Mothers and Sons and Russian Literature *

By Smith, G. S. | Journal of European Studies, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Mothers and Sons and Russian Literature *

Smith, G. S., Journal of European Studies

Using basic information about the history of the Russian family to set up some elementary points of reference, the lecture examines the ways in which a series of eminent Russian male authors from the eighteenth century to the present day have represented in their fiction the relationship between mothers and their adult sons. They are found to have treated the mother figure in three main ways: elimination, idealization and demonization.

Keywords: Elizabeth Hill Memorial, mothers, Russian literature, sons


I am going to be discussing mothers and sons of different orders: some real, some fictional. They have in common the fact that they are native speakers of Russian. I explicitly disclaim any more general validity for my observations, despite the temptation I have felt to speculate about how and why certain stereotypes seem to cross national boundaries and others do not. I also make no attempt to present a narrative about the historical development of the mother-son relationship in Russia and its representations in various media; that may eventually be a subject for a much larger study. Instead, I want to focus impressionistically on some particular cases that over the years have drawn me to what I feel is a plausible general scenario for this topic.

Elizabeth Hill could, with some justification, be called the mother of all British professors of Russian. I am a stepson of hers at most, though. I was never formally taught by her, but instead attended another institution, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in the University of London, which sometimes defined itself by opposition to her and all she stood for. But, like everybody who ever met Liza, I shall never forget her. Indeed, I think about her often, and particularly in one context. On several occasions I had the bracing experience of being driven by her through the streets of London in the rush hour; and ever since, every time I see a scene in a film that takes place in a car where the driver manages to negotiate traffic while talking to the person in the front passenger seat without ever taking his (almost always his) eyes off that person--so that one gets more and more anxious and mentally pleads with the driver to keep his (her!) eyes on the road--I always think of Elizabeth Hill. Whether this experience has any broader resonance, perhaps as a symbolic enactment of what it has been like to be a university teacher of Russian in England during the last forty years, is a matter I shall not pursue.

This is the third lecture in this series, and there is a reason why I am particularly proud to have been invited to deliver it. Just over seventy years ago another series of memorial lectures was instituted in this university in honour of another woman who, among many other things, has a claim to have been the mother of Cambridge Russian: Jane Ellen Harrison (1860-1928). Like Elizabeth Hill, she had no biological sons, but she did have numerous sons in spirit. The first of the lectures in her honour was delivered by her mentor Gilbert Murray, and concerned her work in classical anthropology. The second, though, concerned her involvement with Russian, and was delivered at Newnham in 1929 by my hero D. S. Mirsky, the great literary critic who came to this country as an emigre in 1921 and then made the fatal decision to go back to Russia in 1932 (Mirsky, 1930; Smith, 2000). And it happened to be Mirsky who taught Elizabeth Hill as both an undergraduate and a graduate student; not here, but in that other institution in London, the one from which I started out. So today I have a strong sense of historical continuity.


Russian literature from its beginnings to the present day is largely, and in its conventionally canonic manifestations almost exclusively, the testimony of males to their experience. I say this notwithstanding my recognition of and sympathy for the huge effort that has been made by scholars in the last twenty years to work towards gender balance in the historiography of the subject (notably Heldt, 1987; Kelly, 1994; Ledkovsky et al. …

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