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The superfluous woman

July 9, 2013
Mariia Konstantinovna Tsebrikova (1835-March 1917)

Mariia Konstantinovna Tsebrikova (1835-March 1917)

When A. P. Mogilianskii was working on a new Pisemskii collection during the Khrushchev thaw, the “anti-nihilist” novelist had a reactionary reputation. In a Soviet edition it would help to boost his progressive credentials. That’s no doubt why he gives an accurate but incomplete characterization of M. K. Tsebrikova’s 1870 feminist critique of Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869), remarking that she “noted with approval […] the striking image of the peasant Lizaveta Petrova, who voluntarily went off to hard labor in Siberia to escape the necessity of living with a husband she hated.” Tsebrikova’s title, “A Humanitarian Champion of Women’s Rights,” is applied ironically to Pisemskii and his George Sand-ist protagonist Vikhrov; her position is complex, but critical.

What Tsebrikova and Pisemskii both oppose is the patriarchal tradition of the Domostroi or what she calls the “Chinese law”:

As a daughter, woman is her parents’ slave, and if the law restricts their right to dispose of her, in practice she is in their hands: without them she cannot take a single step. She is freed from this dependence only by a new dependence: marriage or death. As a wife, she is her husband’s property. The Chinese law — “if a woman has a husband she loves [по сердцу], she has him for life; if she has a husband she does not love [не по сердцу], she has him for life — in the first case she is happy forever, and in the second unhappy till the day she dies” — determines the life of women throughout enlightened Europe. (209)

The critic acknowledges this isn’t Pisemskii’s view, but she objects to his characters’ cult of the “Pushkinian ideal” of faithful, self-denying Tat’iana, which she sees as the Chinese law coming in the back door (228).

Tsebrikova’s ideal is a social system where women can use their talents, with marriage as a voluntary partnership of equals. In a passage on why Russian women run off with foreign men (Frenchmen before the 1860s, and later Poles) she claims that Pisemskii’s heroines are shown as following a trend, while Turgenev and Dostoevskii look deeper and show that these women’s “youthful, seething energy needed an outlet; it needed something to do that would consume it entirely; life in their native land offered them nothing of the sort, and they left to look for it all in foreign parts” (225-26).

Where does Pisemskii, the author of Is It Her Fault?A Thousand Souls, and A Bitter Fate, fall short in Men of the Forties? Tsebrikova doesn’t like his unflattering portrait of proto-nihilist Iuliia Zakharevskaia. But her more interesting objection is that Pisemskii is too nice in his portrayal of Kleopatra Fateeva, Vikhrov’s lover who has a series of affairs but no intellectual interests (222-24):

Foteeva belongs neither to the Pushkinian, nor to the George Sand-ian ideal; she is just, as our common people call women of her ilk, a tramp [гулящая бабенка], but at least she isn’t a nihilist in embryo. (223)

As I read the novel, Pisemskii is presenting Fateeva as a George Sand-ian character, and using her to argue that, when the philosophy of sexual freedom meets present-day reality, sleeping around has tragic results for women but not men. But Tsebrikova objects to sexual freedom, rather than civic engagement and intellectual self-improvement, being the central matter. Fateeva’s promiscuity seems to offend Tsebrikova as slander against the feminist cause. The critic reminds Pisemskii of the strain of Russian fiction that “preached in favor of marriage that gives space for a woman to develop all her abilities, which she enters as a free being with equal rights, and not as a slave attached for life”: Gertsen, Druzhinin, Sheller-Mikhailov, and Sleptsov (226-27).

The phenomenon of independent, educated Russian women hating the word “feminism” and/or the philosophy they associate with it has always interested me, from Tat’iana Tolstaia to the detractors of Pussy Riot. I’ve heard lots of interesting explanations (e.g. property rights married women achieved decades ago in France have been established for centuries in Russia, so women’s priorities are different in ways so deep-rooted as to be invisible). But it’s good to be reminded that nineteenth-century Russia had a feminist tradition that went beyond George Sand-ism and is compatible with Western ideas from my lifetime. Tsebrikova’s opening, suggesting the interactions between different oppressions and the material interests behind them, sounds like the modern left to me:

Woman’s situation is unbearably difficult. The only ones who decline to admit this truth are those who find her lack of dignity and rights to their advantage, just as slaveholders did not want to admit the miserable situation of their peasants. (209)

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