Changing the Narrative
Bringing women to the forefront changes the established narrative of Russia’s political, economic, and social history. Political history has been the dominant member of that triad, because the government has played a particularly important part in Russian history, and because historians in the European world are heirs to a historiographical tradition that viewed politics as the driver of history. This book puts women into the political narrative of Russian history by discussing their roles in elite politics and in mass movements and highlighting the contributions of important individuals. Tracing women’s participation in politics, which was limited by custom and law and yet was often consequential, yields a more nuanced view of political realities than the top‑down, male‑centered perspective that traditional historiography gives us.
Women’s history also teaches that one of the great political differences between Russia and the rest of Europe was the attempts by rulers, from Peter the Great onward, to engineer gender change in Russia. This intervention and public responses to it led in the later nineteenth century to an upsurge of political and social activism by women. Their activism drove revolutionary change forward before and during the Revolution and resulted in the implementation of a sweeping program of political, economic, and social emancipation for women in the 1920s. Soviet policies and women’s responses to them in turn made possible the massive industrialization drives of the 1930s and the successful mobilization of the nation in World War II.
Women’s history also sheds light on the history of the Russian Empire. Although scholars have studied the ways non‑Russian women experienced conquest and colonization, their findings have not much affected the narrative of the colonial process, most of which still consists of discussions of government policy and of the responses of the male leaders of the conquered peoples. In fact, women mattered. Native women in Siberia mediated between their own people and the conquerors, resisting the colonizers in some cases, assisting them in others. Across the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Siberia, women kept ethnic and religious traditions alive. Women were also among the colonizers from the nineteenth century onward, sometimes representing the imperial power, as the wives of governors and communist officials did, sometimes working to improve the lives of native women, as did teachers and physicians, all the while transmitting the gender values of the imperial power. The people of the time recognized the importance of women to colonial interactions; historians have undervalued it.
The prevailing understanding of Russia’s economic history is also altered if one puts women in, for then the dependence of the economy on their work becomes a central theme. Throughout Russian history, women’s participation in subsistence agriculture was crucial to peasant survival, and therefore to national survival. When industrialization began, they flocked to the factories in greater numbers than did women elsewhere in Europe. Because gender assumptions structured their involvement, women’s participation differed from that of men, as did the effects of industrialization on them. The presence of so many women in the paid‑labor force had major economic and political consequences, for it affected Bolshevik thinking before the Revolution and Soviet policies thereafter.
Women have been given greater consideration in social history than in other fields, because social history is about daily life and the mores and norms that shape it. Scholars have long recognized the importance of women to these topics, and so women are often included in discussions of Russia’s social history. The patriarchal character of gender values is usually commented on as well. Daily life and patriarchy are central themes in this book too. Here they will be considered relevant not just to family and community life, and hence to social history, but also, as the above paragraphs suggest, to political and economic developments. For gender values and norms pervade all human societies, ordering public as well as private worlds. And they have changed across time. So watching the development of gender ideas in Russia and comparing them to gender ideas elsewhere in Europe will illuminate far more than the quotidian. It will make the politics and the economics make more sense as well.
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