In the opera that bears his name, Evgeny Onegin often seems remarkably inconsequential, a “superfluous man” among Russian society and nearly such in his own tale. Critics from Hermann Laroche to Catherine Clément have lamented not only the triviality of Evgeny's character but the flavorlessness of his music—a deficiency cast into relief by the compelling and pervasive musical presence of Tatiana, the too-eventual object of Evgeny's affections. This imbalance, a departure from Pushkin (whose Tatiana is ever sketchily drawn, and indeed almost mute), has often been attributed to Chaikovsky's well-publicized emotional identification with his heroine. Onegin's blankness thus becomes the product of a composerly flaw: Chaikovsky's inability to portray convincingly in music a character dissimilar to his own.
But the Evgeny Onegin Chaikovsky inherited was not only Pushkin's. It was a cultural palimpsest, a text written on and written over by virtually every major intellectual figure in nineteenth-century Russia. By the time Chaikovsky got his hands on them, Pushkin's heroes were entangled in some of the century's most urgent debates: about the ethics of action versus reflection, the slippage between public and private identities. This article traces the constructions of Evgeny and Tatiana in a series of nineteenth- century readings of Evgeny Onegin, examining the ways in which the opera responds to and transforms key questions from the reception history of the novel. Among the texts considered are works by Herzen, Belinsky, and Dostoevsky, whose (in)famous “Pushkin Speech” was the opera's nearexact contemporary. From these readings, and the myriad images of Evgeny and Tatiana they present, emerge insights into a broader discourse about the nature of subjectivity in Europe's only autocracy.
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