Poor Liza Character in 20th Century Russian Literature

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It is no accident that the name that is attributed to the heroine in a number of Russian novels of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is named after some derivation of the name Elizabeth. Karamzin is the first to revere this name in his work Poor Liza and it is this work that sets off a chain reaction that causes the occurrence of subsequent characters in Russian literature. This character can particularly be found in works such as Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit, and even briefly in Gogol’s Dead Souls. At the time that Karamzin published Poor Liza, Russia had recently seen the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1741-1761) who played a great role in shaping Russia’s identity and culture. Through a close reading of those Russian texts which include the Elizabeth character, an understanding of this name’s historic role in Russian literature can be achieved and its parallels to the monarch that this name evokes. Before tracing the Liza name in the Russian texts, it is important to better understand the character traits and lives of the empresses after whom this name takes. The more significant of these being Queen Elizabeth of Russia as it was not long after her reign that Karamzin wrote Poor Liza. Elizabeth was born to Peter I of Russia and Catherine I of Russia; however due to the fact that her parents’ marriage was not publically acknowledged at the time of her birth, this would be a detail used to challenge her legitimacy to the throne by political opponents (Antonov, 104).In her outward appearance, Elizabeth delighted everyone, “with her extraordinary beauty and vivacity. She was commonly known as the leading beauty of the Russian Empire” (Antonov, 104). Politically, Elizabeth was seen as the heroine of the Russian cause as was attributed to her, “steady appreciation of Russian interests, and her determination to promote them at all hazards” (Rice, pg 121). Russia under Elizabeth’s rule reasserted her power over foreign repression as the country had been under direction of a number of German favorites and pressure from the West. It was upon her coronation that a royal decree was issued stating, “the Russian people have been groaning under the enemies of the Christian faith, but she has delivered them from the degrading foreign oppression” (Antonov, 109). Elizabeth is also remembered for championing the arts and scholarship through the vast funding she poured into projects such as the Moscow State University, the Winter Palace, and the Imperial Academy of Arts (Antonov, 106). The image of Elizabeth is also painted by her deep devotion to religion in that she disengaged many of the legislations that her father had done to limit the power of the church (Rice 149). In many ways, Elizabeth I becomes the perfect root from which the image of the heroic Russian woman springs from as is later manifested in Russian Literature following her reign. The first time that Russian is introduced to the Liza character is in Karamzin’s Poor Liza which was published in 1792, following Elizabeth I’s rule. The main heroine, Liza’s, characteristics can be attributed to those of Elizabeth herself. The first of these similarities can be found in both of the female’s fathers. Liza’s father is described as, “a rather well-to-do settler, for he loved work, tilled the land well” (Karamzin, 80). The hardworking nature of the father can also be seen in the traits of Elizabeth I’s father, Peter the Great who’s restless work made Russia into an empire. However the greater likeness lies in the negative effects caused by each of the women’s father’s deaths. In Poor Liza, soon after Liza’s father’s death, “his wife and daughter grew poor…and they were forced to rent out their land for a pittance sum” (Karamzin, 80). Similarly, after the death of Peter I, “no royal court or noble house in Europe could allow a son to pay court to Elizabeth, as it would be seen as an unfriendly act to the Empress Anna” (Coughlan, 59). The lowering of...
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