The European Context and Russian Particularities
This book will also fit the history of women in Russia into European women’s history. For that is where it belongs. The dominant culture across the centuries was Slavic and Christian, as were most of the people, and their gender values and customs were very similar to those of other Europeans. The significant differences arose from Russia’s geography and climate, its people’s take on pan‑European gender values and norms, its autocratic politics, and its relationship to the rest of the continent.
Russia began on Europe’s easternmost frontier, in lands that were cold, vast, and difficult to farm. Frequent conflict among warriors competing for power and territory made life still more precarious. The Russian elite eventually overcame its fractiousness and constructed a centralized government, but it did little thereafter to help the peasants prosper. These enduring realities–a demanding natural environment, a self‑aggrandizing ruling class, and a mass of people mired in hardship–meant that, until well into the twentieth century, most women had few opportunities to improve their circumstances.
One of the greatest ironies of Russian history is the fact that the autocratic governments were a major force in progressive changes for women. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, Russia’s rulers attempted to alter gender norms, because they believed that in order to make their nation a leading power in Europe, they had to modernize it, and that in turn required weakening patriarchal controls on men and women. To this end, Peter the Great and the tsars who succeeded him greatly expanded education for noble and middle‑class girls and permitted women to enter the paid‑labor force. Their communist successors proclaimed that women were men’s equals and opened up schools and jobs to women from the lower classes. Because so many of Russia’s rulers believed that changing women’s lot was essential to reform, and because so many educated people, among them many women, pushed the rulers to permit even more change, change, when it came, was extraordinarily rapid and substantial.
Central to that transformation were the interactions between Russia and the rest of Europe. This will be yet another of the major themes of this book. It is already a major one in Russian history, but usually attention is paid to the ways in which Western influence affected Russia’s political, economic, and intellectual development. Women’s history was also hugely impacted, as Western notions about femininity, domesticity, and women’s liberation from patriarchy flowed in, to be rejected, adapted, and fought over by rulers, revolutionaries, peasants, and urban folk. Women’s history also contains one of the most important instances of Russian influence flowing outward, for in the twentieth century, Soviet gender values and the government’s program of women’s emancipation influenced communists, socialists, and feminists around the world.
This book will sum up the scholarship on the history of women in Russia. It will explain the major developments in women’s history and the effects of those developments on the history of the nation. It will sketch the lived experiences of women across the generations. It will identify individuals of particular significance. And it will demonstrate how the behavior of individual women and great collectivities of them shaped the history of their land.
It would be impossible to create “a sweet little cameo version” of the history of Russia’s women, for most of it is a story of people struggling with poverty brought on by a recalcitrant environment and exacerbated by a rapacious government. But it is also a story of endurance and achievement. In their millions over the centuries, the women of Russia helped build the cultures that survived the hardships. The bravest and luckiest women accomplished extraordinary things–promoted the conversion to Christianity, governed estates, created great art, rebelled against governments, established charities and professions, designed programs to liberate women, built the tanks that rolled into Berlin in 1945, and flew the planes that strafed the retreating Wermacht. Other women exploited their serfs, worked for the secret police, supported whatever status quo prevailed at the time, doted on their sons, and taught their daughters to suffer in silence. The history of all these women, in all its daunting complexity, is a tale worth telling.
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