Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3.2 (2002) 362-368
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Istoriia lesbiiskoi subkul´tury v Rossii XX vek
Ol´ga Zhuk, Russkie Amazonki: Istoriia lesbiiskoi subkul´tury v Rossii XX vek. Moscow: Glagol, 1998. 136 pp. ISBN 5-87532-039-7.
A onetime campaigner and editor of the St. Petersburg lesbian and gay periodical Gay, Slaviane!, Ol´ga Zhuk figured among the constellation of Russians who in the late 1980s and early 1990s defended the rights of those who choose same-sex love. That cohort of lesbian and gay activists - lionized, sometimes funded, and often written about by their Western counterparts - has now scattered to the four winds a decade on. 1 But in their wake a modest but impressive publishing boom in Russian studies of homosexualities has emerged. 2 Russian Amazons: A History of the Lesbian Subculture in Twentieth-Century Russia is Ol´ga Zhuk's contribution to the field, and marks her as one of the few activists of that 1990s cohort to contribute so far to this boom. Hers is also one of the few books specifically devoted to women's experience of same-sex love.
Russian Amazons is not an extended scholarly study, but conforms to the conventions of nauchno-populiarnaia literatura (popular-scientific literature). It attempts to be both accessible to the general reader, and, with over 130 endnotes in a work of this size, authoritative for specialists. The book is engaging, with lively references to the author's experience in over ten years of gathering the rare and fragmented materials upon which it is based. With a print-run of just 500 [End Page 362] copies, however, the publishers have hardly taken a bold decision to disseminate Russian Amazons widely.
Russian Amazons examines two very different types of lesbian existence in a pair of long chapters. The first catalogs what is known about women one could call "literary lesbians," primarily of the Silver Age, and the second explores the utterly different world of relations between women in Soviet-era Gulag and post-Stalin prison camps. Except for a five-page introduction there is no attempt to offer a link between the chapters, and indeed transitions within the chapters can be abrupt. The book also lacks a conclusion, which is a great weakness and symptomatic of a larger conceptual problem that burdens this attempt to write lesbians into late imperial and Soviet history.
The title misleadingly suggests that a single, coherent subculture is the subject of Zhuk's book. A subculture, she says, is "a kind of autonomous formation within a reigning culture, that always has its own customs, language, norms of behavior, and system of values" (5). The "reigning" culture was and is heterosexual with its "philosophy, literature, and art that speak about the relationship of men and women," a particular sort of "ideology of the sexes." Zhuk's definition of subculture coincides with similar definitions employed by Western historians of lesbian life. 3 Yet despite this apparent promise of an ethnographic analysis of her material, only half of Zhuk's subjects are convincingly put under this lens - the women of the Gulag and prison camps.
Silver Age literary lesbians (Zhuk names several, but concentrates most of her attention on the quartet of Zinaida Gippius, Lidiia Zinov´eva-Annibal, Sofiia Parnok, and Marina Tsvetaeva) could scarcely be said to have shared common customs, language, or norms of behavior distinguished by a sexual preference. In her first chapter Zhuk is not really interested in demonstrating such bytovye (everyday) similarities, if they existed. Indeed, the lesbian credentials of some of Zhuk's protagonists in her first chapter, such as Gippius and poet Anna Akhmatova, are thin to say the least. Rather, Zhuk's real purpose is to catalogue the ways in which Russia's women of the intelligentsia in the first three decades of the 20th century contributed to what would have been more successfully described as a lesbian tradition in Russian "high" culture. It is a tradition centered around a number of well known, even...