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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 literature—a 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 gulag.

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, the cow.

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 was lifted.

Feminist ideas had little chance to penetrate public awareness with one exception. In 1980, four women—journalists and writers in Saint Petersburg—published 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 Almanac—Tatyana Mamonova, Natalia Malakhovskaya, Natalia Goricheva, and Yulia Voznesenskaya—were 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 women—and most people living under the poverty level are women—has 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 themes—abortion, violence, disease, and sexuality—that 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 in Russia.

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.