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  • Alexander Pushkin’s Novel in Verse, Eugene Onegin, and Its Legacy in the Work of Vladimir Nabokov
  • Renate Lachmann
    Translated by Mark Pettus

Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin (1833) overcame thresholds imposed by the conventions of genre and style to become a threshold text itself over the course of its canonization; marked by innovation and a sharp break with tradition, it is a text that divides Russian literature into a “before” and “after.” Contemporary literary criticism labeled it an “encyclopedia of Russian society”—a label that, throughout the history of its interpretation, certainly obscured the purely literary encyclopedism of the text. Eugene Onegin is a highly complex text, featuring self-commentary, meta-textuality, allusions to other texts, and parody, in which pre-Romantic and Romantic European literature is digested and broken down. The canonization process that produced Alexander Pushkin the “classic” author, and the strain exerted upon the Pushkin “legacy” by subsequent generations of poets, have played a decisive role in Russia’s cultural self-conception. Particularly prominent in this process was Vladimir Nabokov, whose émigré works reclaimed the Pushkin legacy, and who thereby made his own contribution to the canonization process, as Pushkin’s literary double.


The year 1999 marked Pushkin’s bicentennial and Nabokov’s centennial celebration. Pushkin was celebrated as Russia’s national poet; enormous mass-produced banners emblazoned with his portrait, conspicuous and exhilarating, spanned Moscow’s central thoroughfare, Tverskaya. Nabokov, on the other hand, was an author who had returned to Russian literature after a long literary absence. Pushkin was everyman’s poet, whose verses anyone could recite from memory, while Nabokov was an author for the educated, an author’s author.

These centenaries saw both authors—the consummate “classic” author and the “classic” author in progress—celebrated at symposia and in countless commemorative speeches. Editions of their collected works were [End Page 1] republished. Those of Nabokov, including Russian translations of his English-language novels, were published in Russia, and work to restore his legendary familial estate, Vyra, was accelerated. In New York, it was decided to establish a museum and archive dedicated to both Nabokov the author and Nabokov the lepidopterist.

While such Nabokov-inspired festivities remained unprecedented in Russia, Pushkin celebrations had long been a ritualized tradition. Already in the nineteenth century, Pushkin’s cultural presence was guaranteed not only literarily, by epigones of Eugene Onegin, but also musically and iconically. It became fashionable to set his romances to music; due to the success of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades and of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, several of his works could be celebrated in the form of operas—a circumstance of which Nabokov disapproved, particularly with regard to Tchaikovsky. Pushkin’s “post-erotic” poem “I Loved You Once” (“Ia vas liubil”) has been set to music eighty times, most recently by a pop group in Halle (Saale).

The first bust of Pushkin (figure 1) was exhibited shortly after his death in a duel (1837).1 In 1880, following a complicated prehistory in volving a request for proposals, selection of a design, and approval by the tsar, a statue by A. M. Opekushin was unveiled in Moscow at a ceremony attended by the intelligentsia and the people in equal measure. It was the first monument funded by national subscription, without the involvement of state authorities. An ekphrasis of this monument provides eloquent testimony to the Pushkinophilia that was to endure until the year 2000 and beyond. François-Xavier Coquin describes the statue as follows:

Et Pouchkine était apparu aux regards, […] seul, debout, la tête légèrement inclinée, la main droite glissée dans son gilet, son chapeau dans la main gauche, en costume de son temps, sur lequel était jeté le manteau qu’il affectionnait, […]. Remarquablement expressive, la tête rebelle, à la chevelure abondante et bouclée, tout comme les favoris qui lui encadraient le visage, attirait […] le regard: tout à la fois pensif et sérieux, avec une pointe de mélancholie et de tristesse, son visage exprimait plus encore […] la méditation du poète, à l’écoute de ses voix intérieures, immobilisé un bref instant dans sa marche, comme...