Letter from Russia: Contemporary Women’s Prose

Context N°15

by Dmitry Golynko-Volfson

Until recently the phenomenon of Russian women’s prose had been unjustly overlooked by both professional writers’ circles and general readers. Even today the term “women’s prose” rarely appears within literary criticism, and Russian women’s books hardly ever appear in the curriculum of university courses. There are a number of reasons for these circumstances, both historical and cultural. To begin with, Russian prose—and culture as a whole—is still dependent on the utopian (later socialist) avant-garde, which turned out to be the most influential, revolutionary, and therefore repressive aesthetic movement of the twentieth century. The utopian program of the Russian avant-garde involved radical reformations, the complete destruction of the old model of existence, and erection of a new, man-made paradise on top of the old model’s shapeless remnants. The builders of this avant-garde utopian dream were of course male, imbued with a “masculine” will and strict adherence to socalled masculine reason. A woman in the avant-garde played a supportive, ancillary role. Often women and “womanly” traits were associated undesirably with the old regime, and major representatives of the Russian avant-garde such as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Kazimir Malevich ruthlessly professed the need to annihilate “the feminine” within the culture.

Thus, the historical avant-garde characterized itself by a masculine brutality and superhumanism. The nihilist association of avant-garde theories concerning “the woman” was surely not an emancipating revolt against the traditional religious culture; quite the contrary, this was the same destructive code toward the feminine practiced and maintained by traditional ecclesiastical thought. In his ethical treatise Opravdanie dobra [Vindication of the Good], philosopher Vladimir Soloviov (1853-1900) calls for a “victory” over gender by merging the individual willpowers, eradicating gender and, with it, childbirth. Likewise, misogyny in the works of Andrey Bely, Velimir Khlebnikov, and Vladimir Mayakovsky sometimes reaches disproportionate levels of hysterical aversion toward anything connected to women. Such avant-garde writers as Anna Radlova (1891-1949), Olga Forsh (1873-1961), and well-known philologist-formalist Lydia Ginzburg (1902-1990) were forced to avoid women’s issues altogether and focus on masculine issues such as revolt against habitual routine and construction of the new “experimental” reality. Thus the misogynistic politics of the avant-garde and its disgust toward the female character passed by inertia to the women writers—and within the contexts of social hierarchy, women’s prose was defectively categorized as “second-rate” literature. But in the 1990s, an epoch of democratization and socio-economic reforms, it was clear that this sort of discourse needed to change. The ascension of women’s prose as a genre seemed feasible only through the deconstruction of certain avant-garde ideologies, which are still—even today—relatively dominant in the Russian art world.

The first attempts at such an ascension in the nineties, strategically aimed to deconstruct the aesthetics of the avant-garde and legitimize women’s prose within the culture, were initiated by women writers who had already gained a reputation in Russia and were being published in the West, were well and widely translated, and had won notable prizes. Tatiana Tolstaya (b. 1951), for example, who in her dystopian novel Kys’ constructs a postapocalyptic Russian landscape in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, where instead of a boundless empire one is left in a parochial and crippled kingdom of mutants. In her satirizing style, Tolstaya ridicules the clichés of Russian historiosophy and imperial mythology by using the images of an inevitable cataclysm and magical transformation of Russia. Another example is Ludmila Petrushevskaya (b. 1938), whose plays and novels are filled with dark and hopeless imagery that serves as an extended metaphor for human existence in general—an infinite metaphysical desolation. Ludmila Ulitskaya’s (b. 1942) Kazus Kukotskovo [The Kukotsky Case], which won the Russian Booker in 2002, presents a family saga from several generations of Russian (and Soviet) scientists and biologists, whose endurance is ascribed to their survival strategies, their courage, their devotion to the concept of Truth, and to mystical forces at work in their romantic and family affairs.

An interesting point: When turning to elements such as dystopian fanaticism, prophetic intonation, and experimentation with national symbolism, Tolstaya emulates the devices that once were specifically attributed to masculine writing. The sinister treatment of reality in Petrushevskaya’s texts mimics the male notion of inert spatiality, which obstructs the discovery of the self. Similarly, Ulitskaya’s texts raise “masculine” questions about family values in relation to biological determinism and social institutions. In other words, the more prominent women writers from the eighties and nineties prefer to play the game by masculine rules, attempting to surpass male authors on their very own ideological territory. As a result, the majority of texts by Tolstaya, Petrushevskaya, and Ulitskaya do not necessarily define a genre of “women’s prose.”

Yet another reason why women’s literature wasn’t in great demand until recently is the lack of awareness about gender theories developed by feminist psychoanalysis or cyberfeminism. Unfortunately, and despite active gender research and studies (mainly in cultural metropolitan institutions) conducted in academic centers, the issues of feminism remain relatively unknown and unassimilated in Russia. Between 1960 and 1990, Russian literature had been constructing two archetypes of female character: on the one hand, the capricious beauty queen, the femme fatale, who was witty and well educated, but was induced (by her own or someone else’s will) to wear the mask of a fatalistic temptress. Such female characters appear, for example, on the pages of Andrei Bitov’s novel Pushkinskii dom [Pushkin House]—a prototype of Russian postmodernism. And on the other hand was the subservient mother of the family, slaving and caring for the household day and night, raising the children and humbly fetching the boots for her drunk husband. So-called “village prose” is flooded with such characters, who, in their descriptions, perpetuate the patriarchal values of Russian rural life. There really has not been much variety beyond these two archetypical images of women. Of course, an author isn’t required to be an expert on gender theories, but ideally the author, the reader, and especially the critic would be acquainted with at least some ideas—quite often these very theories serve as reference points regarding women’s social welfare.

Also, an instinctive prejudice that often detracts the Russian reader from picking up a book written by a woman is the belief that from its first pages the author will start narrating about bickering with her husband, laundering diapers, and standing in lines—domestic trivialities that surround and burden the reader in his or her everyday life. The post-Soviet reader, who often had to worry about the daily humdrum of procuring “a piece of bread” in the literal sense, wasn’t too eager to hear, yet again, about such domestic realities. Literature was expected to entertain in its daring and socially grotesque imagery. Alexandra Marinina (b. 1957) and Daria Dontsova (b. 1952), authors of the so-called “commercial wave,” whose novels circulate by the thousands, attempted to develop such imagery. In their works, ordinary domestic affairs were entwined with detective plots, extravagantly narrated, mimicking Hollywood thrillers and Russian cop serials. Eventually, these works all turned into a nightmarish phantasmagoria, with maniacs, serial killers, and psychopaths lurking in dark alleyways (quite often in cop uniforms or white lab-coats). Moreover, such phantasm became commonplace. It seems that the nineties reader was expecting to encounter the same concentration of violence from women’s prose as they found in criminal TV serials or tabloids.

With the growth in economic stability at the beginning of the twenty-first century and the rise of sentimentalist tendencies in Russian culture, more attention was given to women’s prose and its role in the culture, launching a heightened interest among readers and a more favorable attitude from awards committees. Contemporary literature was to express confessional and serious—somewhat universal—themes. Replacing the messianic rhetoric of the avant-garde and postmodern parodies, texts were now valued on the intensity and importance of emotional experience. This increased interest in literature in which the weight is on “pure emotion” was prevalent in women’s writings. And the older generation, whose memory was still engraved with recollections of women’s conditions during the communist era, along with younger authors in their thirties, began using new modes of writing in order to find new ways of constructing a woman’s identity. In the place of traditional images of women—the devoted wife, caring mother, and cantankerous lover—we are now offered new individualities. The most popular one is that of a stern businesswomen: she is earning as much if not more than her male colleagues, making her own decisions about herself and her family’s future, building a career, and pursuing risky initiatives. At the same time she is entrapped in her emotional dependency on her lover, which helps shape her idiosyncratic and unusual character. The inevitable fluctuations between her social success and unsettled love affair exemplify (according to many female authors) the contemporary woman’s social position.

In Marina Vishnevetskaya’s (b. 1955) Vyshel mesiats iz tumana [Came the Moon out of Mist] and Brys’, krokodil! [Get Lost, Crocodile!] the search for female identity is formulated as a drama in the genre of lyric parable. The heroines question what it means to “be a woman” in the contradicting societal ideologies of the post-Soviet epoch. The distorted implementation of the laws of capitalist consumption often does not coincide with the patriarchal model of the family, which, in turn, is discredited by cynical views of the Soviet citizen. According to Vishnevetskaya, the heroine can be “freed from the spell,” in other words reveal her essence, or “extinguish”—erase that which is overly incomprehensible. These metaphysical operations either unearth the woman’s essence, or turn her into an automaton. Notably, revealing the trapped female essence or vice versa, repressing it is carried out not so much by the external world, not by the man whom she chose as a lover or who chose her, but by the woman herself.

The problematics of female introspection reaches its climactic concentration in Vishnevetskaya’s Opyty [Experiences], which was included in her collection Brys’, krokodil!. These unhappy allegorical stories, told in the first person, depict subsidiary and “background” characters, marginal individuals belonging to various social and age groups of that epoch. The title of each novella in the book corresponds to the initials of the “narrator,” which usually remain undeciphered, and a hinting phrase about a unique experience, which she or he will be sharing with the reader. Structurally, each piece is reminiscent of a confessional monologue about a certain traumatic or healing encounter, which through the process of revelation—or overcoming of the self—construes the female identity in its completeness. Almost all of Vishnevetskaya’s descriptions of mundane experiences—grievance, hope, attraction, parting, monotony, etc. —can be summarized under one encompassing experience of “discovering the self.”

The most intense piece in this text, “A. K. C. (opyt lyubvi)” [The Experience of Love], was lauded by critics and received prestigious awards in 2003. A paralyzed woman, dying from cancer and placed in a sanatorium by her relatives, is taping the story of her meager and ordinary biography. She is just over forty, and her provincial childhood had passed during the gray and despondent dictatorship of (communist) party bureaucracy. She had moved to Moscow; studied in an institute; married a man with whom she wasn’t really in love; given birth to a baby in order to increase her living space; received a second degree in law after Perestroika; and begun working at a high-paying law firm, where she meets the love of her life—an investment banker. Of course, her love for him is unreciprocated, as he toys with her heart and then leaves her, quickly tiring of her infantilism and naïveté. One can count thousands of such trivial feminine fates in post-Soviet Russia. And it’s hard to give a single answer to whether these destinies are completely broken and shattered or, on the contrary, have obtained the solid qualities of a rock—unchanging under any circumstances.

Here Vishnevetskaya treats the experience of love as an extension of social inadequacy. In love, the heroine has to reject her prospects for career growth (by allowing her lover to pull a financial trick on the company where she works) and reject her familial duties and everything else that she has painstakingly worked for. By deciding to dedicate herself completely to the object of her love, she doesn’t even bother to question her partner’s motives—what does he really want from their affair? In Vishnevetskaya’s texts, as in traditional Russian literature, the masculine world of commercial success and desire for power is juxtaposed with the feminine world of empathy and gentleness. The issue of dramatization is that “bestial capitalism’s” triumph in the mid-nineties wasn’t capable of valuing emotions like compassion as a worthwhile strategy. And yet it’s the experience of love—recognizing an appalling inadequacy—that allows the heroine to know herself, giving her ordinary, at times even banal biography a certain meaning, as well as a religious dimension. Born into a country of national atheism and living her whole life in renunciation, the terminally ill heroine turns to orthodoxy. She is battling between religious piety or ecstasy and the remnants of pure “instinctual” attraction toward the object of her love. The final pages of the novella suggest that the “instinctual” component of the female character remains unconquered—thanks to which a woman gains herself and becomes capable of analyzing her own actions.

The association between the masculine gaze and the feminine image, which has been the basis of various literary schemes and feminist theories, is treated in a curious way in “V. D. A. (opyt neuchastia)” [The Experience of Not Partaking]. In an ironic, detached voice the narrator describes his interaction with women as “Japanese minimalism”—he neither touches nor speaks to them—just exchanges glances. By casting a meticulously terrorizing gaze that forces a woman to freeze in either awe or inexplicable horror, he pulls her into an unfair game, one that she has already lost. As a result of such voyeuristic romances several of his colleagues are forced to quit their jobs; meanwhile, a businesswoman whom he met at a billiards club dies from a car crash (perhaps a suicide or an accident). In a book by a male author, this type of discourse might suggest the character’s desire to see his own imagination reflected upon the woman (as an obedient and well-trained marionette). But Vishnevetskaya is implying the opposite: the most “candid” male view of women is the ability to see her as a pure enigma, the chemistry of which is incomprehensible to both sexes.

In Vishnevetskaya’s prose the sensitive and ineluctable experiences of separation and breakups appear as fundamental elements in constructing the female subjectivity. In “Y. X. B. (opyt inovo)” [The Experience of Other] and “J. A. U. (opyt ischeznovenia)” [The Experience of Disappearing], two completely dissimilar heroines—an old village woman, whose husband was killed years ago and who finds out that her sister’s children were conceived from him, and a young city girl who must reject her lover and whose mother’s clinical schizophrenia is a biological threat to her offspring—are going through an identical experience: the discovery of a certain void (or, psychoanalytically speaking, a trauma), which occurs at the moment of either affected or self-inflicted loss of a loved one. Moreover, the days and years that accumulate from this moment don’t ease the unwanted traumatic effects, but carve the very essence of the woman’s character. Such irreducible themes give Vishnevetskaya’s prose an edge and contemporaneity.

The black humor of “P. I. B. (opyt demonstratsii traura)” [The Experience of Demonstrating Grievance] definitely stands out from the uniformly lyric tone of the book, enriching its stylistic qualities. The grotesqueness of the story is rendered through the ridiculously difficult process of choosing a proper dress that will emphasize the heroine’s femininity and attractiveness. But she gets to wear her elegant outfits only while attending funerals—at first of her close relatives, then of Soviet chiefs, the general secretaries of the communist party. In the Russian traditionalist culture, dress code appears to be the most significant element of a woman’s symbolic and semiotic behavior. It symbolizes not only her social status but also the psychological particularities of her character. Clothes allow the woman to highlight her own individuality and difference—and at the same time remain confined within the parameters of ethics imposed by the society. It’s ironic, Vishnevetskaya points out, that the contemporary Russian woman dresses elegantly (in other words, recognizes her own particularities) only when grieving, thus completing the task of grievance demonstrated by Freud’s Trauerarbeit. Putting aside the overly hyperbolic parodies of this novella, its significance rests on the most important motif of female subjectivity, constructed not on rational explications of her fate, but on a tensely concentrated emotional experience.

Vishnevetskaya’s Opyty—based not only on my personal evaluation, but also readership success and awards—is one of the most persuasive and compelling instances in the arena of contemporary Russian women’s prose. However, other texts, oriented not as much toward this tradition as toward experimental innovation, are also worth looking at. The writers from the older generation instigated the investigation of paradigmatic changes in the social roles of women during the totalitarian Soviet and later liberal post-Soviet society. This is why their heroines belonged to heterogeneous and often conflicting social strata, ranging from the urban intelligentsia to quasi-literate peasantry. The younger generations, as a rule, endow their heroines with well-defined and stable social traits. Quite often the heroine is depicted as a native of the megalopolis, has an excellent education, a professional job, and the time and money for a multifaceted exploration of her identity. These writers reject the metanarrative form, gravitating more toward densely sketched texts. Their miniatures purposefully blur the lines between poesy and prose—short lyric stories that are stylistically reminiscent of the verse-libre. Such younger writers are engaged in re-visioning the legacies of both the modern and postmodern eras.

Highly popular among the Russian intelligentsia is the prose of expatriate Margarita Meklina (b. 1972), currently living in San Francisco. Her book Srazhenie pod Peterburgom [The Battle of St. Petersburg], which was included in the New Literary Review’s Soft Wave series edited by renowned critic Ilja Kukulin, received the 2003 Andrey Bely Award for its stylistic experimentalism and linguistic novelty. Meklina’s prose “inspects” the hidden elements of the female psyche, which is shrouded to the outsider. Her stories formulate a female psyche (often concealed from societal strictures) through the symbiotic layering of the discursive worlds of dreams, culture, memory, and the dead. The woman’s identity—which is unfixed and constantly changing—resembles the identity of an émigré: she is a stranger to both her native and adopted lands, regardless of its hospitality and comforts. The subjects of her prose, for example—a homosexual writer, a homeless gigolo who married a rich circus entertainer, Egyptian terrorists—are in essence symbols of phantomlike and fragile realities, observed through the eyes of a woman who is eternally unsure of her own identity and is trying to assert herself through each gesture or phrase. In Meklina’s texts, a surrealistic phantasmagoria reminiscent of Andre Breton is tinged with utter skepticism and textual interplay, drawn from the novels of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. Included in Srazhenie pod Peterburgom, the novel Izmena [Betrayal] is the heroine’s lyric confession as she goes back and forth between her old lover Vakhid and younger husband Aldo, accentuating the question of how women perceive physiology (of sexual desire). In the traditional culture, the latter is either silenced or carefully studied through masculine reasoning; in Meklina’s texts the emancipation of these very “physiological feelings” produce a more cultured outlook.

In her texts, Moscow-based Anastasia Gosteva (b. 1975) confronts the issue of female individuality from a different angle. Her novels Travel agnets [Travel Agnus Dei] and Priton prosvetlyonykh [The Den of the Enlightened] can be closely associated with the genre of journalistic travelogues. Gosteva offers a recognizable and almost universalized portrait of a contemporary woman: she is a successful professional, above middle-class, occupied only with herself. In Travel agnets the heroine takes off to India with an accidental traveler in search of unordinary encounters, where she ludicrously exchanges her laptop for Tibetan incenses, and during an episode of smoking hashish with locals tries to come to terms with her sense of self. Gosteva’s characters chase after miracles, authenticity, and mystical experiences, either through exotic travel adventures or drug use. But the knowledge of self comes through the “most simplistic” ways, through the magic of details of everyday life, or unforeseen turns in human relationships.

Other instances of such explorations can be found in the books Ochen’ spokoinyi rasskaz [Very Calm Story] by Olga Zondberg (b. 1972) and Ne mestnye [Non-Natives] by Linor Goralik (b. 1975). Zondberg’s laconic and unemotional narrative encapsulates descriptions of events that are unnoticeable and don’t require much attention (someone walking out of a multi-storied building; a couple meeting at the park; somebody at the café; someone doing something else—casual and common things). Together, these arabesques create a psychological mood of intuitions that will never become realized, an experience emblematic to the modern woman of a fast-paced city. If Zondberg’s style is controlled and at times dry, then Goralik definitely contrasts the latter quality with her refined and sarcastic tone. Her texts are reminiscent of aphorisms or fables (most effective is her fable about the two “lesbians,” the squirrel and the fox, who during their lovemaking long for “real” heterosexual feelings). The psychology of the female heroine, in Goralik’s short—often a half page—texts, dichotomously fluctuates between her reliance on positive and negative imagery, on enthusiasm and disillusionment.

It’s hard not to notice the influences of forms of Internet communication—for example, the well-known LiveJournal of Russian Net—on the literature of younger women. The cybertext substantially modernizes the stylistic elements of contemporary prose by introducing a conversational intonation, featuring a nonobligatory participation, prioritizing commentaries rather than the text itself, and addressing a small community within the network instead of heterogeneous audiences. The newest form of women’s writing is actively and critically turning to these cybertextual processes. In her book Alyonka-partizanka [Alyonka, the Partisan], Xenia Buksha (b. 1983-) from St. Petersburg uses the ideas of collaging from LiveJournal to her own advantage—but at this point it’s not clear how this principle of collectivism on the Internet will advance the progress of her individual ideologies as an author. A certain tendency observed in the women’s publishing field is the factor of age: priority is often given to younger and relatively unknown writers. The earlier mentioned Soft Wave series of the New Literary Review is set to discover the potential of the younger generation of women, less known to critics. These authors embark on risky formalistic experimentations, which receive instantaneous emotional (sensational) response. In some sense, today the emergence of each new voice who takes up on the issues of women’s prose is also a commercial event.

It would be fair to say that the phenomenon of Russian women’s prose at the beginning of the twenty-first century has been positioned on concrete grounds. In other words, the female voice has become distinguished and has gained an audience, and, after a decade of liberal-democratic reforms in Russia, women have the opportunity to be as successful in their intellectual and career goals as men, who previously sought in their female counterparts only a social stereotype.

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Translated from the Russian by Shushan Avagyan.

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Selected Untranslated Works by Russian Women Writers:

Xenia Buksha. Alyonka-partizanka [Alyonka, the Partisan]. Amfora, 570 rubles.
—. Dom kotoryi postroim my [The House That We Build]. Amfora, 550.50 rubles.
Linor Goralik. NET. Amfora, 570.95 rubles.
—. Ne mestnye [Non-Natives]. Kolonna, 448.95 rubles.
Anastasia Gosteva. Priton prosvetlyonykh [The Den of the Enlightened]. Vagrius, 598.50 rubles.
—. Travel agnets [Travel Agnus Dei]. Amfora, 538.50 rubles.
Margarita Meklina. Srazhenie pod Peterburgom [The Battle of St. Petersburg]. Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 628.50 rubles.
Marina Vishnevetskaya. Vyshel mesiats iz tumana [Came the Moon out of Mist]. Vagrius, 538.50 rubles.
—. Opyty [Experiences]. Exmo-Press, 538.50 rubles.
—. Brys’, krokodil! [Get Lost, Crocodile!]. Exmo-Press, 570 rubles.
Olga Zondberg. Ochen’ spokoinyi rasskaz [Very Calm Story]. Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 568.50 rubles.

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