Platform for Women's Pens

When Alexandra Kobiakova first revealed her ambitions to become a writer, she was greeted with a snort of derision. Young women of the 19th-century Russian merchant classes were earmarked for a life of domestic servility and philistinism. And her suitor, to whom she divulged her first tentative attempts at poetry, had a more than vested interest in maintaining the status quo: "Woman is created not for the pen," he responded, "but for the needle and oven prongs."

This is a message that resounds not only through the 19th-century biographical narratives that make up Russia Through Women's Eyes, but through the entire length and breadth of Russian history. Humility and self-sacrifice were regarded throughout much of the 19th century as the twin beacons of Russian womanhood. And daily life for the fair sex, when not confined to the merely decorative, was often downright violent: Newly married peasant women, for instance, were routinely deflowered in village squares, and if the groom proved unequal to the task, a substitute was nominated by the rabble.

By providing a platform for the female perspective in Russian autobiographical literature, "Russia Through Women's Eyes" performs an important and much neglected service. And the period of the late 19th century chosen by the editors of this volume -- professor of Russian at New York State University, Toby Clyman, and author/translator Judith Vowles -- turns out to have been by far the most progressive and liberal in the country's history.

Revolutionary pressures, which had been building steadily since the uprising of the Decembrists in 1825, rebounded greatly on the female population. The "Great Reforms" of Alexander II brought with them a growing awareness and public debate of the "Woman Question" along with a diversifying of traditional female roles. During this period, many women abandoned the family hearth for jobs in the professional sphere, in the arts and in the media, which was now thriving on newly gained freedoms. Even the very existence of the autobiographical fragments collected here is a testament to the progress that was made.

The collection begins with the work of one Nadezhda Sokhanskaya, a writer whose star rose modestly during the 1850s, and whose bleak account of her life concentrates on the limitations placed on women of the period. Her observations are clear, concise and often deeply poignant. On returning from the Kharkov Institute for Girls in St. Petersburg to her mother's small estate in Ukraine, she is struck by how barren both the landscape and the prospects for her future life look: "To my right -- steppe; to my left -- steppe; staring me in the face -- steppe; and beyond the steppe -- steppe."

The account ends with a dark, pessimistic appraisal of the opportunities open to herself and, by inference, others of her sex who faced the same constraints, although silently: "The soul struggles," she concludes, "but it weakens in a futile burst of emotion. It strains feebly, like a flower in the shade, and soon wilts, its buds unopened, its feelings untapped, its strength untried. And time will pass, and soon, no matter what you do, it will be too late!"

The same obstacles were encountered -- as we have seen above -- by Alexandra Kobiakova. However, by the 1860s, women were beginning to gain a little more self confidence. Kobiakova wisely dumped her unsupportive suitor and, after a monumental struggle to get her manuscript published, she had the satisfaction of finding that her tale of merchant life -- "The Podoshvin Family" -- was greeted with approval and devoured by a wide readership. "I wrote 'The Podoshvin Family' to serve the class from which I came," she said. "I wanted to describe the consequences of a despotic and senseless upbringing that unfortunately defeats even the best of intentions."

All of the most gripping excerpts in the book come from women who studied medicine at the St. Petersburg Medical Surgical Academy, which ran special courses for female doctors from 1872 to 1887. The pioneer in the struggle for female medical education was Varvara Kashevarova-Rudneva, Russia's first female doctor. Rudneva, as her autobiography testifies, spent far more of her time fighting against reactionary male forces than practicing medicine: "A certain person practically threatened me with Siberia if I continued to insist upon my rights," she says of her efforts to extract a diploma from the institute she received after completed the medical course. "I replied that with my knowledge I'd be all right in Siberia and I got my way."

The best autobiography, however, is undoubtedly Yekaterina Slanskaya's "House Calls: A Day in the Practice of a Duma Woman Doctor in St. Petersburg." In clear, crisp prose Slanskaya describes the unbelievable squalor of the city's slums. Ignorance and superstition abound. The sick try to cure their illnesses by resorting to local, folk remedies such as covering themselves in chalk or red fabric, while ignoring the filth that surrounds them: "As the woman lifts the curtain and begins to unswaddle the child," writes Slanskaya, "I see blackish dots jumping on the dirty diapers, the pillow, the little shirt, and the child's tiny, bare legs and arms. I look closer and see that they are bedbugs. ... Everything, absolutely everything, is crawling with bedbugs."

Unfortunately, however, some of the autobiographical excerpts are far less engaging, particularly those of aristocratic women whose leaden accounts dwell on favorite nannies and the like. The collection also has some stylistic problems. A large percentage of the women in the volume are not writers and many of those who are seem incapable of even the occasional flourish that might have raised their prose above the banal. This is exacerbated by a dull, scholarly introduction that makes few concessions to the average reader.

But these flaws are eclipsed by the emotional power of many of the texts, in which the difficulties encountered by Russian women during the 19th century are laid out in agonizing detail. As Walter Benjamin famously said: "A civilization should be judged by how it treats its women." From the evidence offered here, Russia fails this test on every count.

"Russia Through Women's Eyes: Autobiographies from Tsarist Russia." Edited by Toby Clyman and Judith Vowles, published by Yale University Press, 393 pages, ?25 ($41).