History of Literature

Aleksandr Pushkin

"The Bronze Horseman" 

Illustrations by Alexandre Benois

"Eugene Onegin" 


collection: Portrait in Russian Art (18th-19th centuries)

Aleksandr Pushkin



Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin

Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin
 by Vasily Tropinin



Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin

Pushkin, 1822 г.

1799, Moscow, Russia
died Jan. 29 [Feb. 10], 1837, St. Petersburg

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Russian poet, novelist, dramatist, and short-story writer; he has often been considered his country's greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature.

16-year-old Pushkin reciting his poem before old Derzhavin in the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum
(1911 painting by Ilya Repin).

The early years.

Pushkin's father came of an old boyar family; his mother was a granddaughter of Abram Hannibal, who, according to family tradition, was an Abyssinian princeling bought as a slave at Constantinople (Istanbul) and adopted by Peter the Great, whose comrade in arms he became. Pushkin immortalized him in an unfinished historical novel, Arap Petra Velikogo (1827; The Negro of Peter the Great). Like many aristocratic families in early 19th-century Russia, Pushkin's parents adopted French culture, and he and his brother and sister learned to talk and to read in French. They were left much to the care of their maternal grandmother, who told Aleksandr, especially, stories of his ancestors in Russian. From Arina Rodionovna Yakovleva, his old nurse, a freed serf (immortalized as Tatyana's nurse in Yevgeny Onegin), he heard Russian folktales. During summers at his grandmother's estate near Moscow he talked to the peasantsand spent hours alone, living in the dream world of a precocious, imaginative child. He read widely in his father's library and gained stimulus from the literary guests who came to the house.

In 1811 Pushkin entered the newly founded Imperial Lyceum at Tsarskoye Selo (later renamed Pushkin) and while there began his literary career with the publication (1814, in Vestnik Evropy, “The Messenger of Europe”) of his verse epistle “To My Friend, the Poet.” In his early verse, he followed the style of his older contemporaries, the Romantic poets K.N. Batyushkov and V.A. Zhukovsky, and of the French 17th- and 18th-century poets, especially the Vicomte de Parny.

While at the Lyceum he also began his first completed major work, the romantic poem Ruslan i Lyudmila (1820; Ruslan and Ludmila ), written in the style of the narrative poems of Ludovico Ariosto and Voltaire but with an old Russian settingand making use of Russian folklore. Ruslan, modeled on the traditional Russian epic hero, encounters various adventuresbefore rescuing his bride, Ludmila, daughter of Vladimir, grand prince of Kiev, who, on her wedding night, has been kidnapped by the evil magician Chernomor. The poem flouted accepted rules and genres and was violently attacked by both of the established literary schools of the day, Classicism and Sentimentalism. It brought Pushkin fame, however, and Zhukovsky presented his portrait to the poet with the inscription “To the victorious pupil from the defeated master.”

Orest Adamovich Kiprensky (1782-1836)
Portrait of Vasily A. Zhukovsky, 1815

St. Petersburg.

In 1817 Pushkin accepted a post in the foreign office at St. Petersburg, where he was elected to Arzamás, an exclusive literary circle founded by his uncle's friends. Pushkin also joined the Green Lamp association, which, though founded (in 1818) for discussion of literature and history, became a clandestine branch of a secret society, the Union of Welfare. In his political verses and epigrams, widely circulated in manuscript, he made himself the spokesman for the ideas and aspirations of those who were to take part in the Decembrist rising of 1825, the unsuccessful culmination of a Russian revolutionary movement in its earliest stage.

Exile in the south.

For these political poems, Pushkin was banished from St. Petersburg in May 1820 to a remote southern province. Sent first to Yekaterinoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine), he wasthere taken ill and, while convalescing, traveled in the northern Caucasus and later to the Crimea with General Rayevski, a hero of 1812, and his family. The impressions he gained provided material for his “southern cycle” of romantic narrative poems: Kavkazsky plennik (1820–21; The Prisoner of the Caucasus), Bratya razboyniki (1821–22; The Robber Brothers), and Bakhchisaraysky fontan (1823; The Fountain of Bakhchisaray).

Although this cycle of poems confirmed the reputation of theauthor of Ruslan and Ludmila and Pushkin was hailed as theleading Russian poet of the day and as the leader of the romantic, liberty-loving generation of the 1820s, he himself was not satisfied with it. In May 1823 he started work on his central masterpiece, the novel in verse Yevgeny Onegin (1833), on which he continued to work intermittently until 1831. In it he returned to the idea of presenting a typical figure of his own age but in a wider setting and by means of new artistic methods and techniques.

Yevgeny Onegin unfolds a panoramic picture of Russian life. The characters it depicts and immortalizes—Onegin, the disenchanted skeptic; Lensky, the romantic, freedom-loving poet; and Tatyana, the heroine, a profoundly affectionate study of Russian womanhood: a “precious ideal,” in the poet's own words—are typically Russian and are shown in relationship to the social and environmental forces by which they are molded. Although formally the work resembles Lord Byron's Don Juan, Pushkin rejects Byron's subjective, romanticized treatment in favour of objective description and shows his hero not in exotic surroundings but at the heart of a Russian way of life. Thus, the action begins at St. Petersburg, continues on a provincial estate, then switches to Moscow, and finally returns to St. Petersburg.

Pushkin had meanwhile been transferred first to Kishinyov (1820–23; now Chişinău, Moldova) and then to Odessa (1823–24). His bitterness at continued exile is expressed in letters to his friends—the first of a collection of correspondence that became an outstanding and enduring monument of Russian prose. At Kishinyov, a remote outpost in Moldavia, he devoted much time to writing, though he alsoplunged into the life of a society engaged in amorous intrigue, hard drinking, gaming, and violence. At Odessa he fell passionately in love with the wife of his superior, Count Vorontsov, governor-general of the province. He fought several duels, and eventually the count asked for his discharge. Pushkin, in a letter to a friend intercepted by the police, had stated that he was now taking “lessons in pure atheism.” This finally led to his being again exiled to his mother's estate of Mikhaylovskoye, near Pskov, at the other end of Russia.

At Mikhaylovskoye.

Although the two years at Mikhaylovskoye were unhappy for Pushkin, they were to prove one of his most productive periods. Alone and isolated, he embarked on a close study of Russian history; he came to know the peasants on the estateand interested himself in noting folktales and songs. During this period the specifically Russian features of his poetry became steadily more marked. His ballad “Zhenikh” (1825; “The Bridegroom”), for instance, is based on motifs from Russian folklore; and its simple, swift-moving style, quite different from the brilliant extravagance of Ruslan and Ludmila or the romantic, melodious music of the “southern” poems, emphasizes its stark tragedy.

In 1824 he published Tsygany (The Gypsies), begun earlier as part of the “southern cycle.” At Mikhaylovskoye, too, he wrote the provincial chapters of Yevgeny Onegin; the poem Graf Nulin (1827; “Count Nulin”), based on the life of the rural gentry; and, finally, one of his major works, the historical tragedy Boris Godunov (1831).

The latter marks a break with the Neoclassicism of the French theatre and is constructed on the “folk-principles” of William Shakespeare's plays, especially the histories and tragedies, plays written “for the people” in the widest sense and thus universal in their appeal. Written just before the Decembrist rising, it treats the burning question of the relations between the ruling classes, headed by the tsar, andthe masses; it is the moral and political significance of the latter, “the judgment of the people,” that Pushkin emphasizes. Set in Russia in a period of political and social chaos on the brink of the 17th century, its theme is the tragic guilt and inexorable fate of a great hero—Boris Godunov, son-in-law of Malyuta Skuratov, a favourite of Ivan the Terrible, and here presented as the murderer of Ivan's little son, Dmitri. The development of the action on two planes, one political and historical, the other psychological, is masterly and is set against a background of turbulent eventsand ruthless ambitions. The play owes much to Pushkin's reading of early Russian annals and chronicles, as well as to Shakespeare, who, as Pushkin said, was his master in bold, free treatment of character, simplicity, and truth to nature. Although lacking the heightened, poetic passion of Shakespeare's tragedies, Boris excels in the “convincingness of situation and naturalness of dialogue” atwhich Pushkin aimed, sometimes using conversational prose, sometimes a five-foot iambic line of great flexibility. The character of the pretender, the false Dmitri, is subtly andsympathetically drawn; and the power of the people, who eventually bring him to the throne, is so greatly emphasized that the play's publication was delayed by censorship. Pushkin's ability to create psychological and dramatic unity, despite the episodic construction, and to heighten the dramatic tension by economy of language, detail, and characterization make this outstanding play a revolutionary event in the history of Russian drama.

Return from exile.

After the suppression of the Decembrist uprising of 1825, thenew tsar Nicholas I, aware of Pushkin's immense popularity and knowing that he had taken no part in the Decembrist “conspiracy,” allowed him to return to Moscow in the autumnof 1826. During a long conversation between them, the tsar met the poet's complaints about censorship with a promise that in the future he himself would be Pushkin's censor and told him of his plans to introduce several pressing reforms from above and, in particular, to prepare the way for liberation of the serfs. The collapse of the rising had been a grievous experience for Pushkin, whose heart was wholly with the “guilty” Decembrists, five of whom had been executed, while others were exiled to forced labour in Siberia.

Pushkin saw, however, that without the support of the people, the struggle against autocracy was doomed. He considered that the only possible way of achieving essential reforms was from above, “on the tsar's initiative,” as he had written in “Derevnya.” This is the reason for his persistent interest in the age of reforms at the beginning of the 18th century and in the figure of Peter the Great, the “tsar-educator,” whose example he held up to the present tsar in the poem “Stansy” (1826; “Stanzas”), in The Negro of Peter the Great, in the historical poem Poltava (1829), and in the poem Medny vsadnik (1837; The Bronze Horseman ).

In The Bronze Horseman, Pushkin poses the problem of the “little man” whose happiness is destroyed by the great leader in pursuit of ambition. He does this by telling a “story of St. Petersburg” set against the background of the flood of 1824, when the river took its revenge against Peter I's achievement in building the city. The poem describes how the “little hero,” Yevgeny, driven mad by the drowning of his sweetheart, wanders through the streets. Seeing the bronze statue of Peter I seated on a rearing horse and realizing that the tsar, seen triumphing over the waves, is the cause of his grief, Yevgeny threatens him and, in a climax of growing horror, is pursued through the streets by the “Bronze Horseman.” The poem's descriptive and emotional powers give it an unforgettable impact and make it one of the greatest in Russian literature.

After returning from exile, Pushkin found himself in an awkward and invidious position. The tsar's censorship proved to be even more exacting than that of the official censors, and his personal freedom was curtailed. Not only was he put under secret observation by the police but he was openly supervised by its chief, Count Benckendorf. Moreover, his works of this period met with little comprehension from the critics, and even some of his friendsaccused him of apostasy, forcing him to justify his political position in the poem “Druzyam” (1828; “To My Friends”). The anguish of his spiritual isolation at this time is reflected in a cycle of poems about the poet and the mob (1827–30) and in the unfinished Yegipetskiye nochi (1835; Egyptian Nights).

Yet it was during this period that Pushkin's genius came to its fullest flowering. His art acquired new dimensions, and almost every one of the works written between 1829 and 1836 opened a new chapter in the history of Russian literature. He spent the autumn of 1830 at his family's Nizhny Novgorod estate, Boldino, and these months are the most remarkable in the whole of his artistic career. During them he wrote the four so-called “little tragedies”—Skupoy rytsar (1836; The Covetous Knight), Motsart i Salyeri (1831; Mozart and Salieri), Kamenny gost (1839; The Stone Guest), and Pir vo vremya chumy (1832; Feast in Time of the Plague)—the five short prose tales collected as Povesti pokoynogo Ivana Petrovicha Bel ki na (1831; Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin); the comic poem of everyday lower-class life Domik v Kolomne (1833; “A Small House in Kolomna”); and many lyrics in widely differing styles, as wellas several critical and polemical articles, rough drafts, and sketches.

Among Pushkin's most characteristic features were his wide knowledge of world literature, as seen in his interest in such English writers as William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and the Lake poets; his “universal sensibility”; and his ability to re-create the spirit of different races at different historical epochs without ever losing his own individuality. This is particularly marked in the “little tragedies,” which are concerned with an analysis of the “evilpassions” and, like the short story Pikovaya Dama (1834; The Queen of Spades), exerted a direct influence on the subject matter and techniques of the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.


Natalia Nikolaevna Pushkina-Lanskaya (née Goncharova), wife of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin Painting by Alexander Brullov (1831).)

Natalia Nikolaevna Pushkina-Lanskaya (née Goncharova),
wife of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

Last years.

In 1831 Pushkin married Natalya Nikolayevna Goncharova and settled in St. Petersburg. Once more he took up government service and was commissioned to write a history of Peter the Great. Three years later he received the rank of Kammerjunker (gentleman of the emperor's bedchamber), partly because the tsar wished Natalya to have the entrée to court functions. The social life at court, which he was now obliged to lead and which his wife enjoyed,was ill-suited to creative work, but he stubbornly continued to write. Without abandoning poetry altogether, he turned increasingly to prose. Alongside the theme of Peter the Great, the motif of a popular peasant rising acquired growingimportance in his work, as is shown by the unfinished satirical Istoriya sela Goryukhina (1837; The History of the Village of Goryukhino), the unfinished novel Dubrovsky (1841), Stseny iz rytsarskikh vremen (1837; Scenes from the Age of Chivalry), and finally, the most important of his prose works, the historical novel of the Pugachov Rebellion, Ka pi tan ska ya dochka (1836; The Captain's Daughter), which hadbeen preceded by a historical study of the rebellion, Istoriya Pugachova (1834; “A History of Pugachov”).

Meanwhile, both in his domestic affairs and in his official duties, his life was becoming more intolerable. In court circles he was regarded with mounting suspicion and resentment, and his repeated petitions to be allowed to resign his post, retire to the country, and devote himself entirely to literature were all rejected. Finally, in 1837, Pushkin was mortally wounded defending his wife's honour in a duel forced on him by influential enemies.


Pushlin was died. 29. 01. 1837

Alexander Pushkin 29. 01. 1837


Pushkin's use of the Russian language is astonishing in its simplicity and profundity and formed the basis of the style ofnovelists Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Goncharov, and Leo Tolstoy. His novel in verse, Yevgeny Onegin, was the first Russian work to take contemporary society as its subject and pointedthe way to the Russian realistic novel of the mid-19th century. Even during his lifetime Pushkin's importance as a great national poet had been recognized by Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol, his successor and pupil, and it was his younger contemporary, the great Russian critic Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky, who produced the fullest and deepestcritical study of Pushkin's work, which still retains much of its relevance. To the later classical writers of the 19th century, Pushkin, the creator of the Russian literary language, stood as the cornerstone of Russian literature, in Maksim Gorky's words, “the beginning of beginnings.” Pushkin has thus become an inseparable part of the literaryworld of the Russian people. He also exerted a profound influence on other aspects of Russian culture, most notably in opera.

Pushkin's work—with its nobility of conception and its emphasis on civic responsibility (shown in his command to the poet-prophet to “fire the hearts of men with his words”), its life-affirming vigour, and its confidence in the triumph of reason over prejudice, of human charity over slavery and oppression—has struck an echo all over the world. Translated into all the major languages, his works are regarded both as expressing most completely Russian national consciousness and as transcending national barriers.

Dimitry Dimitriyevich Blagoy

Alexander Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky




Type of work: Poem
Author: Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)
Type of plot: Impressionistic romance
Time of plot: Nineteenth century
Locale: Russia
First published: 1833


Pushkin's lyric poem describing the eccentric life of Eugene Onegin reworks the Don Juan legend familiar to readers of Byron. Regarded as the inspiration for the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century, Pushkin's romantic lyric has the world-weary Onegin duel with and kill his only friend and spurn the love of a worthy woman, only to fall in love with her after she has despaired and married another.


Principal Characters

Tatyana Larin (ta-tya'na la'nn), also called Tanya Larina (tan'ya la'nn-э), the reserved, withdrawn older daughter of the well-to-do Larin family. Her parents despair of her marriage prospects, but she falls in love at first sight with Eugene Onegin and, unable to write grammatical Russian, sends him a passionate letter written in French. Although he tails to encourage her, she turns down several other proposals of marriage. When her family takes her to Moscow, she picks up beauty hints at a ball and attracts the attentions of a retired general, who persuades her to marry him. Years later she again sees Eugene, who falls in love with her and writes her pleading letters. She reads them and preserves them to read again, but she gives him no encouragement and remains faithful to her general to the end of her life.
Eugene Onegin (eu-ge'niy 6-ne'gin), the hero of this narrative poem, with many resemblances to its author. Brought up in the aristocratic tradition, he is a brilliant, witty man of the world. Successful in many light love affairs, he is bored with living. City life, with its opera and ballet, has lost its appeal. A stay on the country estate willed to him by his uncle wearies him after several days. He is finally persuaded by his friend, Vladimir Lensky, to accompany him on a visit to the Larin family. There he finds the conversation dull, the refreshment too simple and too abundant, and Tatyana unattractive. Visiting her later, after receiving her love letter, he tells her frankly that he would make her a very poor husband because he has had too many disillusioning experiences with women. He returns to the lonely estate and the life of an anchorite.
When Vladimir takes him under false pretenses to Tatyana's birthday party, he gets revenge by flirting with her sister Olga, engaged to Vladimir. His jealous friend challenges him to a duel. Eugene shoots Vladimir through the heart.
Olga Larin (oly'ga la'rin), also called Olenka (б-1ёп'кэ), the pretty and popular younger daughter of the Larin family, betrothed to Vladimir Lensky. At a ball she dances so often with Onegin that her fiance gets angry. Though she assures him that she means nothing by her flirtation, he challenges Onegin to a duel and is killed. Later she marries an army officer.
Vladimir Lensky (vla-di'mlr len'skiy), a German-Russian friend of Eugene, brought up in Germany and influenced by romantic illusions of life and love. Although his reading of Schiller and Kant sets him apart from most other young Russians, he and Eugene have much in common. He tries to get his friend interested in Tatyana Larin, even to inviting him to her big birthday party, which he describes as an intimate family affair. In resentment Eugene avoids Tatyana and devotes himself to Olga. After the challenge is given, Vladimir is too proud to acknowledge his misjudgment and is killed.
M. Guillot (gil-yo'), Eugene's second in the duel.
Zaretsky (za-ret'skiy), Vladimir's second.
The Prince (called Gremin in the operatic version), a fat, retired general and Eugene's friend. Seeing Tatyana at a ball in Moscow, he falls in love with her and proposes. She accepts. Later he invites Eugene to his house, where the latter meets Tatyana again.


The Story

Eugene Onegin was brought up in the aristocratic tradition. Although he had little classical background, he had a flashing wit and he was well-read in economics. He had become an accomplished man of the world by the time he reached young manhood. In fact, he had been so successful in love and so accustomed to the social life of Moscow that he habitually felt a supreme boredom with life. Even the ballet had lately failed to hold his attention.
Eugene's father had led the usual life. He gave balls regularly and tried his best to keep up his social position by borrowing recklessly. Just as he was declared a bankrupt, Eugene received word that his uncle was dying. Since he was the heir, he left in haste to attend the dying man. Grumbling at the call of duty, he was nevertheless thankful to be coming into an inheritance.
His uncle died, however, before he arrived. After the relatives had departed, Eugene settled down to enjoy his uncle's handsome country estate. The cool woods and the fertile fields charmed him at first, but after two days of country life his old boredom returned. He soon acquired a reputation as an eccentric. If neighbors called, Eugene found himself obliged to leave on an urgent errand. After a while the neighbors left him to himself.
Vladimir Lensky, however, remained his friend. At eighteen, Vladimir was still romantic and filled with illusions of life and love. He had been in Germany, where he was much influenced by Kant and Schiller. In Russia his German temperament set him apart. He and Eugene became more and more intimate.
The Larins had two daughters, Olga and Tatyana. Olga was pretty and popular, and although she was the younger, she was the leader in their group. Tatyana was reserved and withdrawn, but a discerning observer would have seen her real beauty. She made no effort to join in the social life. Olga had been long betrothed to Vladimir; the family despaired of a marriage for Tatyana.
On Vladimir's invitation, Eugene reluctantly agreed to pay a visit to the Larins. When the family heard that the two men were coming, they immediately thought of Eugene as a suitor for Tatyana. He, however, was greatly bored with his visit. The refreshments were too ample and too rustic, and the talk was heavy and dull. He paid little attention to Tatyana.
After he left, Tatyana was much disturbed. Having fallen deeply in love, she had no arts with which to attract Eugene. After confiding in her dull-witted nurse, she wrote Eugene a passionate, revealing love letter. She wrote in French, for she could not write Russian grammatically.
Eugene, stirred by her letter, paid another visit to the Larins and found Tatyana in a secluded garden. He told her the brutal truth: He was not a good man for a husband, for he had too much experience with women and too many disillusionments. Life with him would not be at all worthy of Tatyana. The girl, making no protest, suffered in silence.
On his lonely estate Eugene lived the life of an anchorite. He bathed every morning in a stream, read, walked and rode in the countryside, and slept soundly at night. Only Vladimir called occasionally.
That winter the Larins celebrated Tatyana's name-day. When Vladimir represented the gathering as only a small family affair, Eugene consented to go. He felt betrayed when he found the guests numerous, the food heavy, and the ball obligatory. For revenge, he danced too much with Olga, preventing Vladimir from enjoying his fiancee's company. Vladimir became jealously angry and challenged Eugene to a duel. Through stubbornness Eugene accepted the challenge.
Before the duel, Vladimir went to see Olga. His purpose was to reproach her for her behavior, but Olga, as cheerful and affectionate as ever, acted as if nothing had happened. More lighthearted but somewhat puzzled, Vladimir prepared to meet Eugene on the dueling ground.
When the two friends met, Eugene shot Vladimir through the heart. Remorseful at last, Eugene left his estate to wander by himself. Olga soon afterward married an army man and left home.
In spite of the scandal, Tatyana still loved Eugene. She visited his house and made friends with his old housekeeper. She sat in his study reading his books and pondering his marginal notes. Eugene had been especially fond of Don Juan and other cynical works, and his notes revealed much about his selfishness and disillusionment. Tatyana, who had hitherto read very little, learned much bitterness from his books and came to know more of Eugene.
At home, Tatyana's mother did not know what to do. The girl seemed to have no interest in suitors and had refused several proposals. On the advice of relatives, the mother decided to take Tatyana to Moscow, where there were more eligible men. They were to visit a cousin for a season in hopes that Tatyana would become betrothed.
From her younger cousins Tatyana learned to do her hair stylishly and to act more urbanely in society. At a ball a famous general, a prince, was attracted to Tatyana. In spite of the fact that he was obese, she accepted his proposal.
After more than two years of wandering, Eugene returned to Moscow. Still indifferent to life, he decided to attend a fashionable ball, simply to escape from boredom for a few hours. He was warmly greeted by his host, whom he had known well in former times. While the prince was reproaching him for his long absence, Eugene could not keep from staring at a queenly woman who dominated the gathering. She looked familiar. When he asked the prince about her, he was astounded to learn that she was Tatyana, his host's wife.
The changed Tatyana showed no traces of the shy rustic girl who had written so revealingly of her love. Eugene, much attracted to her, frequently went to her house, but he never received more than a cool reception and a distant hand to kiss.
Finally Eugene began to write her letters in which he expressed his hopeless longing. Still Tatyana gave no sign. All that winter Eugene kept to his gloomy room, reading and musing. At last, in desperation, he called on Tatyana unannounced and surprised her rereading his letters.
Tatyana refused to give in to his importunate declarations. Why had he scorned the country girl, and why did he now pursue the married woman? She would rather listen to his brutal rejection than to new pleadings. She had once been in love with Eugene and would gladly have been his wife; perhaps she was still in love with him. Perhaps she had been wrong in listening to her mother, who had been insistent that she marry the prince. But now she was married, and she would remain faithful to her husband until she died.
Critical Evaluation
Pushkin called Eugene Onegin a "novel in verse." Well aware of European literary models, and especially attracted to Lord Byron's long narrative poems Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan, Pushkin mixed the distinct qualities of prose and verse into a landmark work of Romantic literature.
Pushkin follows the novel-of-manners tradition in several respects. In Eugene Onegin he offers a picture of Russian society as well as a tale of individuals. The story moves from the Europeanized salons of St. Petersburg to the gentry's country estates to the aristocratic circles of Moscow. It alternates scenes of social occasions and private interviews. Like a novel of manners, Eugene Onegin concerns characters that the reader is meant to care about. Penetrating the recesses of Tatyana's and Eugene's hearts, and presenting their love letters for inspection, Pushkin allows the reader to see events, themselves, and others through their eyes as well as the narrator's. Finally, like a novelist, Pushkin arranges his characters as paired reflections (Vladimir is a younger Eugene, Tatyana a deeper Olga) who switch positions like dancers in a minuet (for example, in the city Eugene loves Tatyana as vainly as she loves him in the country).
Pushkin is a novelist, then, but he is also a poet. He has a poet's care for the exact arrangement of words. He tells the story in eight books composed of 399 stanzas; each stanza has fourteen lines (three quatrains and a couplet) of iambic tetrameter with a complicated pattern of varying rhymes. Like a sonneteer arranging a sequence, Pushkin the poet carefully crafts each stanza internally even as he fits it into the unfolding narrative.
Eugene Onegin brims with lyrical passages about the beauty of the countryside as the seasons change, the glorious ideals of youth, and the power of romantic passion. Though these lyrical sections digress from the narrative development, they add texture and atmosphere to preceding and following scenes. Like all great poets, Pushkin has an eye for symbol and metaphor. All the characters reveal themselves by the books they read: Eugene remains, like the cynical hero in Byron's works, aloof from life; Tatyana expects love to be the permanent exchange of noble souls described by epistolary novelists; Lensky explores the heights and depths of emotion glorified by romantic and sentimental poems. The seasons likewise mirror the state of the characters' hearts. It is in the spring that Eugene first arrives in the country to start a new life; the fateful name-day party and duel occur in winter; in the spring come Olga's wedding and Tatyana's visits to Eugene's estate; Tatyana's marriage and Eugene's hopeless proposition are winter events.
At times the poet-narrator intrudes upon the world of the characters, reminding readers of the literary conventions that dictate how a novel in verse develops. He shares with them the agonies and ecstasies of writing this story. He juxtaposes the characters' individual emotional reactions to events with a transcendent objectivity hard won by his own experience. The narrator's intrusion is another of the complexities that enrich Eugene Onegin and reward repeated readings.
The presence of an intrusive narrator suggests that Eugene Onegin contains strong autobiographical elements. Pushkin wrote the work over a period of eight years (1832-1831). He began the work while in virtual exile on the family estate after a youth of living rakishly and writing passionate poetry, a life-style that had cost him a government commission. Vladimir and Eugene are versions of him: Lensky his youthful dedication to poetry, Onegin his weariness with society. Not until 1826 did Pushkin live and work again in St. Petersburg; in 1830 he reluctantly reentered government service after marrying a beautiful, ambitious younger woman. During these years he wrote the middle parts of Eugene Onegin in fitful bursts, completing it only in 1830 during three intensely creative months of isolation at a country estate. The poem's movement from city to country mirrors Pushkin's own journey. His caricatures of country bumpkins and city pseudosophisticates mirror his own hesitant participation in Russian society. The poem's attention to the varieties of love—its innocence, intensity, and mercurial nature—mirrors his own experience of requited and unrequited affection.
Eugene Onegin concerns as much the state of Russia's soul, however, as it does the state of Pushkin's own soul. In Tatyana and Onegin Pushkin created characters who had a deep influence on other Russian writers of the nineteenth century. Tatyana is the prototype of the spiritual, melancholy woman who needs a love more profound than any man can give her. She anticipates heroines like Ivan Turgenev's Anna Odintzov (Fathers and Sons) and Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Eugene is the first of the superfluous men, like Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov and Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich, who despairingly realize that their lives have no meaning outside the social role they play. Though attracted passionately to each other, these melancholy women and superfluous men cannot save themselves or their lovers. Their efforts to connect fail by chance, by choice, or by circumstance. The world about them is no help. Country society is dull, cliquish, and petty; city society cares only for status, reputation, and show. The community offers the individual no pattern for spiritual health or emotional communion. Indeed, it isolates individuals and insulates them from true feeling by providing conventional expectations and roles.
Technically, Pushkin's novel in verse highlights the literary conventions that manipulate readers; themati-cally, the work depicts the social conventions that manipulate women and men. Though rooted in the experience of a writer now dead and mirroring a society now equally dead, Eugene One gin remains a powerful work for modern readers. It takes up universal themes and eternal hopes and fears. Tatyana embodies the unflinching hope that demands that life and love measure up to expectations while Eugene embodies the constant fear that life and love can never meet those expectations. The poet-narrator embodies the continuing desire to control this chaos of hopes and fears with the inexhaustible resources of art.



Type of work: Novel
Author: Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of plot: About 1774
Locale: Russia
First published: Kapitanskaya dochka, 1836 (English translation, 1878)

One of the first pure examples of Russian realism, The Captain's Daughter is an exciting and concisely told narrative with a gallery of characters ranging from simple Maria to the cruel rebel Pougatcheff. The novel was written as the result of Pushkin's appointment to the office of crown historian, which gave him access to state archives and the private papers of Empress Catherine II.


Principal Characters

Piotr Andreitch Grineff (pyo'tr an-dre'ich gri-nef), a young officer in a Russian regiment. A kindly and generous young man who falls in love with the commandant's daughter, he goes to great lengths to protect her from harm and fights a duel when a fellow officer criticizes a love poem he has written for her. At first his parents do not approve of the girl, but they later give their consent to the marriage.
Maria Ivanovna (та'гуэ I-va'navng), the captain's daughter, a lovely girl very much in love with Piotr. When he sends her to his parents for her protection, she so impresses them that they change their minds about not allowing their son to marry her. She saves her lover from exile in Siberia by appealing to the empress.
Alexey Ivanitch Shvabrin (alek-sa' Ivan'ich shva'bnn), an officer in the same regiment with Piotr. A suitor rejected by Maria, he is jealous of her love for Piotr. When the rebel Pougatcheff takes the Bailogorsk fortress, Shvabrin deserts to the rebel side. He does everything in his power to separate Maria and Piotr. He accuses Piotr of being a spy for the rebels and is responsible for his rival's sentence of exile.
Emelyan Pougatcheff (ё-тё-lyan' pooga'chaf), a Cossack rebel leader who claims to be the dead Emperor Peter III. He is cruel and ruthless, but after the capture of the Bailogorsk fortress he spares Piotr's life and sends him away under safe conduct because the young officer had sometime before given the rebel, disguised as a traveler, a sheepskin coat to protect him during a snowstorm.
Savelitch (sa-ve'lich), Piotr's old servant, whose intervention saves his master from several predicaments. He is faithful, loyal, and shrewd.
Vassilissa Egorovna (va-si'li-sa e-go'rsvna), the captain's wife, a very capable woman who runs her household and her husband's regiment with great efficiency. When she protests against her husband's murder by the Cossack rebels, she is killed.
Captain Ivan Mironoff, the commanding officer at the Bailogorsk fortress and Piotr's superior. Captured when Cossacks under Emelyan Pougatcheff seize the fortress, he and his aides are hanged by order of the rebel chief.
Captain Zourin, who rescues Piotr, his family, and Maria from death at the hands of the renegade Shvabrin.


The Story

Although Peter Andreitch Grineff was registered as a sergeant in the Semenovsky regiment when he was very young, he was given leave to stay at home until he had completed his studies. When he was nearly seventeen years old, his father decided that the time had arrived to begin his military career. With his parents' blessing, Peter set out for distant Orenburg, in the company of his faithful servant, Savelitch.
The trip was not without incident. One night, the travelers put up at Simbirsk. There, while his man went to see about some purchases, Peter was lured into playing billiards with a fellow soldier. Zourin, and quickly lost one hundred rubles. Toward evening of the following day, the young man and Savelitch found themselves on the snowy plain with a storm approaching. As darkness fell, the snow grew thicker, until finally the horses could not find their way and the driver confessed that he was lost. They were rescued by another traveler, a man with such sensitive nostrils that he was able to scent smoke from a village some distance away and to lead them to it. The three men and their guide spent the night in the village. The next morning, Peter presented his sheepskin jacket to his poorly dressed rescuer. Savelitch warned Peter that the coat would probably be pawned for a drink.
Late that day, the young man reached Orenburg and presented himself to the general in command. It was decided that he should join the Bailogorsk fortress garrison under Captain Mironoff, for his superior felt that the dull life at Orenburg might lead the young man into a career of dissipation.
The Bailogorsk fortress, on the edge of the Kirghis steppes, was nothing more than a village surrounded by a log fence. Its real commandant was not Captain Mironoff but his lady, Vassilissa Egorovna, a lively, strict woman who saw to the discipline of her husband's underlings as well as the running of her own household.
Peter quickly made friends with a fellow officer, Shva-brin, who had been exiled to the steppes for fighting a duel. He spent much time with his captain's family and grew deeply attached to the couple and to their daughter, Maria Ivanovna. After he had received his commission, he found military discipline so relaxed that he was able to indulge his literary tastes.
The quiet routine of Peter's life was interrupted by an unexpected quarrel with Shvabrin. One day, he showed his friend a love poem he had written to Maria. Shvabrin criticized the work severely and went on to make derogatory remarks about Maria until they quarreled and Peter found himself challenged to a duel for having called the man a liar.
The next morning, the two soldiers met in a field to fight but they were stopped by some of the garrison, for Vassilissa Egorovna had learned of the duel. Peter and his enemy, although apparently reconciled, intended to carry out their plan at the earliest opportunity. Discussing the quarrel with Maria, Peter learned that Shvabrin's actions could be explained by the fact that he was her rejected suitor.
Assuring themselves that they were not watched, Shvabrin and Peter fought their duel the following day. Wounded in the breast, Peter lay unconscious for five days after the fight. When he began to recover, he asked Maria to marry him. Shvabrin had been jailed. Then Peter's father wrote that he disapproved of a match with Captain Mironoff's daughter and that he intended to have his son transferred from the fortress so that he might forget his foolish ideas. As Savelitch denied having written a letter home, Peter could only conclude that Shvabrin had been the informer.
Life would have become unbearable for the young man after his father's letter arrived if the unexpected had not happened. One evening, Captain Mironoff informed his officers that the Yaikian Cossacks, led by Emelyan Pou-gatcheff, who claimed to be the dead Emperor Peter III, had risen and were sacking fortresses and committing outrages everywhere. The captain ordered his men to keep on the alert and to ready the cannon.
The news of Pougatcheff's uprising quickly spread through the garrison. Many of the Cossacks of the town sided with the rebel, so that Captain Mironoff did not know whom he could trust or who might betray him. It was not long before the captain received a manifesto from the leader of the Cossacks ordering him to surrender.
It was decided that Maria should be sent back to Orenburg, but the attack came early the next morning before she could leave. Captain Mironoff and his officers made a valiant effort to defend the town; but with the aid of Cossack traitors inside the walls, Pougatcheff was soon master of the fortress.
Captain Mironoff and his aides were hanged. Shvabrin deserted to the rebels. Peter, at the intercession of old Savelitch, was spared by Pougatcheff. The townspeople and the garrison soldiers had no scruples about pledging allegiance to the rebel leader. Vassilissa Egorovna was slain when she cried out against her husband's murderer.
When Pougatcheff and his followers rode off to inspect the fortress, Peter began his search for Maria. To his great relief, he found that she had been hidden by the wife of the village priest and that Shvabrin, who knew her whereabouts, had not revealed her identity. He learned from Savelitch that the servant had recognized Pougatcheff as the man to whom he had given his hareskin coat months before. Later, the rebel leader sent for Peter and acknowledged his identity.
The rebel tried to persuade Peter to join the Cossacks but respected his wish to rejoin his own forces at Orenburg. The next day, Peter and his servant were given safe conduct, and Pougatcheff gave Peter a horse and a sheepskin coat for the journey.
Several days later the Cossacks attacked Orenburg. During a sally against them, Peter received a disturbing message from one of the Bailogorsk Cossacks; Shvabrin was forcing Maria to marry him. Peter went at once to the general and tried to persuade him to raise the siege and go to the rescue of the village. When the general refused, Peter and Savelitch started out once more for the Bailogorsk fortress. Intercepted and taken before Pougatcheff, Peter persuaded the rebel to give Maria safe conduct to Orenburg.
On the way, they met a detachment of soldiers led by Captain Zourin, who persuaded Peter to send Maria, under Savelitch's protection to his family, while he himself remained with the troops in Orenburg.
The siege of Orenburg was finally lifted, and the army began its task of tracking down rebel units. Some months later, Peter found himself near his own village and set off alone to visit his parents' estate. Reaching his home, he found the serfs in rebellion and his family and Maria captives. That day, Shvabrin swooped down upon them with his troops. He was about to have them all hanged, except Maria, when they were rescued by Zourin's men. The renegade was shot during the encounter and taken prisoner.
Peter's parents had changed their attitude toward the captain's daughter, and Peter was able to rejoin Captain Zourin with the expectation that he and Maria would be
wed in a month. Then an order came for his arrest. He was accused of having been in the pay of Pougatcheff, of spying for the rebel, and of having taken presents from him. The author of the accusations was the captive, Shva-brin. Though Peter could easily have cleared himself by summoning Maria as a witness, he decided not to drag her into the matter. He was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in exile in Siberia.
Maria, however, was not one to let matters stand at that. Leaving Peter's parents, she traveled to St. Petersburg and went to Tsarskoe Selo, where the court was located. Walking in the garden there one day, she met a woman who declared that she went to court on occasion and would be pleased to present her petition to the empress. Maria was summoned to the royal presence the same day and discovered that it was the empress herself to whom she had spoken. Peter received his pardon and soon afterward married the captain's daughter.


Critical Evaluation

The longest of Alexander Pushkin's completed prose tales, The Captain's Daughter was based on true events which Pushkin wrote as history in his Istoria Pugachev (1834; The History of the Pugachev Rebellion). The astonishing quality about The Captain's Daughter is the style. Although written in 1836, and the first modern Russian novel, it possesses a brisk, lean style more suggestive of twentieth century fiction than that of the early nineteenth century. Pushkin wastes no words, yet his scenes are vivid, his characters fully fleshed and remarkably alive, and his tale recounted in a suspenseful and moving manner. The first-person narration is realistic and adds to the verisimilitude of the story. The naive, romantic illusions of the young protagonist are described by the narrator in a thoroughly disarming and often humorous manner. The entire story is seen through Peter's eyes, allowing the reader to share his enthusiasms, his impetuousness, and his fears, as well as his youthful ardor and romantic spirit. A sense of the vitality of youth pervades the book.
The accounts of action, such as the duel or the siege of the Bailogorsk fortress, are vivid and well paced. Throughout the novel, Pushkin writes with extraordinary ease and vitality, bringing to life in a few strokes situations and characters. A sly humor is an integral part of the narrative. When the hero notes that his French tutor was sent from Moscow with the yearly supply of wine and olive oil, readers know precisely where that unlucky tutor fits into the household. Many of the characters possess a humorous side to their nature. The ill-fated, henpecked captain and his talkative but kindly tyrant of a wife are both portrayed with a light touch. Old Savelitch, Peter's servant, is the truest comic figure in the novel; devoted to his young master, as to Peter's father before, the old man would willingly sacrifice his life for Peter, but he never hesitates to talk back to Peter or even to the rebel Cossack leader if he feels that he is in the right. Even Pougatcheff, self-styled pretender to the throne, is presented with a great deal of humor; in a sense, he is the only character in the book who does not take himself completely seriously, and this, at least in part, is the result of an ironic realization of the precariousness of his existence.
Many scenes in the novel possess a double-edged humor, from the absurd, aborted, and then finished duel between Peter and Shvabrin to the moment, in the midst of horror, when old Savelitch dares to present an itemized list of destroyed and stolen goods to the man who holds all of their lives in his hands. The deaths of the captain and his wife are handled with a certain grotesque humor. As in Shakespeare's tragedies, this humor serves to heighten the horror of certain dramatic scenes, such as the fall of the fortress and the butchering of the innocent at the hands of the rebels. Despite the terrible events portrayed in the novel, the book is not grim. It is a romantic tale of action and romance, and the ending is appropriately happy. Even the conclusion, with its scenes of mistaken identity, possesses a charming humor.
At the same time, the realism of the portrayals of the duplicity of human nature, the traitorous villainy of Shvabrin, the cowardice of the garrison when they all throw down their arms in the face of the enemy, and the pettiness of many of the minor characters is shocking. The brilliant construction of the novel, the alternating light and dark scenes, sweeps the reader along, never letting him be quite sure of where he is. Pushkin seems to delight in catching the reader off guard, of making him laugh and then gasp with horror and then hurling a piece of slapstick at him before he has recovered from the shock. The scene of the captain's fat wife being dragged naked from her house to the gallows, screaming and shouting abuse at the Cossacks, is both funny and horrible. Shvabrin, completely despicable, is shown to be absurd as he struts and postures during his brief glory, and then, even more so, when he falls. Pushkin is extremely deft at showing both sides of human beings, the noble and the phony, the absurd and the courageous, the hateful and the loving.
The Russian land is an important part of this novel. The vast spaces almost become another character, as the hero flies across them in sleds and carriages or on horseback. Pushkin carefully builds a sense of intense patriotic fervor throughout the narrative, culminating in the scenes with the empress. The empress is seen as the Mother figure of all Russia, wise and warm, quick to understand and forgive and to come to the aid of her "children."
Frequently, in the course of the book, words and phrases refer to the Russian people as one large family; underlings call their masters and mistresses "Father" and "Mother," and the land is referred to as the Great Mother of them all. The empress and the land are inseparable. In the light of this powerful sentiment, the daring of Pougatcheff to attempt to usurp the throne becomes all the more shocking, as Pushkin intended, because to attack the throne is to attack all of Russia and to undermine the structure of the entire country.
The Captain's Daughter exerted a tremendous influence on Russian fiction; it showed novelists the possibilities of Russian themes and Russian settings, and, above all, it illustrated the narrative capabilities of the Russian language. Never before had Russian prose been used in fiction in such a lean, vigorous, and completely unpretentious manner. The perfection of the book was awesome but also inspiring to the writers who followed Pushkin. It can be said that the great period of Russian fiction begins with The Captain's Daughter. (The other great formative influence on Russian fiction, Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, did not appear until 1842.) The great tragedy for Russian literature and the world is that the year after writing this novel, Pushkin was killed at the age of thirty-seven in a duel.


Drawings by A. Pushkin






















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