Unattainable Bride Russia: Gendering Nation, State, and Intelligentsia in Russian Intellectual Culture


Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, personifications of Russia as a bride occur in a wide range of Russian texts and visual representations, from literature and political and philosophical treatises to cartoons and tattoos. Invariably, this metaphor functions in the context of a political gender allegory, which represents the relationships between Russia, the intelligentsia, and the Russian state, as a competition of two male suitors for the former’s love.

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Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, personifications of Russia as a bride occur in a wide range of Russian texts and visual representations, from literature and political and philosophical treatises to cartoons and tattoos. Invariably, this metaphor functions in the context of a political gender allegory, which represents the relationships between Russia, the intelligentsia, and the Russian state, as a competition of two male suitors for the former’s love.

In Unattainable Bride Russia, Ellen Rutten focuses on the metaphorical role the intelligentsia plays as Russia’s rejected or ineffectual suitor. Rutten finds that this metaphor, which she covers from its prehistory in folklore to present-day pop culture references to Vladimir Putin, is still powerful, but has generated scarce scholarly consideration. Unattainable Bride Russia locates the cultural thread and places the political metaphor in a broad contemporary and social context, thus paying it the attention to which it is entitled as one of Russia’s modern cultural myths.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810128699
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 3/31/2012
  • Series: SRLT Series
  • Pages: 340
  • Sales rank: 1,509,977
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Ellen Rutten is postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Foreign Languages at the University of Bergen, Norway.
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Read an Excerpt

Unattainable Bride Russia

By Ellen Rutten


Copyright © 2010 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2869-9

Chapter One

Apocalyptic Riders, World Souls, Westernized Boys, and Russian Girls: Before 1900

RECALLING A TRIP to the countryside, in 1826 Aleksandr Griboedov describes in an autobiographical sketch being captured by the sound of

melodious dancing songs, male and female voices, coming from the hill where we were earlier. Native songs! ... We walked back: already the place was full of blonde curly-haired peasant girls, all dressed in ribbons and beads; there was a boys' choir as well; I found the plucky features and free movements of two of them especially pleasing. Leaning against a tree, I involuntarily turned my eyes from the sweet-voiced singers toward the listeners-observers, that damaged class of half-Europeans to which I too belong. Everything they heard and saw seemed alien to them: those sounds were inaudible to their hearts, those dresses strange to them. What sort of black magic has made us foreigners among our own people!

Iurii Lotman has claimed that in this fragment "the tragic gap between aristocratic intelligentsia and people is first formulated in Russian literature." In the decades that followed, not only would the sense of such a gap be expressed more often; it would also become the leading theme in Russian intellectual discourse prior to the 1917 Revolution. Eventually, it would turn into the explicit gender metaphor of interest here.

The previous sections sketched the outlines of this gender metaphor. They tackled some of the theoretical questions that a study of its role in Russian culture needs to address. Before turning from these introductory remarks to the in-depth literary analyses, it is vital to answer one last preparatory question. As said earlier, the twentieth-century tendency to depict the land–intellectual elite–state relationship in terms of gender does not come out of the blue. Accordingly, this inquiry starts with an investigation into pre-twentieth-century developments that affected the metaphor's formation.


The tendency to conceptualize space in gender terms may be as old as mankind. It can be traced to folkloric motifs, such as the cult of feminizing the earth that existed in a number of primitive civilizations, including that of the Eastern Slavs. Ordinarily, female representations of the earth have a maternal nature, but in certain situations the earth is imagined in alternative terms, as a bride or a sexually attractive woman. Certain cultures, for example, regard a deceased man as the "bridegroom" of the earth, and in some agrarian civilizations, men literally penetrate and "impregnate" the earth in order to increase the harvest.

The ancient Russian designation for the earth was mat' syra zemlia or "moist mother earth." Here, too, the maternal dimension prevails but occasionally makes way for bridal connotations. Thus, as two possible hypostases of the Russian "mother earth" Sergei Domnikov discerns "the earth-maiden-beauty, dressed in grasses and decorated with flowers" and "the chaste maiden." In one legend, the folkloric character Iarilo appears as the groom-to-be of feminized "mother earth," asking her to be his beloved.

Associations of spatial with marital imagery also mark Russian marital folklore, in which marriage was compared to a battle and "the fiancé was likened to an invading force, the future bride to the land or a garden or orchard about to be despoiled."

Another important folkloric motif for the unattainable-bride metaphor is that of the izgoi. A key social category in early Russian culture, the term izgoi usually referred to a stranger or social outcast. The collective's attitude toward this stranger was often ambivalent: he was either treated as a foreign enemy and, as such, a demonic "object of animosity" to be avoided; or he was regarded as a magical sorcerer or shaman, and thus an object of "fear and respect." In characterizing the izgoi, Iurii Lotman and Boris Uspenskii point to his position "outside the home" and his "active opposition to society." As will be seen, the traditional image of the izgoi can easily be recognized in nineteenth- and twentieth-century conceptualizations of the westernized Russian intelligentsia. It plays a key role in the depiction of the modern intelligent as Russia's symbolic bridegroom.

The same is true of the other folkloric concepts mentioned here. It is important to realize, however, that in themselves these motifs do not refer to a distinctly national-Russian context. The battle motif in wedding rituals bore no allusion to concrete political frictions. Nor did the "moist mother earth" concept have national implications, for the simple reason that in ancient Russia people did not think in terms of national identity or pride. In Old Russian literature, mat' syra zemlia gradually came to designate specifically the Russian earth or land, but it was only in the nineteenth century that the notions mentioned appeared within the context of a debate on Russian national identity.


The metaphor as it appears in the twentieth century can also be traced to biblical concepts. A key pretext is the apocalyptic plot of the "woman clothed with the sun"—a personification of the people of God—and the dragon from which she is defended by the archangel Michael. The dragon passes his strength to a seven-headed beast that is ultimately defeated by a messianic rider on a white horse.

In later Christian culture, the "woman-clothed-with-the-sun" motif blends with fairy-tale plots and medieval chivalric imagery. Relevant for our metaphor is its inextricable fusion with the Christian legend of Saint George, who defeats a dragon in defense of his faith. Indicative of the popularity of this legend in Old Russian culture is the status of Saint George as patron of the Muscovite tsars. His legend by no means acquired a stable form in Russia, though: in time it coalesces with numerous other narratives, among which the dragon-slayer plot of Russian folktales is of prime importance. This plot can be summarized as the hero's attempt to liberate a captive princess from a snake, a dragon, or the evil folk character kashchei. His endeavors invariably end in triumph, which consists of both a marriage to the princess and the inheritance of her father's kingdom.

In modern Russian culture, the dragon-slayer plot is interlaced with yet another ancient plot: the fairy tale of the sleeping beauty, a girl bewitched by evil forces and in need of liberation by a prince. Under the influence of medieval imagery as reflected in the knighthood novels of Miguel Cervantes and Walter Scott, it has also merged with Western-oriented tales of knights fighting for the honor of their ladies.

While in no way referring to concepts of national identity as we understand them today, such plots do imply social or political collision. In Russian folktales, according to Vladimir Propp, "the struggle for the throne between the hero and the old tsar" reflects "the transition of power from the father to the son-in-law through a woman." In his words, this plot deals with "the replacement of one social system with another and the disparities and contradictions resulting from it." Its implication of political conflict is reinforced by the opposition of dragon and hero as foreign enemy and native prince, respectively. The sociopolitical implications were reinforced in later centuries: Savelii Senderovich has shown that both inside and outside Russia the political potential of the Saint George myth was exploited eagerly in military and political propaganda.

In the political metaphor discussed here, traditional dragon-slayer and sleeping-beauty narratives have undergone substantial changes. First of all, their outcome is inverted from invariably positive into just as invariably negative: where the hero traditionally conquers the dragon and marries the princess, the hero in the unattainable-bride myth succeeds neither in triumphing in battle nor in becoming the princess's husband. The seeds of this pessimist revision were sown previously in Russian wonder tales and bylinas, which often pit a distinctly "passive," "infant" hero against an "active" and "morally and spiritually superior" heroine. Secondly, in the traditional Saint George myth the dragon slayer represents the regime and its struggle against a foreign element, whereas in the works discussed here, the oppositional intelligentsia takes the role of the dragon slayer, and the state acts as the dragon.

Although the national- political appropriation of age-old plots becomes prominent only in the twentieth century, its roots lie in nineteenth-century Russian culture. Famous nineteenth-century adaptations of traditional kashchei and sleeping-beauty plots—by éminences grises like Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky—indicate the high degree of popularity they enjoyed in Russia at that time, albeit not yet in a sociopolitical context. In addition, in the second half of the century a sociopolitical dimension did figure in musical variations on the story. A prime example is Aleksandr Borodin's version of the sleeping beauty in lyrics for "Sleeping Princess" ("Spiashchaia kniazhna"). Written in 1867, this song is generally considered to reflect Borodin's ideas on the abolition of serfdom in the 1860s. Modest Mussorgsky explicitly interpreted its heroine as a symbol of Russia. If Mussorgsky was right, then Borodin offers the first inversion of the plot's traditional happy ending: his lyrics stage a "mighty bogatyr'" who is supposed to rescue his dormant beloved but fails to arrive. In the allegorical reading of the song, this failure was clearly understood as the intelligentsia's inability to free the Russian people.

Zara Mints has argued that the public saw similar political allegories in Peter Tchaikovsky's ballets, Sleeping Beauty (Spiashchaia krasavitsa, 1890) and Iolanta (1891)—and a Soviet study of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty states matter-of-factly that "in Russian history, Desire is associated with Peter, Russia's reformer, who has concluded a treaty with the capital [Petersburg] as female beauty." Chapter 2 tracks the increase of stories featuring captive princesses as political allegories in the first decade of the twentieth century, which culminates in the reception of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Kashchei the Immortal (Kashchei Bessmertnyi, 1905).

Thus, reconstruction of the political dimension of Borodin's, Tchaikovsky's, and Rimsky-Korsakov's works relies not on hints in the creations themselves but in public perception. By contrast, Semen Nadson's 1881–82 poem "Spring Tale" ("Vesenniaia skazka") overtly links sleeping-beauty motifs with sociopolitical concerns: its narrator states that it is in the "old legend" of the sleeping beauty that the hope of the present-day "dark times" resides. In the 1880s, the tale of an abducted princess was superimposed yet more openly on political concerns by the philosopher Vladimir Solov'ev. In his essay "The Russian Idea" ("Russkaia idea," 1880), he depicts the Russian idea as a human—supposedly female—figure, captured by "nasty and jealous eunuchs," and the tsar as her potential liberator.

Like Borodin's song, Solov'ev's and Nadson's adaptations of the classic narratives in question do not adopt their happy endings: in neither is the princess liberated. The tragic inversion of traditional plots in a political context does not take flight, however, until the early years of the twentieth century.


Apart from dragon-slayer motifs, Christian tradition provided the metaphor with another crucial element. This is the identification with Russia of female figures in Christian religion.

In Muscovy, the Mother of God acquired the ideologically motivated function of patroness of Russia and a number of its cities. In the Muscovite period—well before debates on Russian identity took shape—"the Mother of God, the Church, and the Russian earth" fuse "into one image," writes Mariia Pliukhanova. In architecture and iconography of this period, the cult of the so-called pokrov—the intercession or protection of the Mother of God—was transferred to the national sphere as well. One example is Red Square's crown jewel, the sixteenth-century Pokrovskii sobor (also known as Saint Basil's Cathedral), which was intended as an "ideal image of the Muscovite state" over which "the Mother of God spread out her pokrov" (literally, protective cloak). Linked to this concept was the tendency to conceive of Russia as the "House of the Mother of God," a frequently used phrase.

If the identification of the Mother of God with Russia appeared mostly in a context of maternal protection, then marital connotations dominated the Russian interpretation of another legendary female figure: Saint Sophia, or Divine Wisdom incarnate. First personifed as a female figure in the Old Testament, "Divine Sophia" was linked simultaneously with the sacred and the "lower" human world in Gnostic thought. According to Sergei Domnikov, Russian folk belief regarded her as the mother of Saint George—the "founder of the Russian earth"—and the Russian people were considered her "direct descendant." She was prominent in Russian orthodoxy, and the notion of patronage of Russia was no less vital to her myth than to that of the Mother of God. Muscovy saw the appearance of several Russian Sophia icons, and some of Russia's most famous churches are devoted to her.

Despite her ostensible "Russification," in this traditional- religious context Sophia should not be understood as a distinctly national image, even though she begins to appear as such in the second half of the eighteenth century. Influenced by a Sophia cult in German mysticism, at this time a number of Russian Freemasons and Romantics glorified the concept of a mystical marriage between man's soul and Sophia and cloaked this union in chivalric terms.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the Sophia cult moved into the national sphere. In 1789 Ivan Elagin suggests in his Essay for a Narrative on Russia (Opyt povestvovaniia o Rossii) that it was Sophia who asked him to describe Russia's history. Aleksandr Shakhovskoi's religious tragedy Debora (1809) is imbued with the Sophia-Russia idea, and according to Sander Brouwer, Sophia, "the marriageable girl around whose fate the dramatic plot" of Denis Fonvizin's The Minor (Nedorosl', 1782) "is built ... allegorically represent[s] Russia."

The fusion of Sophia veneration with nationalist ideas was no random development. It was enhanced by the nationalist revival that ensued from the Napoleonic Wars. These wars are mentioned explicitly in an ode by Nikolai Karamzin: envisioning Divine Wisdom as a female figure, the writer has her address the Russian people in a speech that prophesies their future triumph over Napoléon.

If Karamzin's Sophia embodies the strength of the Russian state in relation to other countries, then the same period also witnesses national conceptualizations of Sophia that do the exact opposite. It is here that the metaphoric constellation in which I am interested comes into view. Around 1820, the prevailing mood among the Russian intellectual elite begins to shift from state-oriented to anti-state. This change of mood coincides with representations of Sophia that, rather than associating her with the tsarist regime, portray her as "the embodiment of a genuinely free Russia." As such, Sophia features in the poetry of the Decembrist and poet Prince Aleksandr Odoevskii. In his "Old Prophetess-Nun" ("Staritsa-prorochitsa," 1829), the hero's inability to enter into a mystical marriage with "Saint Sophia" coincides with his failure to defend Novgorod. For Odoevskii, Saint Sophia unmistakably embodies this city, which the Decembrists glorified as the traditional ideal Russia as opposed to the contemporary Russian regime. In his "Virgin of the Year 1610" ("Deva 1610," 1827–30), the contraposition of a nationally characterized Sophia figure and the poet is similarly rendered as a failing amorous relationship. The poem shows Russia as a "heavenly virgin" who complains to the poet about the changes that her relationship to him—and to "the Slavs' sons" in general—has undergone. In intimate-amorous rhetoric, she accuses them of having "estranged yourselves from my beauty" and of failing to "hear my reproaches / ... where are the swords for the holy motherland, / for Rus', for fame, for me? / Why are you waiting?"


Excerpted from Unattainable Bride Russia by Ellen Rutten Copyright © 2010 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Chapter One Apocalyptic Riders, World Souls, Westernized Boys, and Russian Girls: Before 1900....................20
Chapter Two Wooing "My Rus'! My Wife!": (Pre- )Revolutionary Russia....................42
Chapter Three Virgin Russia Meets Lenin and Stalin: The Soviet Years....................112
Chapter Four Russia's Orgasm, or Marrying Putin: Late Soviet and Post- Soviet Culture....................152
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