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Midwives

February 16, 2015

In Dostoevskii’s Demons (Бесы, 1871-72), Shatov’s estranged wife gives birth to Stavrogin’s baby, and her labor is described in some detail, as are Shatov’s attempts to help, including his search for a midwife:

The issue of the midwife is significant and reveals both Shatov’s rather surprising familiarity with the social politics of obstetrics in nineteenth-century Russia, and Dostoevsky’s display of detailed knowledge of an arena traditionally confined to women. Shatov’s wife requests a baba or starukha, that is, the lowest level of midwife: usually an old woman who had assisted at many births but lacked any formal medical training. The official term for this category was a povitukha (later used incorrectly by the narrator of Demons to describe Virginskaia […]). Shatov insists on providing his wife with a [povivaln’aiababka, meaning a certified midwife who has taken obstetric training in a licensed institute; in the 1860s this would have been one of the Imperial Foundling Homes in St Petersburg or Moscow […] We learn that there are at least three people qualified to act as midwives in this town: Virginskaia herself, considered the best, a certain Maksheeva and an army doctor called Rozanov who is trained as an akusher or male midwife. (The terms akusherka and [povival’naiababka were interchangeable in common parlance but only the second had legal status). (4)

This is from Muireann Maguire’s 2014 article “Dostoevsky and the Politics of Parturition.” It’s a wonderful explanation at the intersection of something difficult for everyone, imperial Russian realia, and something difficult for us non-native readers, the different meanings of related words: babka ‘woman who assists at a birth’ (with other meanings too) is not a simple diminutive of baba ‘peasant woman’ (discussed in this old post).* (Povitukha and povival’naia are also visibly related, but with no confusing difference in meaning, just of formality/officialness; both come from the verb povivat’/povit’ ‘wind around,’ in this context ‘swaddle.’)

Shatov’s wife’s baby, as I understand Maguire’s argument, shows “the futility of the post-Chernyshevskian materialist school” (2) in two ways. By being born, the baby makes the worldview of the materialists looks sterile in contrast to the miracle of new life. Then, by dying in infancy (after Shatov’s death, his wife “run[s] down the snowy street in her bedclothes, dooming both herself and the infant to premature death,” 6), the baby shows that materialists can’t create and sustain life. There is much more to this short article: Stavrogin as “a remarkable combination of fecundity and futility” (8), Stavrogin’s wife’s “presumably fantastic” baby and Shatov’s sister’s suspected pregnancy that never comes to pass, and Virginskaia’s methods:

As a midwife, she brings new life into the world, yet she does so unconventionally, swearing and spouting anarcho-socialist propaganda at her patients. Her reputation as the best midwife in town withstands the general dislike of her opinions; she is even credited with having shocked one difficult case into delivering more promptly. (7)

The source of that last anecdote, about Virginskaia shocking a woman into giving birth faster, is the army doctor (shtab-lekar’) and male midwife Rozanov, who I believe is mentioned nowhere else in the novel. I can’t help wondering if the name was inspired by Dr. Rozanov in Leskov’s No Way Out (Некуда, 1864), especially since Dostoevskii began serializing Demons at the same time and in the same journal as Leskov was finishing At Daggers Drawn (На ножах, 1870-71).

* Likewise neither is the same as babochka ‘moth, butterfly,’ even though babka and babochka look like diminutives of baba. It’s worse than the sliva ‘plum’ vs. slivki ‘cream’ (and not ‘little plums’) situation; those words come from different roots and just happen to look similar, but I think even native speakers hear babka and babochka as diminutives of baba, along with their more specific meanings. Nochnaia babochka ‘moth,’ lit. ‘nocturnal butterfly,’ can also mean ‘lady of the night, prostitute.’

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 16, 2015 7:54 pm

    Cool! Thank you for the Rozanov observation!

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