- Breaking the Ties That Bound: The Politics of Marital Strife in Late Imperial Russia by Barbara Alpern Engel
Barbara Engel’s inspiringly researched book on marriage, family, and shifting gender ideologies in late imperial Russia begins with the premise that both the increased educational opportunities for women and the broader post-Reform political and social environment ultimately led to a shifting of the gender order. This transformed sense of the roles and duties of men and women in Russian society ultimately weighed upon the long-standing patriarchal system and resulted in new ideas about marriage and the family. Moreover, there emerged a collective sense that the judiciary or courts should have an increased role in the adjudication of family disputes and that such problems should not be left up to the Orthodox Church and its hierarchies. These changes manifested in a multitude of ways, including in new norms of masculinity that emphasized self-control and restraint and also, perhaps most poignantly, in the slow yet palpable emergence of women’s autonomous subjectivity. By studying these processes, Engel highlights how the imperial chancellery—in all of its conservative and paternalistic glory—acted in a surprisingly flexible manner in support of unhappy wives. She illustrates, in very powerful and concrete ways, that gender mores and norms were changing in the final years of tsarist rule and that these shifts embodied and reflected Russia’s path to modernization.
Engel’s evidence is magisterial, entertaining in its detail and presentation and convincing in its support for her arguments. She is able to teach her reader what many in Russian society thought about marriage by relying on the “multi-vocal” character of her evidence (11), including petitioners, spouses, investigators, agents, and the representatives of the state, to name but a few. Given the breadth and depth of the sources, Breaking the Ties That Bound is at once an evidence-driven social history of practices and the everyday and a conceptually argued cultural history of norms and discourses. Some of the legal cases that Engel explores allow her to provide skilled and sensitive readings of the petitions penned and their language and meanings. Although there are many excellent examples, the discussion of the Russian word khoziaka is among—to this reader’s eye—the most analytically artful parts of the book. Engel presents the word’s meaning in her section on “the cult of domesticity,” where she evaluates the degree to which “Western” notions of the home translate to Russian soil. Ultimately, she concludes that “domesticity, as such, carried very little cultural weight” in the Russian context (161). That is why it became even more important to build Russia’s own points of reference for how the home was imagined and how women were expected to behave within the domestic environment. The word khoziaka encapsulates the multifaceted nature of women’s roles and responsibilities, from creating [End Page 328] a cozy atmosphere, to pinching the family’s pennies, to maintaining the moral tenor of the household.
Breaking the Ties That Bound adds a much longed for dimension of women’s and gender history to scholarship on late imperial Russia. Engel provides her readers with countless examples of how women of varying classes interacted with the judicial system and made use of the system of petitions to argue for separation or divorce on grounds ranging from abuse to failing out of love to the spark of a new flame of love. She explains how some female petitioners presented themselves as victims and others as agents. Engel highlights moments in which women acted as agents of their own petitions and of their own destinies and how, over the course of the late imperial decades, women began to assert claims based on their own sense of self as autonomous subjects. She describes how women, in their petitions, relied on language that highlighted their roles as individuals and emphasized their subjectivity rather than their victimhood and helplessness. In essence, many women—and especially those...