A History of Women's Writing in Russia

By Adele Marie Barker; Jehanne M. Gheith | Go to book overview

2
Sappho, Corinna, and Niobe: genres and
personae in Russian women's writing,
1760–1820
CATRIONA KELLY

Introduction: the cultural background

The westernization of Russian culture that began in earnest during the reign of Aleksei Mikhailovich (1645–1676) affected women's writing slowly. Up to the middle of the eighteenth century, the only genre of writing to which women made any significant contributions was the private letter (as had been the case in pre-Petrine times too). Most letters, as in previous generations, remained routine and ungrammatical communications of mundane content. Only in the late eighteenth century did the letter turn into something resembling an art form. The letters of Catherine II, or of Masha Protasova, niece and protégée of the poet Vasilii Zhukovskii, are just as “literary”, if not–in the second case, at least — as playful, as the more famous missives of the “Pushkin pleiad” two decades later. 1

But private correspondence, if still the main genre to which women contributed (in terms of numbers involved), was, from the 1750s, no longer the only, or indeed the most important, vehicle for their work. It was at this date that women began, at first hesitantly, to become involved in the creation of literatura, the new tradition of imaginative writing that had been implanted in Russia about a century earlier. One important factor that prompted their participation was the increased social and political prominence of women in the post-Petrine period. Introduced to a greater public role by Aleksei Mikhailovich, emancipated by proxy during the regency of Sophia, his successor, then forced by her brother Peter the Great to take their place alongside men in public assemblies, women had, after Peter's death, been thrust by the quirks of succession to the ultimate heights of autocratic power. Women in Russia, therefore, went in three generations from near-invisibility (though with the possibility

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