What Was on Tolstoy's Bookshelf?
By Alexander Pushkin
Universally admired in Russia, and yet little known elsewhere, short-story writer and novelist Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is usually regarded as the father of Russian literature. Russians are typically exposed to Pushkin at a very young age. Tolstoy was no exception, at least as far as Pushkin's poetry goes. He cites the poetry as an important childhood influence. But, for whatever reasons, Tolstoy did not read Eugene Onegin, a novel written in verse and considered to be one of Pushkin's major works, until he was 18. It appears to be only by chance that he read it then: he was spending the summer at Iasnaia Poliana and went to a neighbor's estate to see about buying some cattle. He ended up spending the night and picked this book up at random and started to read it before falling asleep. He was so engrossed, he finished the book and started reading it a second time before morning.
Eugene Onegin tells the tale of a disenchanted, cosmopolitan hero initially incapable not just of commitment, but of feeling. He finds himself in the provinces where a very appealing young woman, Tatyana, falls in love with him. The novel traces their relations. Tatyana eventually marries another, an older man for whom she clearly feels no passion. Eugene resurfaces in her life and declares himself to be madly in love with her. Tatyana proves able to say no to the temptation that arises, whether because she realizes that the man tempting her is unworthy or because she puts duty—and the welfare of her husband—ahead of her own personal happiness. Some readers, especially the liberals of Pushkin's era, felt that it was criminal for Tatyana to waste her life in this way. Other readers, Dostoevsky among them, embraced Tatyana as the ideal Russian woman, to be praised for her selflessness and self-respect. Tolstoy's contemporary Russian readers could not have read Anna Karenina without comparing these two heroines, who find themselves in loveless marriages and make very different choices.