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.