THE RUSSIAN WRITER Alexei Remizov (1877–1957) was, by all accounts, a strange man — an amateur medievalist, barber, pyrotechnician, calligrapher, and dream interpreter. Yet despite — or perhaps because of — these strange interests, he was also an attentive observer of the widespread violence in early 20th-century Russia.
On the face of it, Remizov’s 1910 Sisters of the Cross, recently translated by Roger Keys and Brian Murphy, is a typical modernist novel. A young man named Marakulin wanders an urban wasteland, unsure what to do with his violent impulses. But this is only a frame for a series of women’s narratives. When Marakulin is fired from his cushy job as a financial clerk, he moves to Burkov House, a St. Petersburg apartment building home to many working-class women. In the kitchen and communal spaces, Marakulin’s neighbors share their stories of sexual violence. Just as the apartment building houses these women’s stories, Remizov settles them within the edifice of the novel.
He’s not the first Russian author to turn his ear to women. Peasant women’s speech is the bedrock of Russian literature. Alexander Pushkin was inspired by his nanny’s folktales. Vladimir Dal and Nikolai Leskov tried to recreate peasant dialect on the page. Socially conscious writers of the 1850s and ’60s, like the poet Nikolai Nekrasov and the prose writer Gleb Uspensky, described the suffering of peasant women to provoke readers’ moral indignation. Remizov certainly flirts with this appropriative tradition. After being falsely charged, as a student, for resisting the police during a demonstration, he was sentenced to exile in the Russian North for six years. There he became close with a mother and her three daughters, who told him stories. He wrote his first published work, The Lament of a Girl Before Marriage, during this period, in 1902.
It’s unclear why Remizov was so interested in sexual violence, but in his novel he avoids lapsing into voyeurism. He doesn’t visualize every detail in the interest of “realism”; instead, he narrates women narrating their trauma. Remizov’s subject is not rape itself, but the psychological experiences and narrative strategies of rape survivors.
An old peasant woman named Akumovna remembers how, at 13, she was repeatedly raped by the nobleman on the estate where she worked. Years later, her niece Fedosia was sent to the same estate to the younger master. More recently, the young Verushka was hired as a nanny in St. Petersburg. When she returned home with her employer, he locked her in an attic and forced her into sexual slavery. When the building caught fire, she was able to escape and move into Burkov House.
The most extended and touching story belongs to Zhenia, Marakulin’s long-dead mother. Hers is the only story we hear from the novel’s narrator, rather than from the woman herself. In this sense, Zhenia’s story lives outside of Burkov House — known to the reader but to no one else. The young Zhenia, in love with her brother’s radical friend, volunteers to prepare political pamphlets at a factory. There, she is repeatedly raped by Tsyganov, another radical student, over the course of a year. After he disappears, Zhenia’s brother begins to rape her. Then her father’s assistant, then two others. Throughout these years of serial rape, Zhenia keeps quiet and blames herself. She imagines her abusers as “blind,” unable to witness her pain and protestations. Finally, Zhenia tries to express her trauma visually. During a Good Friday service, she appears naked before the congregation and slashes crosses all over her body. Despite the severity of her wounds, only one scar remains: a small cross on her brow. This scar is what the 10-year-old Marakulin remembers from his mother’s burial, though he doesn’t know the story behind it.
Marakulin’s boyhood ignorance grows into a more sinister, adult form of disregard. As the novel goes on, and more and more women describe their sexual trauma within Marakulin’s earshot, we realize that he isn’t listening. The center of the novel is neither Marakulin nor the women, but the staggering epistemological gap between them.
The gap itself is the condition for Marakulin’s cruelty. And, in order to preserve the gap — to avoid witnessing others’ pain — Marakulin resorts to further cruelty. At one point, a woman from Burkov House smiles “a smile that made one feel sick at heart.” Marakulin reacts violently:
And Marakulin suddenly wanted to get up himself and gouge out the eyes of one of the women […] The other woman he wanted to stifle to make her stop smiling, and then there would be no more of that smile, proclaiming with barefaced effrontery that here is a besmirched soul that has been violated; she had no reason to live, she had nothing to do, she had no place in this world.
Marakulin takes on the view of the perpetrator — the aversion toward witnessing, the desire to destroy the victim rather than acknowledge or interpret their trauma.
His denial is most striking when Verushka moves into Burkov House, having just escaped the attic where she was assaulted every night by several men. Remizov recounts their first meeting:
“Shall I call you Vera?”
“Verushka or Verochka,” the girl replied, quietly somehow, and gloomily, stumbling over the words; then as though embarrassed for some reason, she took a step back.
“And even Verochka, how about that?” said Marakulin, looking at her with a kind of delight and suddenly rising to his feet. But she went out into the corridor to hide behind Akumovna, and when she returned to the kitchen she was tapping about with something or, God knows why it happens with people, could it have been his heart beating?
“Sir, I really want to ask you one thing: don’t touch her!”
“How could you even think of such a thing? Don’t be ridiculous!” he said, but he sat down like someone who had been caught out.
Reading this, I feel a surge of satisfaction when Akumovna intervenes. It’s the same rush that Emerald Fennell delivers tenfold in her recent film, Promising Young Woman. Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spends her nights at bars pretending to be drunk and waiting for men to start assaulting her. When she catches them in the act, she confronts them in her full, sober glory. Cassie’s husky and pointed phrase — “What are you doing?” — marks her shift from the position of the victim to that of the person in charge. Critic Olivia Giovetti notes that Cassie “forces men to watch themselves as they look at women.” Remizov does the same here, as Akumovna effectively asks, “What are you doing?”
Like Fennell, who deftly and hilariously probes the rapists’ point of view in her film, Remizov inhabits the perspectives of victim, abuser, and bystander. In a new collection, The Little Devil and Other Stories, translated by Antonina W. Bouis, he situates sexual violence within a world of mystical, sinister forces. In the title story, a cockroach exterminator takes women into inns and kills them. In another, a monk named Father Lis rapes the washerwomen who clean the monastery floors. Eventually, writes Remizov, “every female pilgrim knew Father Lis,” and over the years little doubles of the monk start showing up at church services. In these provincial communities, sexual violence is only hinted at, never named. Remizov narrates it in nudges and winks, as if assuming the voice of a village gossip (a voice that Bouis renders perfectly).
Yet in stories about sexual violence Remizov’s narrative polyphony is more disturbing than impressive. By giving all these perspectives equal weight, Remizov fails to correct the cultural imbalance, in which survivors’ voices are suppressed. In this case, “polyphony” is just a literary synonym for “he said, she said.” So what — whom — does Remizov actually believe? And how much dignity does he grant his women characters?
At one point in Sisters of the Cross, Akumovna despairs that she has failed to protect Verushka from abuse in Burkov House. She tells Marakulin that she will go to the tsar and ask for help. Marakulin insists that this is impossible. Remizov writes:
She carried on insisting for a long time, and then suddenly she fell silent: she was resigning herself. And Marakulin could hear her whispering the final words with which she would leave this mortal life — retribution and reward for all that had happened:
“No one should be blamed.”
“Then who is guilty, Akumovna?”
“I am an ignorant person, I know nothing,” she replied, smiling and looking at you from time to time from some other place, as might a holy fool.
What has happened to Akumovna, matriarch of Burkov House, survivor, protector of young women? Is she exonerating Verushka’s rapists out of Christian compassion? Or is she adopting the hegemonic tendency to sympathize with the rapist more than the victim? Or has the character Akumovna been usurped, in an uncanny twist, by Remizov the author?
Akumovna’s insistence that “no one is to blame” strikingly resembles a scene in Remizov’s 1912 novel, The Fifth Pestilence (translated in 1927 by Alec Brown). A provincial merchant installs mirrors on all the walls of his hut — all the better to see his young wife, Vasilisa, whom he forces to walk around the house naked. Tired of being humiliated, Vasilisa seeks help from Shapaev, the village priest (who was thought, by critics, to parody Rasputin). The priest exorcises her by raping her repeatedly. Vasilisa complains to Bobrov, the district judicial investigator. When Bobrov interrogates Shapaev, the priest admits to curing Vasilisa through “fornication.” However, Shapaev insists that no one is to blame, that it is human to err, and that guilt is reserved not for the criminal, but for the one who condemns and punishes him. Bobrov lets him off.
It’s strange to imagine Akumovna in league with Shapaev, a shameless rapist. It’s as though Remizov used Akumovna for her pathos-filled rape narrative and then discarded her in the very moment when she might levy a social critique. Remizov bridges the epistemological gap between abusers and survivors, only to tear it wide open again.
Amid this chaotic back-and-forth, I am still impressed by him. Remizov reveals the way trauma recurs in the mind, body, and speech of the survivor. He exposes the absurd normalization of sexual violence in Russian society in his time. And he shows how individuals — Marakulin, Father Lis, and others — embody this societal threat. Remizov takes pride in all the things he’s managed to notice. “If people studied each other carefully and took note of one another,” he writes in Sisters of the Cross, “if they all were granted eyes with which to see, then only a heart of stone would be able to bear all the horror and mystery of life. Or perhaps none of us would need a heart of stone if only individuals took note of one another.”
He’s right — observation is key. “You thought you’d gotten away with it because everyone had forgotten,” says Cassie in Promising Young Woman when she finally catches her friend’s rapist. “But I haven’t.” For Cassie, observation is only the beginning of justice. She goes on to punish the perpetrator. Remizov, however, is content just to observe. “Teaching people to be human is an empty task,” he wrote in 1956. “Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Gogol can handle morality and pedagogy.”
Remizov’s maddening refusal of ethical responsibility is what makes his polyphonic narratives so haunting. It’s easy to write him off as a modernist aesthete, but harder to kick the feeling of betrayal. It’s the same betrayal that E. T. A. Hoffman’s Nathaniel feels when he realizes that the woman he’s fallen in love with is actually an automaton built by an evil genius — because I did fall in love with Akumovna, Verushka, Zhenia, and Vasilisa. So, the task is this: to love these characters without, like Nathaniel, losing your mind. To believe them — and believe in them — even if their author doesn’t.