Ideal Relationships: On Women and Community in Russian Literature

May 15, 2021   •   By Sharon Cameron

Only Among Women: Philosophies of Community in the Russian and Soviet Imagination, 1860–1940

Anne Eakin Moss

FROM THE TITLE of Anne Eakin Moss’s book, Only Among Women: Philosophies of Community in the Russian and Soviet Imagination, 1860–1940, I anticipated a straightforward history but instead found myself immersed in an experimental project whose pleasures lie in the interplay of connections brought to light in a novel investigation of women’s relationships. Thus, at its conclusion, the author recalls a fiction which describes “the practical twentieth-century Russian [female] reader” who, “upon reading Madame Bovary, […] muses, ‘Poor thing, she should have bought herself a sewing machine!’ a distinctly Chernyshevskian solution.” For the sewing machine and the ideological relationships that grow up around it figure heroically as well as pragmatically at the beginning of the story told by this study.

The book explores the rise of “idealized relationships between women in Russian literature and culture from the age of high realism and the classic Russian novel to socialist realism and Stalinist film.” It is a dense and complex interweaving of cultural and ideological strands, and the discussions in each chapter offer penetrating readings of the texts in relation to their historical, philosophical, and literary contexts, as well as readings of Soviet films of the 1930s. This panoramic and nuanced treatment of women’s communities that evolve across almost a century in the Russian and Soviet imagination is a subject that Eakin Moss assembles, identifies, and evaluates in relation to the Slavophile-Westerner controversy whose “visions of community” she sees as “intertwined,” and not, as is “classically” thought, opposed.

Her chapter titles are economical — “Imagined,” “Rational,” “Organic,” “Inoperative,” “Erotic,” “Bolshevik,” and “Traumatic”— and elegantly distill the subjects thereafter examined in depth. Generous introductions orient readers to what will follow, before they are plunged into details of analysis and argument. Initial chapters focus on diverse conceptions of Russian community, starkly governed, at least in the initial discussions, by “rational egoism” and its transcendence. In “Imagined,” Eakin Moss considers the political implications of both kinds of vision, as well as other models of community suggested by Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperative Community (1986). In “Rational,” she probes Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? (1863) which, she says, “emerged practically fully formed from the journalism of the late 1850s and early 1860s.” Chernyshevsky invests his heroine Vera Pavlovna with both reason and the vision of a utopian future that will surpass it. Through a series of dreams, Vera Pavlovna comes to understand “the common plight of women throughout history and her role in their liberation.” That emancipation begins in the present when she establishes a women’s sewing commune that models a future in which the happiness of each is contingent on the happiness of all. The sewing collective is thus “a catalyst for revolutionary progress toward a utopian future infused with socialist ideals.” In “Organic,” on the other hand, Tolstoy’s War and Peace presents a contrary model of an intuitive and thus natural transcendence of individuality based on “elective affinity” and “tender friendship that exists only among women.” The paradigm is Marya and Natasha’s dislike for each other that, after Andrei’s death, unexpectedly turns into a “passionate friendship,” explicable in terms of “an organic unity generated by divine love.”

While the first three chapters assess archetypes of women’s communities based “on instinct, reason, or […] shared experience,” the last three introduce texts and films in which women’s communities are compromised by fragmentation, tumult, and violence. “Inoperative” considers the Chekhov stories that register “skepticism about community based on transcendent values,” and concludes by examining Kira Muratova’s Chekhovian Motifs (2002), a cinematic adaptation of the stories that reflects an “‘unworking’ of community” (italics added), while “Erotic” tracks the portrayal of women’s community “in decadent, naturalist, and symbolist literature of the turn of the twentieth century.” The latter chapter bears down on communal violence that erupts in a brothel, first as portrayed by the rage of Vasiliev, the protagonist in Chekhov’s “A Nervous Breakdown” (1889), for whom prostitutes as “a collective” are “savages and animals,” then by Gorky’s Vaska in “Vaska the Red” (1900), in which Chekov’s “de-idealization of the brothel” deepens and darkens when prostitutes intoxicated by “carnivalesque violence” become “avenging Furies” who attack and almost kill Vaska. “Bolshevik” explores the upbeat mythologies of Stalinist films of the 1930s, in which “party loyalty,” the “love of labor,” and the love of Stalin characterize all female spaces. In an odd twist on the Cinderella story that is at once pluralized and singularized (one shoe fits all), a “female collective” has eyes only for Stalin, and he only for them. This revision of “the heterosexual narrative of patriarchal possession” fulfills a “figurative homogenization of Soviet Society” into something like “Stalin’s harem.”

Each chapter of Only Among Women displays a distinctive facet of the author’s expertise. “Inorganic” offers close readings of Chekhov’s “Peasants,” “Peasant Women,” and the astonishing “In the Ravine.” The chapter is memorable for the sites in which Eakin Moss locates transcendence, among them, unexpectedly, in “the incantation of rhythmic, alliterative prose” and in the shared perception of nature, that “ether that makes communication possible.” “Erotic” establishes ties across Chekhov’s “A Nervous Breakdown” (1889); Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” (1889); Chekhov’s response to that story (1890); Kuprin’s The Pit (1909–’15) and its relation to Zola’s Nana (1880) and to Tolstoy’s What Then Must We Do? (1886), texts woven together through their treatments of brothels and of human relations tainted by sexual desire and that recoil at the biological needs of the body. The focus turns briefly to an extreme retreat from such torments charted by Resurrection’s Nekhliudov, whose “moral path […] leaves him profoundly alone,” a solitude whose solace lies in the fleshless words of the New Testament. Only Among Women also takes up the “literary genre of realism” in handling such explosive topics. Eakin Moss asserts: “In Gorky’s prose, the convention of the ending is but a safety valve that is meant to blow.” Further, Gorky “implies that Chekhov’s stories make the reader want to kill reality itself,” to countermand the “status quo” of realism not only with escapist thoughts, but with escapist “action.” Gorky, however, blurred the distinction when he wrote that Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” (1899) made him “want to betray his wife.”

Although the book ranges across heterogeneous texts, genres, and diverse theories about women’s communities, these materials are bound within a historical narrative that does not lose sight of the germinal ideas that gave them life. Thus, in the analysis of the Soviet film Girlfriends, Eakin Moss notes “the return of idealized conceptions of women’s friendship established by Tolstoy and Chernyshevsky,” that, she argues, the film vividly recalls. Initial discussions of works take on new coloring in relation to the fresh material with which they are associated in the book’s developing contexts. When I arrived on page 192 to read “This book can be seen, in formal terms, as a history of the reception of Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?” that “trace[s] a concept which in many respects was born with the novel: the notion that women’s relations are inherently progressive,” that line of reasoning had been confirmed by my experience of the book’s logic and structure. Its coherence is also perceptible at the level of the sentence. In “Bolshevik,” the analysis of Girlfriends, The Radiant Path (1940), and A Girl with Attitude (1939) is rendered conceptually fascinating, not least because of the wit of the writing, as in the description of the heroines of A Girl with Attitude and The Radiant Path, who “live in communal spaces that resemble a nunnery, a girls’ boarding school, or that other urban site of women’s collectivism, the brothel,” a sentence that raises the substantive question, whose eyes see these as equivalent?

The different question of where a critic takes a novel’s pulse, and of how a work confirms or challenges such detections of its life, is raised in relation to Eakin Moss’s celebration of the “tender and passionate friendship” that develops between Natasha and Princess Marya after Andrei’s death and that is said to frame “some of the most important events” of War and Peace. And yet, in the first epilogue, Tolstoy’s emphasis on their friendship all but disappears, while he continues to extol the idealized male friendship of Pierre and Platon Karataev, even after the latter’s death. It’s not just the spirit of women’s friendship that fades in Tolstoy’s conclusion, but, as has been observed, more radically (or is it conventionally?), the spirit and intelligence of the women themselves. Young Natasha’s vitality is inseparable from the life-force, but that spirit dies out once she is consumed by the care of babies that Nicolas calls “lump[s] of flesh” and by her husband’s “intellectual and abstract interests.” The latter are inherent in men alone: “[T]opics like women’s rights were not merely uninteresting to Natasha, she positively did not understand them.” Denisov, a minor character who visits the married Natasha, “looked at [her] with sorrow and surprise as at a bad likeness of a person once dear” when “talk about the nursery was all he saw and heard […] from his famous enchantress.”

For Eakin Moss, Marya and Natasha’s friendship “exemplifies the rebirth of human connection and community after the overwhelming encounter with death shared the country over.” Their “rapport,” she writes, is structurally crucial to this novel and is peerless: “Nowhere else in the nineteenth-century realist novel can the relationship between women be seen as a narrative and philosophical end in itself.” Thus, “[t]hough their friendship lessens in intensity, it persists into their married life, coexisting with the similarly interdependent relationship of each woman with her husband and children in the family idyll of the first epilogue.” But the leveling of the “exceptional” to the routine raises the open question of how to assess any novel’s evocation of an electrifying moment — here the blazing up of friendship that endures past the high point of its “intensity” — whose luster remains memorable, even as its novelistic significance wanes. 

One difficulty of the book (the flip side of its persuasive amalgamations of texts and genres) is the frequency with which massive amounts of discrete material are interlineated. A reader might sense that no topic or text can rightly be considered in isolation. Yet for me, a non-specialist student of Russian culture, the disciplinary range and synthesizing imperatives of Only Among Women are the unique ground of the book’s scope, its allure, and its decisive authority.


Sharon Cameron is Kenan Professor of English, Emerita at Johns Hopkins. Her books include Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre, Thinking in Henry James, and The Bond of the Furthest Apart: Essays on Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bresson, and Kafka.