Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929

Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929

by Eliot Borenstein

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379904
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 601 KB

About the Author

Eliot Borenstein is Assistant Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University.

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Men Without Women

Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929

By Eliot Borenstein

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7990-4



Bolshevik Chivalry, Female Sacrifice, and the End of the Marriage Plot

Then the Cossacks entered the room. They laughed, and grabbed Sashka by the arm and threw her onto a mountain of materials and books. Sashka's body, blooming and stinking, like the meat of a freshly slaughtered cow, exposed itself, her raised skirts uncovered the legs of the squadron's lady, wrought-iron, firm legs, and Kurdyukov, a moronic lad, mounted Sashka and shook as though in the saddle, pretending to be carried away by passion. She threw him off and ran to the door. And only then, passing by the altar, did we proceed into the church. — Isaac Babel, "At Saint Valentine's" (1920/1924)

Among the tramps there was one girl, her eyes currant-colored and timid, as if someone had waved his arm over them, her hair flowed like a downpour onto her shoulders. She was silent throughout the trip, was silent when the tramps fought and she didn't look at Ivan; she silently followed them. "You've seen the tsaritsa," said the guide to Ivan. 'We brought her from the Caspian itself and watch over her like a bride. She's our only property." — Andrei Platonov, "A Story about Many Interesting Things" (1923)

Despite a common interest in wide-reaching social change, communism and feminism proved to be strange bedfellows; it was hardly a match made in heaven, and by the time Stalin's new family code was introduced in 1936, communism would abandon feminism, citing irreconcilable differences. Nor were the literary manifestations of this alliance free from conflict; though the equal status of women was an official component of the new postrevolutionary order, literary texts of the period are often indicative more of the anxiety over female equality rather than equality itself. While Dasha's development as a bol'shevichka (Bolshevik woman) in Cement may be compelling, her primary function is to highlight the lack of political consciousness of her otherwise heroic husband Gleb. Olga Zotova, the heroine of Aleksei Tolstoi's "Viper" ("Gadiuka" 1928) becomes a Red soldier, slaughters her White enemies, and more than earns her reptilian nickname. While she still travels with her fellow soldiers, Zotova tries her best to fit in unobtrusively, dressing and behaving like a man, but her presence among the men defies the conventions of both gender and genre: a woman in fiction usually signals the romance and marriage plots, while a woman in a bivouac is most likely a nurse or a camp follower. Inevitably, the plots of love and war become one, and the Viper finds herself pursuing the affections of her commander Emelyanov, who restrains himself admirably: "I'd make you my wife, Olya, but I can't now, you understand" (A. N. Tolstoi 4:207). Zotova fights alongside the men for over a year, a virgin all the while.

Contrary to claims by many post-Soviet postfeminists in Russia, the bol'shevichka (or at least her fictional sister) was never so thoroughly "masculinized" by communism's "unnatural" assertions of total sexual equality that she could simply lose herself in the crowd and become "one of the boys." Zotovas feminine beauty, barely hidden by her soldier's garb, initially puts her comrades out of sorts: "the young cavalrymen fidgeted and the older ones were moody when Zotova ... walked through the smoke filled barracks" (A. N. Tolstoi 4:93). Nor can Zotova overcome her modesty: she rejects all suggestions that she bathe with her fellow soldiers. Even the ideologues of Platonov's Chevengur, who so desperately want to see women revolutionaries as simply comrades, clearly consider such an attitude an act of iron will. Emelyanov in "The Viper" appears to have the necessary fortitude; rather than follow up on his obvious attraction to Zotova, it is his idea to cut her hair and dress her like a man. And yet his efforts to make "no distinction between her and the men" (nichem ne vydelial sredi boitsov) entail a constant struggle; sometimes Zotova is convinced he is gazing at her with an "unbrotherly feeling" (nebratskim chuvstvom), and after he sees her bathing at the well, he begins to keep his distance (A. N. Tolstoi 4:199,197).

Attempts to achieve equality between the sexes through a kind of "gender leveling" easily became grist for the Soviet satiric mill: when Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky of Mikhail Bulgakov 's Heart of a Dog (Sobach'e serdtse, 1925) is faced with a delegation from the local housing committee, his attention is immediately drawn to one of the "comrades," who, though dressed exactly like his fellow proletarians, is shorter than the rest and looks younger:

"First of all, we are not gentlemen [gospoda], "... said the youngest of the four, who looked like a peach.

"First of all," interrupted Filipp Filippovich, "are you a man or a woman?"

The four again fell silent and opened their mouths. This time the first of them recovered himself ...

"What's the difference, comrade?" he asked haughtily.

"I'm a woman," admitted the peachy boy in the leather jacket, and he blushed a deep red. Then one of them — the blond one in the fur hat — for some reason blushed thickly.

"In that case you can keep your cap on, while I must ask you, sir, to remove your hat," said Filipp Filippovich imposingly. (Bulgakov 2:135)

From this point on, the fourth comrade is referred to as "the boy who turned out to be a woman," "one woman dressed as a man," and the "boy-woman" (iunosha-zhenshchina) (2:137, 206). When she refers to herself as the "director" (zaveduiushchii), he interrupts her: "Di-rec-tress" (Za-ve-duiushchaiia) (2:139).

The rather disparate examples of Bulgakov and Aleksei Tolstoi show two important features of male-female relations in the fiction of the 1920s: first, attempts to deny gender differences inevitably fail; second, the female characters are outnumbered. The fictional male collective in the earlier Soviet period was most often confronted by a single woman rather than by a group; thus, the woman's obvious difference from her male counterparts would be exacerbated by her minority or token status. Oddly enough, her position prefigures the perennial lament of the (usually female) Soviet salesclerk to the impatient mobs of frustrated shoppers: "There are lots of you and only one of me" (Vas mnogo, ia odna).


If comradeship in Soviet fiction is characteristic of the male experience, where does this leave women? The problem immediately suggests an algebraic simile that is perhaps appropriate to the pretensions of "scientific" communism; it is as though the men have finally solved a particularly difficult mathematical problem, only to discover that they have left something out of the equation: the inevitable remainder is women. This masculine group would prefer to be completely sufficient unto itself, with no need of feminine support or interaction. However, the unavoidable encounter between the male collective and female outsiders (or would-be female members) leaves the group bereft of a viable model for incorporating the feminine. The traditional solution to this problem is exogamous marriage, which resolves the competing demands of the biological family (ties of blood) and social, extrabiological bonds by "wedding" the two into a unit that will, in turn, extend the family line into another generation. Though marriage might seem to be a personal contract between one man and one woman, we recall Lévi-Strauss's theory that marriage has always served to facilitate the cohesion of the male group: it is through the exchange of women that potentially hostile entities establish peaceful ties. In fiction, marriage also served a distinct narrative function, acting as the signal that the novels plot can now be considered finished; the author who employs the marriage plot resembles nothing more than an impatient matchmaker who cannot rest until all parties are safely married. Yet early Soviet literature underwent a generic conflict that mirrored the larger ideological struggle: work after work flirts with the marriage plot, only to reject it outright. Volodya Makarov's wedding plans in Olesha's Envy are anything but romantic; yes, he writes his benefactor, he and Valya will get married — three or four years from now (see chapter 4). In Ilya Ehrenburg's Life and Downfall of Nikolai Kurbov (1922), the romance between a chekist (secret policeman) and a counterrevolutionary idealist is doomed from the start, and not only because the lovers are on opposite sides of the political barrier. For the chekist Kurbov, marriage itself is an unthinkable compromise with his revolutionary ideals: "To get married and peacefully coexist?" Their love is consummated not in a wedding, but in Kurbov's suicide: "And with that he brought together two lovers, the gun barrel and his temple" (Erenburg 383-84).

If the marriage plot failed individual characters, it was so utterly alien to the collectivist works of hardcore proletarians as to be beyond all generic possibility. Though the socialist collective was often represented in the first few years of the Soviet state as one giant male worker, this communist "Frankenstein's monster" was never to demand of his creator a collective female bride. By the same token, though the collective was also portrayed as an aggregation of men rather than their symbolic conglomeration, group wedding ceremonies with corresponding female collectives would have to wait for the advent of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. After an examination of the bond that unites Soviet men into a single desiring subject, we shall explore the model adopted and distorted for its "courtship" of the female outsider and discover that no matter how diverse the relationships analyzed might be, the structure of the encounter is the same. The male collective must find a way to make the woman serve to cement, rather than rupture, the male bond: either the woman is exalted as a quasiholy object of collective male desire, or she is an obstacle whose elimination serves to bind the collective together ever more tightly.


With the balance of power slanted in favor of the men, the woman's status will be largely contingent on the respect accorded her by the male collective; she can be either placed on a pedestal or derided for her unmanliness, but it is highly unlikely that she will simply be accepted as one among equals: difference will out. When the men see her womanhood as a mark of distinction, the result might be called "Bolshevik chivalry"; the coarse, brutish men are uplifted by the presence of a divine feminine creature for whom they are willing to lay down their lives. Such is the case in Platonov's 1923 "A Story about Many Interesting Things" ("Rasskaz o mnogikh interesnykh veshchakh"), whose hero, Ivan Kopchikov, encounters a band of twenty Bolshevik beggars and one woman, whom they call the Caspian Bride (Kaspiiskaia nevesta). Far from being a source of rivalry or competition, the Caspian Bride unites the men together more firmly, a fact that Ivan quickly comes to understand: "Through her we listen to the world," Ivan said to himself. "Through her it's possible to become brothers [pobratat'sia] with everything, to be one with the sun and the stars, and there won't be any need for work, or spite, or struggle. Everywhere will be brotherhood, visible and invisible ... There will be a brotherhood of stars, of beasts, of grasses and man" (Platonov, Starik 65). A similar dynamic is at work in Chevengur, in which the quixotic Kopyonkin wants to unite the men of his regiment around the icon (or perhaps pin-up) of Rosa Luxemburg, a revolutionary idol who combines all the qualities that Platonov's men find desirable in a woman: she is ethereal, distant, and dead. While this is not quite what the Vera Pavlovnas of prerevolutionary radical fiction dreamed of, it is far more benign than the alternative: humiliation, gang rape, or ritual murder.

The two different reactions (Bolshevik chivalry vs. female sacrifice) seem reminiscent of that classic paradigm, the division of women into madonnas and whores. This is perhaps to be expected: if, as Gray suggests, the male comrades submerge their egos (and perhaps libidos) into that of the collective, there is no reason to assume that this attitude toward women should be substantially different from that of the individual men who form the group. In this case, it is phylogeny that recapitulates ontogeny. It would then also follow, however, that the male collective is no less prone to disenchantment than the individual idealist when the beloved fails to live up to impossible expectations. Thus it all too often happens that the Bolshevik madonna suddenly falls to the level of her despised earthly double; and if she does not share Rosa Luxemburg's fortune in being dead before the story begins, she may well be on her way to joining her.

While the opposition of madonna to whore is hardly exclusive to the Russian context, the juxtaposition (and even conflation) of the two was a commonplace of Russian literature before the Soviet period. The Russian literary tradition is quite tolerant of the fallen woman, but only of the woman who has already fallen, who is introduced to us not simply as a woman, but as a dilemma. When the male protagonist(s) encounter her, the narrative usually plays itself out within the paradigm of redemption and salvation. That is, the male hero attempts to perform a kind of moral alchemy, transforming the base metal of the prostitute into the precious gold of the madonna. Mary Magdalene, the redeemed New Testament prostitute who shares the name of the Mother of God, held a fascination for both Dostoevsky and Tolstoi. While the Mary Magdalene subtext is prominent in The Idiot, it leads to the virtual conflation of the madonna and whore in Crime and Punishment's Sonya. Tolstoi's Katyusha Maslova also follows the Mary Magdalene pattern in Resurrection, but here her salvation is merely instrumental to the transformation of her long-ago seducer, Nekhlyudov. The impulse to "save" such women can be attributed to a variety of motives, from a combination of vanity and a misguided sense of social duty (Likhonin in Kuprin's The Pit) to a selfish need to dominate (Notes from Underground). Indeed, one might argue that the attempts at redemption work precisely in that they sublimate the initial sexual arousal provoked by the prostitute into a moral one: it is her plight, and not her body, that is considered provocative. Tolstoi's Maslova understands this better than anyone and early on resolves that "she would not give herself to him, would not allow her to use him spiritually as he had used her bodily" (L. N. Tolstoi 10: 259). For the attempt at salvation to be made, the male protagonist must first transform the prostitute in his own mind from a sex object to a moral object (or, in the eyes of Kuprin's doctor, lawyer, and journalist who visit a brothel under the pretext of "professional" interest, a "scientific" one). Structurally, however, the roles played by these women are identical: as sounding boards for fantasy and desire, they destroy the male subjects either sexually (by giving them syphilis) or morally (by causing financial ruin and nervous breakdowns).

The link between the prerevolutionary literary prostitute and the postrevolutionary male collective is not, however, limited to the hero's capacity to be disappointed in women. The connection is also structural, in that the encounter with the prostitute serves as one of the primary models for interaction between one woman and a group of men. It is customary to treat the theme of the prostitute in terms of her relationship with one particular man, yet the actual meeting between the prostitute and the individual male protagonist usually takes place in anything but an intimate context. Here, in fact, we have the closest thing to the "collective group marriage" briefly entertained by Platonov's Chevengurians; time after time, the prostitute 's client arrives at the brothel in the company of at least two of his male friends. Even the misanthropic underground man first encounters the prostitute Liza only because his wounded pride prompts him to follow his old schoolmates on their expedition to a Petersburg brothel. The underground man has no money and had no apparent desire for female companionship on that night. Rather, he goes to the brothel for the same reason he invites himself to Zverkov's farewell dinner: to prove that he belongs in their company. "Either they'll fall to their knees, hugging my legs, begging for my friendship, or ... or I'll give Zverkov a slap in the face!" (Dostoevskii 4: 512). Only after he discovers that he has arrived too late, that his schoolmates have already paired off with prostitutes and gone their separate ways, does the underground man notice Liza; sex with her becomes a consolation prize for his inability to become part of the male group.


Excerpted from Men Without Women by Eliot Borenstein. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Note on Translations and Translitereation xiii

Introduction: Brothers and Comrades 1

Chapter One
The LadyKillers: Bolshevik Chivalry, Female Sacrifice and the End of the Marriage Plot 43

Chapter Two
Isaak Babel: Dead Fathers and Songs 73

Chapter Three
The Family Men of Yuri Olesha 125

Chapter Four
The Object of Ency: Androgyny, Love Triangles, and the Uses of Women 162

Chapter Five
Puritans and Proletarians: Andrei Platonov's Asexual Revolution, 1919-1923 191

Chapter Six
Chevengur: Buried in the Family Plot 225

Fathers and Furies 264

Notes 277

Works Cited 327

Index 341

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