Tatjana, or the Cultural Logic of the Devushka

Clark Troy, Columbia University

Many have noted the consistency and similarity of Russia's young heroines from Pushkin's Tatjana Larina to Tolstoj's Natasha Rostova, their shared tendency towards spontaneity, naturalness, and authenticity and depth of feeling. Sinjavskij conflates the 19th century's young heroines into one, and then remarks that her beautiful and abstract nature "permits her to represent a higher stage of the ideal and to serve as a substitute for the absent and desired Purpose" ("On Socialist Realism"). If Sinjavskij remains mute as to what that Purpose might be, a solution nonetheless suggests itself. The devushka's properties coincide with those which come to be identified with the "broad Russian soul," and therefore she becomes an ideologically loaded term for discussions of Russian national identity.

Russia's 19th century writers inherited a tradition of using heroines as incarnations of ideas from romantic and post-romantic Western Europe, from Constant, F. Schlegel, Goethe, Sand and others. Likewise, the devushka's distinctive features, her naturalness, authenticity, and spontaneity, characterize such diverse heroines as Austen's Elizabeth Bennet, Bronte's Jane Eyre, and Eliot's Mary Garth. Only in the Russian context, however, do these features come to be associated with the national. This process of association arises from Russia's confused cultural situation under Nikolai I. Russia's leading lights keenly felt Russia's overdependence on Western European models and lack of a distinctive sense of self. One of the clearest and most galling proofs of this was the society woman, who would sooner speak French than Russian and whose life of salons and balls was in no way properly Russian. To create a properly Russian heroine for a new national literature, these traits had not just to be excluded, but negated. From Tatjana forward, the Russian devushka-heroine is always to some extent a negation of the society woman.

At the same time, the search for "nacional'nye" features could have but limited recourse to the "narodnoe." Heroines were drawn almost exclusively from the gentry, which meant that Russian writers were loath to draw their heroines too close to the "folk." Thus any attempt at the creation of a Russian feminine ideal largely excluded the traditional means of associating woman with the soil, the home and reproductivity: Russian heroines are rarely shown engaging in traditional "women's work" (housekeeping, child care, and food service and preparation). Devushki could learn some folk songs and traditions as well as religious observance from their nannies, but this marked the limit of her acceptable "narodnost'." In combination with the fact that devushki, in keeping with their unmarried status, could not be overtly sexualized, the unsuitability of "women's work" for heroines insured that they could not be defined by anything bodily, but must of necessity be creatures defined by mind and spirit.

Tatjana strongly influences the later development of the Russian heroine, and I therefore orient my talk around her and the impassioned ideological arguments to which she gave rise. After looking at the way Pushkin uses the contrast between Tatjana and her sister Ol'ga to frame Tatjana as a negation of a traditional "svetskaja devushka," I discuss the principle of woman's "unmediatedness" as developed in the Stankevich circle and disseminated in Belinskij's Pushkin articles. Next I treat what I term the "battle for Tatjana," moving from Dostoevskij's statements about her in his 1880 Pushkin speech back to the statements by Belinskij and Pisarev against which the novelist would protect his ideal Russian devushka. Dostoevskij's strenuously seeks to preserve a continuist reading of Tatjana, maintaining that she preserves inside her an a natural, spontaneous Russian essence even as a Petersburg lady, when her appearance and behavior would seem to indicate otherwise.

In short, I suggest that there is a distinct ideological cast to the great young heroines of the Nikolaevan epoch and beyond, and that it develops according to the logic of Russia's feelings of cultural insufficiency and indeterminacy. Beginning with Tatjana, the devushka becomes an important repository and bearer of those internal properties that literate Russia sought to associate with the nation.