Anastasia Shteinert

A young dandy, raised in Saint Petersburg, comes to a Russian village to visit his ill uncle. There, he meets the Larin family. One of the daughters, Tatiana, falls in love with the newcomer, sparking a love drama leading to tragic events…

This plot is one of the best-known in Russian literature. It is, of course, the famous novel in verse, Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin. Written in 1823–1831, Eugene Onegin is an absolute classic of Russian literature and a must-read for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in Russian culture.

The Russian History Museum is home to a rare edition of Eugene Onegin, printed in 1908 and accompanied by colorful illustrations by Elena Samokish-Sudkovskaya (1862–1924). To commemorate the 225th anniversary of Alexander Pushkin’s birth, June 6th, we discuss why Eugene Onegin is considered a masterpiece of Russian literature and showcase the illustrations from the edition of this classic from our library.

Portrait of 19th-Century Russia

In one of his articles, literary critic Vissarion Belinsky called Eugene Onegin an “encyclopedia of Russian life.” Over time, this quote has been widely cited in many studies dedicated to the novel. This phrase should not be taken literally: Eugene Onegin’s plot is fiction, and its characters and settings represent only a small slice of Russian life as Pushkin saw it.

There is, however, a grain of truth in Belinsky’s statement. Eugene Onegin indeed describes various aspects of early 19th-century Russian life in detail. For instance, the novel vividly portrays the life of the nobility in Saint Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire. In the first chapter, Pushkin describes how young aristocrats were raised, their daily routines, and their entertainment.

Eugene Onegin and his toilette. Source: A. Pushkin, "Eugene Onegin." Saint Petersburg: R. R. Golike and A. I. Vilborg, 1908. Illustrations by E. P. Samokish-Sudkovskaya. Russian History Museum

In contrast, the novel offers insight into the lifestyle of provincial nobility living in smaller towns and family estates. Through the example of the Larin family, Pushkin illustrates a more traditional way of life outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The author highlights the habits of the local noblemen who “preserved the customs of dear ancestry,” such as the celebration of Maslenitsa (or Cheesefare Week, the week before the onset of Orthodox Lent), singing of ritual songs, and so on.

Unique Genre and Structure

Eugene Onegin is the first novel in verse in the history of Russian literature. One of the well-known predecessors in a similar genre is Lord Byron’s epic poem Don Juan. A novel in verse combines the narrative depth and character development of prose novels with the structural elements and aesthetic qualities of poetry.

Lyrical digressions, or deviations from the main storyline, are a characteristic literary technique in Eugene Onegin. Digressions describing Russian nature, for instance, serve as the general backdrop of the narrative while also hinting at the internal states of the characters. Often, the narrator reflects on social issues, such as family relationships and friendship, and even shares details of Pushkin’s own biography. Some digressions, especially ones dedicated to nature, have become particularly well-known and are memorized by heart in Russian schools as home assignments.

The composition of the main plotline of Eugene Onegin is often described as mirrored. First, Tatiana falls in love with Eugene and is rejected by him; later, Eugene confesses his feelings to Tatiana, but his advances are repulsed. 

The novel is written in a specific stanza form known as the Onegin stanza, or “Pushkin sonnet,” which consists of 14 lines written in iambic tetrameter with a particular rhyme scheme.

Tatiana Larina rejects Eugene Onegin. Source: The Russian History Museum

Archetypal Characters

Eugene Onegin is one of the first and most vivid examples of the superfluous man (лишний человек) in Russian literature. Derived from the romantic Byronic hero, this archetype refers to a talented man who cannot find his place in society and doesn’t know what to offer to the world.

Onegin possesses typical characteristics of the superfluous man, such as existential boredom, cynicism, an extravagant prodigal lifestyle, and a lack of empathy. Such characters often engage in gambling, romantic intrigues, and duels, and Onegin is no exception. The duel between Onegin and the young poet Vladimir Lensky is a pivotal moment in the novel. This archetype of the superfluous man was later adopted by many other Russian writers, such as Mikhail Lermontov in A Hero of Our Time and Ivan Turgenev in Fathers and Sons.

Tatiana Larina embodies the image of a sensitive, dreamy, and faithful romantic heroine. This type of character has also become classic and is often encountered in Russian literature, for example, in Turgenev’s Asya and Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Storm.

Tatiana Larina. Source: Russian History Museum

Combining both romantic and realistic features, the archetypal characters depicted in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin influenced generations of writers around the world.

Fertile Ground for Adaptation

Eugene Onegin has inspired adaptation by multiple artists in various forms. Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s opera of the same name, which premiered in 1879 at the Maly Theater in Moscow, became world-famous. It remains popular to this day, often performed on the stages of opera houses around the globe. The ballet “Onegin,” with choreography by John Cranko and music by Tchaikovsky, conveys the story through the language of dance. It premiered in 1965 at the Staatstheater Stuttgart in Germany.

In 1958, Soviet director Roman Tikhomirov produced a film based on Pushkin’s text and Tchaikovsky’s music. 40 years later, director Martha Fiennes offered a modern take on the story with her film “Onegin,” starring Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler.

In painting, motifs from Eugene Onegin can be found in the works of many artists. For example, Ilya Repin created a famous painting depicting the duel between Onegin and Lensky.

Illustrations for Eugene Onegin by Elena Samokish-Rudkovskaya are particularly noteworthy. As a woman artist in a male-dominated field, she became famous for her book illustrations. Gravitating towards Art Nouveau, Samokish-Rudkovskaya used various ornamental frames and vignettes and was even blamed for being too ornate. Her illustrations for Eugene Onegin first appeared in a rare 1908 edition of the novel, which is housed in the Russian History Museum’s library. They are very well known and are being reprinted and published online to this day.

Illustrations for Eugene Onegin by Elena Samokish-Sudkovskaya