A SKETCH OF THE HISTORIOGRAPHY

 

This book is based upon a historiography more than 150 years old. It seems appropriate, therefore, to provide a brief introduction to the development of that historiography. A few examples from the bibliography of each stage in the process will be identified in the footnotes. Those seeking to explore further should begin with Livezeanu et al.’s authoritative Women and Gender in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Eurasia. They will also find many useful links on the website for the Association for Women in Slavic Studies, http://www.awss.org.

The study of women’s history emerged from the discussion of the woman question in nineteenth‑century Russia and developed in tandem with that discussion. As did feminists and their supporters elsewhere, Russian intellectuals produced lectures, articles, and books that analyzed patriarchy. They also celebrated independent women of the past and present. This scholarship stressed Russia’s backwardness, pointing to the strictures of The Domostroi, the traditionalism of the peasantry, the conservatism of the nobility and the autocracy, and the doleful lot of long‑suffering women. When Marxists weighed in in the early twentieth century, they emphasized the economic origins of women’s oppression.1

Soviet scholars from the 1920s through the 1980s developed the Marxist interpretation into a tale of tsarist oppression and Soviet emancipation. They wrote about the hardships endured by poor women, particularly factory workers, before the Revolution. They chronicled the achievements of outstanding women before and after 1917, and they documented the accomplishments of the Soviet period. Much of this scholarship was supported by solid research into women’s education, work, and family lives across the Soviet Union.2

The emergence of second‑wave feminism in the 1960s increased the interest in women’s history among Western European and North American historians. Simultaneously, the Cold War was increasing interest in Russian history. Some of the Russianists discovered that the history of women in Russia was blessed with fascinating individuals and source material. The result was the development of a community of scholars in the United States and the UK who began to publish their findings in the 1970s. Influenced by Cold War theories of totalitarianism and by the Russian and Soviet historiography on women, they stressed the linked oppressions of patriarchy and autocracy in the imperial and Soviet periods. They emphasized as well the open‑mindedness of the intelligentsia and paid particular attention to the emancipated women of the pre‑revolutionary period. They shared with historians of women in other cultures the goals of documenting women’s situation in the past and recovering the stories of significant women absent from mainstream historiography.3

As the scholarship on the history of women in Russia developed, historians from across the European world weighed in on a broad range of topics. Social histories of women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided sophisticated understandings of peasant and working‑class cultures and of the functioning of gender values. The medieval and early imperial periods saw groundbreaking research into law, the role of elite women in politics and family life, witchcraft, and women’s spirituality. Scholars also began to pay attention to non‑Russian women within the empire. As a consequence, the early emphasis on oppression gave way to more nuanced interpretations of women’s responses to their world and put the Russian experience into an international context. All of this work was informed by gender theory and post‑modernist attention to discourse. It benefited as well from rapid development of the study of other fields of Russian history. It also brought women’s history to the attention of specialists in those fields, so that women’s history began to be integrated into the larger narrative of Russian history.4

Until the 1990s, historians of women in Russia in the Soviet Union and those working elsewhere had little contact with one another. The Western scholars read the work of the Soviet historians, and some of the Soviets read the Western works that were available in a few libraries. Foreign scholars doing research in Soviet archives got to know Soviet historians interested in women’s history. Then the USSR came to an end and contacts between scholars expanded exponentially. Feminist historians across the former Soviet Union (FSU) established gender studies programs, often with the assistance of outside funding; began publishing their work; and by the early twenty‑first century were training a new generation of historians of women. These people, most of them women, worked on late imperial topics, such as elite education and feminism, that had been considered suspect in the Soviet period. They took a more critical view of Soviet emancipation than their predecessors. They also adapted those methodological and theoretical approaches from Western scholarship that they found useful. The result was a developing dialogue between Western and FSU scholars that was very enlightening to both sides.5

There is still much to be done. The scholarship on the history of women in Russia is meager compared to that on subjects such as the Russian Revolution or the pre‑emancipation peasantry. As a result, there are few historiographical debates as yet. Medievalists have discussed the pace at which women converted to Christianity and they have argued over whether changes in women’s property rights in the Muscovite period enhanced or diminished the authority of elite women. No major controversies have yet emerged regarding the imperial period. Scholars east and west are presently holding a decorous discussion over revising the critique of the Soviet emancipation project to minimize the stress placed on government manipulation and pay more attention to the responses of ordinary people. These debates should multiply as the historiography continues to develop.

The integration of the scholarship’s findings into the larger field of Russian and now post‑Soviet history will continue as well. That is a development to which I hope this book, an attempt to synthesize the historiography to date, will contribute.

 








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