Kitchenmaids or Stateswomen?
A Political History of Women in Russia

Edward J. Vajda

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Kitchenmaids or Stateswomen Image: Kitchenmaids or Stateswomen

In the past, the Russian political landscape has certainly not been thickly peopled by women. Most public decision-makers throughout Russian history have been men, not women. And yet the political role of women in Russia is more significant than might at first seem. It is true that this history must be told as an irregular series of anecdotes about famous individual women, most the wives or daughters of famous men. But the stories of these notable women, if taken together, create an informative narrative about where Russia has been and where the country may go in the future.

Map of Varangian Rus Image: map of Varangian Rus

Russian history begins over a thousand years ago as Slavic tribes settled what is now European Russia. These proto-Russians worshipped the masculine sky and thunder god Perun and his symbol the oak tree. They also worshipped a goddess of fertility whom they called Mat' syra zemlya, or Mother Moist Earth.

Icon of St. George Image: Icon of St. George

Later, the image of Perun coalesced with St. George the Dragon-slayer, who became the patron saint of Russia.

Pine trees in a rye field Image: Shiskin painting "Pine trees in a rye field"

And Mother Moist Earth became Holy Mother Russia. Perhaps this is why the word Rossia, "Russia," is feminine, and another feminine word rodina, "homeland," still carries a quasi-religious significance for many Russians today.

The Bogatyrs Image: Vasnetsov painting "The Bogatyrs"

The first Russian State was organized in 862 by Viking adventurers known as Varangians. They founded the city of Kiev and gathered a number of local Slavic tribes under their dominion. That first state, located in what is now Ukraine, was known as Rus'. It's subjects came to be called russkie, "Russians." The words Rus and Russia apparently derive from a Finnic word meaning "Scandinavian." A related word in the modern Finnish language-- ruotsi --means Swede. The Vikings in Russia quickly became Slavicized. But they left behind some linguistic traces. Many Russian names are originally Viking: the name Olga derives from Helga, Igor from Ingvarr. Also, the rulers of early Russia were called knyazya, or princes, a Germanic word related to the modern English king and German König.

Map of Appanage Rus Image: Map of appanage Rus

The Varangians thus established Russia's first political legacy. Although the first Viking rulers were men, their female relatives were also considered to be part of the ruling elite and could inherit the throne from a male relative. The princes of Kiev called the land their votchina, or patrimony, from the Slavic word otec, "father." They fought to conquer neighboring tribes, and collected a preordained amount of tribute from their subjects. When Kievan prince Igor tried to collect tribute from the Drevlanians, a Slavic tribe on the periphery of his realm, they killed him. With this event our real story begins.

Prince Igor left behind a five year old son Sviatoslav and a widow, Princess Olga. Olga became ruler of Kiev. The Drevlanians, having no respect for the idea of a female ruler, sent ambassadors to Olga with the suggestion that she marry their leader, who would then rule Kiev too.

Olga burning Drevlanian ambassadors in a bathhouse Image: Olga burning Drevlanian ambassadors in a bathhouse

But Olga had other ideas. First, she buried the ambassadors alive in a pit. Then she sent word to the Drevlanians to send over their best men to persuade the people of Kiev to let her marry. Thinking that Olga was willing to marry, the Drevlanians sent a large number of men.

In Kiev Olga treated them to a ceremonial steambath, and burned the bathhouse down.

Then she led her army against the Drevlanians, who, finally realizing that she wanted revenge, took refuge in their capital. Olga besieged the city but could not capture it. Spring wore on into summer. Still Olga would not give up. Finally, the Drevlanians offered to pay tribute if Olga would go home. To their great relief, she agreed to withdraw for the mere price of three doves per household. The townspeople happily complied and that evening there was great celebration. But as the sun set, Olga set the doves free with bundles of burning grass tied to their claws. The birds returned home and the town burned down. Olga rounded up the surviving inhabitants and had them distributed as slaves among her subjects.
So Olga became the first woman ruler of Russia in the year 945. She ruled Kievan Rus' for the next 27 years.

Sophia Cathedral in Vladimir Image: Sophia cathedral in Vladimir

Olga's reign was very different than her bloody revenge might suggest. She made peace with all her neighbors and never fought again. She converted to Christianity, which paved the way for a highly profitable alliance with Constantinople. She also traded peacefully with the powerful Khazar State to the east. During these three decades Kiev became one of the most prosperous states in Europe.

Warrior at the Crossroads Image: Vasnetsov painting "Warrior at the Crossroads"

When Olga died in 962 her son Sviatoslav took the throne. She had begged him to accept Christianity and to follow her program of peaceful development. But Sviatoslav, like most other Kievites, continued to worship Perun and the other Slavic deities. He said he was afraid that if he accepted Christianity his soldiers would laugh at him. Utilizing all of the resources stored up during his mother's peaceful reign, Sviatoslav embarked on a 10-year period of warfare and conquest, which left the Russian lands weakened and vulnerable to invasions from the steppe nomads.

Icon of Virgin and child Image: Icon of Virgin and child

Sviatoslav's son, Vladimir, tried to return to the policies of his grandmother. He forced Kiev to accept Christianity in 988 and had Perun's statue thrown into the Dniepr River. His reign restored much of the economic prosperity of Kiev. But the damage had already been done. The nomads continued to plague Russia.

Map of Russia under the Mongols Image: Map of Russia under the Mongols

These invasions culminated in the arrival of the Mongols and their Tatar allies, who destroyed Kiev in 1240. Russia was to experience nearly two centuries of domination by the Mongols.

Alyona's Flower Image: Painting depicting the fairytale "Alyona's Flower"

As part of the Mongol Golden Horde, Russia's political and social attitudes toward woman changed. By the time Moscow arose in the 14th century as successor to the Mongols, female royalty had fewer rights and opportunities than in ancient Kiev. Women were now entirely excluded from all influence on government affairs. Nor was there any royal romance or chivalry as in Western Europe. The daughters of the ruler were locked up in a special section of the palace called the terem, or tower chamber. There they sat, richly clothed and decorated, their teeth painted black according to the royal custom of the time. They were never allowed contact with men, never allowed to marry lest rivals to the royal line be produced. In the tower chamber, royal women rarely even saw the light of day. If they walked in processions or traveled anywhere it was under close guard and thickly veiled from view. When such a woman fell ill, even at her deathbed the doctor checked her pulse through a heavy cloth that prevented illegal contact with male flesh.

A Boyar's Bride Image: Bilibin painting "A boyar's bride"

The prince's wife was not entombed in the tower chamber. She looked after her young children and was expected to spend the rest of her time in devout prayer and in making arrangements for the upkeep of her wardrobe. She had no political role at all, power always passing to a male heir. And yet, the prince's wife was still considered the carrier of the royal line.

Painting depicting a Boyar's wedding Image: Painting depicting a boyar's wedding

To this end, Ivan the Third, grandfather of Ivan the Terrible, married the daughter of the last King of Constantinople shortly before that city fell to the Turks in 1453.

St. Basil's Cathedral Image: St. Basil's Cathedral

He used the marriage as a pretext to proclaim Moscow the Third Rome and to crown himself Caesar, pronounced Tsar' in Russian. The previous rulers of Moscow had merely called themselves grand princes.
Since the tsar's wife enjoyed virtually no political power, not everyone found the Russian ruler a match to be sought after. A century later, Ivan the Terrible, having gone through several wives, wooed England's Queen Elizabeth and was spurned.

Peasant woman plowing Image: Venetsianov painting "Peasant woman plowing"

It should be pointed out that, although the life of peasant women was completely different than that of royalty, it had its own set of severe limitations. Women were considered to be silly helpless children, intellectually void and prone to moral irresponsibility. One Russian proverb states that "A woman is as hard to control as a bag of fleas." Another states that "the only journey a wife should make is between the kitchen and the front door." Women were considered to be the property of their husbands. The Domostroi, a sort of Medieval Russian good-houskeeping book, urged men to beat their wives and children regularly in order to improve them. A husband who did not beat his wife was thought to be disinterested in her.

Baroness Morozova Image: Vasnetsov painting of baroness Morozova

A woman who retaliated by killing an abusive husband could be buried alive up to her neck in the ground and left to die. But another Russian proverb states that "no man is happier than one who gets along with his wife."

A merchant's wedding Image: Painting depicting a merchant's wedding

Marriage practices reveal much about women's status in Muscovite society. A girl was usually married off young and went to live with her husband's family. This is the origin of the two Russian words for marriage still used to this day: a man zhenitsya na devushke, literally, "wifes on a girl"; while a woman vykhodit zamuzh, or "goes out following her husband". It was also expected that the bride be a virgin. Before the wedding, the groom's relatives performed a special examination of the girl to insure that the bride was a virgin and not physically defective in any way. (There was no such inspection of the groom by representatives of the bride.) If the bride was found wanting, the marriage was called off and scandal resulted for the bride and her family. The modern Russian word for young woman, devushka, still connotes a virgin; the word for woman, zhenshchina, implies a non-virgin.
If the marriage did take place, the bride's family had to provide a dowry to help pay for the upkeep of the new bride in her new home. The groom's father ceremonially transferred to his son a heavy whip called the knout. The bride's mother-in-law, as head of the domestic household where the newlyweds were to live, also had power over the bride. Now she would finally have someone to give orders to. If a husband tired of his wife he could divorce her and remarry. Disgarded wives of more well to do men were sometimes forced into a nunnery. A man could marry and divorce three times, but the Russian Orthodox Church prohibited a fourth marriage under any circumstances. Even Ivan the Terrible was excommunicated upon taking his fourth wife.

Muscovite Merchants Image: Drawing of Muscovite merchants

By the 17th century, European influences were again being felt in Russia. This was manifested in many ways: tobacco arrived from the Americas and was christened "diabolical grass" by church authorities. Changes in icon painting and church liturgy inspired by contact with the Europe led to a split, or schism, in the Russian Church.

Princess Sophia Image: Portrait of Princess Sophia

Another telling change concerned royal women. The first princess to escape the tower chamber was Sofia, the elder half-sister of Peter the Great. She ruled Russia as regent during the 8 years Peter was an adolescent, from 1682-1690

Princess Sophia in a Nunnery Image: Painting depicting Sophia imprisoned in a nunnery

For a brief time it was unclear whether Peter would even succeed in wresting power from her. But when Peter came of age in 1690, he bundled Sofia off to a nunnery and exiled her lover, Prince Golitsyn, to Siberia

Woodcut Image: Woodcut depicting Peter cutting a noble's beard

During Peter's long reign, Russia joined in the culture and politics of Europe. Peter built St. Petersburg, his window on the West, and had himself crowned Emperor and Autocrat of all Russia. European practices were forced on the Russian nobles, who had to wear pants and other European clothing. A special beard tax was levied on any noble who refused to shave.

Young Nobles Flirting Image: Levitsky painting of young nobles flirting

The custom of the tower chamber fell into disuse, and royal women began to have lives similar to that of European queens and princesses.

Vignette of Peter's Family Image: Vignette of Peter's family

Once again it became acceptable for a female relative to succeed the Tsar. In fact, in the decades following Peter's death in 1725, three of his female relatives became empress. First his wife Catherine, from 1725-1727; then his daughter Anna, from 1730-40; and finally another daughter, Elizabeth, from 1741-1762. The reigns of these three women were undistinguished politically. Most significant about this period was that a woman could rule at all.

Woodcut of Peasant Woman Beating Flax Image: Woodcut of peasant woman beating flax

Western contact continued. The potato made it to Moscow and the people rioted against having to eat this suspicious tuber. (Today, of course, Russia consumes more potatoes than any other country.) Despite Western influence, however, the lives of Russian peasant women remained essentially unchanged.

Catherine and Peter III Image: Portrait of Catherine and Peter III

When Elizabeth died in 1762, she was succeeded by her hand-picked successor, a young German nobleman who became Peter the III. Mentally weak and incompetent, Peter was soon killed in a palace coup inspired by his German wife, Catherine, who was far smarter and more energetic than he. She would rule until 1796 and would go down in history as Catherine the Great.

Catherine II Image: Portrait of Tsarina Catherine II

At the beginning of Catherine's reign, she was considered an enlightened monarch. She corresponded with Voltaire and patronized the arts. Her subjects not only accepted her rule, they widely revered her. Times had certainly changed from the days of the tower chamber, less than 100 years before: not only was Catherine the empress and autocrat of all Russia, she also had a harem that included at least 21 know male lovers.
As she ruled, Catherine became increasingly hostile to liberal ideas. She crushed a peasant rebellion led by the Cossack Emilyan Pugachov and strengthened the institution of serfdom. (Serfs wouldn't be emancipated until 1861, two years before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in the US.) Literature and art were subjected to official state censorship at this time. Catherine punished writers whose works were not to her liking by imprisonment and exile.

Map showing Russian Expansion Image: Map showing Catherine's additions to the Russian Empire

Catherine also continued Peter's military involvement in the affairs of Europe, winning decisive victories over Turkey and annexing large chunks of Poland. The conquests of large non-Russian territories were to lead to much ethnic discontent in the next century.

A Moscow's Courtyard Image: Polenov's painting "A Moscow Courtyard"

Although Catherine was the last woman to rule Russia, her reign set the tone for the Russia we know through the writings of the great writers of the 1800's--the Russia of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov.

An Unknown Woman Image: "An Unknown Woman", by Ivan Kramskoi

Much of what existed in Tsarist Russia up until 1917--both the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly-- took definitive shape during Catherine's reign.

Tsar, priest, and rich man Image: Anti-tsarist propaganda poster "Tsar, priest and rich man"

The growing frustrations of Russia's intelligencia during this period are epitomized by a poem written in 1841 by poet Mikhail Lermontov while on his way to exile in the Caucasus:

Russian Poem

Farewell, unwashed Russia

Land of slaves, land of lords

And you, blue uniforms

And you, submissive hordes

Image: Painting showing peasants burning a landowner's estate

As we know, the Russian people didn't remain submissive forever. A popular uprising in 1905 led to the creation of a Russian parliament, the Duma, which set constitutional restraints (at least in theory) on the tsar's powers.

Nicholas II and Family Image: Photo of Nicholas II and family

Finally, in 1917, after three years of devastating world war, the Tsarist regime collapsed.
Many people assume that the Bolshevik revolution swept the Tsar from power. That is not true. There were two revolutions in 1917. The first one occurred in February.

Photo of People Waiting in a Long Line Image: Photo of people waiting in a long line

It began in St. Petersburg when old women began rioting in a bread line. The disturbances quickly spread and Tsar Nicolas abdicated in an attempt to stem the revolt. The new government, led by the liberal social democrat Kerensky, moved toward establishing democracy. His cabinet included representatives from many political factions, including the prominent feminist Sofiya Panina. Censorship was abolished and Russians--men and women--were given the vote. (This was two years before the 19th Amendment extended sufferage to US women.)

Revolution Image: "Revolution", by Kiriakov

In October of 1917 a second revolution took place. Lenin and his Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and arrested Kerensky's ministers. Interestingly, on the night of October 25, Kerensky's ministers were being guarded in the Winter Palace by the Petrograd Women's Battalion.

Lenin addressing a crowd Image: Painting depicting Lenin addressing a crowd

A few months later, when the Constituent Assembly, the first ever democratically elected national body in Russian history, tried to convene, Lenin directed troops loyal to the Bolsheviks to disrupt it. Kerensky later managed to escape from Russia disguised in women's clothing. (He eventually got a job as a professor at an American university and died in 1970.)

Women Athletes Image: Photo showing women athletes

Within the ranks of the Bolsheviks there were many women. As revolutionaries, they spoke out against inequality in society and called for equal political rights for women and minorities.

Workers of the world unite Image: Poster showing a march of multinational workers and peasants

They promised to build a society where nationality would cease to matter and all rank and personal property would become irrelevant. Lenin promised that "the person who had been nothing would become everything," and "a kitchenmaid would become a stateswoman."
What society did the Bolsheviks actually create? Very quickly the Bolsheviks evolved into a new ruling class with special privileges unavailable to the common people. This special class of Communist Party functionaries came to be known as the Nomenklatura. Soviet Russia never became a classless society.

Lenin and Krupskaya Image: Photo of Lenin and Krupskaya

At the very beginning, the role of women in the new ruling class was significant. Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, took charge of shaping Soviet culture. She organized a program of literacy for peasants and workers. She also banned many authors, including Dostoevsky. Censorship under Krupskaya soon became more rigid than under Catherine the Great. Many other women also played important political or ideological roles. Noblewoman turned Communist Aleksandra Kollontai preached the virtues of free love. New laws made divorce and abortion easy to obtain.

Stalin and wife, Nadya Image: Photo of Stalin and his wife Nadya

None of this was to last. By the early 30's many of the social ideals of the Revolution were discarded, at least in practice. The idea of free love was completely abandoned, and a dispirited Kollontai was shipped off to the Soviet embassy in Norway. From that safe vantage she was later to complain that "the women's question raised by the revolution had received a man's answer."

Most telling of all was the fate of the women Bolsheviks themselves. Beginning in the 1930's, practically every woman of any political significance was killed or imprisoned. One famous chronicle of this era was Yevgenia Ginzburg's Journey into the Whirlwind, an autobiographical story about a woman Communist sent to the labor camps on false charges. Ultimately, she was to be joined by 40 million other Soviet men and women of all nationalities. Even the wives of prominent members of the government could be sent to the camps if they meddled in politics. Stalin's wife, Nadezda, was found dead of a gunshot wound after she argued with him in public about collectivization. The newspaper cited appendicitis as the cause of her death. Lenin's wife Krupskaya died of food poisoning after her 70th birthday party. Stalin had brought the cake; the newspapers told of a heart attack. This was shortly before the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Cooperation Treaty.

Yekaterina Kalinina Image: Photo of Yekaterina Kalinina

Even Yekaterina Kalinina, the wife of Mikhail Kalinin, nominal head of state of the USSR, was sent to a labor camp; her husband was required to sign the arrest warrant. Beria, the chief of the secret police, was a sadist who employed a special group of men to kidnap very young women off the Moscow streets for his pleasure. Many of his victims were afterward sent to labor camps; his wife, amazingly survived and avoided imprisonment.
Stalin brought Kalinin's wife back from the Gulag in time to attend her husband's funeral.

Molotov and wife, Polina Image: Photo of Molotov and his wife Polina

Foreign minister Molotov's wife, imprisoned in 1949, returned only after Stalin's death. Countless more never returned. In Stalin's Soviet Union, the chamber tower and the nunnery had been replaced by the concentration camp and the grave.

The Homeland Mother Calls! Image: The Homeland-Mother Calls!

Nevertheless, Stalin was not hesitant to play on the ancient symbolism of Mother Russia to enlist Russian patriotism in the war against Nazi Germany.

A Partisan's Mother Image: Gerasimov painting "A partisan's mother

And Russian women resisted the invaders as resolutely as the men.

Ruined City Image: Photo of people walking through a destroyed city

Twenty six million Soviet citizens, many millions of these women, died in this struggle.
Of course, many of the Bolsheviks repressed by Stalin were men. The point is that all prominent women were repressed, so that the entire government eventually consisted only of men.

Ekaterina Furtseva Image: Photo of Ekaterina Furtseva dancing

From the late 1920's to the time of perestroika only one woman held a high government post: Yekaterina Furtseva, the Minister of Culture during the 1960's. She was rumored to have been the mistress of Nikita Khrushchev.

Khruschev Image: Photo of Khruschev

Even after Stalin's death in 1953, the wives of Soviet leaders kept very much out of view. They cooked and cared for their husband's family far from prying public eyes.

Leonid and Viktoria Brezhnev Image: Photo of Leonid and Viktoria Brezhnev

Nina Khruscheva and Viktoria Brezhneva were better known for their borsch recipes than for their political convictions. Western reporters only learned that Konstantin Chernenko was married when his widow showed up at the funeral. Generally, Soviet women enjoyed social privileges only through relation to men in the Nomenklatura, the ruling Communist elite. This situation was not unlike Muscovite Russia, where royal women enjoyed economic privileges but no political power. For women, the Communist Revolution actually resulted in a reversal of the gains made in 1905 and 1917. The Bolsheviks promised to make kitchenmaids into stateswomen. Instead, they made stateswomen into kitchenmaids.

Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev Image: Photo of Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev

During perestroika, Raisa Gorbacheva began to break out of this mold. But ordinary Russians--women as well as men--generally regarded her as meddlesome and criticized Mikhail for not keeping his wife under firmer control.

Smolny Cathedral Image: Photo of Smolny Cathedral, St. Petersburg

What does the future hold for Russian women? Or for men?

Despite the new political freedom in Russia, the lives of ordinary women and men have become in many ways worse. Contrary to popular belief in the West, there is no really free market system in Russia today: all business is partly controlled by Mafia-like groups, many led by men from the old Nomenklatura. Foremost in the minds of most Russian women today is not feminism or abstract rights, but rather the need to survive from one day to the next. Economic chaos is seen as a greater enemy than democracy is seen as a friend.
In this way the Yeltsin years present an eerie resemblance to Kerensky's Provisional Government of 1917. Like Kerensky, Yeltsin also came to power in the wake of a popular uprising against an crumbling old regime. And his attempt at liberal democracy could fail just as completely.

I think I know in part how Russians will deal with whatever happens. Russians have a deep and abiding faith in the future of Mother Russia. This feeling was best expressed by the 19th century poet Tyutchev who wrote these four lines of verse:

Russian Poem

Russia cannot be understood by the mind

Or reckoned by some standard measure

Her stature is a different kind

Russia can only be believed in

Smolny Cathedral II Image: Smolny Cathedral

Despite an often tragic past and a chaotic present, Russian women and men still believe in their own future. After Yeltsin, will Russia be led by another Olga, who will build on the country's strengths? Or will it be ruled by someone who exploits the country's weaknesses and the people's insecurities to gain personal power?

Ultimately, only the Russian people can answer this. But this time--perhaps more than any other in Russian history--women may have a great deal to say in the matter.