(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond, 9/3.)

Actress Tatiana Drubich as Anna Karenina

Actress Tatiana Drubich as Anna Karenina

Sergei Soloviev/Solivs, 2008

These unconventional heroines stand out from the crowd, inspiring millions of readers with their sexuality, ingenuity and determination.

 

1. Liza of ‘Poor Liza’

‘Poor Liza’ made a revolution in classic Russian literature when it saw the light of day in the early 1790s.

Oil painting reproduction of 'Poor Lisa' by Orest Kiprensky.

Nikolai Karamzin broke new ground when he elevated a young girl’s journey of “moral decay” into a heartbreaking love story. The writer exposed a powerful weapon in his arsenal – tragedy – and spiced up his ‘Poor Liza’ with a devastatingly sad ending. Karamzin’s title character has become synonymous with unrequited love, deep sorrow and social injustice.

A wealthy nobleman falls in love with a 17-year-old peasant girl and seduces her. This marks the beginning of an end of their doomed misalliance. Tender and timid, Liza blindly trusts Erast, but the young lady-killer soon betrays her. He gambles away his estate and marries an old rich widow to rescue the situation. In contrast, Lisa, who is unable to survive the loss of her lover, walks into the pond and drowns herself. “… Remember your poor Liza, who loves you more than herself!”

2. Tatyana Larina of ‘Eugene Onegin’

Tatyana Larina of Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ is definitely one of the most captivating female characters in Russian literature. 

 

Illustration of Tatiana Larina by Elena Samokich-Soudkovskaïa.

Tatyana is an open-hearted provincial young girl full of high expectations and willing to sacrifice herself. She falls in love with the self-centered Onegin. As is often the case, it’s a one-way street. 

I write to you… when that is said

What more is left for me to say?

Now you are free (I know too well)

To heap contempt upon my head.

Onegin rejects her love, under the pretext that he doesn’t want to have a family. Life goes on and Tatyana marries another man. That’s when Eugene falls in love with her. It’s too late, though. Tatyana is no longer blindly in love with him and prefers to stay faithful to her husband and moral principles. By the end of the novel, she transforms from a naïve provincial dreamer into a full-fledged lady, the embodiment of grace, intelligence and aristocratic dignity. 

3. Lyubov Ranevskaya from ‘The Cherry Orchard’

 

‘The Cherry Orchard’s Ranevskaya is the head of the high-society family on the brink of bankruptcy.

Renata Litvinova as Lyubov Ranevskaya in 'The Cherry Orchard' staged at the Moscow Art Theater.

Flat broke, Lyubov Andreevna is ruined by her prodigality. She is about to lose her estate and, most importantly, her favorite cherry orchard. Ranevskaya’s head-in-the-sand policy with respect to her lose-lose situation is worrisome. She continues to splash out, although she literally can’t afford it. “Oh, my sins… I have always spent money like water…” Madame Ranevskaya is ready to share her last penny with those in need. And that’s what she really is, a big spender with a huge heart. She is the epitome of procrastination, levity and naivety. The (typically Russian) woman lives in her distant rosy past and hopes that things will somehow resolve themselves. And, even though Chekhov described ‘The Cherry Orchard’ as a comedy, alas, this time around they won’t.

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