What Russian literature reveals about Russia

11 December 2022, 01:34 PM
Russian literature has a noticeable lack of female voices. (Photo:Artem Kovalenko  / Kremenchuk Telegraph)

Russian literature has a noticeable lack of female voices. (Photo:Artem Kovalenko / Kremenchuk Telegraph)

It proves once again that Russia did not move in the same direction as the civilized world two centuries ago. And accordingly, it lagged behind in development.

These days in Ukraine, at various levels and in various formats, the 300th anniversary of the birth of the poet and philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda is being celebrated. This is our luminary, which Russia is also encroaching on. Their segment of Wikipedia identifies Skovoroda first as a Russian, and only later as a Ukrainian figure of culture and education. The reason is the same as the appropriation of Mykola Gogol: he lived in the Russian Empire, used the Russian language, and therefore was to Russia’s credit.

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Out of curiosity, I took a look at the same site to find out how another Ukrainian classic figure, Lesya Ukrainka, is defined in Russia. I saw that Russian culture does not claim her. Just as she does not claim her mother, Olena Pchilka. Neither Maria Vilinska, better known as Marko Vovchok. Even though this author is an ethnic Russian woman, born in Russia, who spoke Russian in her everyday life, and whose works were translated into Russian by Russian classicist Ivan Turgenev. Meanwhile, for some reason, this was not enough for her to enter the pantheon of Russian literary classics.

Then I began to see more and more. We are talking about things that have always been on the surface, in the field of vision. It's just that until now, when the Russian literary heritage is increasingly being purged from the Ukrainian space, there was no reason or opportunity to draw attention to the complete absence of female names in the list. And they really weren't there. This proves once again: Russia was not moving in the same direction as the civilized world two centuries ago, and, accordingly, has lagged behind in development.

What is known in the history of the 19th century? Among other things, the growing role of cities and the need for educated, literate citizens. Books and reading ceased to be considered a kind of aristocratic pastime, a privilege of the chosen ones. At the same time, educated women took up the pen, because their weight in Western societies was also constantly growing. Reading and writing became fashionable. It was women who founded and developed literary salons, where they not only listened to meters, but also read their own works. It was an act of acrobatics to invite not a male writer, but rather a female one — this testified to women's possibilities in the field of ruling over thoughts.

Next to George Byron in classic British literature we see Mary Shelley,  and next to Charles Dickens – the Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emilia. In France, next to Victor Hugo is Aurora Dudevant, better known by the pseudonym Georges Sand. In America, Mark Twain stands next to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Ukraine’s pantheon of female writers has already been mentioned: Lesya Ukrainka, Marko Vovchok, and later Hanna Barvinok worked on par with Panteleimon Kulish, Panas Mirnyi, and Ivan Nechuy-Levytskyi in Russian-controlled Ukraine, even during the ban on the Ukrainian language. Well, neither the Germans, nor the Austrians, nor the Romanians, nor the Hungarians wrote down Olga Kobylyanska, who lived and worked in the Austrian-controlled part of Ukraine, in their heritage. She is our Ukrainian classic.

Only Russia cannot boast of this. Roads to the fields of culture, science, and education were closed for Russian women. The only place where they could realize themselves was the theater stage. At the same time, for a long time, even  theater actresses were considered to be women of low social standing. They had fans and patrons, but their personal lives did not go well. Wealthy Russian men preferred to have them as mistresses. There was also the circus with acrobats, but that is a separate story.

At the same time, there were many women among the Russian terrorists who began to gain power from the end of the 1870s and gradually influenced government and society. What is characteristic is that they were educated, coming from respected noble bourgeois families. The biographies of the terrorists Vera Zasulych and Sofya Perovska confirm this. Another fact is no less revealing: in the Ukrainian territories under the control of the Russian Empire, female terrorists were hardly noticed in the days when it was fashionable. At least they did not come from noble Ukrainian families. Fanny Kaplan, a native of the Volyn province, the daughter of a teacher from a Jewish town school, does not count.

The Red Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of Soviet power brought terror-prone women out of the shadows. The concept of the commissarsha appeared – a lady in a leather jacket, devoid of even external signs of femininity, with a Mauser in a holster and a revolver in her teeth. After the victory in the war of occupation, the Russian communists, without stopping their machine of terror, announced their fight against illiteracy. At the same time, they did not abandon their bourgeois literary heritage, making Pushkin their main poet and Tolstoy their main novelist.

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And at the same time, they developed the institute of new, proletarian writers devoted to the new ideology. People were taught to read – and were immediately given the right books. However, Russian Soviet classics are not rich in female names, either. What mention is there of Marietta Shaginyan, the mother of Russian social fiction, forgotten even by modern Russia? And, of course, Anna Akhmatova — but she is a Ukrainian from Kyiv.

The more one observes, the more one understands the reaction of the female Russian soldier who mocked Yulia Paevska, known by the nickname Tyra, when the latter was held prisoner. If you think about it, they were beaten. The Russian woman shrugged her shoulders and was surprised to hear that Yulia’s husband had never beaten her. The classical canon, which is the pride of a country of 140 million people, did not have a female voice, a female face, and did not sound with female notes. Women were not considered there and are not considered much now. Will they be assigned to watch over the captives? Women did not go into culture, but followed men's examples into terror, because that is where the windows of opportunity and social elevators were.

Here we have a huge nation, which has been handed down unmotivated aggression from generation to generation, from century to century. It is aimed both at its own citizens, and at each other, as well as at the outside. Where everyone has the same rights and opportunities for development and realization. And it all started with a comparison of pantheons of classics...

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