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This new book looks at women's lives under the tsars, from their contribution to art and culture to their struggle to escape the violence of the family and gain independence

Wendy Rosslyn and Alessandra Tosi, Women in Nineteenth-Century Russia: Lives and Culture (Openbook Publishers 2012), ix, 249pp.

Women in Nineteenth-Century Russia is a collection of essays on different aspects of women’s lives in Russia during the period from the late eighteenth century until the 1917 revolution. Women as revolutionaries and questions about women’s role in society were prominent in the revolutionary period in Russia, so these studies should be of serious interest to anyone concerned with the social roots of the Russian Revolution. The essays are examples of what academic writing should be; accessible and clear with explanation of the background. This means the book is an excellent introduction to the subject which can be read by anyone who is interested but without specialist knowledge. The contributors are all leading figures in the field, and notes supply information about further reading.

None of the essays deal with the revolution itself, or any leading female revolutionary figures such as Nadezhda Krupskaya or Alexandra Kollontai. Nor does it give much information on the lives of working-class women at the time, although the first essay, ‘Women and Urban Culture’ by Barbara Alpern Engel, provides helpful background. It is nevertheless a political book in a broader sense, discussing changing opportunities for women, and attitudes towards them during this period. As Sibelan Forrester points out in the introduction, nineteenth-century Russian women are better known through their fictional representation. This book redresses the balance by an excellent introduction to real women and the culture in which they were involved.

Despite many parallels, the position of women in Russia differed from that in Europe and America because the political situation was so different. Serfs were emancipated only in 1861 and, as Engel mentions, the transition from a feudal to a capitalist economy, which had taken place over hundreds of years in Europe, was so accelerated in Russia that it took approximately 25 years, intensified by the easier transport provided by railways and steamships (p.19). Peasants released from serfdom flooded to Russia’s major cities.

There, although there were ‘hardships and sexual dangers, perhaps pregnancy, for women migrants’ and ‘the market provided only a limited range of poorly-paid and exploitative choices’, a woman could earn an independent wage (pp.23-4). Women could become factory workers, domestic servants (p.26), physicians, midwives, telegraph workers, and teachers (p.20). Some could afford to dress more fashionably, to buy books and attend dance halls, pleasure gardens and theatres and there were opportunities for education (p.25). However, a married woman still owed her husband ‘unlimited obedience’ and required permission before acquiring a job, education or the internal passport needed to reside fifteen miles from her husband’s place of residence. It is clear from Engel’s chapter, and that by Marianna G. Muravyeva, that women resented and fought against these restrictions: 30-40,000 women petitioned the tsar to separate from their husbands (p.27). Such petitions could be denied if the women were suspected of ‘immoral behaviour’ and the courts were rarely on the side of the women.

Muravyeva contests the suggestion of some post-Soviet historians that women’s status and treatment were not as low before the revolution as Soviet historians had claimed. While the law was favourable to women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it no longer supported them by the nineteenth century (p.211). Violence against women was very common and in cases where a wife was accused of disobeying her husband, the court itself ordered her ten lashes (p.227). In England, in the late eighteenth century, appalling cruelty towards women from male family members was taken for granted (Memoirs of Charles Lee Lewes, 1805, II, pp.53-54). During the nineteenth century, though, the laws began to improve. Yet in Russia in 1883, villagers ‘witnessed a woman harnessed to a cart, running alongside the horse to the cheerful jeering of her husband and father-in-law who were driving, [she] was badly beaten and soon lost consciousness’ (p.209).

That case got to court, but generally cases of rape and wife-beating, even where the woman died, were not treated as serious by the courts. Many cases of rape did not succeed because the woman’s evidence relied on her ‘reputation’ and social status, as compared to that of her assailant. Thus a nobleman whose rape of an actress resulted in her death had a comparatively light sentence. Landlords and nobles were seldom punished in the same way as peasants. Because of fear, it was difficult to prove incest against a father and, when such cases went to court, even with witnesses, the woman was often punished as well as the man (p.226). It is not surprising that Shelley’s play The Cenci whose heroine is raped by her father and who has him murdered, was received enthusiastically at the Korsch Theatre, Moscow in 1920 (Stuart Curran, The Cenci: Scorpions Ringed with Fire, Princeton University Press, 1970, p.208).

Religion, however, remained central to women’s lives, even though some traditional peasant customs were discarded and the standard of living rose. The resurgence in popularity of the Virgin Mary inspired women to be independent in their religious views, as they believed her to be. Some laywomen wrote ‘Lives’ of Mary, one at the age of 83, which described her ‘strong determination’ and ‘firm response’ (p.76).

In the sphere of literature and the arts, women’s work was suppressed. Nineteenth-century Russian male writers and composers are known worldwide – Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Chekhov – yet we do not know their female counterparts. The attitudes which led to this were also common in Western Europe. In the early nineteenth century, upper class women were educated in art and music to a high standard, but they could not become professionals. In the mid-century, women of other classes were admitted to academies of art or music and began to write professionally, but they were expected to confine themselves to decorative arts and crafts and ‘feminine’ subjects in the case of literature. Some women writers managed to use the fact that the genre was not taken seriously to avoid the censor and convey criticism of social injustice.

Women became teachers of music and art and leaders in the study of and development of folk art and music. If a woman’s work was good, it was described as ‘masculine’. The attitude cannot be illustrated better than by the fact that, although women were not allowed into life classes because males posed as models, Natal’ia Goncharova was prosecuted for painting female nudes (p.115). By 1917, however, Russia was producing such brilliant women artists as Goncharova herself, Alexandra Ekster and Liubov' Popova, who were not only fine artists but theatre designers who  later worked in the revolutionary theatre of Meyerhold and whose work was exhibited as Amazons of the Avant Garde at the Royal Academy in 1999.

The case of actresses and singers differs greatly from their opposite numbers in Western Europe. In England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, while the stage might not have been considered an entirely respectable career, an actress was no longer viewed as a ‘whore’. In England, many upper class households were keen on amateur theatricals, but in Russia, a nobleman could fill his own private theatre with serfs and it could function as ‘public entertainment and private harem’ (p.145). Even in the public theatres, ‘the vast majority of actors and actresses began life as serfs’, and the theatre is described as a ‘thinly veiled but socially acceptable brothel’ (p.142). The actresses were despised for what they could not help. Despite this, some actresses developed into great and powerful performers, many famous all over Europe (p.134). They left a legacy of impassioned devotion to and identification with their art.

Women in Nineteenth Century Russia shows a very positive picture of women in struggle for greater control of their lives and bodies and for the right to live apart from their husbands and earn their living and to be considered equal to men. It is not surprising that women played a vital role in the Russian Revolution.

Details of this book are available at www.openbookpublishers.com.

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