Girls in traditional Russian dress predict the future

The Svyatki – Yuletide in Russia

Christmastide Divination by Konstantin Makovsky

If you have read War and Peace or Eugene Onegin then you are already a little bit familiar with the traditions and superstitions that are associated with the so-called ‘Svyatki’; the time between Christmas and Epiphany in Russia. In both novels these are an absolute highlight.

Orthodox Christmas

In Russia Christmas is only just beginning. The Orthodox Christmas Day is celebrated on the 7th and Epiphany is on the 19th of January. The period between the 7th and the 19th is called ‘Svyatki’, which means something like ‘holy days’. They’re sometimes divided up into two parts: the part from Christmas until New Year is the holy part and the part from New Year until Epiphany the unholy part.

A magical time

Although the name comes from the word svyatoy (“holy”), the Svyatki were in actual fact the most unholy and pagan time of the year. The period between the birth and baptism of Christ was a time when you were more or less free from the restrictions imposed by the Church. 

As much as they tried the Church could not get rid of pagan superstitions, beliefs and rituals. Instead of banning them completely, they ’allowed’ the people to have their pagan ways during the Svyatki. 

Before Christianity arrived, Midwinter was celebrated in Russia. The days were getting longer again and people focused on the new year, what would it bring? What kind of harvest? Will you get married? In order to predict the future you needed to call in the help from the ‘unclean’ spirits. And the best time to do so was between midnight and three in the morning.

The Svyatki in War and Peace

In War and Peace we have Natasha and Sonya, two young ladies of marriageable age. They try the method using two mirrors and two candles. You’re supposed to see your future husband in the mirrors, if they are positioned in a certain way and you concentrate. Neither see anything, but Sonya, compliant as she is, pretends to have seen something.

The Svyatki in Eugene Onegin

Tatyana from Eugene Onegin bravely tries everything. She drops molten wax into cold water and draws conclusions from the shapes. She plays a game with rings and singing. Rings are places in a bowl of water and taken out one by one singing. The song that is sung when your ring is taken out has a special meaning for you. She goes outside in the middle of the night to look at the face of the moon in the mirror and asks a stranger passing by his name. That should foretell the face and name of your future husband.

She has the table set for two in the bathhouse. You’re supposed to sit there alone after midnight and your future husband will appear to you. It has to be the bathhouse because there is no icon there and spirits can live freely there. Poor Tatyana doesn’t dare to go and prepares to have a dream that predicts the future instead. She takes off her sash, and puts a mirror under her pillow. The next morning she tries to make sense of her dream with the help of her dream book by Martyn Zadek, a famous dream interpreter of the time.

Martyn Zadek’s Dream Book

Rusianness

Both Pushkin and Tolstoy use the Svyatki to emphasise the Russianness of their protagonists. It’s also worth noting that the action takes in the countryside, which for both authors is somehow more real and authentic than the city. 

Nowadays even in Russia most people now about theses ancient traditions only through War and Peace and Eugene Onegin. And so Tolstoy and Pushkin inspire new generations to try to predict the future during the Svyatki. 

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Picture by Konstantin Makovsky from Wikipedia and the Dream Book by Martin Zadek from the Hermitage website.

Books read: The Bathhouse at Midnight by W.F. Ryan; Eugene Onegin by Pushkin; War and Peace by Tolstoy 

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Text © Elisabeth van der Meer 2022

On the table lies a leather bag with books I read in 2021 spilling out

My 2021 in Books

On the table lies a leather bag with books I read in 2021 spilling out
Some of the books I read this year

It’s becoming a yearly tradition to post some kind of bookish meme at the end of the year on my blog. It’s always a fun and relatively quick post to make, and this year I was inspired by the wonderful Lisa Hill from ANZ LitLovers LibBlog. It goes like this: you have to answer the questions using only books that you have read in 2021.

For me 2021 was a year in which I discovered some new authors thanks to a modern Russian literature book club that I joined, in which I let myself be inspired by Book Twitter, but also re-read some old favourites. Here we go:

In high school I was – Subtly Worded by Teffi

People might be surprised by – Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov

I will never be – The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

My life in lockdown was like – Just the Plague by Ludmila Ulitskaya

My fantasy job is – Creating Anna Karenina by Bob Blaisdell

I hate being – Dracula’s Guest by Bram Stoker

At the end of a long day I need – Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov

Wish I had (been) – A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

My family reunions are – In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova

At a party you’d find me with – The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky 

I’ve never been to – Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov

A happy day includes – Happy Half Hours by A.A. Milne

Motto I live by – Rock, Paper, Scissors by Maxim Osipov

On my bucket list is (a journey to) – Other Worlds by Teffi

In my next life I want to have – The New Adventures of Helen by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

The book 'Creating Anna Karenina' by Bob Blaisdell is lying on my desk with a Tolstoy bookmark

Why did Tolstoy struggle with Anna Karenina?

The book 'Creating Anna Karenina' by Bob Blaisdell is lying on my desk with a Tolstoy bookmark

It’s a well known fact that Tolstoy struggled with his novel Anna Karenina. He even referred to it as a horrible thing, ‘vile’ and ‘disgusting’. But does that mean that he hated his own creation, as is often assumed? 

Tolstoy was working on Anna Karenina from 1873 to 1877. The novel was first published in instalments in the literary magazine The Russian Messenger from 1875 to 1877*. Most of the time during those four years Tolstoy was not writing, but procrastinating, avoiding, giving up, writing other things and often simply dealing with family affairs. 

The Seed?

On the 4th of January 1872 a young woman threw herself under a train. She was the mistress and housekeeper of one of Tolstoy’s neighbours. Tolstoy attended the autopsy and was very shaken by what he saw.

Beginning in medias res

In March 1873 Tolstoy abandoned a novel about Peter I that he had started 33 times. The more research he did, the less he liked Peter. Around that time he picked up a volume of Pushkin’s prose, read it for the umpteenth time and started to write Anna Karenina. He enthusiastically wrote to his friend Strakhov* about this incident: “I automatically and unexpectedly thought up characters and events, not knowing myself why, or what would come next, and carried on.” Interestingly enough one of the things that struck him about Pushkin’s prose was his tendency to start a story in medias res, apparently forgetting that he had done so himself with War and Peace

“It’s as if Tolstoy woke up in Pushkin-world and put on his own seven-league boots and started striding over the heads of all the other writers” writes Andrei Zorin about this moment in literary history. We can indeed picture Tolstoy doing just that. Well, the boots may have been on, but they did not move very fast!

A copy of the complete prose tales by Pushkin is lying on my desk

Not meeting deadlines

Tolstoy did not have Dostoevsky’s need to meet a deadline because of some impending disaster, and so he could afford to procrastinate, and the readers of The Russian Messenger were more than once left in suspense for months on end. Initially the publisher Katkov did not want to pay the 10.000 roubles advance payment that Tolstoy had asked for, but Tolstoy managed to successfully play him out against his competitor Nekrasov, and then he promptly agreed. He paid Tolstoy in total 20.000 roubles* for the right to be the first to publish Anna Karenina, a record at the time.

Surrounded by illness and death

Apart from procrastination, trips to Moscow and Samara, and Tolstoy not wanting to work in the summer, there were many distractions in the family circle during that time. Three of his children died in infancy and two others had fairly serious accidents. His aunts Toinette and Polina, who had looked after him after his own mother had died when he was small, died. His wife Sofia, who devotedly copied out Anna Karenina as he wrote it, was ill a lot in those years. Naturally all this had an effect on Tolstoy. Surrounded by death and illness he started to suffer from depression and it got to the point that he did not want to go hunting alone (one of his favourite pastimes) because he did not trust himself alone with a gun.

Whereas for War and Peace he had used his own ancestors and historical events as inspiration, Anna Karenina was becoming a much more personal novel. Anna’s depression and suicidal feelings were Tolstoy’s. 

Judgement

Tolstoy’s own views about unfaithful women were less harsh than you might conclude from the novel. His sister Masha had had a child out of wedlock and she was certainly not judged by Tolstoy, he was supportive and sympathetic. His favourite aunt Toinette had told him once to hate the crime and not the person, something which he believed strongly.

Did Tolstoy hate Anna?

Tolstoy definitely struggled to finish Anna Karenina, but that was mostly because of the circumstances under which he wrote it. But he had started it, so he had to finish it. Did he hate Anna and her crime? There seems to be no evidence of that in his letters and diaries. Tolstoy was relieved when the novel was all finished. And once a work was finished, Tolstoy put it out of his head.

*****

*Tolstoy never sent this letter to his friend Strakhov. Strakhov was a well known Russian literary critic. He helped Tolstoy a lot with the novel, always encouraging him to write and ready to proofread. We know much about that period from their correspondence.

*Katkov paid an advance of 10.000 roubles, plus 500 roubles per printing sheet, of which there were 40.

*Due to a political disagreement with Katkov the last chapters were not published in the magazine, and readers had to wait until the publication in book form.

I recently read Creating Anna Karenina by Bob Blaisdell, an excellent biography that focuses on the years 1873-1877 during which Tolstoy was working on Anna Karenina. For this post I also used the three other biographies in my possession (see last photo).

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

The books that I read for this post: 'Leo Tolstoy' by Zorin; the Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy; 'Creating Anna Karenina' by Bob Blaisdell; 'Tolstoy' by A.N. Wilson; 'Tolstoy' by Rosamund Bartlett

Meet Baba Yaga – the most Wicked Witch of the East

“There on the stove, on the ninth brick, lay a bony-legged baba yaga. Her nose had grown into the ceiling and the snot from it was hanging across the threshold. She had slung her tits up over a hook and was sharpening her teeth”

Baba Yaga is one of the scariest creatures you’ll encounter in a Russian folktale. She is still used today as an effective method to persuade Russian children to go to bed.

Appearance

Baba Yaga has long grey hair, which she wears loose without a headscarf, which was considered rather indecent in old Russia. She wears a dress without a girdle*, another sign of her unchristian ways. Sometimes she only has one tooth, a fang, and sometimes her teeth are made of iron. She is often found sharpening her tooth/teeth, presumably preparing to eat little children or the hero of the tale. Although she does not usually end up eating the hero, there is strong evidence that she does eat humans, such as the fence surrounding her house being made of bones. And speaking of bones, one of her legs is ‘bony’, dead. She is also very large, she barely fits inside her hut.

The Hut on Chicken Legs

“Foo Foo! I smell the blood of a Russian! Who is it?”

She lives in a hut on chicken legs in the forest. When the hero reaches the hut, it is usually facing the other way, and he or she has to order it to turn: “Little hut, little hut, turn your face towards me and your back to the forest”. All the heroes seem to know this. “It [the hut] was surrounded by a fence made of bones. Skulls with empty eyeholes looked down from the stakes. The gate was made from the bones of people’s legs, the bolts were thumbs and fingers, and the lock was a mouth with sharp teeth”. No doubt this fence was meant to warn off and keep out unwanted visitors, although again the hero knows how to get through anyway. Baba Yaga is then often found lying inside the hut, a terrifying sight. She does not notice the hero entering, until she smells their “Russian soul”, her sense of smell being better than her eyesight.  

On the edge of the forest

Baba Yaga’s hut is always on the border of another world, in the forest, by the sea, or in an empty field. This location is significant, it indicates a connection with the world of the dead. Baba Yaga, or the ‘bone-legged one’, could have one leg in the world of the dead. In fairytales the forest is always a place of transition; the hero, if he manages to come out alive, comes out transformed.

Mortar and pestle 

Baba Yaga has several well known attributes: a mortar, a pestle, a broom and a stove. She pursues her victims in her mortar: “Then the forest was filled with a terrible noise. The trees creaked and cracked, the dead leaves crackled and crunched – and there was the baba yaga. She was riding on her mortar, spurring it on with her pestle and sweeping away her tracks with a broom”.

Baba Yaga’s role in the fairy tale

Baba Yaga can have a wide range of roles in the folktale: the giver, the kidnapper, the warrior, the helper and much more. The hero, as in most fairytales, is in a transitional stage and needs her help. In order to get it, he or she has to know how to behave (politely) with Baba Yaga and sometimes trick her a bit. Baba Yaga’s first instinct is usually to eat the hero, but if the hero passes all the tests that she sets for him or her, she reluctantly helps the hero and passes on some useful knowledge or wealth. The hero escapes or is released as a new person. 

In a broader sense she is seen as a witch, as someone between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and as a goddess of the forest. Her attributes, the stove and mortar and pestle are strongly associated with the cult of the hearth (going back to the Roman goddess Vesta and her Greek equivalent Hestia).

Baba Yaga’s name

The first part of her name means ‘married peasant woman’, but there is no conclusive answer to the meaning of the second part. Possibly ‘yaga’ used to mean ‘terrible’ in Russian, but it’s also possible that it is related to the Russian verb ‘yekhat’’ meaning ‘to ride’ or to the German word ‘Jaeger’, meaning ‘hunter’. The name is not always capitalised, and there can be more than one baba yaga in a tale. Just imagine several baba yagas raging through the forest in their mortars.

Good or bad?

At first sight Baba Yaga is a cannibalistic witch who chases little children in her flying mortar. But if you know how to handle her, she can turn into a helpful and generous person. Very much like the forest which can be a dangerous place for those who do not know how to deal with it, but for those who know it’s a source of wealth. And so Baba Yaga is neither good nor bad, but always terrifying.

*The girdle, ‘poyas, пояс’ protects against evil spirits, some readers may remember that Pushkin’s Tatyana took hers off before going to bed, in order to conjure a prophetic dream.

All quotes are from the wonderful Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin Classics)

Baba Yaga illustration by Ivan Bilibin.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

Sakhalin through the eyes of Chekhov

Chekhov – homo sachaliensis

In the spring of 1890 Anton Chekhov (1860 -1904) left Moscow and traveled to Sakhalin, an island on the eastern coast of Russia. At the time Sakhalin was used by the authorities as a penal colony. Chekhov wanted to go there for three months to make a census of the involuntary population of the island.

So if no-one went to Sakhalin voluntarily, why did Chekhov, who already knew he had tuberculosis, want to go there? In 1888 the famous Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky had died. Chekhov, who had always been fascinated by the accounts of explorers, wanted to follow in his footsteps, even if only once. As a doctor, Sakhalin seemed to him the perfect place for a humanitarian investigation. As a writer, it would provide him with an opportunity to talk to some hardened criminals.

Also in 1890 the authorities were not exactly keen to have an outsider take a look in their kitchen. Chekhov did eventually get permission, although immediately some telegrams were sent to warn the local authorities. And so Chekhov became the first Russian writer to travel voluntarily to a penal colony.

The Trans-Siberian Railway had not yet been constructed. The tracks ended in Tiumen. Chekhov had wanted to travel further by ship down the river, but although it was already spring, the river was still frozen and he had to travel by carriage on an excruciatingly bad road instead. He finally reached Sakhalin after eleven weeks of traveling.

Sakhalin was such an unwelcoming and unpleasant place that no-one (apart from the indigenous peoples the Gilyaks and the Aino) stayed there any longer than necessary. The hostile climate made it virtually impossible to grow any kind of crop. There were schools, but the teaching was left to former prisoners who had no previous teaching experience. The local hospitals lacked even the most basic equipment. On the one hand some of the prisons were regular gambling houses, with the guards being just as addicted as the prisoners; on the other corporal punishment was given for the slightest offence. A surprisingly large amount of wives had followed their sentenced husband to Sakhalin; only to regret it as soon as they set a foot on shore. A large part of the female population had to prostitute themselves to survive, whether they were convicted criminals or the wives of convicted criminals.

The accounts that Chekhov wrote about his experiences and impressions were hugely influential. The idealistic purpose of the penal colony was that the prisoners would become better people there. Chekhov’s factual and straightforward eye witness account of what actually happened in and around the Sakhalin prisons, opened the eyes of society and improvements were made. Nonetheless one cannot help thinking that even nowadays, 130 years later, Navalny awaits a similar fate, and that not that much has changed.

In spite of his less than smooth travels, Chekhov never lost his sense of humour. Take for instance his description of a ‘typical’ Siberian bedstead: “In the corner stands a bedstead, piled with a whole mountain of feather mattresses and pillows in pretty cases; to clamber up this mountain you have to place a chair beside it, and the instant you lie down you sink. The Siberians love to have a good sleep in a soft bed”.

Or here describing the typical, stupid and random ways of the islanders: “…, while in the lower reaches the Gilyaks were capturing for their dogs immeasurably healthier and tastier fish than those which were being prepared in the Tymovsk District for human beings”. (The fish swims upstream, and the quality of the fish decreases rapidly the further upstream it gets).

And finally: “Nowhere is the past so swiftly forgotten as on Sakhalin, precisely because of the extraordinarily high mobility of the exile population, which changes radically every five years here (…) What happened twenty to twenty-five years ago is regarded as being profound antiquity, already forgotten and lost to history.

Although that last bit is not true anymore, because thanks to our excellent Chekhov we know exactly what it was like and who was there on Sakhalin island during the summer of 1890.

Books read:

Sakhalin Island – Anton Chekhov, translated by Brian Reeve

Chekhov – Henri Troyat

Anton Chekhov, a Life – Donald Rayfield

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

By the way, I did join forces again with Rebecca Budd and with Dave Astor at the end of 2020 for another podcast!

My Bookish 2020

We will never forget the year 2020, but, as often happens with life, there were some silver linings too. For me it meant that I had more time and peace to read and write. Which I did!

Eugene Onegin

A large part of 2020 was dedicated to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin on A Russian Affair. Somewhere in February, just before the Corona crisis hit Europe, I came up with the Eugene Onegin challenge, a chapter by chapter reader’s guide. It was such a wonderful experience to submerge myself into this masterpiece and it made me appreciate Pushkin’s genius even more than before. If I took part in Mastermind now with Eugene Onegin as my specialised subject, I would probably know all the answers!

Spin-offs 

One reader suggested that I also read In Paris With You (Songe à la Douceur) by Clémentine Beauvais, a modern day version of Eugene Onegin, set in Paris. Clémentine Beauvais describes it herself as “yet another love, yet another Paris love, and on top of that, it’s a rewriting of another literary love”. In a year in which it wasn’t possible to go to Paris, the next best thing was reading a novel set in Paris. Another spin-off I read is What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn. I first heard about this modern day version of Anna Karenina from Yelena Furman in The Feeling Bookish Podcast. Irina Reyn is a Russian émigré writer who lives in the United States. Her debut novel is set in the close knit community of the Russian Jewish immigrants in New York City, which is apparently not all that different from the original Anna’s milieu. 

You have to be pretty brave to re-write a great classical novel, as comparisons will inevitably be made, but both writers managed to turn the original idea into a new and original work. 

Women in Translation

I read a lot of modern eastern European fiction in 2020, such as The Eight Life by the Georgian born writer Nino Haratischvili. An excellent book to read in a time when we can’t travel much, as it would have been a heavy one to carry around;-). My favourite discovery of 2020 was Three Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan, an Armenian writer living in Moscow. Truly a balm for the soul!

Reading group reads

Another balm for the soul is Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, which I am currently reading for an online book club. Book clubs can be a great way to discover new books and I’m really enjoying taking part in Sarah G’s Russian book club. For the same book club I read The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov; not a balm for the soul and not about librarians as we know and love them, but a modern dystopian novel. It was interesting though! Together with some Twitter friends I’m reading Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island. This shows how a truly great writer like Chekhov can even turn a census of a penile colony into a very readable and even enjoyable piece of literature. 

Non-fiction

For research purposes and out of genuine interest I also read a lot of books about Russian literature and writers behind the scenes. This year they were mostly related to Eugene Onegin, such as Nabokov’s extremely extensive commentary. In order to find out more about Russian superstitions I had ordered a book called Bathhouse at Midnight, which unfortunately got lost twice during shipping. I’ll try to order it again in the new year.

Non-Russians

From my blog and Instagram you may get the impression that all I read is Russian literature, and although this is mostly true, I do actually read other books too. This year I returned to classics like Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen. I also take an interest in Finnish literature and particularly enjoyed Crossing by Pajtim Statovci.

Let’s hope that the year 2021 will again be a good year for reading, but we can do without the virus this time! I wish you all a very happy and healthy 2021, с Новым Годом!

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’

In 1833, during the famous ‘Boldino Autumn’, Alexandr Pushkin wrote The Queen of Spades, a wonderfully ingenious and mysterious story.

Pushkin’s famous quote that “two fixed ideas can no more exist in one mind than, in the physical sense, two bodies can occupy one and the same place” pertains to the protagonist of The Queen of Spades, Germann, who is obsessed with a secret that an old countess has been keeping for sixty years: three cards that will guarantee you to win. He is prepared to do anything to find out this secret, he even considers becoming her lover. 

Motivation

Germann’s father was a Russified German who left him a small fortune. Enough to live moderately.  Germann is frugal and lives only of his officer’s income. When asked why he never joins the others when they play cards, but watches them play instead, he always answers that he is ‘not in the position to sacrifice the essentials of life in the hope of acquiring the luxuries’. Although his initial reaction to the anecdote was that it’s only a fairytale, he quickly becomes obsessed with it and starts to see the three cards as a key to a successful life and the acceptance of his fellow officers. 

Faro

The card game that is played here is called Faro. In the most simple form there are two players, a banker and a punter. The punter chooses a specific card from his own deck of cards, puts it on the table and places a bet on it. The banker has a separate deck from which he takes two cards in each turn. He places one card on the left and one on the right side of the punter’s card, until the card that was betted on turns up. If this card falls on the left, the punter wins and if it falls on the right, the banker wins.

Plot

Germann has inherited 47000 rubles and expects to increase that amount to 376000 rubles with the three winning cards. With the help of the countess’s ward Liza, whom he misleads, he gains access to the bedroom of the old woman. But she refuses to tell him the secret and desperately Germann threatens her with a pistol. The 87 year-old  woman is literally scared to death. Germann manages to get away unseen and it is assumed that the countess died of old age. Three nights later she appears in his bedroom as a ghost and tells him the three winning cards: three, seven and ace. He can bet on only one card per 24 hours. As soon as a suitable opportunity arises, Germann tries his ‘luck’. He puts all 47000 rubles on a three and wins. The second night he wins on the seven. The third night, however, a queen falls on the right and an ace on the left. Excitedly Germann cries “the ace wins”, but when he turns over his card he discovers that instead of an ace, the queen of spades lies in front of him and he has lost everything. The other players are satisfied, “famously punted!” they exclaim. But Germann does not hear it. He loses his mind and spends the rest of his life mumbling “Three, seven, ace. Three, seven, queen.” 

Irony

The irony of Pushkin’s story is that Germann finally gains the respect he wants so much the moment he loses all his money, but he doesn’t realise this and goes crazy. Unlike Nikolay in War and Peace* he cannot deal with his stupidity and move on. 

Interpretations

Pushkin leaves room for several interpretations. The most likely scenario is that Germann already lost his mind and merely dreamt that the dead countess came to visit him. There are several clues that Germann started to go crazy before he lost. He is described as someone who never plays himself but watches others play with ‘feverish anxiety’. He also already appears to ‘know’ the three cards already before the ghostly apparition: “no! Economy, moderation and industry: these are my three winning cards, these will treble my capital, increase it sevenfold, and earn for my ease and independence!” And the ace? Well, they didn’t call Pushkin a genius for nothing; it is hidden in the Russian original: “Нет! Расчёт, умеренность и трудолюбие: вот мои три верные карты, вот что утроит, усемерит мой капитал и доставит мне покой и независимость.” The Russian word for triples end with a ’T’ and the next word, to increase sevenfold, starts with ‘US’, together forming the word ‘tus’, meaning ‘ace’. Besides, this statement is not even logical; when betting on cards Germann will double and hopefully ‘octuple’ his money, and if something doesn’t make sense at first sight, you can trust Pushkin to make it make sense in another way. Also in Faro the player basically bets that a certain card will fall on the left instead of on the right; there is no logic or strategy in such a bet, something which a normal thinking person would have realised. The source of the anecdote, Tomsky, the grandson of the countess and Germann’s fellow officer, is also not  very reliable. He repeatedly teases his grandmother and Liza, and it is not unimaginable that he fabricated the whole anecdote. 

Other remarkable facts

The old woman’s secret pertains not only to the three cards, but also to three essental items in her toilet: rouge, hairpins and a bonnet; in her bedroom Germann witnesses the loathsome secrets of her toilet. Tomsky’s first name is ‘Pavel’ (Paul) and he marries a girl called ‘Polina’. Germann has caused the death of the countess and when he loses the game the banker tells him “your queen has lost’; in Russian the word ‘ubita’ (убита) is used, which does not only mean ‘was beaten’ but also ‘was murdered’. And before you know it you’ll see numbers everywhere, like Germann: the countess is an 87 year-old lady; in the number 8 you can see the number 3, making it three, seven, queen…

*in Tolstoy’s War and Peace Nikolay loses 43000 rubles playing Faro against Dolokhov, who cheats. 

The Queen of Spades by Alexandr Pushkin in a translation by Gillon Aitken

Rereading “The Queen of Spades” by Andrew Wachtel

The Ace in “The Queen of Spades” by Sergei Davydov

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020 (playing cards from Wikipedia)

The Eugene Onegin Guide – Onegin’s Travels

At first sight the appendix containing Onegin’s travels seems difficult to place in relation to the eight chapters that make up the novel Eugene Onegin.

Russianness

The stanzas relating to Onegin’s travels were originally intended to be featured in chapter 8 and the novel was supposed to have nine or ten chapters. Feeling perhaps that they stood out too much from the ‘Russianness’ of the rest of the novel, Pushkin chose to exile them as it were to an appendix instead, rather than leaving them out altogether. This would have caused too large a gap in the story, with Onegin disappearing after the duel and reappearing some years later in Saint Petersburg. Had they been included in the novel, they would of course have mirrored Tatyana’s journey from the countryside to Moscow.

Contrasts

We have already seen that Eugene Onegin is a novel of contrasts, between the city and the countryside for instance. In Onegin’s travels that turns into a contrast between Russia and it’s southern territories, like the Crimea and the Caucasus. When Pushkin started writing Eugene Onegin in 1823 he was in exile (1820-1826) and living in Moldavia. His travels during his exile to the Caucasus and the Crimea had made Pushkin see Russia and his own Russianness in a new light. Not being able to go to Saint Petersburg himself, he imagined his hero Eugene Onegin and his reader there. It is more than likely that our very Saint Petersburg dandy Eugene Onegin would not have seen the light of day if Pushkin had not been exiled!

Тоска! (Ennui!)

In a literary sense journeys often indicate personal growth. From some of the original stanzas of this chapter, it would seem that Pushkin did intend to have Onegin come to some insights, and even wanted Eugene to take part in the 1825 Decembrist Revolt. However, all the stanzas that were too political were left out of the final version and we are left with a Eugene who is once again bored (ennui!) So if Eugene has learned anything during his Byronic escape, it may well be that his boredom came from within, and not from his surroundings.

Childe Harold

The travels can also be seen as an answer to Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Although Pushkin tells us not to confuse him with Byron, the references to Byron are there throughout the novel. In a draft he called the appendix a “playful parody” of Childe Harold. His playful tone of the first chapters of Eugene Onegin is certainly back. In the 9th stanza the narrator claims to have outgrown his love for exotic romantic landscapes, preferring the Russian countryside instead.

Fiction or reality?

The journey that Onegin makes corresponds mostly with Pushkin’s renewed (voluntary this time!) travels to the south in 1829. He travels from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to Nizhni Novgorod, where the bustling market fails to amuse him. In the Caucasus he is finally impressed by the majestic landscape, but it only seems to emphasize the ‘ennui’ that lies in store for him. In the Crimea the narrator takes over again, reminiscing his youth and taking the reader to Odessa. Sunny Odessa, where many Italians lived, was Pushkin’s answer to Byron’s Italy in Childe Harold.

All in all it remains an odd chapter. It contains some wonderful stanzas, but contributes little to the plot of Eugene Onegin. And although this chapter is called Onegin’s travels, it might just as well have been called Pushkin’s travels. It tells us a lot about how his travels made him grow as a poet. The wildness of the Caucasus particularly would continue to inspire Pushkin throughout his career. Only when seen from a distance could he find a new appreciation for the charms of the Russian big cities and countryside.

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

In addition to the previous references works I used Writing at Russia’s Border by Katya Hokanson and Breaking Ground by Sara Dickinson.

The conclusion of the Eugene Onegin Challenge is scheduled for the 5th of July. I’d be happy to (try to) answer any questions that you have after finishing Eugene Onegin.

Season 2 Episode 34: Elisabeth on The Eugene Onegin Challenge Part 2

Welcome to Tea, Toast and Trivia. Thank you for listening in. Elisabeth Van Der Meer from the extraordinary blog, A Russian Affair, has once again …

Season 2 Episode 34: Elisabeth on The Eugene Onegin Challenge Part 2

Once more I had the pleasure to record a podcast with Rebecca. We talked some more about Pushkin and the Eugene Onegin challenge. What else is there to talk about?!

The Eugene Onegin Challenge

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I’m challenging you! Not to a duel, no, although it does involve one… I’m challenging you to read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin with me. Whether you’re a curious first time reader, a longtime lover, or something in between; anyone who is interested is welcome to join.

Now I know that you all have TBR’s that reach the ceiling, not to mention to-do lists as long as the neck of a giraffe, but don’t worry; we’ll do this at a very doable pace. Pushkin deserves more than to be read at a record speed anyway. 

Why?

Eugene Onegin is a ‘novel in verse’, something between a poem and a novel. That, among other things, makes it notoriously difficult to translate. If you translate a poem literally, it probably won’t rhyme. If you make it rhyme, you’ll probably have to adjust the text. I had very high expectations when I first read Eugene Onegin. But although I enjoyed it, I felt that I didn’t quite get it. Looking back that probably had a lot to do with the translation that didn’t do the work justice. Luckily I did not give up on Eugene Onegin. I made attempts at reading it in Russian and tried other translations. And with each read I loved it more.

The plan

The plan is to make ten more posts about Eugene Onegin. In the next one I’ll explain the rhyming scheme, introduce the characters and talk about how and when Pushkin wrote his masterpiece. The following eight posts will be dedicated to the eight chapters of the novel. After each of the eight chapter posts I would love to read your thoughts, insights, questions and feelings in the comment section. In the final blog post I’ll summarise the journey that we took together, exploring this wonderful novel. 

Taking it one chapter at the time allows us to pay attention to details such as the structure, references and characterization that make Eugene Onegin the masterpiece that it is. Your comments will be a valuable addition to the posts.

The details 

I’ll mainly use the James E. Falen translation. I think that it captures the cheerful and witty spirit of Pushkin really well. There is an audiobook version of this translation read by the marvellous Stephen Fry, which can be found on YouTube. I recommend that you use a translation that has plenty of notes. Sunday next week I’ll publish the introduction to Eugene Onegin, and Sunday in two weeks the first chapter post. After that I aim to publish a chapter post every two weeks. At the end of the series you’ll be able to not just say that you’ve read Eugene Onegin (again), but hopefully also that you love it (even more)!

Finally I’d like to emphasise that everyone is welcome to join at any time, and read at his or her own pace. The journey is more important than the destination, so enjoy it!

*****

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Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin, translated by James E. Falen, ISBN 978-0199538645

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer