Nineteenth-century Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky famously called Eugene Onegin an ‘encyclopaedia of Russian life

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he novel Eugene Onegin was written by Alexander Pushkin between 1825 and 1832, and was published in its final single volume form in 1837. At the time the book was written, Russia had undergone the reforms of Peter the Great and Europe had a great influence on the ideas, styles and even language of Russia’s citizens. One result of these European influences was the emergence of many country estates in the provincial, rural parts of Russia, where wealthy members of society would often spend time when not in Moscow or St Petersburg.

Set mainly on a typical Russian country estate, the novel chronicles the life of the title character in verse, presented to the audience by a ‘narrator’, who may or may not be Pushkin. The work was described by Vissarion Belinsky as an ‘encyclopaedia of Russian life’, suggesting he believed Eugene Onegin was a realistic portrayal of all aspects of life in 19th Century Russia. In the 19th Century, the cultural divide between the city and rural parts of Russia was a huge one, with social hierarchies being even more obvious outside of the large cities.

When a new person or family arrived at an estate, the local community would become highly interested in them, clamouring to find out the latest trends of the cities and searching for their children’s future spouses. This happens in the novel when Eugene moves to the countryside, where he is discussed by many of the locals. Serfdom was rife, with one’s rank based on how many serfs you kept working on your estate, despite the fact this method was no longer economically viable.

In the novel, Eugene Onegin and Tatyana both agree that serfdom is a poor system, which somewhat unites them. Serfdom was abolished a few decades after Pushkin wrote Eugene Onegin, in 1861, showing that Eugene and Tatyana were forward thinkers. All of these factors of life are referenced within the novel, suggesting the book is at least partly accurate in discussing subjects which were relevant and important at the time. When studying Eugene Onegin, one simply cannot ignore the parallels between the story and Pushkin’s own life.

Born to a noble family, like Onegin, Pushkin was renowned for his poetry but was also a well-known political activist, which led to his exile in 1824, when he was sent to his mother’s estate in the countryside at Mikhailovskoe. This estate is thought to have been an inspiration for Pushkin’s portrayal of the Russian countryside in the novel, and, like Onegin, he didn’t end up in the countryside by choice.

Once his exile was spent, Pushkin moved to St Petersburg, where he married and became a regular of court society. Pushkin died shortly after a duel with his wife’s rumoured lover, which bears a striking similarity to Lensky’s death in ? gene Onegin. One of the main themes in Eugene Onegin is the comparison of reality and fiction. Literature plays a huge part in the book, with several references to other literary works and writers, and with Tatyana’s obsession with living out her life like one of her favourite romantic novels. One of the less believeable parts of the book is Tatyana’s falling in love with Onegin so suddenly, and her writing of the letter she sends him. At that time, a woman so openly expressing her emotions would have been frowned upon, and would have completely ruined her reputation.

This is displayed in the novel by Eugene rejecting her advances, partly to stop other people finding out about the letter, but we can only assume Tatyana got the idea to write it from her foreign romantic novels, rather from everyday life at the time. The narrator in the novel censors us from certain things, and Pushkin himself was censored a great deal by the Tsarist government, perhaps suggesting that people believed books could greatly influence people’s lives as they do to Tatyana, though this is less believable to a modern reader.

On the whole, I agree with Belinsky’s statement that Eugene Onegin was an ‘encyclopaedia of Russian life’, because it appears it is quite representative of society at the time. I don’t feel that every aspect of Russian life is represented in the book, though, as the lower classes aren’t represented, apart from the serfs, who aren’t actually presented as characters themselves and are merely discussed by the novel’s main characters. However, when examining life on a country estate in 19th Century Russia, and Puhkin’s life itself, a fairly accurate portrayal comes across in Eugene Onegin.

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