“… my burning heart aches from yearning …”: A Ukrainian Perspective on Eugene Onegin
By Maria Sonevytsky
The opera you are about to see is typically described as a story with timeless themes of longing, regret, and unrequited love. Tatyana’s letter scene burns with passion. The final duet laments the loss of a love that could never be. Embedded within Eugene Onegin, however, is another story: one of yearning and a relationship not between individuals, but social groups; one fraught with pain and violence.
The words in the title above are not, as you might expect, those of Tatyana but of the “peasants” in the opening chorus: servants who in Tchaikovsky’s day would have been identified by his audience as serfs. Just as the plot of this opera is about those who win and those who lose, the story of Eugene Onegin’s success on the international operatic stage includes the message that those who attain fame and fortune often do so at the cost of others.
In 1891, 12 years after the Moscow premiere of Onegin, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) visited his contemporary, the composer Mykola Lysenko (1842–1912), at his home on Reitarska Street, a stone’s throw from the glittering onion domes of St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv. Tchaikovsky and Lysenko had been friendly since at least 1875, when the latter had organized a series of concerts in St. Petersburg—the seat of Russian imperial power—showcasing Ukrainian vernacular music. In the imperial lexicon of the time, this would have been referred to as “Little Russian” music, a term obviously considered demeaning by Ukrainians. These 1875 concerts were revelatory for Tchaikovsky, whose heritage was part-Ukrainian, and who had previously integrated Ukrainian folk motifs into his Symphony No. 2 in C minor. Tchaikovsky also admired Lysenko’s own compositions. (The latter’s 1885 choral work “Prayer for Ukraine” would go on to become a spiritual anthem of Ukraine. It was performed on Saturday Night Live days after the current Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, and by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus a few months later).
Lysenko and Tchaikovsky, born two years apart, both traced their lineage to proto-Ukrainian Cossack warriors who had, for centuries, battled against Russian and other empires seeking to dominate the territory of Ukraine. Tchaikovsky is the Russified surname of a family that had, over generations, assimilated into the Russian imperial elite—the family’s original surname was “Chaika” (meaning “seagull”). Lysenko, meanwhile, had dedicated himself to Ukrainian causes: as an ethnographer, he pioneered the documentation of Ukrainian folk musics; as a composer, he synthesized vernacular with elite styles; as an activist, he promoted Ukrainian literature and culture.
Though respected among his cohort of elite composers in the Russian Empire, Lysenko’s fortunes departed sharply from Tchaikovsky’s in their lifetimes and beyond. At their 1891 meeting in Kyiv, Lysenko shared a draft of the score for his Ukrainian-language opera Taras Bulba—based on a novella by Nikolai Gogol—with his guest. Tchaikovsky appraised it positively and encouraged him to bring it to the imperial stage. Yet Taras Bulba never had its premiere in Lysenko’s lifetime, in part because Lysenko resisted translating the libretto into Russian. The systematic repression of the Ukrainian language—epitomized by the 1876 Ems Ukaz, a secret decree signed by Tsar Alexander II that banned the use of the Ukrainian language in public—insured the work would not be heard. Lysenko’s operas (Taras Bulba, Natalka Poltavka, Pan Kotsky, and others), which thematize the history and struggle of oppressed Ukrainians and poke fun at Russian imperial logics, have not made it into our canon.
As Lysenko eerily mirrors Tchaikovsky, Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861)—the Ukrainian poet who most inspired Lysenko’s music—offers a photo-negative contrast to another icon of Russian arts: Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837). Pushkin, the founder of modern Russian literature and author of Eugene Onegin, was born into Russian nobility. He was exiled during part of the 1820s for his provocative political poems. Before dying in a duel at age 37, he also wrote nakedly imperialistic verses. Shevchenko, born a serf and eventually freed from bondage, went on to become the founder of modern Ukrainian literature. His poetry mounted explicit attacks on the system of Russian imperialism that attempted to repress Ukrainian language and identity. Between the years 1847–1857, Shevchenko, too, was exiled by explicit decree of the Tsar. But unlike Pushkin—who lived out his periods of exile in hedonic style or comfortable isolation, penning Onegin and other works at his mother’s rural estate—Shevchenko was arrested, banned from writing, and ultimately held in a brutal penal colony.
That Pushkin and Tchaikovsky both ascended to the most vaunted heights of “greatness” while Shevchenko and Lysenko were ignored or mocked is a parable about the power of empire to cultivate its own myth of exceptionalism.
Eugene Onegin, set in the 1820s, unfolds against the backdrop of the system of Russian serfdom which had matured, by the early 18th century—according to historian Peter Kolchin (1998)—to resemble chattel slavery in the United States. Serfs were forced laborers, denied mobility, brutally disciplined, and deemed inferior. While the snobbish anti-hero at the heart of the story and his flowing cantilena exposes the vacuous life of the 19th-century Russian nobility, we should also listen to the phrases of Madame Larina, a landowner, and the chorus of serfs who work her estate.
The opening scenes of Onegin reveal the forced labor conditions that enable the glittering, aristocratic story—not unlike the milieu of Gone With The Wind. Take the first scenes of Act I, where we hear an offstage call-and-response chorus of peasant complaints: “My swift feet ache from walking / my white hands ache from working / my burning heart aches from yearning / I don’t know how to forget my sweetheart.” Upon entering the stage, the peasants announce that they have completed the grueling work of the year’s harvest. Then, shaking off their sadness and exhaustion, they apparently choose to entertain their masters. Tchaikovsky’s score, with no hint of irony, shows the happy serfs commencing an ecstatic khorovod, or round dance. Tatyana is propelled into reverie by the peasant songs she adores. Later in the scene, we also witness the benevolence of Madame Larina, who offers the workers more refreshments and thanks them for their unfree labor.
At the time Tchaikovsky was composing Onegin, the conflation of Ukrainians with (recently emancipated) serfs was, as many scholars have noted, well-entrenched. This conflation is captured in the abhorrent term khokhol, a Russian slur that bundles Ukrainians with stereotypes of backwardness, rurality, laziness, and—notably—musicality. An 1862 Moscow publication compiled by V. Dal entitled “Proverbs of the Russian People” includes a number of variations on this theme: “A khokhol is worth nothing, but their voices are good.” In today’s Ukraine, this pejorative is considered analogous to the racialized epithets that emerged from the institution of American slavery.
Both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky enjoyed considerable celebrity within the Russian Empire in their lifetimes. Both also had conflicted relationships to Tsarist autocracy, teetered at times on the edge of bankruptcy, and were generally constrained by the conditions of life subjugated to the Tsar. And so, while it may be unfair to implicate Pushkin or Tchaikovsky in the revanchist imperialist war conducted now by Putin’s Russia, we should nonetheless take this moment to think critically about the ways in which the logics of empire extend into the present, and how these two figures—perhaps above any others—have been instrumentalized for delivering ideas of “Russian greatness” to the world. Tchaikovsky’s success was, after all, only possible by his complicity with an imperial culture that labeled and subjugated one people as “Little” in order to make itself “Great.”
Through the limited glimpses of enserfed humanity in Onegin, we might pose questions about how Russian imperialism obscured the reality of Ukrainians: excluding them from the halls of prestige, outlawing their language, denying their history and agency—while condescendingly prizing their melodious voices and tuneful songs. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year has prompted many Ukrainians to advance sharp critiques of the enduring imperial logics that undergird the operas we program, and the names we associate with transcendent “greatness.” In April of 2022, Olena Korchova, a professor of musicology at the National Music Academy of Ukraine, contributed to an ongoing debate about whether the Tchaikovsky Academy of Music in Kyiv should shed its namesake. Korchova wrote: “Our enemy is by no means Tchaikovsky himself, but only his simulacrum, the Soviet and Putin ideological brand of the same name, the attachment to which literally ties our hands, deprives us of our freedom, and turns us into hostages of a dead tradition.”
For every Tchaikovsky whose music was published copiously and elevated to global stature, there are Ukrainian artists who were silenced, erased, whose names we have yet to learn. This moment of tragic awakening calls for renewed attention to the chorus—to the voices historically backgrounded, to the overworked hands and the burning hearts of people yearning to be free.
The author extends gratitude to Marika Kuzma, as well as Taras Filenko and Gregory B. Moynahan, for consulting on earlier drafts of this essay.
Maria Sonevytsky is Associate Professor of Music and Anthropology at Bard College, New York. Her first book, Wild Music: Sound and Sovereignty in Ukraine, won the Lewis Lockwood First Book Prize from the American Musicological Society in 2020. Mariasonevytsky.com.