- “We all love with the same part of the body, don’t we?”Iuliia Voznesenskaia’s Zhenskii Dekameron, New Women’s Prose, and French Feminist Theory
Starting out as a poet who eventually turned to fiction, Iuliia Voznesenskaia was also one of the main figures of the Soviet feminist movement, a fact that makes her biography both unusual and courageous. In the 1970s, Voznesenskaia’s involvement with the dissident movement in Leningrad resulted in several arrests, imprisonment, and time in the camps.1 Although she was not initially interested in women’s issues, her incarceration in all-women’s camps and prisons convinced her that “the situation of women in our country demands special attention” (“Zhenskoe dvizhenie v Rossii” [“The Women’s Movement in Russia”] 41). Along with several other women dissidents, she founded the Soviet feminist movement, putting out the samizdat women’s journal Zhenshchina i Rossiia (Woman and Russia), which precipitated immediate reprisals from the KGB. A women’s club, Mariia, and a journal by the same name followed, as did more KGB reprisals. For her feminist activity, Voznesenskaia was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1980, settling in West Germany.2
In 1985, in West Germany, Voznesenskaia wrote her first and best-known novel, Zhenskii Dekameron (The Women’s Decameron). The novel is set in a Leningrad maternity ward containing ten new mothers from different backgrounds with different life experiences: Larisa, Emma, Natasha, Nelia, Galina, and Valentina are educated and all have careers except Galina, whose occupation, admittedly strange for a feminist novel, seems to be a dissident’s wife; Ol’ga works in a shipyard; Irishka is a secretary; Al’bina is an Aeroflot flight attendant doubling as an escort on the KGB’s payroll; Zina is homeless and has served time in the camps; Valentina is a Party worker, whereas Galina is part of the dissident community. Quarantined together for ten days because of a spreading infection and inspired by Emma’s reading of Boccaccio’s Decameron, the women begin to tell each other stories to pass the time. As its title makes clear, Voznesenskaia’s novel is heavily indebted to Boccaccio’s, borrowing its structure and many of its themes, such as an emphasis on storytelling and sexual explicitness. The humor and poignancy of the women’s stories make it a highly enjoyable read, and the focus on female sexuality and the author’s play with the narrative set this novel apart from other Soviet writers’ works.3 The novel also features what is surely a unique occurrence in Russian and Soviet literature: an openly feminist character (Larisa), referred to by the authornarrator as “zhenshchinoi vpolne emansipirovannoi, mogushchei ukrasit’ soboi liuboe zapadnoe feministicheskoe obshchestvo” [“a completely emancipated woman, capable [End Page 95] of adorning any Western feminist group”] (13), who is moreover depicted in a wholly positive light.4
Yet despite enjoying a modicum of success, including being translated into several languages and staged as a play, Zhenskii Dekameron remains an under-read and underrated work.5 The reasons for its relative obscurity are closely allied with Voznesenskaia’s political activities in the 1980s. Exiled abroad for being politically undesirable to Soviet authorities, she could not have her work published in the Soviet Union; rather, the novel came out in Russian in Israel in 1987 (Curtis 186n2).6 The lack of visibility from which she suffered in her native country changed only in the (post)glasnost’ period: in 1991, the novel was published in Russian in Tallinn, and in 1992, in Moscow.7 Despite being able to be published, however, Zhenskii Dekameron seems not to have made a strong impact on either readers or critics, and there does not appear to be any discussion of it in Soviet/ Russian literary journals.
The novel likewise suffers from a lack of familiarity in the West. The interest Voznesenskaia generated among Western European and American feminists in the early 1980s was for her feminist activism in the Soviet Union, which preceded her novel writing. Zhenskii Dekameron seems to have made a modest impact on readers; scholars, too, discuss it only occasionally. The most comprehensive treatment of the work to date has been Jerzy Kolodziej...