The Focus of the Study


To that end, each chapter begins with a survey of the political and economic history of the period under examination. Each then poses two questions: What did women do in this time, and what difference did they make? Uncovering what they did requires telling the story of their history as a gender. How did gender values and practices structure their lives, how did they react to these influences, and how did both their reactions and the gender arrangements change over time? Women’s beliefs, their roles in their families, their work outside the home, their authority within their families and communities, and the variations in all of these produced by differences in age, ethnicity, marital status, religion, and social rank will occupy much of our attention. Each chapter will also highlight both politically significant women, such as Catherine the Great, and less prestigious individuals whose lives illustrate important themes. Sidebars include pictures and excerpts from primary sources about those women.

It is possible to undertake such a study now because historians and literary scholars have produced so much fine work on the history of women in Russia over the last several decades. Some of these were Soviet scholars, many were British and American, and now they are being joined by a new generation of Eastern and Western Europeans. Synthesizing their findings is a chief undertaking of this book. Included will be citations to English collections of translated primary documents and to translations of my own that bring the voices of the people studied into their own history. The last chapter relies as well on interviews with six Belarusian women, friends and acquaintances of mine whose insights enhanced my understanding of the years since 1991.

This is not a history of gender. Definitions of masculinity and femininity and the norms that followed from those definitions are important subjects in what follows, but this book does not treat women’s history as a lens through which to see something else, such as gender. Nor is it a modern variant on the oft‑crooned lament about how difficult the lives of women have been across the ages, though it does document the manifold ways in which patriarchal institutions and the hardships of Russian history affected women. Instead it highlights women’s agency. All the subordinated people of the past must be approached this way, if their lives are to be understood and the historical significance of those lives is to be appreciated.


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