X. Woman as the Object and Subject of Contemporary Russian Literature
by Nadezhda Azhgikhina
The recent decade, which coincided
with democratic reforms in Russia, brought forward brilliant examples
of women's literary talent. In the course of perestroika,
in the late eighties and early nineties, new collections of women's
prose appeared complete with manifestos by authors and editors.
Literary periodicals contained heated discussions on women's literary
work. The names of women writers, some well known like Lyudmila
Petrushevskaya, or Nina Sadur, others new like Tatyana Tolstaya,
Svetlana Vasilenko, Marina Palei, and Lyudmila Ulitskaya appeared,
and continue to appear, in articles and reviews. More recently,
Russian women have mastered the broad productive terrain of popular
culture; they now occupy leading positions among authors of crime
fiction and mystery novels, and have introduced new styles of documentary
writing and journalism.
It should be noted that none of the
mainstream literary researchers expected this. At the dawn of perestroika,
the literary community in the USSR lived in anticipation of changes
while creating its own mythology. In this mythology, after the repeal
of censorship and the introduction of freedom of expression, Russian
literature would become the most brilliant and abundant in the world,
and everyone would be amazed. According to the same mythological
mindset, the market economy was expected to take our intellectuals
directly to a paradise of material well being and creative inspiration.
Normally, the anticipated Russian literary renaissance was associated
with young male writers; leading Russian literary critics, for example,
compared the young author Oleg Yermakov who wrote about the Afghan
war, with Leo Tolstoy.
But, contrary to all expectations, the
Russian literary renaissance did not occur except as manifested
by the advancement of women's literaturea development that
was both unexpected and unwelcome. Many male writers and researchers
responded negatively to women's increased literary activity. One
of them, Pavel Basinsky, a well-known critic, wrote in the Literaturnaya
Gazeta that women cannot produce literary prose of high quality
because women's souls are "too close to their bodies."
Regardless of such attacks, women writers increasingly attracted
the attention of readers, primarily because their writing was an
ethical and aesthetic novelty, removed the veil from previously
banned subjects, and shared a special kind of knowledge, based on
women's way of making sense of things and presenting reality.
The dramatic takeoff of women's literature
in Russia, in the late eighties and early nineties, was based on
considerable previous developments in Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet
culture. Women writers had been present in Russian literature since
Catherine the Great and Princess Dashkova. During the Soviet period,
women wrote poems, novels, and articles as often as men; in fact,
their writing was hardly distinguishable from that of men in its
approach and subject matter since both were constrained to follow
the letter and spirit of Socialist Realism. Thus, famous Soviet
women writers like Lydia Seifullina, Vanda Vassilevskaya, and Vera
Panova did not reflect a specifically female view of the world;
however original and unique their work, they were strictly Soviet
in their approach.
While women suffered comparatively little
gender discrimination during the Soviet period, they suffered along
with men from the pressures of totalitarian ideology and government
repression. Like men, many of them were prisoners in Stalin's camps.
Eugenia Ginzburg shared her experience of a women's prison camp
in her book Journey into the Whirlwind (1975), completing
and expanding the picture presented by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in
The Gulag Archipelago (ca. 1985). The famous poet Olga Berggolts
was arrested when she was pregnant and suffered a miscarriage as
a result of her interrogations and torture; this tragedy haunted
her for the rest of her life. Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya's unique Naskalnaia
zhivopis (Paintings on the rocks, Moscow, 1991) depicts a woman's
version of hell and can be described as a female counterpart of
Varlam Shalamov's deeply disturbing novels and stories about the
After Stalin's death and the beginnings
of partial liberalization under Krushchev, now popularly termed
"Khruschev's fortochka" (a fortochka is
a small hinged pane for ventilation in windows of Russian homes),
lively intellectual debate began in Russia. The intelligentsia divided
up into two opposing camps in the sixties, reminiscent of the old
separation between "Slavophiles" and "Westerners"
in nineteenth-century Russian culture, and gravitated to different
literary journals. Some of these journals, both new like Yunost
and Literaturnaya Gazeta and existing like Novy Mir,
attracted writers and critics who favored the westernization of
Soviet life and culture, while others like Molodaya Gvardiya,
Nash Sovremennik, and Moskva published writers who
hoped for a return to the Old Russian patriarchal community. Both
groups opposed official Soviet ideology. Both inspired remarkable
books that, in their turn, gave birth to new literary trends in
the decades to come. The "Westerners," such as Vassily
Aksyonov, Anatoly Gladilin, Andrey Bitov, and, later, Yuri Trifonov,
were authors of "urban prose." The "Slavophiles,"
who had been brought up on Solzhenitsyn's Matryona's House
(1963), included Victor Astafyev, Valentin Rasputin, and Vassily
Belov, and began a new literary movement, which was later termed
"ontological natural philosophy writing."
Inevitably, male writers led both of
these major literary trends, and each trend constructed its own
stereotypical female character. The "urban" writers of
the sixties featured a sexually attractive, romantic woman, who
likes to dress up, wears perfume (which was totally incompatible
with the official image of a Soviet woman), loves men, and is extremely
dependent on them. The heroine of Vassily Aksyonov's cult novel
Surplussed Barrelware (ca. 1985), for instance, does not
think in logical concepts, but rather in interjections; her stream
of consciousness is, in fact, a string of meaningless sounds ("a-a-ah:oh:wow"),
while the leading male character is full of interesting ideas and
displays normal intelligence. This type of female character has
no personal interests and no professional or social concerns.
The "rural" writers, on the
other hand, developed the stereotype of a peasant woman, guardian
of a patriarchal life-style. Like the urban heroine, she is totally
asocial, following only the laws of nature; she also believes in
male superiority and is usually compared either to inanimate objects
or to animals. Old women in Valentin Rasputin's books are associated
with ancient trees, while Catherine, the wife in Vassily Belov's
Privychnoe delo (The usual thing, 1966) is compared to Rogula,
During the same sixties period, women
writers began to come to the floor, including me, Grekova, Galina
Shcherbakova, Inna Varlamova, and, somewhat later, Victoria Tokareva.
Unlike "urban" or "rural" prose by male authors,
their writing did not provoke heated debates in literary circles.
In fact, no one viewed these women as having any role to play in
the future of Russian literature, and they were frequently attacked
for "shallow topics" and "narrow-mindedness"
because they wrote about the hard life of Soviet women, family issues,
child rearing, relationships with men, and the challenge of combining
the role of a good wife and mother with that of a good professional.
Natalia Baranskaya's novel A Week
Like Any Other (London, 1993), which was published in the most
progressive journal of that time, Novy Mir, tells a heartbreaking
story of a young woman who does not wish to meet society's expectations
that she will be both a good wife/mother and a good professional.
The novel stirred tremendous international response and was translated
into many languages, but received very little, if any, attention
in the USSR. A new gender separation was occurring in Russian culture.
The search for identity and the meaning of life carried out by a
male character, however weak and flawed, was considered a serious
literary subject, but a similar search by a female character was
perceived by critics as a petty and shallow topic. Women's experiences
and work were pushed into the background and hardly ever mentioned
in serious discussion.
This gender separation was accomplished
in the context of the officially declared constitutional "equality
of rights and opportunities for men and women" in the USSR.
In fact, because men in the USSR never shared child-rearing responsibilities,
and consumer services were severely underdeveloped, this equality
was non-existent; the country was governed exclusively by men while
women carried the double burden of productive labor and servicing
the family. Whole generations of Soviet women were brainwashed into
thinking that their problems were unimportant, even something to
be ashamed of. It is no accident that in Soviet times, the subjects
of childbearing, delivery, and abortion, women's diseases and sexuality
were strictly taboo; you could only vaguely hint at them in literature.
The story "Abort ot Nelyubimogo" (Abortion of a
child by a man I did not love) written by a young woman, was banned
from publication for ten years exclusively because of the abortion
theme; it was published only after perestroika, when censorship
Feminist ideas had little chance to
penetrate public awareness with one exception. In 1980, four womenjournalists
and writers in Saint Petersburgpublished Woman and
Russia: Feminist Writings from the Soviet Union, a samizdat
collection in which they wrote about the real lives of Soviet women
who suffered humiliation and trauma in maternity wards, were beaten
by their husbands at home, were abused in prison, and were denied
the status of valuable human beings by the national culture in general.
The four main authors of the AlmanacTatyana Mamonova, Natalia
Malakhovskaya, Natalia Goricheva, and Yulia Voznesenskayawere
immediately expelled from the USSR.
Although by all formal criteria these
Soviet feminists were dissidents, they were not accepted by the
dissident community and remained fairly isolated from it. The main
reason for this is that women's issues were never on the agenda
of the mainstream dissident movement, no matter how many women fought
in its ranks. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, one of Russia's best-known human
rights advocates, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group and author of
the book, Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National,
Religious, and Human Rights (1985), said in an interview that
though women in the dissident movement performed the hardest and
riskiest work and displayed miraculous courage and determination,
all of the movement's leaders were men. Later, during perestroika,
men were perceived as carrying the banner of human rights, and even
now, they resist including the concept of women's rights in the
mainstream human rights agenda.
With the onset of perestroika
and the coming of democratic reforms to the USSR, the old Soviet
stereotypes were replaced by a new gender mythology that humiliated
and marginalized women. Taking its cue from Mikhail Gorbachev, who
declared, "We should unburden our women and let them stay at
home," the idea of the "natural destiny of women"
became very popular, gaining the support of artists and the intelligentsia.
While the mass media popularized the image of the "domestic"
woman, an ideal housewife, as soon as the first beauty contests
were held in Russia they developed another, parallel stereotype,
the beauty queen and model. Press coverage seemed to have no room
for the working women who formed the majority of women in the country,
even those who succeeded in the new market economy: journalists
presented the first women bankers as deprived of love and relationships.
Meanwhile, members of the women's movement in the West, and feminism
in particular, were promptly placed in the vacated niche of "public
enemies," and the media depicted feminists as a danger to everything
wholesome and healthy.
The degradation of the image of women
accelerated after the breakup of the USSR and the beginning of free
market reforms. Immediately, the market started to exploit women's
bodies as objects of consumption; innumerable pornographic magazines
emerged, both Russian-language versions of western porno publications,
like Playboy, and Russian originals like Makhaon,
Andrei, and Mister X. Media that targeted young audiences
often presented women only as sex objects. Advertisements debasing
women with slogans like "Woman is the Businessman's Friend"
(as in, "The dog is man's best friend") were broadcast
on TV virtually every day. Ads for the positions of attorney or
financial manager were offered exclusively to male applicants. Suffering
from the negative social consequences of reform, unemployment in
particular, women were not able for a long time to express their
anger and frustration and to articulate their needs. It was years
before an independent women's movement emerged in Russia to state
women's demands, formulate a Russian women's agenda, and begin to
negotiate with the authorities. By then, the damage was done: debasing
gender stereotypes and negative connotations attached to the image
of an active woman had taken root in the public mentality.
In general, women get very little coverage
in the Russian print and broadcast media. According to the Association
of Women Journalists, as little as 1.5 percent of space in newspapers
and magazines is devoted to women, including articles about prostitutes,
criminals, rock stars, and professional athletes. Women are rarely
invited to speak on TV as experts on important public issues; female
politicians appear on the TV screen markedly less often than men.
Equally disturbing is the fact that as a result of the recent parliamentary
elections the number of women in the Russian Parliament dropped
from 11 to 7.5 percent. The election campaign of the only woman
running for President had the lowest profile and the scantiest means
of all the presidential candidates.
Women are consistently marginalized
by both the authorities and public opinion and squeezed out of the
mainstream. Evidence of this can be found, among other things, in
the fact that the National Plan of Action for the Improvement of
the Status of Women, which was adopted as part of the ratification
of the UN's Beijing Conference documents, received absolutely no
funding. The national budget does not have a separate line for women's
issues. Family planning programs have been cut. Childcare benefit
payments for families, however tiny, are delayed for years. The
financial situation of womenand most people living under the
poverty level are womenhas deteriorated to the extent that
there are cases of single mothers who have committed suicide, after
killing their young children, simply because they could not feed
them. Millions of children are homeless. Many older women (in Russia,
women, on the average live twelve years longer than men) suffer
extreme poverty and beg in the streets because they cannot survive
on their tiny pensions. Meanwhile, tremendous sums are being spent
on the war in Chechnya, rather than on urgently needed social programs.
Like the Soviet regime during the period
of post-revolutionary five-year plans, and the postwar restoration
of its destroyed economy, the new order has tended to overcome the
difficulties of the transitional period at the expense of women.
But gender-based censorship has replaced more direct ideological
control, making it difficult for those who write about women's problems
or offer alternative role models to reach a wide audience. Although
a large group of highly gifted women writers appeared in the late
eighties and early nineties, even now it is harder for a woman to
get a novel published than it is for a man. Women often write on
subjects and themesabortion, violence, disease, and sexualitythat
were formerly taboo; this tendency arouses suspicion and meets with
a negative response from many well-known critics, who describe even
well-known women writers like Marina Palei or Svetlana Vasilenko
as "singers of chernukha" (ugliness) because they
write about hospitals, violence, and cruelty. The work of these
writers has nothing to do with any deliberate savoring of human
pain; on the contrary, they show women helping to overcome suffering
and open up new ways of addressing social problems. Nevertheless,
they are stereotyped, just as women writers like Valeria Narbikova,
who writes about sexuality, are pigeonholed as "erotic writers."
Another reason that the new women's
prose which emerged during perestroika did not give rise
to a strong literary trend in the following years is that the publishing
industry of the transitional period did not show a consistent interest
in women's literary work. Many women writers who needed a stable
income to support their families moved into translation, write crime
fiction or screenplays for TV, or turned to journalism. Others,
like Dina Rubina or Marina Palei, left Russia; Larissa Vaneyeva
entered a convent.
Despite these problems, in recent years,
Russian women have produced remarkable literary creations in many
genres. Thanks to democratization, women journalists in Russia have
gained access to many spheres that used to be inaccessible to them.
Among the many recent exposure of past abuses, two women journalists,
Natalia Gevorkyan and Eugenia Albats, wrote the most brilliant articles
about the KGB. Other female reporters produced excellent articles
and essays about the war in the Caucasus. The Russian public has
by now forgotten the names of most male war reporters, but everybody
remembers articles by Yulia Nikulina, Anna Politkovskaya, and Nadezhda
Chaiko (who was killed in Chechnya), and the reporting of Elena
Masiuk. Their reports remain indelible because they show the inhuman
face of war and the effects of military operations on the lives
of real women and children.
One of the most eminent women journalists
of the late eighties and nineties is Svetlana Alexievich, who lives
in Belarus and writes in Russian. Her books, War's Unwomanly
Face (ca. 1988), about women during World War II; Zinky Boys:
Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War (1992), about the
war in Afghanistan, and Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle
of the Future (1999), about the consequences of the Chernobyl
catastrophe, combine documentary writing and creative non-fiction,
creating a new literary genre that reflects the realities of our
time and experience. Alexievich's writing represents a feminist
approach to social conflict, an approach that is both active and
existential, that reflects both on the individual human life and
the future of the planet Earth. Although she has won many prestigious
literary prizes, Alexievich is persecuted in Minsk, because she
is opposed to President Lukashenko's policies. She has been sued
dozens of times by the government and the military because of the
pacifist, anti-military content of her books. She spent two years
recording oral histories in the contaminated zone, while researching
her book on Chernobyl, and narrowly escaped death at that difficult
time. Women's WORLD has been involved in her defense during several
of these crises.
Other women have made statements in
popular fiction. The best-known authors of crime fiction and mystery
in Russia are women, including Alexandra Marinina, Polina Dashkova,
and Irina Polyakova. Remarkably, their leading characters are independent
women who do not need help from men and who are often superior to
men in their personal character and professional skills. Marinina's
main character, the criminal investigator Nastasia Kamenskaya, can
be described as a true feminist.
Books of personal testimony about social
and sexual life are also popular with Russian audiences. Readers
favor such books as Zapiski driannoi devchonki (Notes of
a bad girl, 1995), by Dasha Aslamova, or P'esy dlia chteniia
(I, the women, 1991), by Maria Arbatova, not only because these
books expose private lives in a sort of literary striptease (Aslamova
writes about her sexual relations with male politicians, while Arbatova
describes the sexual preferences of her friends and acquaintances),
but also because they voice the opinions of active women who are
not afraid to express their own views and to search for their own
ways of making sense of reality. This is a totally new phenomenon
Thus, in spite of considerable pressure
from popular stereotypes, in spite of the government's neglect of
women's problems, remarkable women's writing continues to appear.
In 2000, Vagrius, a prestigious publishing house, began to publish
a Woman's Novel series, high-quality books written by women. Books
by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Nina Sadur, Olga
Slavnikova, and Svetlana Vasilenko have already appeared. Recently,
an international conference of women writers, held in Moscow, organized
by the Association of Russian Women Journalists, brought together
prose writers, poets, playwrights, and publicists from Russia, Belarus,
and Ukraine. New collections of women's prose and poems will be
published soon with support from the MacArthur Foundation.
Independent women's publications, and
the feminist movement in Russia, also support and promote women
authors. We believe that our joint efforts will overcome gender
censorship, humiliating stereotypes, and misinterpretations by critics.
Russian women are known for their ability to survive in the face
of adversity and to retain their dignity, as well as their sense
of humor, in the hardest of times. With confidence, a commitment
to the freedom of literary expression, and the rich creative potential
of women writers, we have all we need to succeed.
Nadezhda Azhgikhina, a writer, journalist,
and activist, is the founding editor of the Women's Page of the
Moscow Independent, and co-editor, with Colette Shulman, of the
Women's Studies journal, We/Myi: The Women's Dialogue. She
is the founding co-chair of the Association of Russian Women Journalists.