, resembles an empty house and Eugene himself seems hollow, a representative of a dissipated generation. In Mitchell’s translation, Pushkin, the former Decembrist, describes Modern Man: “With his depraved, immoral soul/ Dried up and egotistical/ To dreaming endlessly addicted/ With his embittered, seething mind/ To futile enterprise consigned”. This comes as Tatiana, visiting Eugene’s empty room, comes across his books.Eugene reads Byron and the romantics; Tatiana reads the novelists of the eighteenth century like Richardson and Rousseau; and that tells you everything you need to know about the differences between the two of them.
The scene of the duel between Lansky and Eugene underscores the meaninglessness of their supposed values and eerily prefigures Pushkin’s own death in a duel over his wife. Lansky dies for honor, which he otherwise lacks, and Eugene kills him over Olga, who he’s not interested in. The novel seems pointlessly circular: Eugene rejects the love of Tatiana, who goes on to reject his affections. There’s a larger meaning in that what prevents the characters from feeling and loving one another seems to be merely the anti-values that a dissolute generation calls progress. Puskin’s irony and poetry keeps all of this from becoming didactic or bitter, but there’s an uneasy question lying beneath the surface: What if all the culture we’ve obtained makes us no wiser about living?
And then there is the spiritual death of Tatiana, absorbed into le monde, and with her of the Russian peasantry. Pushkin resents this world as much as the court society that would later snuff him out for its immorality, lassitude, self-absorption, and most of all for infecting the peasantry with these anti-values. Is Pushkin a conservative or a romantic? Is there a difference? I remember a cultural conservative scholar of a later generation exclaiming in a footnote, “God save the hardhats from our educated elite!” Pushkin seems to aim at saving the country from the city.