Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929

By Phillips, Laura L | Canadian Slavonic Papers, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929


Phillips, Laura L, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Eliot Borenstein. Men Without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. xiii, 346 pp. Notes. Works Cited. Index. $19.95, paper.

This creative new monograph is an insightful contribution to the emerging literature on masculinity and male social roles in Russia. By focusing on fictional works that most explicitly explored the workings of male communities in the 1920s, Borenstein concludes that revolutionary efforts to replace a "feminine" family with all-male social frameworks ultimately failed, at least in the literary realm. Despite individual protagonists' short-term successes and the differing visions of male societies presented in early Soviet fiction, the collective oeuvre of Isaak Babel, Yuri Olesha, and Andrei Platonov inexorably reveals a clear inability to substitute "masculine" affiliation for "feminine" filial relations and the family.

Although many works were set in the context of the Russian civil war, Borenstein maintains that Babel's Red Cavalry stands out in making "masculinity itself such a dominant and apparent theme" (p. 73). In Red Cavalry, the "fathers" are "dead, absent, or fated to die"; women appear as men's sexual partners, but male camaraderie is more meaningful (p. 77). Babel's novel thus concentrates on an exploration of fratriarchal relationships: the main protagonist, Kirill Lyutov, repeatedly attempts to earn acceptance within a community of men, in this case a community of Cossacks. Although he is sometimes temporarily successful, Lyutov fails to gain "permanent acceptance" in the Cossack community. As Borenstein argues, Red Cavalry thus exposes a "fundamental problem of masculine identity: the need to prove oneself a man ad infinitum" (p. 75).

In the work of Olesha, the fratriarchal longings of Babel's Lyutov give way to Kavalerov's unsuccessful attempts to find an appropriate father figure. Here, the "father-son" relationship is an important one, but mere biology will not do. Instead, the tie between "fathers" and "sons" is one of affiliation; men freely "choose each other, love each other, and establish a connection that needs neither mother nor wife" (p. 161). The family itself has not been destroyed in the new world, but the nature of the "family" has been transformed. Instead of a "feminine" realm of filiation, the revolution has produced "an all-male 'family' that is based on political choices" (p. 128). As male characters attempt to draw "feminine" tasks into the "masculine" sphere-by reorganizing the traditional kitchen, for example-the male world in Envy becomes increasingly "androgynous." A "feminine idol" remains, but "she" is now embodied in the machine-"woman recreated in man's image" (p. …

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