Women in Nineteenth-Century Russia: Lives and Culture

Article excerpt

Wendy Rosslyn and Alessandra Tosi, eds. Women in Nineteenth-Century Russia: Lives and Culture. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2012. viii, 249 pp. Index. Paper and electronic format. Free for download at .

This is a collection of essays by leading international scholars on a variety of subjects pertaining to women in the long nineteenth century (1800-1917), written from different disciplinary approaches (although with a strong historical bent). The essays range from examinations of urban and rural women, to women in the arts and literature, to violence against women. If there is a common thread to be discerned among the diverse topics addressed, it seems to be diversity itself-the scholarly treatment of nineteenth-century Russian women «oías a monolithic entity but rather as individuals and groups with a wide array of life experiences. Gender is not the only, and, in fact, not always the most significant, determinant: class, status, geography, time, and even different creative fields play important roles in providing further insight into the history of Russian women.

The introductory essay by Sibelan Forrester provides an overview of the articles, indicating the variety of scholarly approaches and methodologies used. Some are syntheses of previous historiography, focusing on bringing together the research of other scholars on a particular topic, while others present us with new research, including contextual analyses of new sources. Barbara Engel examines urban women in the last decades of the century as they came into contact with the influences of city life. Although Engel does not draw any broad conclusions, limiting her discussion to three individuals who defy generalizations as a result of their exceptionalism, the author discerns change over time even in this relatively short period, as women were assimilated into, and they themselves absorbed, urban culture. Most significantly, she sees an increasing development of sense of self (including self- entitlement) and the desire for increased freedom of choice and control over their lives among her subjects made possible by the transformations of modernity in the urban milieu. Peasant women are the subject of Christine Worobec's contribution (one of the few articles to discuss them, despite their majority among the population). Worobec also chooses three women to examine (through their letters to one another and to other family members) and similarly demonstrates what difference a mere decade could make in effecting significant change. She dispels the notion that transformations brought about by modernization and urbanization had no effect on peasant women. And like Engel, she eschews making broader conclusions based on her non-representative subjects (most notably in their literacy), arguing for more multifaceted depictions of peasant women and navigating away from the scholarly pitfall of assuming a singular "peasant culture" or "peasant world view." Vera Shevzov explores the way Russian Orthodox women conceptualized their relationships with the Virgin Mary through hagiographical literature. Her analysis is primarily textual, rather than contextual, but nonetheless relates the complexity of views of Mary and discerns how women were able to develop their views somewhat independently of the male-dominated institutionalized interpretations of the church, essentially making Mary their own.

The next four articles address women and the creative arts. Rosalind Blakesley discusses women in the visual arts, indicating that while they were not seen as part of the conventional canon of the art world at the turn of the nineteenth century, Russian female artists nonetheless contributed some important works, and, eventually, by the end of the long century, a number of women could be counted among the ranks of Russia's professional artists. …