Comparative Literature Studies 39.1 (2002) 74-78
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Russia Through Women's Eyes:
Autobiographies from Tsarist Russia
Russia Through Women's Eyes: Autobiographies from Tsarist Russia. Ed. by Toby W. Clyman and Judith Vowles. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. vi + 393 pp. $40 (cloth), $18 (paper).
In 1930, in an unpublished letter, the Russian writer and physician Valen-tina Dmietrieva explained to Anastasiia Krandievskaia, also a writer (and great-grandmother of Tatiana Tolstaia), that her editor disliked a couple [End Page 74] of chapters in her memoirs of life before 1917: "...and why? Because in them I talk more about myself and my troubles. That is the answer to your complaint that there is no "I" in the book; they do not like it. Much was crossed out from the chapters on childhood as too subjective; it needs more social consciousness, and personality, as such, is not interesting. That view, by the way, concurs with mine; I also do not like it when someone turns in on himself too much in memoirs, but nevertheless, there is a certain limit." The "proper" balance between self and history is perhaps the paradigm of Russian autobiographical writing, and the title of this volume captures it well.
Russian memoirs themselves are as much the product of history as their writers. The four outbursts of memoirs followed historical watersheds: the War of 1812; then, the death of the repressive Nicholas I in 1855 coupled with Russia's defeat in the Crimean War in 1856 and the promise of liberalization under Alexander II; and in the twentieth century, Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 together with the revolts of that year and the establishment of civil liberties; and recently, the fall of communism. With the exception of the Napoleonic War, each of these periods occasioned national soul-searching, a desire to make sense of the past, and as important, the relaxation of censorship.
The eleven memoirs in this excellent volume belong to the second and third periods of a great memoir tradition. In addition to their careful, informative introduction, the editors contextualize each memoir with a biographical and interpretive preface. Together with good footnotes, a bibliographic note for each work with sources in English and a select bibliography of Russian sources and English translations make the memoirs very accessible to a broad audience.
The selections themselves should be, and happily are the real strength of the volume, which I found hard to put down. The editors chose whole sections (plus two complete works) from published memoirs that have not been translated previously and rendered them in lively, idiomatic English while taking care to keep the bumps along with the polished prose. What emerges with great clarity in reading the sometimes poignant, often riveting, occasionally lyric tales and vignettes are the distinct voices of eleven different women.
Arranged chronologically by when they were written, they cover a welcome range of themes, professions, classes, and literary styles. In their introduction and commentary, Vowles and Clyman can do justice to this variety because their framework for autobiography is not the genre as one whole, but as composed of mainly subgenres that can be combined in the same memoir: military memoirs; family histories; saints' lives; court, [End Page 75] literary, childhood, school, work, actor's, physician's, gentry, and nongentry memoirs; and the "new woman," to name some.
Including feminists and anti-feminists, religious and secular women, these memoirs offer a provocative counterpoint. Four are by writers (Nadezhda Sokhanskaia, Aleksandra Kubiakova, Princess Elizaveta Lvova, and Anastasiia Verbitskaia); two especially gripping memoirs are by physicians (Varvara Kashevarova-Rudneva and Ekaterina Slanskaia); two are by mothers (Natalia Grot and Praskovia Tatlina); Emiliia Pimenova trained as a doctor and became a writer; Liubov Nikulina-Kositskaia was an actress; and one is anonymous. Seven women are from the educated gentry and four are not (Kobiakova was from the merchant class, Nikulina-Kositskaia from a serf family, Tatlina from the middle class of bureaucrats, and Kashevarova-Rudneva a poor orphan).
The inclusion of "Reminiscences of Institute Life...