‘Lost between enormous mountains’: Reconsidering the New Soviet Woman in the Cultural Periphery
By Hannah Parker
The period of socialist construction that followed the Russian Revolutions entailed huge upheavals to the personal and social lives of its citizens, in aid of the forging of the new Soviet person from the pre-revolutionary Russian person. This reconstruction of the Russian mind, body and soul permeated early Soviet discourse and everyday life.
The newly ‘emancipated’ Soviet woman became, after 1921, at least nominally granted entitlement to education, wage and labour equality, and reproductive and sexual autonomy, all of which would allegedly alleviate her suffering, rescuing her from the domestic slavery she had endured under capitalism, and reforging her as a New Soviet Woman.
My doctoral thesis seeks to understand the way that ordinary women in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s comprehended what it ‘meant’ to be a New Soviet Woman, using archival materials in the form of unpublished letters from women to newspapers, to analyse the language used by the author to write about one’s life, since ‘[if] anything, it would be a person’s failure to abide by prevailing linguistic norms and conventions, rather than the observance of them’.1 So, though much of this language was broadly determined by ‘appropriate’ Soviet discourse , it was nonetheless arguably revealing in its deviations.2
Since letters to authorities were often written using published letters to newspapers almost as a ‘template’, I’d initially expected to find an unremittingly uniform collection of correspondence, the analysis of which would be similarly formulaic – but this was far from the case: the sheer variety, vitality and honesty in the experiences relayed to officials was elucidating and captivating, despite the now quaint Soviet rhetoric in which they were couched.
Though keen to be able to fully portray the variety and vitality of the voices in my archival findings, I was acutely aware of the problems associated with writing about such large and diverse societies: researchers have long sought to draw attention to the significant variation within Soviet policy according to culture and region, elucidating a multiplicity of Soviet identities and communities, as well as the contradictions and conflicts in the Soviet imagination and its policy at the centre.
Yet, discovering more and more such letters from seemingly disparate areas of the Soviet Union, I began to question quite how peripheral the experiences of these women living geographically and/or culturally remotely from the urban Soviet centre might have been, and to address how I might situate their texts within my study.
Fortunately, the women themselves provided me with my first step in this direction: amongst the letters constituting the source-base for my thesis, the re-articulation of Soviet language does not appear to differ greatly from those produced closer to the ‘centre’. One such example, sent to Nadezhda Krupskaia3 in 1928, recounts the aspirations to self-education and liberation of a group of women from a village in Dagestan.4 They explained their situation as follows:
‘The Soviet regime has existed for twelve years, but we are women. Mountain girls are still so dark and not developed, we still have much, much to learn (uchit’sia), in order to throw off from ourselves the yoke of the old daily life (byt) and finally liberate ourselves from the old life.’5
To me, (though admittedly reflexive verbs are a relatively niche interest), what was immediately notable was the reflexive construction of the verbs used throughout the letter. The overwhelming tone of the letter is one of self-mobilisation. The women seek legitimacy from Krupskaia, and direction, but not aid. This is not necessarily at odds with contemporary public discourse, and reflexivity is not unusual in Russian speech, yet it is quite notably not the passive voice often associated with ‘liberated’ women of the non-Russian Soviet Republics.6
The women continue, describing their activities to this end in greater detail:
‘And so in order to go out to the bright road which will lead us to a bright future, we at the aul opened a Saklya for mountain girls, to which we gave your name: “Saklya for Village Women im. Krupskaia”, in order to find a brighter future. 7 This is the first [such] hut in our distant and remote area lost between enormous mountains. We earnestly desire that you take patronage over our Saklya, and would direct us dark mountain women, and we believe that, guided by your hand, we will arrive to/at our bright future, and finally throw off from ourselves the old byt.
In describing themselves as “lost between enormous mountains”, the women clearly perceive themselves as geographically peripheral to the centre. However, the geographical significance of the village serves only to delay the spread of Soviet values and identities, rather than as a true obstacle: the identity is not necessarily something ‘other’ or ‘alien’.
There is no real dissonance between the culture of their village in Dagestan and that of the Soviet regime, it is simply the detail of the old ‘byt’ which needs to be transformed. Indeed, in using the term byt rather than ‘old regime’ was rather ‘on the button’ in terms of the Soviet language, replicating what was primarily used in posters of the decade.
The letter was signed by all members of the group present: ‘mountain girls’ was written in Russian, as were one or two signatures, with the majority of the party signing in Arabic, the language in which literacy was instructed in Dagestan, or, ‘For the illiterate, the relevant finger [print]’.8 The varying degrees of literacy indicate a degree of diversity amongst the women in the group in terms of the extent of their engagement: all were presumably in the process of acquiring literacy and were thus to some extent engaged with the Soviet project, yet we might assume that not all were ‘veterans’ of socialist construction.
The letter from the ‘mountain girls of Dagestan’ reads in a similar manner to the group letters of delegates to Krupskaia at this time from women closer to the assumed ‘centre’. Presumably, as with many group letters sent to authorities around this time, letters published in party newspapers or journals at this time would quite possibly have been used as a reference point. Nonetheless, the letter was signed ‘mountain girls’, rather than ‘delegates’, ‘comrades’, or ‘Komsomolki’ or any such party moniker.
This challenges preconceptions about fundamental ‘difference’ in social identities based on region alone. The language used was evidently considered ‘appropriate’ for a letter from non-party women; indeed, their marginalised status may have been considered yet more appropriate as a literary device, in bargaining for the guidance of the authorities.
Therefore, though letters sent from rural, Caucasian or Central Asian areas do indeed express a sense of geographic and, to some extent cultural, remoteness, this is articulated in a manner reflecting both Soviet or Bolshevik and contemporary academic conceptions of centre and periphery, rather than a truly internalised sense of ‘other-ness’. While these women of the Soviet ‘periphery’ who were committed to socialist construction may have been relatively few, they were not insignificant, nor were they totally alien to their peers.9
As such, texts articulating the identities of women in areas geographically remote from the Soviet centre of power can be situated amongst the texts of Soviet women, as well as the texts of the Soviet periphery, in order to fully illuminate the social reception of the ideal of the New Soviet Woman, in all its plurality.
NB. I am keen to explore further the constant references within this letter – extremely common in letters from all demographics – to ‘darkness’, and ‘light’, which formed an intrinsic feature of at least Soviet, tsarist, Orthodox imagery. Yet, its particular function, and its origin is not yet clear.
(All images except the poster (Sovietposters.com) are from WikiCommons; postal stamps of the Dagestani Republic, and a postcard sent to an address in Leningrad, 1925)
Hannah Parker is a third-year PhD student in Sheffield’s History Department. Her thesis examines the language used by ‘Soviet’ women in their letters to the state, to comprehend how they understood the ‘New Soviet Woman’ in the twenties and thirties. More broadly, her research interests include most aspects of Russian and Soviet history, particularly social histories of gendered and/or marginalised groups in the revolutionary and early Soviet period. She jointly runs a blog exploring discourse under ‘Authoritarian’ regimes, and is one of the co-founders of Sheffield Modern International History Group.
1 H. Mondry, J.R. Taylor, ‘The cultural dynamics of “national character”: the case of the new Russians’, in A. Athanasiadou, E. Tabakowska (eds.), Speaking of Emotions: Conceptualisation and Expression, (New York, 1998), p. 31.↩
3 Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaia (Lenin’s wife) was the deputy to the People’s Commissar for Education until 1920, when she was appointed chair of the education committee. Krupskaia was described by Lunacharskiy, the chair until 1920 as “the soul of Narkompros” (Fitzpatrick, 1970: 54).↩
6 Wierzbicka discusses dative and reflexive grammatical behaviours of emotional and subjective expressions Russian in A. Wierzbicka, ‘”Sadness” and “anger” in Russian: the non-universality of the so-called “basic human emotions”, in A. Athanasiadou, E. Tabakowska (eds.), Speaking of Emotions: Conceptualisation and Expression, (New York, 1998), p. 12.↩