How Sentimental Russian Poets Forged a Russian National Culture

During the War of 1812 Napoleon’s army invaded Russia only to be defeated in battle. It was after this victory that Russia began to emerge as a significant political power in Eastern Europe. Russia no longer clung on its Eastern history but started to reevaluate it, focusing on its future with Western Europe and sentimentalism in domestic life. The sentimental poet Konstantin Batiushkov, who was a strong influence on Alexander Pushkin, “…emphasized the country’s need for national redefinition in the wake of the war.”1

With encouragement from Batiushkov, poets such as Pushkin, Nikolai Karamzin, and Evgeny Baratynsky helped to shape Russian cultural identity. “The Russian writers’ spiritual insight and inspiration provided Russia with a mode of domesticity that symbolizes and accurately reflects a cohesive and meaningful cultural identity.”2 These writers created literature that portrayed the benefits of a pure, domestic lifestyle. They helped to form a culture that praised the love between a husband and wife and warned their readers of the risks of pursuing that love and of the consequences of gaining it.

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Works that can be seen as influencing Russia’s national culture into one that places heavy value on domestic needs can be found in the literary products of Karamzin. In his novelette Poor Liza, we see a young girl who wants to have a husband and create a happy and nurturing home environment. She begins her dealings with Erast as an innocent girl who has fallen in love with a boy, “good by nature…(but) weak and frivolous…”3 Erast had good intentions for the future between Liza and himself yet he was also interested in taking her purity. Liza, a young and naive peasant girl, did not even entertain the thought that Erast could be out to do something that was culturally immoral. Karamzin tries to warn Liza and the reader that people, especially Russian men, go out looking to harm innocent young girls. With this warning he is suggesting to his readers that he would prefer that this was not the way of the Russian people. They should not go out looking to take advantage of the innocent but should enjoy a loving domestic life. Erast succeeded in what he was trying to achieve in the short term; he took her purity.

During the time he spent with Liza emotional ties between the two of them began to form. However Erast lost his fortune gambling and married a wealthy widow to regain prosperity and social status. Erast valued money more than a domestic life, which ended his relationship with Liza. “Liza sobbed- Erast wept- he left her- she fell…Liza, abandoned, pitiful, lost all her feelings and consciousness.”4 Erast, having taken advantage of Liza and then abandoning her, cannot enjoy a pure domestic life. Liza cannot enjoy one of her own, let alone go on living, after what Erast did to her. Upon learning that Erast deceived her, “She walked out of the city and suddenly found herself on the bank of a deep pond…at this point Liza threw herself into the water.”5

Early in the novelette Karamzin tells us that Russian women, specifically peasant woman, love their husbands more than anything else. “And what is more, the poor widow, almost constantly shedding tears over the death of her husband- for indeed peasant women know how to love!”6 To create a culture that values domesticity, a key component for making this possible is that the husband and wife love each other. The husband cannot marry his wife because it will increase his social standing and he cannot marry his wife for her dowry. They only reason he should marry her is because he loves her. The home cannot be a place where pure domestic living is highly valued if the occupants of it do not love each other. Russians that live in large cities often have a conception that the peasant lifestyle is close to the ideal lifestyle: calm, pure, and domestically structured.

Baratynsky realized that a loving domestic life is the most important thing for a Russian man and wife when he wrote a poem about a lost love entitled Confession. After he became separated with his true love he possessed no interest in other women, “Another beauty does not enthrall me.”7 He tried to date other women but none of them could compare to the woman he wrote his poem to. Attempting to get over her, he entertained the thought of doing what other men in Russia do: marry a girl because it is beneficial to them financially or socially.

I grieve; but grief recedes and marks

Fate’s thorough triumph o’er me;

Who knows? Perhaps I’ll join the crowd;

Select a lover – who knows? – without love.

I’ll give her my hand in a practical match

And she’ll stand with me at the altar,

Dreaming better dreams, purer than I,8

Baratynsky realized if he was to marry another woman his love for this woman would be less than her love for him and quite possibly he would not love her at all. His wife would love him as a good Russian peasant woman would, with all her heart. Baratynsky and his wife could be married and joined together in holly matrimony but he knows it will not “join our hearts.”9 This poem is attempting to show the reader that one should not marry for practical purposes but should marry out of love, making it possible for their future home together to be the only place they want to be.

Pushkin created many works that emphasized the importance of having an intact and peaceful household. In The Captain’s Daughter, he shows how Pyotr Andreyich and Marya Ivanovna fall in love with each other. Similarly to Poor Liza, the main female characters in both novels are of a lower social class than their male pursuers. Erast did show some feelings of love for Liza but decided that regaining his money was more important than marrying a woman he had feelings for and possibly loved. Pyotr, the main character in The Captain’s Daughter, would like to marry Masha for the sole reason that he loves her.

Thoughts of love I try to banish

And her beauty to forget,

And, ah me! Avoiding Masha

Hope I shall my freedom get

But the eyes that have seduced me

Are before me night and day,

To confusion they’ve reduced me,

Driven rest and peace away.

When you hear of my misfortunes

Pity, Masha, pity me!

You can see my cruel torments:

I am captive held by thee.10

Pyotr’s love for Masha was so strong that he was forced to write a love song about her. Pyotr was not forced physically to write the song but he was forced to write the song because of his emotional ties to her. This is the type of culture that the poets aforementioned were trying to create for the whole of Russia. A culture that needs, wants, and cannot live without a pure, loving, domestic household.

After Pyotr had decided to marry Masha he wrote a letter to his parents asking for their blessing. Masha was hesitant about their marriage because she felt that Pyotr’s parents would object to it. Pyotr then states, “I had no doubts of my mother’s kindness; but knowing my father’s views and disposition, I felt that my love would not particularly touch him…”11 Pyotr’s mother’s feelings stay true to what Pushkin and the other poets mentioned would like the Russian culture to become.

Pyotr’s father, Andrey Grinyov, believed that his son should marry a woman from their own social class and therefore gain a large dowry in the marriage. “I do not intend to give you either my blessing or my consent…(you are) a naughty boy for your pranks, not regarding your officer’s rank…”12 Andrey was disgraced that Pyotr would even think of marrying a woman below his social standing and was very upset with Pyotr for having the nerve to write him a letter asking for his consent. As punishment for this his father wanted to send Pyotr off to “…some remote place”13 where Pyotr could get over his infatuation and grow up into the kind of man his father envisioned his becoming. Andrey would like to see him become someone who shares his own views and beliefs.

During this novel we learn that Pyotr had gone against his father’s wishes and still planned on marrying Masha. Without his parents knowing it he sent Masha, along with his servant Savelyich, back to his old home. Savelyich admits that he was concerned Pyotr’s parents would not give their consent to Pyotr’s marriage with Masha. Pyotr then replies, “They will agree; I am sure they will agree when they know Marya Ivanovna.”14 Pyotr is appealing to the hearts of his parents. He knows already that his mother will approve of the marriage. He had tried once already to appeal to his father’s heart with his letter but that did not win it over. Now he is appealing to it directly through Masha herself. He believes that since Masha has captivated his heart she can do the same with his father’s. The appeal to his father’s heart did win over Savelyich.

“Marya Ivanovna is such a good young lady that it would be a sin to miss the opportunity…(I) will tell your parents faithfully that such a bride does not need a dowry.”15 Pyotr was correct in his appeal, and upon receiving Masha both his mother and his father did approve of her. “They soon became truly attached to her, for it was impossible to know her and not to love her.”16 Pushkin has succeeded in showing that Russia’s new culture can win over the young and the old. Pyotr’s father could not be convinced of it through merely a letter but after meeting and becoming acquainted with Masha he became convinced that they truly did love each other. He realized that Pyotr and Masha’s love for each other would grow, making their domestic life a joy and that is more important than a dowry.

In a work created in 1835 that Pushkin left untitled he wrote about the love that a woman gives to a man and how he responds to it. In this poem the maid is jealous of her significant other for being untrue to him. “Bitterly sobbing, the maid chid the youth with jealous reproaches…”17 While she was confronting him for being untrue, he falls asleep. She then continues to cry but at the same time cannot stay mad at him. “Letting her tears flow on, quietly smiling at him.”18 She is a personification of how the majority of Russian peasant woman would act when put into a situation similar to this one and Pushkin was hoping that more urban women would adopt this kind of sentimentalism. By the actions of the man in the poem make it so his domestic life can never be tranquil again. He probably did not love his wife when he married her but after his cheating on her, things can never go back to the way they used to be in his household.

Pushkin’s, Eugene Oregin, is a novel about a man who when he was young was a sentimentalist. He used to enjoy going to the ballet and doing things a young Russian socialite would typically enjoy. After some time of living this lifestyle he became bored of it and decided to move into his deceased uncle’s estate in the countryside. Eugene then met a young man named Vladimir Lensky who shared the same sentimental thoughts that Eugene once did when he was Lensky’s age.

He smiled at Lensky’s conversation.

Indeed the poet’s fervent speech,

His gaze of constant inspiration,

His mind, still vacilant in reach-

All these were new and unexpected,

And so, for once, Eugene elected

To keep his wicked tongue in check,

And thought: What foolishness to wreck

The young man’s blissful, brief infection;19

At this period in Eugene’s life he had reverted to a cold and mistrusting view of the world. An outlook that is comparable to how the Russian male before the 19th Century perceived it. After listening to Lensky’s poetical viewpoints on the world Eugene let Lensky hold on to those opinions instead of explaining to Lensky his own harsher prospective of the world and of life. Had Eugene still lived in the city he probably would have interrupted Lensky and interjected his realistic point of view. However, Eugene is in the countryside which is a place where simple views and lifestyles are respected and not something to be made fun of or dissected.

Later in the novel Eugene met a young woman by the name of Tatyana. She fell in love with him and pledged her love to him in very much the same way as a sentimental Russian woman would. “The heavens chose my destination, And made me thine for evermore!”20 Eugene toyed with the idea of marrying her but in the end decided that he had given up on love and similar types of emotions. At the end of the novel he sees Tanya after she has been married and realizes that the man she married could have been he. Here the novel shows similarities to Baratynsky’s Confession. Eugene and Baratynsky realized that these two women were the women they wanted to marry only after they had parted with them. These two authors are trying to show the realistic Russian male that when presented with a woman you know will make you happy; pursue her and do not worry about marrying for practical purposes or for any reason other than love.

After Russia’s victory in the War of 1812 some of the intellectuals of the time thought that Russia needed to reshape its culture. As can be seen in some of the works of Karamzin, Baratynsky, and Pushkin, they believed that Russia should adopt a culture that values a pure domestic life above all else. The main characters in Poor Liza could not enjoy this lifestyle due to the way that Erast treated Liza. Baratynsky’s poem Confession and Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin showed how much anguish was caused to the main male characters because of lost loves.

Pushkin’s novel, The Captain’s Daughter, gives a more sentimental outlook to its main male character but even Pyotr has to convince his father that he should marry for love and not for practical reasons. In Pushkin’s untitled poem he is trying to create a scene that shows the nature of Russian peasant women and is idealizing it so other woman will aspire to it. The authors of these works mentioned hope that Russian men, and in some instances Russian urban women, who read their works will hopefully begin to understand the value of a pure and loving domestic life. These writers along with the influence of Batiushkov attempted to reshape Russia’s culture by creating literature that portrayed domestic life in a positive light.

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