Well, FiLiA feminism conference 2017 is officially over. I think I’ve only just now recovered. It was incredible to be in such a female-driven space, and to speak as a peer among women whose research and passion I’ve admired for years. I remember staying up well into the night reading Sheila Rowbotham’s Women, Resistance, and Revolution, writing down relevant quotes for my forthcoming project. I never imagined then that I would meet Sheila, or that it would be as a fellow panelist on Revolutionary Women at the largest feminism conference in Europe. Truly, I am humbled – and inspired. (If one can be both at once, then I definitely am!)
The conference ran on a tight timing schedule, so I wasn’t able to cover fully or at all some of the subjects I’d originally intended. So I thought I would post here a “best of both worlds” version: the research at its fullest, the fiction excerpt as strong as I can make it. Enjoy!
“Unanimous in Our Enthusiasms”: Female Friendship in the Russian Revolutionary Movement
Today I’m discussing sisterhood in the Russian revolutionary movement. Camaraderie, is, of course, a vital theme in revolutionary narratives, but typically in a masculine context. By not recognizing radical women and their support of one another, we not only misunderstand our history but lose out on models for our own personal relationships and public movements.
My research focuses on the often neglected women in the Russian revolution. For nearly 40 years, from the 1870s until 1917, women played important and varied roles for their parties and each other. Through political and personal turbulence, they were each other’s nurses, confidantes, theorists, and everything in between. I will discuss some of them today, before reading an extract from my novel which they inspired. But first, a quote.
“At meetings with men…women usually keep quiet; we feel shy, and so we don’t say anything. But maybe with practice we’ll learn to develop our thoughts logically, and then we won’t be afraid to speak in public. A woman’s circle would be a place where we could learn.”
Sofia Bardina mentioned a women’s study group to Vera Figner in 1872, highlighting the insecurity women can feel when speaking in front of men. Here, too, is the kernel, from the very beginning of the revolutionary era, of socialist feminism. Recognition that when women work, learn, and think together, they also nurture and inspire each other.
From its inception as a study group to its final days as the organization responsible for assassinating Tsar Alexander II, Sofia Perovskaya was a member of Narodnaya Volya – and a leader.
Praskovia Ivanovskaya recalled meetings with her fondly, saying “Sofia always gave us a warm, friendly welcome; she acted as if we were the ones with stimulating ideas and news to share rather than the reverse.” Perovskaya understood the importance of boosting morale. When Lila Terenteva felt restricted by propaganda and asked for more dangerous assignments, “A shadow fell across Perovskaya’s weary face…then she tenderly stroked [Lila’s] ardent head [saying]: ‘Don’t think…that the press is any less necessary and valuable to the party’s work than throwing bombs.’” Perovskaya took on a dual role, political and pastoral, fostering both the emotional strength and the radical convictions of the women around her.
This support went both ways. Olga Liubatovich shared a secret apartment with Mikhail Grachevsky and Gesia Gelfman. Soon after the failed attempt to blow up the Tsar’s train, Perovskaya appeared in their flat. “[She] was generally very reserved,” Liubatovich wrote, “but after Grachevsky left and she found herself alone with us women, the words began to spill out and she emotionally told us the story of the Moscow attempt…” To break down in front of a male comrade meant risking her authority. Only among the women did she feel sure of both respect and understanding. They happily gave both.
These are the foundations of the movement. Some even made these dynamics the lynchpin of their political platforms.
Alexandra Kollontai became a socialist in the 1890s fighting what she deemed “bourgeois suffragettes” whose idea of enfranchisement extended only to women of their own privileged class. “For me,” Kollontai said, “‘what I am’ was always of less importance than ‘what I can’, that is to say, what I was in a position to accomplish. …I, too, had my ambition and it was…the abolition of the slavery of working women.” She took many roles in the movement: writer, strike organizer, speechmaker, stateswoman – championing the economic, social, and sexual rights of working women.
Global socialism also meant global feminism. During her near decade of self-exile, she collaborated with others in the socialist/feminist struggle around the world, even those with whom she often disagreed: Louise Bryant, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman. She credited these women – and a few men – with helping define her principles.
After the revolution, she was the first woman in the Bolshevik Central Committee (having defected from the pro-war Mensheviks), and set up the Zhenotdel, or Women’s Department with Inessa Armand, building women’s needs into the new government – albeit temporarily. She organized the International Conference of Communist Women in 1920 with Clara Zetkin, Lyudmilla Stal, and Liliana Zinaida, and worked closely with the deputies.
She became the first female ambassador, to Norway, then Mexico, and Sweden; really it was administrative exile by Stalin for joining the Workers’ Opposition party against Lenin’s later policies – though it in no way diminishes her accomplishment. Her memoir, incredibly brief for such a rich life, depicts a revolutionary who felt that “women’s liberation could take place only as a result of the victory of a new social order and a different economic system.”
We should not forget the words of Sofia Bardina a generation before. Kollontai had no qualms about being the sole female voice in a room full of men.
Maria Spiridonova was 21 when she was arrested and imprisoned for assassinating the governor of Tambov in 1906. There is much speculation over her motives and even more about her brutal treatment from the Tsarist authorities. For now, I’d like to leave those salacious elements for their unexpected result: the friendship between her and other terrorist women of the Social Revolutionary party. These women: Maria Skholnik, Anastasia Bitsenko, Alexandra Izmailovich, Rebecca Fialka, Lydia Ezerskaya along with Spiridonova gained celebrity status during the 1905 revolution and were dubbed shesterka or “the six”.
The first contact between them were smuggled notes from their prison cells; the terrorist wing at that time featured many more attempted assassinations than successful ones, so Spiridonova was popular.
Their train to Siberia was constantly stopped so peasants could greet them with cheers and flowers. They won over guards and male comrades. But mostly they stuck together, from their arrival in 1906 until the amnesty in 1917, a commune of female political prisoners.
Per Bardina’s now distant observations, it’s noteworthy that Bitsenko went on to represent the SRs at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (then joined the Bolsheviks), while Spiridonova led the delegates at the Second Peasant Congress. Both took leadership roles in rooms of men.
While Spiridonova received letters from many fellow prisoners in 1906, Alexandra Izmailovich wrote most. Spiridonova, she said, “didn’t know us, but…indicated she already loved us as fellow [SRs]”. From this moment, we can trace a friendship which lasted the rest of their lives.
In the aftermath of 1917, the SR’s felt the Bolsheviks had betrayed the revolution and worked against them – none harder than Spiridonova,of whom Louise Bryant recalled, “I have not met her equal in any country.” When she was re-arrested and went on hunger strike the panicked Bolsheviks fetched Izmailovich from another prison; they wanted her consent for force-feeding. She was outraged.
“[H]ere were officials reading out her death sentence to me who stood closest to her, and asking me politely for my signature, in order to shift the responsibility of her death from themselves to me.”
She refused forcible feeding, saying it would bring back memories of Spridonova’s abuse from police in 1906, and added:
“There is no doubt whatever that the application of forcible feeding would precipitate a catastrophe because of the reawakening of memories of violence done to her in the past. I definitely refuse to be associated with forcible feeding…[and] I wish once more to place on record my conviction that the sole responsibility for Spiridonova’s death is borne by the present rulers of Russia.”
Izmailovich nursed her, while Emma Goldman and Clara Zetkin petitioned for their release. For ten years they were subjected to the caprices of the Bolshevik government, repeatedly released and re-arrested in a cat-and-mouse game. Finally, during a Stalin-era purge, they were exiled again, forming an SR family with Irina Kakhovskaya and Ilya Mayorov.
When the Germans invaded in 1941, Stalin would risk no opposition. Spiridonova, Izmailovich and countless others were executed.
The encouragement and empathy these women showed each other most informs the following scene, an extract from my novel Do Unto Others set in Russia leading up to the 1905 revolution.
“I didn’t think I’d see you again,” said Katya, moving a stack of papers off a chair. Her flat was small and cluttered, and Marguerite had the impression she wasn’t home much.
“You’re in good company,” Marguerite said, sitting by the table. “I wasn’t sure I’d get out.”
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard they’d got you. I thought: we’re lost without a leader.”
Marguerite shook her head. “It’s Channer’s group, not mine.”
Katya turned from the samovar and scoffed. “He may have started it, but it’s yours. We all know it. That’s why I joined, and why do you think it started falling apart after you were arrested?”
Marguerite stared at her hands. All she wanted was to be part of the work; she’d never seen herself as a leader. But Katya had, and maybe others, too. What was this about it breaking up?
Before she could ask, Katya set a glass of tea in front of her and wrapped thin arms around her neck, pressing their faces cheek to cheek. “Was it very awful?”
Something small and frightened stirred in the pit of Marguerite’s stomach. It had been hard enough telling Varvara, her oldest, dearest friend; she hadn’t even told Channer the worst. Whenever her mind strayed back to her cell there was a flutter like wings in her chest, and the prospect of telling Katya made her throat tighten so she might never force words out. But from the start she’d recognized Katya’s clear, quick thinking, and she realized they could never truly be comrades if Marguerite withheld the facts. And, she thought, Stepan’s prison stories helped me…maybe my experience could help her someday.
Reliving it, sharing it, was exhausting, a physical as much as emotional task, but it was easier this time. Now there was a sense of narrative to the chaos. She explained the structure of her days, the method of the interrogations, and how they saw her as more woman than revolutionary. “That,” she said, “was their mistake.” Indignities were detailed with indifference. Though when she explained about Kira, that precious girl she’d borne, birthed, and loved and who they’d taken, who was lost, her body rioted, fighting to keep the memory of her daughter in. But her voice barely wavered. Katya’s eyes glittered and swam. Marguerite’s were dry. There, she thought, I’ve conquered it. It can’t hurt me now. But the empty glass clanked a little too hard when she set it on the table.
“Can’t you…can’t you get her back?”
“No. And I don’t want to.”
She met Katya’s eyes and braced for a storm of outrage and disappointment like Varvara had unleashed…but it didn’t come.
“I understand,” she said, looking at the dregs in her glass. “It’s not safe for a baby, not with us lot. Besides, mother and revolutionary are full-time jobs.”
It wasn’t the whole truth, but it was near enough. Gratitude, warm and soft, settled in her and she took Katya’s hand. “You don’t know what that means to me. It’s funny, you always made me feel so ashamed… But you understand.”
“You were so dedicated,” Marguerite said, “you did whatever was asked of you, and never let personal relationships interfere with work, while I…”
“I wasn’t brave enough!” Katya said. “You were. You didn’t just take notes and write their letters like they wanted. I looked up to you – I do, I mean.” Brazen, unflappable Katya actually blushed. “Anyway, if I loved someone, it’d be different. You and Channer love each other and the cause, too.”
Marguerite leaned back and sighed. “I don’t know what cause he loves. He seems content to just sit back and wait for change to come, he doesn’t realize he has to make it. You can call for change all your life, but revolutions aren’t wished for, they’re created. And me, I’m suffocating trying to make him see that, trapped in a group whose aims are muddled and whose methods I’ve lost faith in.”
Katya nodded. “Pamphlets are alright for consciousness raising but they don’t work on their own.”
Marguerite looked at her…and then the idea came, so clear and powerful it left her momentarily speechless. She leaned over, and as she studied Katya’s narrow, impish face, she felt a swoop of sure success. “Well then…why don’t we do it ourselves?”
Thanks again to the FiLiA organizers and to the European Network of Migrant Women for this incredible opportunity. I learned many fascinating things, and am always happy to share the stories of these incredible women.
With three days left until the presentation at the FiLiA conference in London (eep!), I’d like to do a little self-promotion for my article on Russian revolutionary motherhood published in University of Kent’s Litterae Mentis magazine last month. It includes two women I’ll be discussing on Saturday, Olga Liubatovich and Alexandra Kollontai, and hopefully sheds a little light on this critical but undervalued aspect of these women’s public, political, and personal lives. Thanks for reading!
This gives a taste of my fiction, my PhD work, and sheds some light on how history and fiction can blend in a way that is both artful (I hope) and factual [see previous post for more of my thoughts on that]. Do take a look!
And many, many thanks again to the FiLiA organizers for this amazing opportunity. Can’t wait to give my presentation next Saturday morning!
Photo: Maria Spiridonova, Alexandra Izmailovich, Rebecca Fialka, and other Socialist Revolutionary women, Siberia.
As you might imagine, reading is a substantial part of my creative writing PhD. I’m reading primary and secondary sources, I’m reading fiction, and I’m always on the lookout for historical novels about women revolutionaries, Russian specifically. In historical fiction about Russia centered on women, most of what you’ll find are novels about bourgeoisie gentry ladies and how the revolution disenfranchised them, rather than focusing on women’s empowerment from participating in it. Usually, it’s a love story where the revolution is a backdrop which happens to wealthy women, against them (think The Jewel of St. Petersburg by Kate Furnivall and Emily (The Kirov Saga #3) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagels). Now and then revolutionary women get the fictional spotlight – more often than the historical one: To Kill a Tsar by Andrew Williams draws heavily from the memoirs of revolutionary women of the 1870s & ’80s which I’ll be quoting from later on, and while female revolutionaries are not the sole focus they are in the forefront and realistic (although the main fictional woman is still from a bourgeoisie background); Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore contextualizes radicalism in general and female radicalism specifically as a very small part of the greater Russian 20th century narrative but nevertheless presents us with a woman passionate about the cause (although she’s still from a bourgeoisie background).
Then, there’s Saturn’s Daughters by Jim Pinnells.
I had such high hopes for this novel, given that it purports to be solely about the women of Narodnaya Volya, The People’s Will, the terrorist organization I have mentioned in previous posts (and will be discussing later this month at the FiLiA feminism conference in London). This particular branch of the revolutionary movement comes about a decade before that covered in my novel, but it is always a joy to find someone giving these women the credit they’re due, particularly in the more accessible format of fiction.
Except not in this case.
Do not be mistaken: this novel is a masturbatory fantasy masquerading as a portrayal of women’s role in a (semi-) organized terrorist network. It was gratuity disguised as research. It read like an excuse to write about a hot, often naked woman for several hundred pages without actually providing any political context even though she’s a revolutionary – or supposed to be. Evgenya’s aims and desires are muddled, and her function within the movement equally so. It is explicitly stated at one point that it would be useful having a woman as attractive as Evgenya in the movement, since the other women aren’t very attractive. Is that…important for a revolutionary? Never a mention of the importance of the men’s looks, incidentally.
Evgenya’s main skill appears to be taking her clothes off. In fact, almost her entire focus is physically or sexually based. Her early scenes – where she pursues socialism as a means to the cousin she’s in love with – revolve solely around her desperation to have sex. Once involved in the movement (given no assignments and providing no contribution), she takes to stripping at the least provocation and taking many of her male comrades to bed. For the sake of “art” and “free love”, obviously. But Pinnells’ understanding of the free love seems informed more by 1960’s themes of sexual liberation rather than 1860’s themes of marriage laws and gender relations. She even sleeps with a few female comrades, and early on this is done for the amusement of the men in her circle. Riiiiiight…
Out of curiosity, I did a little digging and found an interview with Pinnells from Soviet Roulette in July 2013. Apparently Pinnells started this novel as a college grad in the 1960s (see the aforementioned misunderstanding of the term “free love”) who “knew very little about revolution and even less about women”, returned to it in middle age having “learned a lot more about revolution and a shade more about women”, and finished it in his late sixties, with the addendum that he’d “had a good look at terrorism from the practical, preventative side and…thought a great deal about female psychology – which is not to say that I’d understood women. Far from it.”
THAT much was obvious.
I won’t waste time on the flat, bland prose or the dialogue which fluctuated between vague, forgettable, or completely ridiculous. Nor on the less-than-gripping plot, perhaps because I had to stop every few pages (or every few paragraphs) and either roll my eyes or cringe because, as I say, it was so gratuitous. Everything revolved around writing Evgenya in the nude, whether posing as a model, boxing in Moscow, or simply walking around au naturel. Not to mention the vacuous invented characters, particularly Evgenya and her lover/cousin Vitya who have no personality outside of each other, and whose plots revolve around each other more than any political ideology. All of this put me off as a reader and as an author, but as a researcher I pressed on, and came away with many more questions about the role and ethics of historical fiction and research, and motivations of authors of historical fiction, and publication industry generally.
Aside from my issues with his plot and his style, I take issue with his method of research; or at least the way he manipulated or ignored the facts to serve an unknown authorial agenda.
Specifically: it does a HUGE disservice to Sofia Perovskaya. Never, in any memoir or academic text I’ve read, have I found any recollections of her that made her sound as personally cold, calculating, manipulative, aloof, vindictive, or unhinged as this novel made her out to be. From accounts of people who knew her, she was very much the opposite. Yes, as a revolutionary and terrorist she needed all of those traits professionally, in some degree, to achieve her ends. But the descriptions of her character and her relationships with other revolutionaries in the novel struck me as unlikely from the start, and became more and more inaccurate as I read. And now, working on the presentation about female friendship in the underground for the conference, as I trawl again through first-hand accounts from those who knew her, I can’t see anything at all of the woman Pinnells described. (Plus, his obsession with her looks is A) irrelevant, B) exaggerated [he makes a point several times of referring to her as unattractive and saying she’d never get a man to love her], and C) brings me back to my original complaint about literal masculine wankery.)
In the novel, her comrades seem resentful of her authority even when they’ve asked for her guidance. They bemoan her decisions and her strictures on their personal lives. They complain about her behind her back and blame her for each setback. It leaves the reader in doubt as to why anyone would follow her at all or let the movement build up around her. From a narrative standpoint, it makes no sense – because from a historical standpoint it’s inaccurate. The women especially despise her for being cold and manipulative, for putting the movement ahead of all personal relationships.
Yet we know those revolutionary strictures about personal lives and relationships were never adhered to, or not by a large proportion of revolutionaries in the decades leading up to 1917. Within Narodnaya Volya, for all the grand talk about the primacy of revolution in their minds and hearts, we see examples again and again of comrades whose relationships transcend the physical and become romantic, leading to underground marriages and even children. Olga Liubatovich, Gesia Gelfman, Anna Yakimova: all were involved with men in the movement, all had children with their partners. Liubatovich crossed countries to get her lover out of prison rather than leave the task to another comrade.
Sofia Perovskaya, for all her leadership qualities, was not immune to romantic entanglements. As I have outlined in an earlier post (January 20, 2017), her relationship with Andrei Zhelyabov, despite his already being married, was one of intellectual and spiritual equals. And the feelings between them were mutual. We know this from the memoirs of those who were close to them, men and women. And yet Pinnells keeps them separate for most of the novel, brings them together long enough for Perovskaya to ask Vitya if he is surprised at her sexual relationship with Zhelyabov given how unattractive she is (“ugly” is the word he used in a HuffPost blog post titled “Women and Terror” from July 2013), and then to have Zhelyabov tire of her, abandon her, and leave her weak and pining for contact…and thus yearning for a sexual relationship with heroine Evgenya. With plenty of scenes describing the women’s sexual exploits in language both euphemistic and unnecessary. Not to mention, out of character. Evgenya’s lesbian activity has, thus far, been strictly for men’s entertainment; her expressed and narrated desires have, up to now, always been for men. Perovskaya, in the novel, appraises Evgenya constantly for her physical attributes, but always for what they can contribute to the movement. Until they become a viable option for some reason. Historical Perovskaya appears, as far as the primary source material can show us, heterosexual.
All of this led me to question Pinnells’ sources. Many historical novels come with author’s notes where they clarify what is fictional, what is real, their methodology, and the sources they utilized. Most, actually. Reputable novels, definitely. Pinnells hasn’t provided any such information. The closest I came to sources were: a biography of Zhelyabov called Red Prelude from the 40’s (which I have ordered and am looking forward to reading for my project as well as enlightenment on this text), “a stack of history books and biographies” (unnamed), and “from everything that ever happened to [him] really”. (From an interview with Frost Magazine, August 2013.) The aforementioned interview in Soviet Roulette simply gives us “half a century of reading, asking and discussing with practitioners on both sides of the terrorist fence” as his research.
Interestingly, the chapters of the fictional novel are interspersed with excerpts from the memoir of an anonymous revolutionary of the period known only as MF, which Pinnells attributes to Mikhail Frolenko. The excerpts follow along with the plot, and it gives us an insight into where Pinnells drew his inspiration in several places, for characters and for events. I noticed one line where MF blames Perovskaya for a mission’s failure, saying things were done solely to keep her from losing an argument, but aside from that, there’s nothing of the disdain shown for her by the radicals in Pinnells’ work. Perhaps there is more elsewhere in the memoir.
Pervoskaya’s female comrades wrote much of her, ranging from awed to respectful to glowing. Never anything like what Pinnells describes. This makes me wonder: has he read the women’s memoirs? It would be utterly astounding if he didn’t, yet I wonder how he came away with his incredibly narrow vision of Perovskaya if he had. Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal edited and translated the memoirs of five women of the early movement (Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar; The memoirs of five young anarchist women of the 1870’s). Four of them worked closely with Perovsakya at various points in her career, and three of them speak of her at length.
Elizaveta Kovalskaia: “A young girl, almost a child, was standing near… Her plain costume set her apart from the others: a modest gray dress with a small white collar that somehow looked clumsy on her, like a schoolgirl’s uniform – you could see that she was totally oblivious to her appearance. The first thing you noticed was her broad, high forehead, which stood out so strongly from her small round face that all the other features were somehow lost in the background. […] [She] replied with extreme restraint, but very stubbornly. Looking closely at her, I saw that below the large forehead were eyelids drawn slightly downward toward her temples; her gray-blue eyes seemed rather evasive, but held a kind of stubborn inflexibility. Her expression was distrustful. When she was silent, her small, childlike mouth was tightly shut, as if she feared saying something superfluous. Her face was deeply thoughtful and serious; her entire figure exuded a monastic asceticism. […] [She] kept asserting that joint circles [with men] were impossible, in view of the fact that men, being more educated, would undoubtedly make it difficult for women to think independently. As the argument flared up…despite my weakness for beauty in general, I found myself more and more attracted to the modestly dressed, ascetic young girl. Many interesting, beautiful, gentle faces passed before my eyes, but again and again my attention would return to the girl in gray. Perhaps it was because her unpretentious clothing was so different from that of the others… Perhaps, too, because this girl resembled one of those stubborn defenders of their faith who carry their cause to the point of self-annihilation – I had been attracted to that type from childhood. […] [T]he girl was Sofia Perovskaia. Perovskaia suggested that I join a small circle of women who wanted to study political economy, and I agreed. As it turned out, only Perovskaia and I came punctually to the sessions. […] Perovskaia would administer sharp reprimands to the latecomers. […] Perovskaia took her studies very seriously. She would stop thoughtfully at each idea, develop it, and raise objections… It was obvious that she was enthralled by intellectual work and enjoyed it for its own sake, not only as a means to an end. […] Perovskaia, too, began coming late to the meetings; she was troubled by something and absent-minded. One time when she was particularly unhappy, she abandoned her usual reserve and told me about her unpleasant personal situation…[of] find[ing] herself in a semi-illegal position. [Not long after the news broke that Perovskaya and a few other women were joining a group with men. Perovskaya offered no explanation.] (213-217)
Olga Liubatovich: “About a week later I had my first, unforgettable meeting with Sofia Perovskaia. […] Around noon, a moderately dressed young woman appeared at the door. Her striking face – round and small, but for the large, childlike forehead – stood out sharply against the background of her black dress, trimmed with a broad white turn-down collar. She radiated youth and life. Perovskaia introduced herself and greed us in the open, direct fashion of an old friend, although she had never met either of us. We clustered around her: obviously, she was pleasantly excited about something. The rapid walk to our apartment had left her breathless, but she immediately began to tell us the story of her escape at the railroad station in Novgorod – a simple story, but it made me tremble… […] The news of Perovskaia’s escape spread quickly through St. Petersburg, and in a few hours Kravchinskii – one of her old comrades from the Chaikovskii circle – hurried over to see her. His attitude toward this child-woman (for that’s how she looked) was striking: it reflected profound respect, a kind of restrained worship, but was altogether consistent with their comradely relations. ‘She’s a remarkable woman,’ he told me later. ‘She’s destined to accomplish great things.’” (153-155) [Liubatovich also describes Perovskaya’s dedication and determination to rescue imprisoned comrades.] “A few days after the Moscow explosion, Sofia Perovskaia appeared at one of the party’s secret apartments in St. Petersburg, where she found Grachevskii, Gesia Gelfman, and me. Perovskaia was generally very reserved, but after Grachevskii left and she found herself alone with us women, the words began to spill out and she emotionally told us the story of the Moscow attempt – all the while standing by the washstand, her hands covered with soap. […] There was a catch in her voice as she spoke, and her face reflected intense suffering; she was shaking, either from a chill produced by her bare wet hands or from a painful feeling of failure and long-suppressed emotion.” (167-168)
Praskovia Ivanovskaia: “For our sakes, one precious exception was made to the prohibition on seeing friends: once a week (on Saturday evenings, as I recall) and in the intervals between printing jobs, we visited Sofia Perovskaia’s apartment. She shared the place with Andrei Zheliabov, and when we stayed late we saw him, too. However, sometimes he didn’t even notice our presence as he walked past Sofia’s open door: he simply went into his room…and dropped onto the bed…as if he had but one invincible desire – to sleep. To us, the visits to Perovskaia were like a refreshing shower. Sofia always gave us a warm, friendly welcome; she acted as if we were the ones with stimulating ideas and news to share, rather than the reverse. In her easy, natural way, she painstakingly helped us to make sense of the complicated muddle of everyday life and the vacillations of public opinion. She told us about the party’s activities among workers, about various circles and organizations, and about the expansion of the revolutionary movement among previously untouched social groups. Perovskaia spoke calmly, without a trace of sentimentality, but there was no hiding the joy that lit up her face and shone in her crinkled, smiling eyes – it was as if she were talking about a child of hers who had recovered from an illness. There were many occasions when Perovskaia reaffirmed for us the value of the work we were doing. During one period in particular, when all of us were depressed, Lilochka began bothering Sofia for a more dangerous party assignment. Lila was younger than the rest of us and the fighting spirit was very strong in her, but it was more a kind of childlike greediness that prompted her request. A shadow fell across Perovskaia’s weary face, as she carefully heard her out, then she walked up to Lila and tenderly stroked her ardent head: ‘Don’t think, Lila,’ she said sadly, ‘that the press is any less necessary and valuable to the party’s work than throwing bombs.’” (123-124)
These women hardly sound bitter about Perovskaya’s leadership style; in fact, they sound trusting of her leadership but, more than this, delighted with her friendship. Secondary sources, too, like Apostles Into Terrorists by Vera Broido, Mothers & Daughters by Barbara Alpern Engel, and Fathers & Daughters by Cathy Porter, give similar assessments of Perovskaya’s character.
Then again, without knowing Pinnells’ sources, it’s hard to find where the lines between fact and fiction fall in his story; I imagine even more so for the average reader who may not have much knowledge of the history.
I do the work of a historian and use the findings of my research to write fiction. So, I have to ask: is it acceptable to misrepresent historical figures in order to…I’m not sure what his aims were. Make his invented female protagonist – or his male one, for that matter – more likable? It didn’t work, incidentally, so I hope that’s not the case.
I’ve spoken at conferences in the past about where history and fiction can come together and coexist. Cohabitate, even. I have described how, paradoxically, the distance afforded by a historical setting can often make it easier for authors and readers alike to digest present affairs by widening their context and highlighting the correlations between past and modern history, arming us with the empathy and insight necessary to comprehend an increasingly complex future. After all, it was E. L. Doctorow who said: “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” To which I add, the historical novelist does both. I’ve also described how the expressions “history repeats itself” and “write what you know” are conjoined in the creation of historical fiction.
This last bit is key. “Write what you know” means using your experiences, especially internal, to inform your work. But it also means writing what you know of the history, factually and accurately. Without being informed by what you know in the present. That is a challenge. Writing about terrorism in the 19th century without being informed by a 21st century context is incredibly difficult. As is writing about the concept of “free love” in the late-20th century versus the late-19th. But it has to be done, otherwise the author risks distorting the very period they’re trying to capture.
Maybe it’s different for every writer of historical fiction, although based on talks I’ve been to and interviews I’ve read, it seems pretty much across the board: you do your research as a historian, and then fill in the blanks as a novelist…using the research you gathered as a historian. Otherwise, you risk anachronisms, misinformation, and/or wish-fulfillment. It’s a balance, one that is both obnoxious and challenging, but it does not give authors the right to wantonly alter the character of a real figure, whatever the motivation. If you’re trying to capture the essence of things that happened, then surely it’s your job to record them *as* they happened? Otherwise, you lose all validity. If it hadn’t been so heavy-handed, it might be readable as a means of giving some variation to the movement and depth and shading to Perovskaya’s character…although given her convictions and her actions, and those of her comrades, I’m not sure altering either was necessary. It sort of read as several hundred pages of “I think Sofia Perovskaya was an ugly bitch: here’s why my hot, young female revolutionary who conveniently spends a good portion of the novel nude is way better.”
Alright, mister, put it away. We’re not impressed.
Not sure why Matador willingly published this novel, but I suppose that means there’s hope for anyone. And it’s given me even greater incentive to ensure that my novel is not only written in a way which is engaging and artful, but true to the characters and the eras which inspired it. From the beginning I have considered my primary goal not to be publication but to be ensuring that these women are recognized for their collective accomplishments and remembered for their individual deeds and personalities. My novel is written with this, with them, in mind.
Alas, the same cannot be said of Saturn’s Daughters.
On October 14th I’ll be presenting on female friendship in the Russian Revolution at the FiLiA feminism conference in London (October 14-15)! I will also be reading a short excerpt from my novel inspired by these radical women.
It is an honor to be approached, and the two-day symposium promises lots of incredible learning and networking opportunities for all.
Tickets and panel info will be available September 1. I’ll post more information as it comes in, but do check the charity’s site periodically for updates. https://filia.org.uk/timetable-2/
*For the full article, see Litterae Mentis out in September.
In honor of the true spirit of Mother’s Day, here’s part of an article on motherhood in the Russian revolutionary underground.
Motherhood is never easy; the struggle is that much greater whilst simultaneously trying to overthrow an all-pervasive, centuries-old system of government. Revolutionary women, often neglected by history, are stereotyped as divorced from personal concerns. This view is both limited and inaccurate. The mainstream narrative of the Russian Revolution, whose centenary began in March, suffers from this misconception. When their personal lives are remembered, it is usually their sexual relationships with men, while the deep tenderness of motherhood is ignored despite its reciprocal influence on revolutionary activity. Motherhood is largely missing from women’s memoirs; it was regarded as less worthy than political achievement, and the subject was often painful. Their love for their children compounded by loss made them unwilling to dwell in their recollections, and their determination to be seen as worthwhile revolutionaries meant they avoided the less respected subject of parenthood. The threat of separation was constant. These women had to decide how best to balance their roles as revolutionaries and mothers, or whether balance was possible. Inevitably, absence permeated these relationships. As Vera Broido noted in her memoirs, “Mother was a good and loving mother when she was there… Most of the time she simply was not there, nor was Father” (27-28DR). Party affiliation made no difference: Gesia Gelfman, Anna Yakimova, and Olga Liubatovich (People’s Will), Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand (Bolshevik), Ekaterina Breshkovskaya (Socialist Revolutionary), and Eva Broido (Menshevik) all faced combinations of such challenges, whether their children were taken away, given up, or kept alongside them. The absence of love, real or perceived, irrevocably shapes their lives.
The People’s Will was one of Russia’s earliest terrorist organizations. Begun in the late-1870s, its primary aim was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and the overthrow of the autocratic system, to be replaced by a socialist order for the people. A number of women joined, taking active part in planning attacks, building bombs, distributing leaflets, and managing safe-houses. This group contained illustrious figures like Sofia Perovskaya, first woman hanged in Russia for a political crime, and Vera Figner, who took over Perovskaya’s leadership role and was incarcerated in the Schlusselberg Fortress for two decades. Also members were Gesia Gelfman, Anna Yakimova, and Olga Liubatovich. These women, in their twenties and dedicated to the cause, all became mothers. They also lost their children as a direct result of their political work.
Gelfman and Yakimova, gave birth in prison, in almost unbearable conditions. Tsarist prisons were renowned for inhumane treatment of prisoners, from the conditions of cells to vermin to corporal punishment. Gelfman and Yakimova were both arrested after the successful assassination of the tsar on March 1, 1881; Gelfman, and her comrade Sablin, had operated a safe-house for members of the People’s Will to meet and plan and hide, while Yakimova had been largely responsible, along with her comrade Isaev, for building the bombs which would kill the tsar. Both women were condemned to death, but due to their pregnancy were, unlike Perovskaya, spared the noose. Gelfman’s story is recalled by her fellow terrorist Olga Liubatovich:
At the hands of the authorities, the terrible act of childbirth became a case of torturer unprecedented in human history. For the delivery, they transferred her to the House of Detention. They gave her a fairly large cell, but in it they posted round-the-clock sentries – a device that had driven other women, women who weren’t pregnant, insane. […] [B]ut Gesia didn’t go mad – her constitution was too strong. The child was born live, and she was even able to nurse it. Under Russian law, Gesia’s rights as a mother were protected, even though she as a convict; no one could take her baby away. But…one night shortly after the child was born, the authorities came in and took her away… In the morning, they brought her to a foundling home, where they abandoned her without taking a receipt or having her tagged – this despite the fact that many people (myself included) had offered to raise the child. The mother could not endure this final blow, and she soon died. (186-7FS)
Gesia herself died in her cell less than a week later (277FD), from strain or medical complications, likely both. She had run away from home rather than endure an arranged marriage, trained as a midwife, been imprisoned, managed the domestic necessities of the People’s Will, and, at the time of her arrest, watched her comrade Sablin (the father of her child) commit suicide rather than face arrest. Liubatovich’s estimation of her strong constitution almost seems an understatement in light of all she withstood; and although it is impossible to speculate how Gelfman envisioned her revolutionary life would progress after the birth of her baby, it is clear that the stress of the pregnancy, birth, and separation in such conditions did the greatest damage of all.
Yakimova had been a revolutionary for ten years by the time she became a mother. She joined the People’s Will and worked alongside the bomb-maker Isaev; when he injured himself too badly to work, she took over. They often posed as husband and wife to fool the authorities, and prolonged periods in close proximity produced an intimacy which nullified the deception. Yakimova was pregnant by him at the time of her arrest in 1882. Instead of hanging she was sent to Trubetskoy Dungeon where, like Gelfman, she was kept in an underground cell riddled with damp, “where it was almost completely dark and the mildewed walls ran with water; the floors were full of deep holes through which rats swarmed” (202 AT). Her son was born in these unbearable conditions. Unlike Gelfman, Yakimova was allowed to keep her baby which gave rise to its own set of problems, “watching over him night and day to protect him from rats, trying to warm him with her breath and watching him slowly die as she ran out of milk” (278FD).
Inadequate care for the mother impacted the infant as well; poorly fed herself, it was impossible to properly feed her baby, and the unsanitary conditions spelled certain death for him. When, in 1883, she was transferred to the Kara prison mines for hard labor, Yakimova knew it would be impossible to keep him with her. The journey north, on foot and by sledge, took two years; he would never survive. Revolutionaries in Russia often received something like celebrity status, garnering admiring crowds as their notoriety spread. Such a crowd was present the day of Yakimova’s transfer. Knowing it was her son’s only chance, she “gave him over to some well-wishers who had come out to greet the prisoners with messages of support and tears of sympathy” (278FD). She never saw him again. Whilst at Kara she met Ekaterina Breshkovskaya, a Socialist Revoutionary who had already been in exile nearly a decade. She had similarly given her son to relatives. The decision left her “torn into a thousand pieces”, but she felt the decision a necessary evil.
The conflict between my love for the child and my love for the revolution…robbed me of many a night’s sleep. I knew that I could not be a mother and still be a revolutionist. Those were not two tasks to which it was possible to give a divided attention. Either the one or the other must absorb one’s whole being, one’s entire devotion. (40CB)
No doubt Breshkovskaya provided Yakimova consolation as well as solidarity. It was easier to bear the absence of children alongside women with similar burdens, for the same cause, without judgement.
Olga Liubatovich was sixteen when she left home. Russian women weren’t permitted to pursue higher education, and her desire to be a doctor meant she’d need to leave the country to take on the necessary training. Zurich was a hotspot both for women’s education and revolutionary activity; many of the women who took up the socialist cause in the 1870s and 1880s met there whilst studying science and medicine. Liubatovich joined such a circle, and returned to Russia a revolutionary. She joined Land and Liberty, but when the party split into factions three years later she joined its terrorist wing, the People’s Will. One of her comrades was Nikolay Morozov, a founder of Land and Liberty and ardent terrorist.
Her memoirs are a glimpse into the dynamics and philosophy of the underground at the time but deliberately obfuscate personal matters. She describes her first meeting with and impressions of Morozov, their alignment with People’s Will, and mutual disillusionment with the movement’s authoritarian turn. Both she and Morozov left for Geneva, and she records little of their time there until he returned to Russia to distribute his pamphlet Terrorist Struggle and was promptly arrested.
I nearly collapsed from grief. […] I wasn’t sufficiently careful when I walked into my room, and I woke up my baby daughter. Her crying finally brought me to my senses, and I calmed down and fed her. But what venom I must have given her along with the milk from my breast, when I would rather have been holding someone else! (181FS)
These are the first indications that her feelings for Morozov were deeper than friendship, and the first, surprisingly casual, mention of the child he fathered. Yet as much as Liuboatovich tried to keep her memoir focused on her work and the movement, the depth of her love for them both made this impossible.
With Morozov in prison, Liubatovich returned to Russia to liberate him. Sergei Kravchinsky, famous radical and author, attempted to dissuade her, but Liubatovich was adamant. “Sergei pointed to the baby, as if that would clinch things. ‘It makes no difference, even now I can’t feed her. I’ll leave her with you and your wife in the meanwhile, and we’ll decide what’s best for her later. I hope to be back soon.’ Sergei made no more objections.” (182FS) Liubatovich had never been anything but strong-willed. Kravchinski made arrangements and Liubatovich’s was left alone to say goodbye to her daughter. “Her face, pink from sleep, was peaceful and filled with the beauty of childhood. […] Not daring to kiss her lest I wake her up, I quietly walked out of the room. I thought I’d be back; I didn’t know, didn’t want to believe that I was seeing my little girl for the last time. My heart was numb with grief.” (182-183FS)
When she recovered and crossed the border, driven by concern for Morozov, Liubatovich went to see her father to draw from her funds.
When Father learned that I had a child and that I’d left her abroad, he became extremely upset. An intelligent and well-educated man, he naturally understood…that a child born of a mother living underground couldn’t be legitimate, and he suffered, both for my sake and for the child’s, suffered from my grief and from the impossibility of helping me. […] Now I understood…that I had to bear a double burden in life – the heavy burden of a human being and the burden of a woman as well… (193FS)
Liubatovich follows Breshkovskaya’s stance to its conclusion: women’s struggles were rooted in the social structuring of their biological function as child-bearers into carers, barring them from work by necessitating tremendous emotional sacrifice.
The blows kept coming: soon a telegram arrived from Kravchinsky to say Liubatovich’s daughter was dead, a victim of the meningitis epidemic sweeping Europe. “I sat over [the] telegram for hours on end before it fully registered on me that my daughter was dead. I didn’t cry; I was numb from grief. For some time thereafter…the sweet, happy faces of small children tore at my heart, reminding me of my own child.” (196FS) Her grief made her careless, as she struggled to read people and assess her surroundings. Morozov was moved to a new prison, the trail fell cold, and Liubatovich was arrested and exiled. We know little of her life after that. Like Breshkovskaya, Liubatovich felt children were not the business of revolutionaries. “Yes, it’s a sin for revolutionaries to start a family. Men and women both must stand alone, like soldiers under a hail of bullets. But in your youth, you somehow forget that revolutionaries’ lives are measured not in years, but in days and hours.” (196FS) Liubatovich, always vague when it came to personal matters, never explained just what her sin was. Loving, getting close to others, thus creating risk, pain, and distraction from the revolution? Or selfishness, perhaps, to have wanted a family, or have tried to stretch her love – for Morozov, daughter, and revolution – too thin.
Alexandra Kollontai is among the most famous of Russia’s revolutionary women. She spent decades agitating, writing books and pamphlets, before earning a position in the Bolshevik cabinet and then as Soviet ambassador, one of the first female ambassadors in history. Like so many women of the Russian revolutionary movement, Kollontai came from a bourgeois background; she married a factory inspector, and gave birth to a son, Misha. She loved her boy, minded him herself rather than passing him off to a nanny as so many of her peers did, but grew dissatisfied with the limitations put on herself. “Motherhood,” she said, “was never the kernel of my existence.” (11AK) Kollontai wrote fiction, read widely, and was increasingly politically engaged; occupying herself solely with house and home was not an option. “I…loved my husband, but the happy life of a housewife and spouse became for me a ‘cage.’ More and more my sympathies…turned to the revolutionary working class of Russia. […] I could not lead a happy, peaceful life when the working population was so terribly enslaved. I simply had to join this movement.” (11AK) She left her husband but kept her son, only dabbling in the underground lest her activities endanger him. Kollontai was trying to live two lives, and struggling to make a success of either. By 1903, she accepted that Misha had to live with his father.
Now I had the opportunity to devote myself completely to my aims, to the Russian revolutionary movement and to the working-class movement of the whole world. Love, marriage, family, all were secondary, transient matters. They were there, they intertwine with my life over and over again. But…immediately it transgressed a certain limit in relation to my feminine proneness to make sacrifice, rebellion flared in me anew. I had to go away…otherwise (this was a subconscious feeling in me) I would have exposed myself to the danger of losing my selfhood. (11-13AK)
She was anxious to keep Misha away from politics and the dangers her own choices had put upon her, even diminishing his presence in her memoirs not only to emphasize her priorities but to protect him from the retribution of Stalin. She was largely successful in these efforts.
Yet despite Kollontai’s physical absence, Misha’s relationship with her was remarkably close, even during her years underground and in European exile. They visited one another, wrote letters constantly, and she remained a supportive and loving figure. She kept up with his education and his needs, writing in 1909, “It’s unbearable not seeing you. These last months I’ve been living a life of such heightened intensity. […] Yet all I want is to be at home with you…” (159CP) She never fully reconciled herself to her decision to give Misha up, though she often took breaks from writing or speaking tours to holiday with him. They were in Germany when war was declared in 1914, and arrested together (Russians being classed as enemy aliens, though Kollontai’s status as exiled revolutionary worked in their favor). Kollontai had been a Menshevik, but her militant anti-war stance led her to join the Bolsheviks; one wonders whether, in addition to her recognizing the political, economic, and social detriment of the war, her dread that Misha might enlist or be conscripted had anything to do with her pacifism. “This week I saw what a strong, sensitive, thoughtful person he is…” she wrote the following year. “Life is so hard for poor Misha, he is burdened with so many adult worries I should have taken responsibility for…” (210CP) Her guilt was constant, but she could compartmentalize it, aided by her shrewd self-knowledge. Work engaged her more than domesticity. Before the October Revolution gave the Bolsheviks legitimacy, Kollontai fled to Moscow, working diligently and writing frequently to Misha to ensure he was safe in the capital rocked by revolutions.
Darling…I can’t tell you how much I miss you and long to talk to you. I wanted to take a few days off to dash to Petrograd and visit you, but as soon as I got back to Moscow I was inundated with work for the women’s congress. It’s the same old story. My heart longs for you, but work holds me back. And so I must button myself up tight and not let my emotions get in the way. (322CP)
Her choice of words reveals her dilemma – when motherhood had been her primary responsibility, it held her back from the work she loved, and yet when she longed to take on responsibility for Misha, work kept her from doing so.
Kollontai’s global influence was an asset to him, helping him and his wife find work in lean times. Nevertheless, she worried. In the 1920s her position in the Bolshevik government became tenuous due to her support for the Worker’s Opposition, which protested Lenin’s more extreme dictations. As usual, her fear was not for herself, but for Misha. Yet Misha was always sympathetic. “You know what she’s like. She won’t let anyone tell her what to do. Work is the most important thing for her.” (440CP) More so than her own health; when she suffered a stroke in 1944 Misha was her carer, guaranteeing she did not overwork herself – much to Kollontai’s chagrin. By the 1950s Kollontai and her son’s family had settled in Moscow. She was not well enough to carry on her ambassadorial career, but she continued writing, and minding her grandson when Misha was working. They spent summers at a rest home in the country to treat their heart problems, relax, and bond.
Kollontai’s great success in the party, not to mention her blind determination, helped balance all-consuming work and all-consuming motherhood with comparative ease. She recognized these dual impulses and the impossibility of their mutual fulfillment in the current society; her socialist ideals were built on a feminist foundation, to free herself and future generations of women from the pain of sacrificing either their professional or maternal instincts.
Even when revolutionary mothers kept their children with them, they were never guaranteed to keep them for long, nor to remain emotionally close to them.
Eva Broido was unhappily married with two children when she discovered socialism, and from that moment doing anything else was inconceivable. After her divorce she took care of her daughters Alexandra and Galina, aided by her mother Sara. Her re-marriage to Mark Broido, childhood friend and fellow revolutionary, on their way to exile resulted in two more children, Daniel and Vera. Broido, like Liubatovich, Breshkovskaya, and Kollontai, talks little of her children in her memoirs; given the pressures women faced in the revolutionary movement as well as society, it is unsurprising they kept their emotions about motherhood vague or hidden.
While Mark awaited trial for his role in a revolt, Broido sent her mother and newborn Daniel home. She was conflicted, even decades later, about her decision. “My mother’s departure set me free to help the comrades in prison, but unfortunately there was now nobody to look after my little girls of five and six when I was away at work.” (47EB) Sara’s presence had been a great help, minding the children while Broido worked; in truth it was Daniel’s departure which liberated her. But to say so would have been inconceivable, even for a woman as practical and forward-thinking as Broido. Her solution was unorthodox:
[O]n my way to work I took the little girls to the gate of the prison and handed them over to the sentry who…conducted them into the…wing of the prison [for participants in the revolt]. Needless to say various notes and letters were carefully hidden in the belts and hems of their dresses. The children…were terribly spoiled by the comrades. […] Many years later, in St. Petersburg, one of my little girls was asked once where she liked it best and without hesitation she answered, ‘in prison’. (47EB)
Such unusual scenarios played out in other families, in other eras, by women of other political parties. Barbara Evans Clements wrote of two other women, both Bolsheviks, who brought their children to prison with them, and “Elizaveta Drabkina…remembered a childhood friend who had spent so many years in jail with his mother that he was afraid to walk through an open doorway without permission”. (89BW) None of these children seem to have enjoyed the same treatment afforded to Broido’s.
Mark escaped from exile, and Broido made arrangements for herself shortly thereafter, first sending her daughters to her mother in Lithuania. Broido would spend months knowing nothing of her husband or children as she moved from Siberia to Germany, and eventually England. But Broido could not keep still, and her return to Russia appears to relegate her children to her mother’s care; for the next hundred pages of her memoir they disappear. Her next reference is a confession to having given up “all work in the party and in the labour movement…unable to resume for three whole years, from the end of 1907 to the end of 1910.” (138EB) While Broido cites Mark’s re-arrest, the more likely cause was the unmentioned birth of her final child, Vera, on October 10, 1907. Such reasoning was common. According to Anna Hillyar and Jane McDermid, “The existence of children generally becomes known from biographical accounts where female revolutionaries’ absence from active political life was explained ‘as family circumstances’.” (15RWR) Vera’s relationships with her parents were fractured by their revolutionary activities, although consistently very loving. Nevertheless, she identified their grandmother Sara as the most consistent figure in the children’s lives.
It was Sara who again took the elder children when Broido was imprisoned for her opposition to the war. She was sentenced to another Siberian exile, but granted a week to say goodbye to friends and gather her youngest children to accompany her. “She was so often away from home for long periods that I hardly noticed her absence,” Vera said,
and no-one explained what had happened to her. So it came as somewhat of a shock when one morning Mother reappeared unannounced. […] She quickly came in, closed the door behind her and drew me to her. We both sat down on her case and cried. I always cried when she reappeared though I don’t think that I cried or missed her very much in between. Each time she seemed a stranger at first and I felt a bit shy of her but a good cry seemed to bring us together again. (42VB)
Vera points out the cost of travel for the three of them, which Broido took upon herself, was exorbitant. But Broido’s real fears lay deeper.
I had not yet recovered from my sun- and air-less existence in prison and the emotional strain of parting from my relatives and friends. And I was worried about our future. […] When I returned to our compartment in the train and looked at my children, my courage failed me, my feet gave away under me and I fell into a dead faint. […] My children were terribly frightened. But I quickly recovered and I had myself under control from then on. (144EB)
Broido would never let her fear get the better of her, especially in front of her children. She spent all her time with them in exile; Vera records this period of their lives as “idyllic”. (52DR) And they were supported by other exiles like Ekaterina Breshkovskaya, now dubbed the “little grandmother of the revolution”, playing mother to younger comrades who turned to her for guidance.
In 1916 word came that Galina, Broido’s second child, was ill with meningitis. Trapped in Siberia, Broido applied for leave to attend to her, but was refused, and Galina died. Vera observed her mother’s reaction.
I never saw Mother so shattered. She did not speak of it, did not share her grief with me, went about her work as usual, and I could only guess at her thoughts and feelings. Did she blame herself for having chosen a way of life that often took her away from her children, even when they needed her most? I suspected that she did, though I also thought that nothing would make her leave her chosen path. I sympathized… I had acquired a romantic admiration for political exiles… I thought it right that Mother should be just like the best of them. (70-71 DR)
Vera’s absorption into the revolutionary ethos is common among the children of revolutionaries. Elizaveta Drabkina, daughter of revolutionary parents, followed in their footsteps, as did, to somewhat smaller degrees, the daughters of Inessa Armand. But for all the agony Broido suffered, she never records it in her memoirs. In fact, from her writings it’s difficult to know precisely how many children she had, and Galina’s death is never mentioned. She could no more record Galina’s death for herself than discuss it with Vera, and it is easy to understand her reluctance, particularly in light of the wedge it drove between her and her daughter Alexandra. Alexandra was consumed by bitterness, declared that she hated all Mensheviks, and befriended Bolsheviks out of spite; she even became engaged to one. (71DR) Interestingly, her revenge never consisted of abandoning the revolution; like Vera, she had absorbed her parents’ revolutionary ethos. But she avoided the family, particularly her mother, and angrily referred to Vera as “Mother’s pet”. No doubt Breshkovskaya’s presence was a great comfort to Broido; her son had no sympathy – in fact, open disdain – for her political work. Like Yakimova, Broido found solace in an empathetic comrade.
Among this family turmoil the revolution erupted, and the exiles returned home. The idyll was over. Alexandra reluctantly watched Daniel and Vera while their parents struggled to assert Menshevik dominance in Petrograd. After the Bolshevik coup in October the family was fragmented for years; Broido fled to Moscow with Vera, and Sara disappeared. By 1920, remaining in Russia was impossible, and she took Vera across the border to reunite with Mark. This exile, a challenge for Broido, was a joy for Vera, who felt a part of a family for the first time.
I had Father all for myself and was not afraid that tomorrow or next week he would again disappear. […] My dark-haired, dark-eyed Mother was of quite a different make, dearly as I loved her. Of course I really knew neither of them very well and it was only years later that I came to understand them properly. (140-141DR)
But Broido knew no rest; like Kollontai (indeed, all of the women of the movement) it was simply not in her nature. She joined a Menshevik journal, and their home was soon the centre of an exiled Menshevik colony.
But domesticity could not hold her indefinitely. Broido worked as a dressmaker when Mark lost his job, and even opened a salon. By 1927, once its success was established, she handed control over to Vera. It was a final maternal act: having provided for her daughter’s future, she announced to a baffled Mark and Vera that she was returning to Russia. The Menshevik Delegation in Exile needed a representative to contact members in Russia. The job demanded someone with experience and authority and Broido was the ideal candidate. It was meant to take six weeks. She never came home. Broido was caught and spent three years in solitary confinement before being exiled to central Asia. She was able to send occasional letters, although they were severely censored. “While in Suzda’ she was allowed to receive just one visit, from [Alexandra]. The only detailed information we ever received about her life came from [Alexandra] after that visit.” (210DR) Given the previous difficulties between mother and daughter after Galina’s death, one wonders about their meeting, their conversation, and whether or not the gap was ever bridged. Broido was tried by a military tribunal and shot on September 14, 1941.
Inessa Armand’s reputation as Lenin’s mistress precedes her, though it is her least impressive accomplishment. She was a dedicated socialist from a young age, and a dedicated mother of five. It was her maternal instinct which first got her into real trouble. She had taken in a young student named Vanya; he helped with the rent, but was also a weapon-toting Socialist Revolutionary. Despite their difference in ideology, she couldn’t bear to set him adrift, but it was only a matter of time before the police came looking for him. Inna, Armand’s third child, recalled the scene clearly: “I was woken up that night by a sudden noise, and found police searching our room, turning everything upside-down, even the beds of us children. Mother stood nearby, absolutely calm. She smiled at me and made a sign not to cry.” (33MP) Vanya’s room was full of SR literature, but they found his revolver and ammunition in Armand’s room. She took responsibility and was arrested. Armand had known this was a possibility, warning the elder children beforehand: “Do not show you are scared and do not say anything. If necessary, look after the little ones”. (33MP) Inessa would not see her children given to strangers, at any cost. And to little Inna she had special instructions: ‘Don’t tell anyone I have been arrested.” (34MP) While this seems quite a demanding request of a six-year-old, she was more than capable, which might explain her closeness with her mother in the years before her death.
Such expectations of revolutionary children was not uncommon. Secrecy was the stock-in-trade of the radical movement, and if the children weren’t indoctrinated early they could undo valuable work and even risk their parents’ lives. In Clements’ book Bolshevik Women, we are treated to an anecdote from Elizaveta Drabkina about her own loose tongue. Feodosia Drabkina solved the problem by spreading hot mustard on her daughter’s tongue. “Thereafter she could silence her daughter up by simply looking at her sternly and saying, ‘If you don’t shut up, you’re going to get the mustard.’ This threat seems to have worked… ‘My poor Mama,’ Elizaveta wrote later, ‘I caused her so much grief, care, bother, and trouble.’” (89BW) Children seemed trapped between idolizing their parents, more so than usual due to the grand, secretive nature of their monumental work, and sensing their own potential from holding them back.
The difficulty of managing childcare and full-time work – revolutionary or otherwise –strengthened the feminist base of both Kollontai and Armand, particularly their calls for crèches and communal housing. Armand was significantly more torn than Kollontai about her conflicting roles; motherhood was not the centre of Kollontai’s life, but had been for Armand for several years, quite happily. She wrote to a friend that the “friction between personal and family interests and the interests of society…is one of the most serious problems facing the intelligentsia today.” (45-46MP) Upon her release she kept them with her in the capital but there was no more dangerous place for them, and it took her some time to realize that the arrangement could not continue. It was a moot point: Armand was arrested again. Elena Vlasova, friend and cellmate, said: “She missed them infinitely but she never spoke of them. But we knew that all the embroidery and knitting was destined for them”. (52MP) We see links with Broido in her refusal to speak of maternal pain, as if to voice it was to be defeated by it.
Parenting from a distance was a fact for nearly all revolutionary mothers at some point. Armand’s letters to her children from Siberia are tender, full of false cheer, laced throughout with concern for their physical and intellectual welfare. And always, her longing to be with them and see them grow well – and to avoid the pitfalls of her own life. “I dream about summer, when you can come here because the ship arrives then. […] I implore you, though, not to follow my example. Only in this. In all other ways, as is well known, I am perfection.” (65MP) She tried to be flippant, but couldn’t grasp two years without them, and hoped the authorities would let her move to another settlement so the children could join her. When Alexander was arrested and the authorities refused to resettle her, she knew completing her term in exile was impossible. She escaped from Siberia in 1908 and fled to Paris. And it was there that she met Lenin.
Much has been written of her relationship with Lenin, and about the possible ménage à trois between them and Lenin’s wife, Bolshevik Party secretary and lifelong socialist Nadezhda Krupskaya; to recount it here is superfluous. What is more curious even than their salacious personal dynamic is how Armand’s children were incorporated into their domestic arrangement. Safely abroad, they visited frequently, staying with her and often with Lenin and Krupskaya, who were affectionate toward them. Krupskaya in her memoirs recalled that they occupied a prominent, if not predominant, place in their mother’s thoughts. “She told us a great deal about her life and…children; she showed me their letters and in speaking about them she seemed to radiate warmth and ardour.” (104-105MP) When the children were not with her Armand wrote to them constantly, and she was separated from them increasingly often. She spent much of 1912 trying to arrange having them sent to her, but struggled to settle in any one place, largely due to the tempestuous nature of her affair with Lenin. It devastated her, but she accepted it as a necessary consequence of her nomadic life.
The following year Armand returned to Russia at Lenin’s behest with the impossible task of singlehandedly agitating for Bolshevik power in the Duma, delivering his edicts, and whipping his paper Pravda into shape. Unsurprisingly, she was imprisoned, but bailed out by the indulgent Alexander. She left immediately for Austria to reconvene with Lenin and Krupskaya; this time, she took her children with her. But the outbreak of war put a swift end to their joyous holiday (as Russia and Austria were now enemies), and she sent them home to avoid the trouble Kollontai’s son faced in Germany. They would be separated for three years, the longest they ever spent apart, and she missed them within the first week of their absence. “I went back [to our villa] with a sore heart. It was so empty and I was sad…not to hear your jolly voices and your laughing. I was sad to look at the things you left behind, sad to enter your rooms now so empty…” (125MP) Armand often said in letters to her children that their absence was difficult not only personally but professionally. She found it difficult to work when she was isolated.
It is worth noting a key difference between Kollontai and Armand, who are so often compared in their aims and viewpoints but were typically at quiet loggerheads over different methods and personalities. Kollontai’s work on feminist theory stemmed from her personal sense of being hemmed in by society’s expectations of women, particularly of her class; although her writing aimed to ease the domestic (including romantic and maternal) bonds of womanhood across the classes, it was instigated by her personal discomfort in the limited roles assigned to her. Armand’s work on the women question, however, came as a direct result of her daughter Inna’s questions about love, marriage, and sex. (127MP) As Armand replied to Inna, advising from a distance, she recognized the need and desire to address them to all young ladies asking the same questions. She had already synthesized her thoughts in letters; the next step was a pamphlet on the woman question. Armand would supply maternal advice to all the daughters of Russia.
With the revolution in February 1917 and the Bolshevik coup in October, Armand was busier than ever, including, in 1919, becoming director of the Zhenotdel, or women’s department. She had established the Zhenotdel with Kollontai, and there was a sense among certain circles that Armand’s leadership role was a direct result of Lenin’s continued affection for her; as it was, she was only in charge for a year. Overworked, suffering from strain, Lenin sent her on holiday to the Caucuses with her youngest child Andre. Armand was exhausted; she, like Kollontai, had become involved with Worker’s Opposition, who considered many of Lenin’s new policies damaging to the principles of their hard-won socialist revolution…yet she loved him still. The cognitive dissonance necessary to maintain these two conflicting pillars of her life nearly broke her. In her diary she recorded: “the only warm feelings I have left are for the children and V.I. [Lenin]. In all other respects, it’s as if my heart has died…I have no one apart from V. I. and my children”. (214MP) Work and Lenin are one and the same; only her children are spared the deadening of her emotions. As they fled from warring factions during the Civil War, her concerns shifted from politics to her youngest child, as if she sensed she was running out of time to care for him.
I’m only worried for Andrushka, my little son. In this respect I am weak – not like a Roman matron who could easily sacrifice her children in the interest of the republic. I could not. I am terribly worried about my children. I was never a coward for myself, but I’m a big coward when it concerns my children, especially Andrushka. […] We are still very far from the time when the personal interest and that of society will coincide. Now there is no personal life because all our time and effort is devoted to the common cause. Or maybe other people can find a bit of time and a little corner of happiness. I don’t know how to do it for myself. (215MP)
She had resumed musing where and whether the political and the private could meet. Shattered and unwell, she was free to voice the griefs and anxieties about her children which other women were so reluctant to admit. Armand, who struggled to stop working at the best of times, contracted cholera at a local committee meeting and died days later. For the rest of their lives, Lenin and Krupskaya looked after Armand’s children, which protected them from the political upheaval of the coming decades.
Women in the Russian revolutionary movement loved their children; such a statement is neither novel nor surprising. But to be a mother and a revolutionary required vastly disparate lifestyles, and the absence caused by one invariably hurt the other: either the work suffers, or the relationship between mother and child suffers. In a movement where women already struggled for acceptance (even among the Bolsheviks who, with the help of staunch feminists Kollontai and Armand, were the first to recognize the value of the galvanized woman as a revolutionary force), women with children faced extra challenges. Women’s personal lives are skewed toward sexual love, rather than the maternal connection. Yet in many ways their position as mothers is precisely what made them such key fighters in the movement: they sought to build a better world for the working class with room for women’s specific needs. Certainly today as feminist issues (which impact men and women alike) and reproductive healthcare are undermined, underfunded, and misunderstood, these women who were heralded as pioneers a century ago are still particularly relevant.
Breshkovsky, Catherine, The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution: Reminiscences and Letters of Catherine Breshkovsky, ed. by Alice Stone Blackwell (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1919)
Broido, Eva Memoirs of a Revolutionary, trans. and ed. by Vera Broido (London: Oxford University Press, 1967)
Broido, Vera, Apostles Into Terrorists: Women and the Revolutionary Movement in the Russia of Alexander II (London: Maurice Temple Smith, 1977)
Broido, Vera, Daughter of Revolution: A Russian Girlhood Rememebred (London: Constable, 1998)
Evans Clements, Barbara, Bolshevik Women (London: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar, the memoirs of five young anarchist women of the 1870’s, trans. and ed.by Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1975)
Hillyar, Anna and Jane McDermid, Revolutionary Women in Russia, 1880-1917: A Study in Collective Biography (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)
Kollontai, Alexandra, The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, trans. by Salvator Attansio, ed. by Iring Fetscher (New York, Schocken, 1975)
The women of Petrograd took to the streets on March 8, 1917 (February 23, Old Style), International Working Women’s Day, demanding bread and an end to the war; within a week, the Tsar had abdicated, ending 300 years of Romanov rule and many centuries more of Russian autocracy, and women had won the right to vote. It was the beginning of a long, bitter struggle, whose optimistic beginning was so at variance with its bloody conclusions. But it is worth remembering that the fight for peace, land, and bread – those fundamental human needs which would come to be a successful (if co-opted) slogan for the Bolsheviks – began with the women of the Russian capital translating their outrage into action.
Like women in the Britain and the US, World War I opened up a vast array of opportunities for Russian women to enter further into the world of work, including fields traditionally dominated by men. By 1917, women in Russia accounted for more than 47% of the labour force. The struggle, of course, was that now working women were fulfilling three full-time roles: as working women, covering for the missing male workers, and still carrying the full burden of domestic duties such as minding the children, keeping the house, balancing the books, and finding food. It was an impossible task, one repeated in industrial and agricultural centres alike. And as the tide turned at the front, while Russia’s casualties mounted and victories grew rare, as prices rose and goods became scarce, the mood of the Russian people, and particularly the women, began to turn sour, and, in the words of historians Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, “pushed the women to dissolve the already tenuous division between ‘economic’ and ‘political’ demands” (146). Women had been striking throughout 1916, protesting their working conditions, their pay, and their treatment by management. Thus, the events of March 8, 1917 did not spring from a void; it was the finale of one movement and the opening act of another.
The underground radical movement in Russia, manifested in myriad left-wing illegal political parties, had, thus far, largely failed to tap into the rich vein of feminine dissatisfaction. The Bolsheviks and the Inter-District Committee had gone furthest in this direction, with some women actively campaigning among working women, raising political consciousness and attempting to organize them along political lines. The war had been a turning point in the party’s efforts to recruit women, and it had been the women in the party who had recognized the opportunity it presented.
“This circle, which had been carrying out agitational work in factories [in the Vyborg district] where large numbers of women were employed, grasped that the depth of feeling would allow them to make the connection between the women’s traditional concern of the food supply and the destructive effects of the war… […] [A] brief appeal was issued, which stated simply that the women were no longer prepared to suffer in silence, but that their pent-up anger at war profiteering had become increasingly political as they realized that the small shopkeepers had not caused the war, and indeed that many of them were suffering too because of the collapse of the transport and distribution systems. Hence, the female Bolsheviks pointed to big business and the government that together they portrayed as a gang of robber and murderers.” (Midwives, 148)
Yet despite being the party of ardent feminists Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand, the Bolsheviks still failed to see the women’s concerns as valid. As Hillyar and McDermid point out:
“the issues which appealed to women workers, and around which revolutionaries agitated, were rarely acknowledged by them as political. Instead, they were seen as fundamentally material concerns, which could only draw women to the class struggle temporarily. To recruit the minority of politically conscious women workers to revolutionary organisations, their awareness had to be raised from such ‘bread and butter’ concerns to the higher plane of politics” (Revolutionary Women, 149-150).
Working women, as gentle but emotional and ill-educated creatures, weren’t considered worth the trouble of recruiting at this stage. Working women were about to prove their mettle in no uncertain terms.
In fact, several women, such as Bolshevik Maria Vydrina, were eager to make a display on Women’s Day. The party insisted that the workers weren’t intellectually prepared for any immediate action, and planned a demonstration for May Day; the women could wait until then. Vydrina, who had been a Bolshevik for five years, since the age of seventeen, disagreed, and helped organize the march in the city for International Working Women’s Day. And she was not alone. Anastasia Deviatkina had been a Bolshevik for 13 years, and she also stepped up to lead a demonstration that day.
Revolution was in the air.
J. Butler Wright, an American diplomat, noted the shifts taking place. “The Cossacks are again patrolling the city on account of threatened strikes – for the women are beginning to rebel at standing in bread lines from 5.00 A.M for shops that open at 10:00 A.M., and that in weather twenty-five degrees below zero.” One tsarist official informed his superiors at the end of January that it was women, “mothers of families, who are exhausted by the endless standing in line at the stores [are] a store of combustible material. One spark will be enough for a conflagration to blaze up.” Another American, photographer Donald Thompson, saw “dozens of machine-guns” had appeared on the roofs of Petrograd buildings during the night of February 22nd.
Nevertheless, the women persisted.
Two things happened simultaneously: in one part of town, as observed by Thompson and his colleague Florence Harper, a large crowd gathered at the Field of Mars, the drill ground and site of military memorials; in the Vyborg district, women textile workers downed tools and left their factories, taking to the streets.
The gathering crowd at Field of Mars, which governor of Petrograd A.P. Balk described as “ladies from society, lots more peasant women, student girls and, compared with the earlier demonstrations, not many workers”, was a planned demonstration for International Working Women’s Day. Historian Helen Rappaport described the scene: “Although some carried banners with traditional suffrage slogans, such as ‘Hail, women fighters for freedom’ and ‘A place for women in the Constituent Assembly’, others bore improvised placards referring to the food crisis ‘Increase rations for soldiers’ families’, or even more openly revolutionary calls for an end to the war – and the monarchy” (49). The striking women of the factories were calling for similar demands across the river: “Down with the war! Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!”
Field of Mars: Thompson and Harper watch as several men and women are hoisted onto the shoulders of their comrades, shouting, ‘Let’s stop talking and act.’ Some of the women began signing the Marseillaise, that song of the French Revolution which had embedded itself in the heart of socialists the world over. “It was a queer Russian version that one couldn’t quite recognize at first,” said Florence Harper. “I have heard the ‘Marseillaise’ sung many times, but that day for the first time I heard it sung as it should be. [T]he people there were the same classes and were singing it for the same reason as the French who first sang it over a hundred years ago.”
Vyborg district: women in the streets call for reinforcements, and refuse to be ignored. They called upon other women, and men, to join them. They threw snowballs, sticks, and stones at windows, calling for solidarity and action. I.M. Gordienko, a worker at the Nobel factory and a Bolshevik, recalled: “Masses of militant women workers flooded the narrow street. Those who noticed us began to wave their hands and shouted, ‘Come on out! Down your tools!’ Snowballs were thrown through windows. We decided to join the demonstration. […] The women workers greeted the Nobel’s workers with shouts of ‘Hooray!’” And the men did join them, from factories across Petrograd, everyone fed up with the war and the tsar, calling for an end to both. One woman was arrested after shouting at police: “You don’t have long to enjoy yourselves – you’ll soon be hanging by your necks!”
No mere bread riot, this.
Women of the February Revolution, carrying banners: “For a Raise in the Allotment of Soldiers, Defenders of Freedom and the People’s Peace” and “Feed the Children of the Defenders of the Motherland”
The women in the Vyborg district were ready to head into the city, but they faced opposition, first from their male comrades who said “it is not the business of babas [women]”, and then from police who closed the bridges in an effort to keep them from crossing. But it was still winter in Petrograd, and so they crossed the frozen Neva on foot. “In skirmishes with police and troops, some were killed, buried in common graves, their names unrecorded” (Midwives, 125). The women needed more bodies in their ranks, and more power on their side. So they turned their attention to the tram systems, and to the soldiers.
The war had depleted the stock of able-bodied men, and so women had largely taken over the running of the Petrograd tram system. And these women, as overworked, underpaid, and underfed as their counterparts in the textile factories, had had enough and were ready to take a stand. One, “who admitted that she feared the outcome of the demonstration…recalled that she shouted along with the rest ‘Down with the tsar!’” She did not know what would replace the tsar, but she knew the time had come. Another tram conductor, Alexandra Rodionova, recalled her excitement: “I yelled ‘Down with the tsar!’ and it seemed to me that I had lost touch with solid ground and flew in giddy uncertainty. Yes, I had participated in many strikes and demonstrations. But this had happened secretly; I had never taken a clear political position. And suddenly, all at once, the unknown future became real.” When the conductors had joined the crowd, the women took to destroying the trams to be used as barricades against the police, forcing them to stop, evacuating passengers, throwing control handles into the snow and tipping the cars ‘until the blocked cars extended all the way along the Sadovaya to the Nevsky Prospekt’, barricading themselves against the police and troops which would be sent to disperse them. And the passengers, including one of wounded soldiers and nurses, joined in, singing the Marseillaise along with the crowd.
Harper and Thompson continued watching the crowd, now about 90,000 strong, albeit from a safe distance. “The singing by this time had become a deep roar,” according to Thompson, “terrifying, but at the same time fascinating.”
Winning over the soldiers was the next step, and one which was made surprisingly easy by the groundwork done by revolutionaries, especially women, and by the war itself. Many of the men stationed in the capital had come from the countryside as reserves to bolster the dwindling wartime supply; many of the factory women had also come from the countryside, seeking higher pay or war work. Their shared background worked in the women’s favor, for they were able to convince the men not to shoot at their own folk. The working women showed the soldiers that their struggles were mutual ones. Over the course of the week, allegiances began to shift.
“Zhenia Egorova, secretary for the Bolshevik Party in the Vyborg district, agitated among the soldiers, appealing to them to disobey orders to shoot down the demonstrators. The women tried to separate the men from their officers [who] dismissed the women with the insulting term ‘baba’ (which might be translated as ‘old hag’ in this context), but the women refused to give way, and insisted that the be seen as human beings with legitimate concerns for their brothers, fathers and sons serving at the front. Much to the women’s initial amazement, the Cossacks listened to them and refused to obey orders to fire, lowering their rifles instead and lading their horses away from the crowds.” (Midwives, 153-154)
In Petrograd, Zhenya Egorova (born Ella Lepin) distributed leaflets and organized meetings of soldiers within their barracks. (At age 25, she had been a Bolshevik for six years and had already spent a year in Siberia.) Even in Moscow, as things gained momentum, Maria Kostelovskaya, another Bolshevik, assembled twenty-five soldiers with whom she occupied a printing house. There was no underestimating the strategic power of a sympathetic army. And the women had ensured the support was on their side. “On the eve of International Women’s Day, armed soldiers stood outside the depots; by the end of 23 February, they had joined the workers inside” (Midwives, 152).
Meanwhile, in the enclaves of the revolutionary underground, there was chaos and confusion. Their dismissal of women as agents of political change meant they had neither expected the women to rise up so swiftly, coherently, or successfully. They were now left chasing their tails, trying desperately to figure out how to capitalize on an event they had neither the foresight to prepare for by a demographic they now had to begrudgingly respect.
As night fell the crowds dispersed, driven indoors by the cold, but ready now to prepare for the trials ahead. There were skirmishes along the way; bakeries and grocery stores were broken into and looted in a desperate search for bread, and the police, rapidly losing their authority, clashed with protesters several more times before the night was over. But the people of Petrograd, and soon much of Russia, led by the women, had had their baptism of fire, and were galvanized by it. In the words of McDermid and Hillyar,
“Thus women workers and housewives, who were not considered politically conscious enough to be able to lead or organize themselves without male help and guidance, had brought the city’s factories and essential services to a standstill and sown confusion in the military garrison. Within three days, there was a general strike, the army had mutinied and gone over to the revolution and tsarism had collapsed.” (154)
There is much to be said of the aftermath, of course, and it is nearly impossible to analyze the February Revolution objectively in the twenty-first century. But the February Revolution is an enduring reminder of the power of masses of mobilized women, a lesson which is as prescient today as then, one hundred years on. If there is change we want, on local, national, or global levels, then we must act. And as the women of Petrograd showed, solidarity is key.
Happy International Women’s Day. Let’s get to work.
Sofia Lvovna Perovskaya (September 13, 1853-April 3, 1881) was always conspicuous by her difference. In a wealthy family, notable for gregarious, sparkling banter and luxurious gowns, a reserved young lady in demure dress is bound to stand out. She was determined to amass knowledge, and plagued by the urge which infected so many Russian youths in that generation: to live a useful life. Of course, in a society whose investment in women’s intellectual advancement was notoriously poor, these were lofty goals indeed. The situation was hardly helped by her tyrannical father, who spent much of his time terrorizing her timid, tender mother, turning on Sofia when this target wore out. He was Governor-General of St. Petersburg, product of a family descended from royalty whose members occupied some of the most prestigious positions in the Empire; conservative and reactionary, he despised Sofia’s urge to learn, keeping her out of school and without a tutor for much of her youth. But arguably it was he more than anyone, with his tempers, his repression, and disdain, who inspired her to pursue education and rights for women, the protection of society’s most vulnerable members, and, eventually, revolution and terrorism.
In light of her father’s edict on school and tutors, Sofia took the onus of her education onto herself. She gorged herself on books, taking in whatever information she could wherever she could get it. At around this time there was a tremendous upsurge in the Russian women’s movements, and young ladies (typically of a respectable social standing) were opting to pursue education wherever it was available. Sofia was one of them; she joined the Alarchinsky University for Women in 1869, running away from home at just fifteen.
Her reading had convinced her, along with so many of the young intellectuals of her day, that socialism was the cure for the ailments of Russian autocracy; her urge for a useful life meant she now needed an outlet to put her beliefs into practice. Two years later, in the spring of 1871, she joined a book group, binding up libraries for radicals and peasants with Lyubov Kornilova, Olga Shleysner, Alexandra Obodovskaya, and several others – this became the Chaikovsky Circle, an early outlier of seditious revolutionary groups. As Sergei Kravchinky, fellow Russian radical and author of “Undeground Russia: Revolutionary Profiles and Sketches from Life” points out in his assessment of Sofia: “[I]n Russia, everything that is done for the welfare of the country, and not for that of the Emperor, has to be done in secret.”
Always, her target and aim was the improvement of the lives of the people. Whether it was propagandizing among the youth, or the factory workers, or the peasants, or going “to the people” with others of her generation who took up magnanimous positions such as farm laborers, educators, or in Sofia’s case, nurses. She worked as a smallpox inoculator, in factories, and set up a home to educate workers; in the end, she received diplomas as both a teacher and a medical assistant (assistant only, despite her capability, on the grounds of being a woman). Throughout 1873 she maintained several safehouses for the socialist movement, so much of which was directed against Tsar Alexander II.
Then, in 1874, she was arrested with Alexandra and Lyubov Kornilova for undercover propagandizing among the workers, and was held in the Petropavlovskaya Fortress – notorious for its poor conditions, the tomb of myriad revolutionaries before her. Her position as a young woman of influential family meant she was allowed to await trial on her parents’ estate in Crimea, though only because the authorities had no evidence to hold her with. Unable to devote herself to her work for fear of compromising her comrades, and never one for idleness, she spent the next three years working as a doctor’s apprentice in Simbirsk Province, then attending a doctor’s apprentice course in Simferopol.
Her privileged position worked in her favor before the jury, as well. At the Trial of the 193, where the defendants were an assemblage of students, youths, and radicals accused of causing unrest in the provinces and spreading propaganda against the Empire and Tsar, she was acquitted on January 23, 1878 (the day before another radical woman, Vera Zasulich, shot General Trepov as a reprisal for his order to flog a political prisoner). Sofia, knowing the authorities were outraged by her acquittal and Zasulich’s crime, went underground to escape re-arrest. She spent a year exhaustively organizing armed escapes of convicted comrades, going to Kharkov for money and materials, but her efforts were generally unsuccessful – this compulsion to liberate her imprisoned comrades would be a recurring strand of her political and revolutionary life until her death.
At this time, she joined Land and Liberty, the radical group calling for a revolt among the peasants. She was arrested at her mother’s home in Crimea but managed to catch a train and escape en route to exile. When the party split into two factions over whether or not terrorism was a viable political tool, Sofia was left with a choice: Black Repartition, favoring rights for the peasants by means of propaganda, agitation, and strikes, or Narodnaya Volya (the People’s Will), who aimed to attack Russian autocracy at its source, Tsar Alexander II. After some persuading, she tentatively chose Narodnaya Volya, along with Tatiana Lebedeva, Anna Korba, Gesia Gelfman, Anna Yakimova, and Vera Figner, as well as a number of others.
Her work in the group was hectic and intense, plotting constantly to kill the tyrant figurehead and free the people. The first plan was to blow up the Tsar’s train. She posed as wife of comrade Lev Gartman and moved into a house near the Moscow railway line, helping dig the tunnel from the house to the tracks where they would place the explosives. Sofia twice protected the tunnel from police discovery; in case they were raided, it would be her responsibility to shoot at a bottle of nitroglycerine, thus blowing up the police, comrades, house, and herself. She faced death unafraid, but thought it prudent to use charm and wit to distract the police in their search, and keep the evidence better hidden. The work was getting increasingly dangerous, but their determination only grew hotter with each passing day.
At last, they were ready to set their plan in motion. On the night of November 19, 1880, Sofia and her comrades journeyed to the prearranged spot, just outside Moscow, and hid among the bushes alongside the railroad line. She peered at the tracks under cover of darkness, waiting in tense but patient silence for the Imperial train. Traditionally the Tsar rode in the second coach, and so as the train approached she let the first go; however, the Tsar had been in the first coach after all, and the explosion wound up killing servants and soldiers of the Emperor.
Devastated by their failure, and miserable at having killed innocent civilians (of the proletariat no less), the group made their weary way back to the city. Now she now joined Narodnaya Volya in an official capacity, having proven herself invaluable with her cool head and searing conviction. She was the first woman on the Administrative Committee and Executive Committee, taking a leading role alongside Andrei Zhelyabov in the planning and executing of their schemes. They planned to try again, determined this time to do it differently, and do it right. But success was never guaranteed, and their second attempt, this time to blow up the Kamenny Bridge in the capital as the Tsar passed over it, was equally ill-fated. The mission in February 1880 to blow up the Tsar in his dining room, planting an agent in the Winter Palace and stocking his room with dynamite, only resulted in the death of a handful of servants. Narodnaya Volya, desperate in light of their failures, agreed to suspend their campaign if the Tsar would issue the Russian people with a constitution. But the constitution would never grant freedom to the Russian people, and this period witnessed the birth of the Okhrana, the Russian secret police responsible for “internal security”, i.e. tasked with targeting and suppressing seditious groups of any persuasion. Met with repeated failure and hunted on all sides, spirits in Narodnaya Volya were low that winter.
Somewhere, through the flurry of producing propaganda literature, avoiding the clutches of the local gendarmes, and plotting and attempting to assassinate the Tsar, Sofia Perovskaya fell in love with Andrei Zhelyabov, her closest comrade. With his great height and exceptional beard, he looked slightly mismatched beside the diminutive, childlike Sofia; yet the meeting of the minds between them was extreme and inevitable. They each understood one another, their ambitions, their reasons, their mission, the struggles of life as an underground radical and as a terrorist; these were circumstances few others of their acquaintance could truly grasp. While many in the early years of Russian revolutionary work regarded personal relationships (read: romantic and sexual relations) between party members as a selfish distraction from their work, others, such as their comrade Lev Tikhomirov, saw such unions as a positive.
“It meant a great deal to him. He valued her intelligence and character, and as a colleague in the cause she was incomparable. Of course one can’t talk of happiness. There was constant anxiety – not for themselves but for each other – continual preoccupations, an increasing flood of work which meant that they could scarcely ever be alone, the certainty that sooner or later there was bound to come a tragic ending. And yet there were times, when work was going well, when they were able to forget for a while, and then it was a joy to see them, especially her. Sophia’s feelings were so overwhelming that in any but her it would have crowded out all thoughts of her work.”
The strength and depth of her feelings for Zhelyabov were in harmony with her political work, not conflict; she had passion enough for both.
Sophia Perovskaya and Andrei Zhelyabov
On the wings of love, the work flew on. For the next mission, Sofia posed as the wife of their comrade Nikolay Sablin in Odessa; their plan was to blow up a street the Tsar often passed through en route to Crimea. The revolutionaries found a shop and dug tunnel for mines with the help of Vera Figner. Once again, they miscalculated, and he went by sooner than anticipated. The Committee instructed them to wind down efforts with the mines, so they changed their target to Count Totleben, representative of the governor-general system (which had been introduced in spring of 1879 in six special regional commands as a response to revolutionary activity). Before they could come up with a safe, concise means of killing him, he was transferred out of Odessa. Disheartened, but not beaten, Sofia and Sablin left Odessa.
Now, in the early months of 1881, the third plan to kill the Tsar was drawn up to take place on the first of March. Having observed his movements, particularly his Sunday trips to the barracks, they mapped out his potential routes through the capital and decided to spring at the most likely point. On Malaya Sadova Street they once again set up a shop façade, filled with explosives, which they would set off when the Tsar passed by. But the terrorists had been thwarted one time too many, and decided to prepare a backup plan. They asked the Executive Committee how to proceed on March 1 if the Tsar did not go down Malaya Sadova Street as planned; the response was “Act in any case” and a contingency plan was drafted. Rather than commit themselves to one location with mines, nitroglycerine, and dynamite, they began building projectile shells which could be carried and thrown from any location. This is one of the earliest instances of projectile explosives, and without any previous experience the work was all the more dangerous; indeed, their principal bomb builder was injured on the job, leaving Anna Yakimova to finish constructing them on her own. But what they lacked in experience they made up for in conviction, and the bombs were completed.
Sofia was perhaps more anxious than any of them in the days and hours preceding the assassination attempt. Zhelyabov had been arrested on the night of February 27, and her fear for his safety was not tempered by fear that he would give them away; she trusted him implicitly. But it did mean she was now the leader of Narodnaya Volya in his stead, responsible for their most ambitious undertaking. She spent the night of February 28 in Vera Figner’s flat, resting for the next day at Figner’s insistence; the women were up and ready at 7am.
On March 1, 1881, Sofia brought the bombs from Vera Figner’s flat to Gesia Gelfman’s, then delivered them to the bomb-throwers whom she positioned along the Ekaterinsky Canal before she crossed to the opposite side, ready to alert them in code with a white handkerchief. Anna Yakimova was keeping watch, and when the Tsar did not pass the shop on Malaya Sadova Street, it meant that Sofia and her band of assassins were the last chance. She waved her handkerchief, and Nikolay Rysakov threw the first bomb. The damage was restricted to the horse and a few guards; against the advice of his entourage, the Tsar emerged from his carriage to inspect the damage and offer comfort. Rysakov, already apprehended shouted something, and, worried there were more revolutionaries in the swarming crowd, again the entourage begged the Tsar to return to the carriage and leave the scene. But it was too late. Ignacy Hryniewiecki ran forward, throwing another bomb; Ivan Emelyanov stood by, ready to throw a third should this comrade be unsuccessful. But Hryniewiecki was too close to miss, or to survive. The street was in chaos, blood and debris and body parts decorating a black circle of scorched earth. The Tsar, maimed and bleeding, was rushed in a sleigh back to the palace, but was no use. Narodnaya Volya had assassinated Tsar Alexander II.
The Executive Committee, still with Sofia at the helm, published a letter the following evening, agreeing to negotiate with the wounded government. “The inevitable alternatives are revolution or a voluntary transfer of power to the people. We turn to you as a citizen and a man of honour, and we demand: (i) amnesty for all political prisoners, (ii) the summoning of a representative assembly of the whole nation.”
It took until March 10th for the authorities to track down Sofia Perovskaya, the mastermind with bloody hands who had hidden with the surviving terrorists in Vera Figner’s flat, arresting her on the street with her comrade Nikolay Kibalchich. At the trial, Prosecutor Muraviev made a special note of Sofia’s involvement with particular shock:
“We can imagine a political conspiracy; we can imagine that this conspiracy uses the most cruel, amazing means; we can imagine that a woman should be part of this conspiracy. But that a woman should lead a conspiracy, that she should take on herself all the details of the murder, that she should with cynical coldness place the bomb-throwers, draw a plan and show them where to stand; that a woman should have become the life and soul of this conspiracy, should stand a few steps away from the place of the crime and admire the work of her own hands – any normal feelings of morality can have no understanding of such a role for women.”
For her part, Sofia testified to Gesia Gelfman’s non-involvement with the assassination (though only Gelfman’s pregnancy spared her the gallows, albeit for a darker fate). But she admitted to her role in the Moscow train bombing and the assassination in the capital, asking to be treated equally to her fellow conspirators; death was inevitable, and she didn’t want to be spared just punishment on account of being a woman even if her position as a woman of noble family meant she could appeal. In a letter sent from prison to her mother, she wrote:
“[M]y fate does not afflict me in the least, and I shall meet it with complete tranquility, for I have long expected it, and known that sooner or later it must come. And I assure you, dear mamma, that my fate is not such a very mournful one. I have lived as my convictions dictated, and it would have been impossible for me to have acted otherwise. I await my fate, therefore, with a tranquil conscience, whatever it may be.”
Sofia Perovskaya was sentenced to death. She was the first woman hanged in Russia for a political crime, on April 3, 1881.
Sofia Perovskaya, hanged for Tsaricide April 3, 1881
The wisdom of assassinating an Emperor whose nickname was “Tsar Liberator” has been debated ever since. Arguably Alexander II was among the least authoritarian Tsars of the modern age; certainly he was more liberal than the son who followed him, whose conservative outlook was warped to fanaticism after the murder of his father by revolutionaries. The abolition of serfdom, Russia’s feudal slave system, had been long anticipated, but the application was not as smooth as the theory. The system as it was constructed created more financial difficulty for the peasants, creating massive dissatisfaction. No matter what liberal reforms Alexander instituted over his nearly 30 year reign, be they military, judicial, or political, they never quite went far enough for the liberals or the people. It was a pattern that would repeat itself with his even unluckier grandson, Nicholas II, who only relinquished the smallest power, conceded even the most minor rights, with greatest reluctance, and paid the ultimate price for it.
As for Sofia, who dangled on the gallows alongside her lover Zhelyabov (along with Kibalchich, Rysakov and Mikhailov) with placards reading “Tsaricide” hanging from their necks, she became something of an ideal, a martyr for the Russian people, a heroine for generations of Russian revolutionary women after her. To work alongside the men as their equal, striking blows against an unjust system, and to face the consequences with stoicism and pride which was almost pleasure, she inspired fanatic devotion for those who followed her, men and women alike. Kravchinsky, in his “Sketches”, recalled of her:
“[S]he said, with her earnest look, ‘Let us go.’ Who could reply to her, ‘Not I?’ She went willingly, ‘happy,’ as she used to say.”
Note: Perovskaya became something of a muse after death, inspiring ballads, poems, operas, and paintings. The title and the following stanzas are from one such tribute.