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19th Century Russian Women

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Common Theme in 19th Century Russian Literature

            Women were common subjects of ancient literature. Unfortunately, the common theme of these writings was the portrayal of women as prostitutes. Women were always given characters that are fallen and dejected. However, 19th century writers endeavored to abandon this theme and instead developed female characters who are strong and admirable. Thus, the works of these writers often conclude in women’s transcendence of their miserable state and attainment of a better life. These themes can be seen in the works of William Thackeray, Samuel Richardson and Fyodor Dostoevsky. (Barthelette).

            This 19th century theme is referred to as the idea of a “saintly prostitute,” wherein prostitutes, characterized as sinners, show the possibility of self-redemption and their capability of helping and leading others to salvation. Women are thus described as personalities who help raise men to a “higher plane of being.” (Choi).

Dostoevsky’s Themes

            Dostoevsky belonged to this tradition of Victorian literature. He has seen the actual situation of women and saw that women are really being thrown into the world of prostitution only to be able to survive. Dostoevsky did not join the popular trend of early Victorian writings that bring women down. While he wrote about women as prostitutes, he saw in women values that his contemporaries failed to perceive, or refused to ascribe to women in their times. In his writings, Dostoevsky gave women redeeming qualities, in contrast to the demeaning attributes given by his literary colleagues. Dostoevsky’s unique treatment of women in his writings can be observed in his works Crime and Punishment, Notes from Underground, and The Meek One.


Analysis of Specific Characters in Dostoevsky’s Works

            This paper shall focus on the female characters in Dostoevsky’s works. Dostoevsky’s first attempt at changing the portrayal of women in literature is in his work Notes from Underground, which was published in 1864. One of its characters, Liza, is a twenty-year-old girl who earns a living by being a prostitute. She ran away from home and becomes indebted to the Madam of the brothel, making it impossible for her to leave. (Choi).

            Liza is a picture of woman who has retained her innocence despite the nature of her work. This shows strength to remain true to herself despite the corruption that abound in her surroundings. She was saintly, because she has a heart that is capable of understanding and giving warmth and love even to people who are full of negativity, such as the Underground Man. While Liza does not express Dostoevsky’s commitment to religion, she was still a figure that exhibited woman’s strength and purity of heart. (Choi).

            Two years later, Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment, wherein he used two prominent women characters, Sonia Marmeladov and Dounia, to express the theme of the fallen woman who finds redemption.

            Sonia is a fallen woman, a young girl who had been driven into prostitution to escape starvation. It is apparent that Sonia did not choose her kind of life voluntarily. She was merely forced into using herself as an instrument for satisfying men’s lust, due to extreme poverty. (Dostoevsky). Sonia is therefore similar to Liza, since both of them are forced into engaging in prostitution because of their need to survive despite their poverty.

            Sonia is a girl who is torn between two ideals. She is subjected to a defiled life against her will, when her real inclination in life is the contrary. She has a pure heart that longs for holiness and redemption; and yet her situation prevents her from reaching her heart’s desires. Dostoevsky provided Sonia with just the opportunity to exhibit her holiness with the arrival of Raskolnikov in her life. (Dostoevsky).

            Raskolnikov was a similarly fallen man, not because of engaging in sex trade, but because of having committed a heinous crime: murder. He was therefore a lost man, about to be cut off from society because of his evil deed. However, upon meeting Sonia and witnessing her virtue, he was given the opportunity to confess his dark secret, which would lead to his relative freedom from his conscience.

            Raskolnikov’s dark past paved the way for Sonia to show the virtue that would have been lost because of her subjection to prostitution. Perhaps the sight of another person who is similarly, if not more, fallen than her, caused Sonia to be able to exhibit compassion, helpfulness and mercy. Thus, when Raskolnikov told her of the crime he had committed, Sonia wept for him and urged him to confess to save his soul. (Dostoevsky).

            It should be noted that these two characters had mutually benefited from the wretchedness that the other feels, and each had been instrumental to their similar journey towards their respective deliverance. As aptly observed by Barthelette:

                        Providence is strikingly illustrated here: Raskolnikov cannot survive without                               Sonia’s aid, but neither could Sonia have been redeemed if Raskolnikov had not                                     come along in need of redemption himself; she would have continued on the road                                to perdition from which her charitable impulses tore her. (Barthelette).

            Thus, the character of Sonia is a representation of redemption and transcendence from the evils to which one may be subjected due to different events     in one’s life.

            Another female character in Crime and Punishment is Dounia, who faces a somewhat similar risk of prostitution. She is being compelled to selling her spirit and her body through her marriage to Luzhin, whose only desire is to exercise his power of control over everyone around him. Like, Sonia, Dounia is a reluctant victim. Dounia is similarly torn: her desire is to escape; and yet her sense of obligation to her family is preventing her from doing so. Despite this, Dounia was able to show her strength in surviving a rather difficult dilemma.

            Dostoevsky also wrote tragedies relating to women. One example is The Meek One, which focused on the story of an unfortunate female character. She is a young wife who is victimized by her elderly husband. This character is similarly situated to the character of Dounia in Crime and Punishment, in that they were both under compulsion to stay with a man they do not want. Sadly, this young girl in The Meek One did not prevail over the man. Instead, she killed herself, thinking that death is her only escape. It is observed that this was an illustration of another kind of victory: the existentialist victory, which consists in self-destruction as the ultimate escape. (Barthelette).

            It can be seen therefore that Dostoevsky had a favorable view of women. While he has not fully escaped the popular trend of his literary period of portraying women as mere instruments for lust, his works concentrated on instances where women can exhibit grace, strength and holiness. He showed that despite the hardships to which society subjects women, the latter is capable of enduring such hardships in order to emerge as better individuals. More importantly, Dostoevsky attributes to the woman the ability to influence man towards redemption and change.

            The fact that Dostoevsky’s female characters were cast as prostitutes underscores his philosophy, which basically puts forward the notion that “even the lowliest of the lowly lost are loved by the Father.” These people who seem to have fallen from grace will eventually find redemption from their sufferings.  More importantly, Dostoevsky imparts the valuable message that anyone can serve as “instruments of grace,” as what Sonia had done in helping Raskolnikov find salvation in Crime and Punishment. (Barthelette).

            Dostoevsky yet again provided the literary world with another strong female character in his novel The Idiot. Nastasya Filippovna, the main character in the novel, is not a prostitute, unlike the female characters in Dostoevsky’s other works. On the contrary, she is a picture of a strong, proud and intense woman who knew how to deal with her anger. She was a woman of extreme beauty, which made men irresistibly drawn to her. She also exhibited profound knowledge and integrity, qualities that are quite unexpected in women of her time.  The novel ended in her unfortunate death, and despite the many remarkable characteristics of Nastasya Filippovna she was not exempt from the unfair plight of women that was common at the time. (Smith).

            It can be concluded then that Dostoevsky worked on the noble attempt to raise the level of women in Russian society. His works were his means of sharing with the world his belief in the equal opportunity of men and women at elevating their ways of life. Perhaps his works were the result of the societal developments in Russia in the 19th century.

            Dostoevsky’s portrayal of women as strong persons was a break away from the attitude of historians of the Russian Revolution, which consisted in the substantial omission of the active participation of women in historical accounts. The Russia Revolution had been well documented, but historical accounts miserably failed to include stories of women participation in the revolution. They also failed to tell the story of the events which lead to the revolution. (“Analysis of Women’s Role”). Thus the body of literature created by Dostoevsky and other writers provided the much-needed insight to women of the period, which had been deliberately removed from history books.

Women in Russian History

            Looking at the actual events in 19th century Russia, it is easy to see that the virtues ascribed by Dostoevsky to women are not imaginary. There are remarkable women in Russian history who have contributed a lot in the improvement of their society, and who have exhibited strength and integrity in the same way that men did. Moreover, women have also collectively engaged in actions that show their refusal to remain treated as inferior to men. Thus, in the 19th century, women were already breaking away from their traditional roles as housewives and workers, and began participating in public affairs. Women’s groups have emerged, espousing ideas that have never even been raised before. In the early part of the 19th century, some women even engaged in actual battle, which shows that women have as much strength and fortitude as men.

            The development of women’s consciousness and their resulting participation in societal affairs were effects of the long subjection of women as inferior to men.

            In the early part of 19th century, Russia’s treatment of women was very backward. This follows from the culture of slavery in the country. The concept of slavery was still the only prevalent view and peasants, or serfs, were considered and treated as property by their masters. (Brian).

            The tradition of slavery in Russia was so prevalent that it was one of the countries in Continental Europe known to practice it. Being a by-product of slave raiding by the Vikings in the 9th century, Russia adopted slavery as a major institution until the early 1720s. During this time serfdom replaced slavery, but the concept of serving a master remained for the rest of the 19th century. (“Slavery”).

            Despite the unfair subjection of women during the 19th century, Russian women were known to possess many desirable qualities, the foremost of which is patriotism. This was illustrated in many famous historical events. 19th century Russia was witness to the organization of various patriotic societies and circles, which showed women’s concern and interest in affairs other than those occurring inside the home.

            Some of the most remarkable Russian women in the 19th century were the so-called “cavalry-women.” They were made famous by their bravery and ingenuity in dressing up and pretending to be men to be able to serve in the army as soldiers. (Temicheva).

            The most famous cavalry girl is Nadezhda Durova. She lived during a time when “nearly half of Europe had been under Napoleon’s control.” Alarmed, Durova joined a cavalry regiment which joined the coalition war in 1806 to 1807. She kept her real identity as a woman and kept to herself to avoid being unmasked. (“Cavalry Maiden”).

            Her participation in the war led to her receiving a “silver St.George’s cross for saving a wounded officer at Guttstadt.” During the war, she exhibited tremendous strength, stamina and fortitude. (“Cavalry Maiden”).

            The improved treatment of women in medieval Russia was also hampered by the fact that they had very specific ideas on how women should behave. Generally women are divided into two groups: the elite and the peasant. These two groups lead very different lives. However, women in both groups are supposed to be obedient; they do not stand on equal footing with men. They have very limited place in society outside of the home, as it was only the men who could take part in public affairs. (Scotto).

            History says that as 19th century passed by, the majority of the female population prior to the revolution belonged in the working class. Their concerns revolved around the basic necessities in life, such as daily survival. However, movements began to arise as a majority of people who belonged in the upper class roused women’s consciousness of life outside the home.        19th century Russia thus witnessed the rise of two large competing women’s groups: one group being the conservative feminists while the other being the radical female revolutionaries. These two groups focused on different ideologies. The former was more concerned with charitable endeavors directed towards helping the poor, while the latter was concerned about securing involvement of women in political issues. (“Analysis of Women’s Role”).

            Despite the considerable ground covered by the above organized women’s groups, it was the unnoticed group of working women who played a more important role in affecting political change. Events showed that the more pressing concern of the times were economic problems and class interests, and not the ideologies espoused by the more prominent women’s groups. As members of the working class, these women noticed and felt oppression on account of their positions as workers and women. (“Analysis of Women’s Role”).

            Women’s oppression as workers consisted of the fact they were only receiving a mere 66% of men’s wages, a fact which had led to employers’ hiring women more than men. These simple situations brought realizations to the working class of their unfair circumstances, despite the fact that most of them were uneducated. They were the ones who really understood class issues that needed to be addressed by society. Thus, after a while, these working women stood their ground and began demanding rights that should be bundled together with their employment. (“Analysis of Women’s Role”).

Feminist Movement in 19th Century Russia

            These unfavorable working and societal conditions led the way for Russian feminism to begin in the early 19th century. These movements which begun in this period will prove to be invaluable later on as they served as the stimulants for women’s movement in contemporary Russia. Russian feminism thus emerged as a reaction to historical events and not adopted from foreign influence. It is claimed that Russian feminism is now about 150 years old, with the first wave occurring from the mid-19th century until 1930. (Khotkina).

            Thus, 19th century was known in history as the period of the Feminist movement, not only in Russia, but also in most countries of the world. The working conditions and the unfavorable treatment to women vis a vis men, which was the prevailing condition all over the world, led to the craving of women to have equal opportunities and rights as men. Thus, Women’s Movement in the 19th century aimed to secure the following rights for women: “to get the vote, to archive equality in property rights, access to education, access to jobs and fair pay, divorce, and children’s custody.” (Manzano).

            Specific events in the Russian Revolution illustrate the important role played by Russian women in the political arena, from which they had been unjustly excluded for centuries. One notable personality during the period was Alexandra Kollontai, a radical woman activist. She realized the importance of organizing the working class in order to get the results they wanted. She stated with amazing foresight that historians of tomorrow would look back in history and realize that women played a very active role in the Russian Revolution. (“Analysis of Women’s Role”).

            The efforts of women in Russia during this time was so massive that almost all women, from the working class to housewives, raised their voices in search of better working conditions and equal treatment with men. Raya Dunayevskaya, an influential 20th century Marxist, was quoted to have said:

                        The truth is that what initiated the actual overthrow of Tsarism was the action of                                    women… Marching during wartime against the Tsar, as well as against their                                factory conditions, produced such massive, spontaneous support, not only from                           other working women, but from housewives and women on the streets, that it                         finally impelled the male politicos to join them. (“Analysis of Women’s Role”).

            Another passionate account of the Russian Revolution was provided by Pitirim Sovokin, through an entry in his diary, saying “If future historians look for the group that began the Russian Revolution, let them not create any involved theory.  The Russian Revolution was begun by hungry women and children demanding bread and herrings.” (“Analysis of Women’s Role”).

            These accounts show that historians of the 19th century were unjustified in their dismissive attitude of women’s participation in Russian history. Numerous firsthand accounts show that despite the lack of education of women, they realized that they were being unduly suppressed by men and society as a whole. 19th century, with all the events going on at all corners of the world, proved to be the opportune time for women to stop enduring and start fighting for equal rights in all aspects of private and public life.

Historical Facts as Reflected in Russian Philosophy and Literature

            One analyst of Russian philosophy observed that Russian philosophy is fundamentally patriarchal in character. There is an initial distinction made between men and women, vis a vis their spiritual and religious principles. Such philosophy can be seen not only in Dostoevsky’s works, but also in those of philosophers Vladimir Solovyov and Vasiliy Rozanov, and writer Leo Tolstoy. (Voronina). For example, Tolstoy “interprets sensuality as a whim and revenge of the enslaved woman.” According to him, women are enslaved because she is seen and used as a mere “means of getting pleasure.” (Voronina).

            Thus, most of the writers of the time approached the concept of sex and women in the same way. Men and women have traditionally predefined roles. Women may occupy a complementary role with respect to men, but they can never equal them. In the scheme of things, men would always be a notch higher than women. This is in accordance with the Russian tendency to view the world in “binary opposites: good and evil, friend and foe, men and women.” (Voronina). Given this background of the inferior place of women in Russian society, it is not difficult to imagine that women had initially no participation in political affairs.

            This state of affairs was reflected in literary works in the 19th century. Thus, most works prior to Dostoevsky had themes that put women in a bad light. Women were seen and treaded as though they were inferior. They were often portrayed as prostitutes, which show that they were regarded as mere objects and not persons. Thus, the advent of Dostoevsky’s literary works changed this common theme, and begun the literary trend of giving women the redeeming values they actually do possess.


            In conclusion, therefore, Dostoevsky’s account of women in his writings, particularly in Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, were a reflection of the growing participation of women in Russian society in the 19th century.

            Dostoevsky was abreast with the events of his time, which showed women’s awakening in terms of their proper place in society. Thus, Dostoevsky was praised for going beyond the efforts of his contemporaries, having given female characters redeeming qualities such as religiousness and strength.

            Dostoevsky used the female characters in his works to express his Christian beliefs. This is particularly true in Sonya’s character in Crime and Punishment. Together with another writer, Chateaubriand, Dostoevsky symbolized women as redemptive figures. This is said to be the result of the influence of women in their personal lives, particularly in their adoption of Christianity. (Link).

            Thus, Dostoevsky used her female characters to show the Christian way through their actions. Their faith were shown to be strong enough to shine through all the sufferings that each character went through. (Link).

            19th century authors therefore did not ignore the developments in Russia through their works. Such works properly changed their common theme and gave women appropriate attention. Moreover, Dostoevsky in particular gave women redeeming and commendable qualities that show women as instruments of change and development.

Works Cited

“Analysis of women’s role in political change in revolutionary Russia.” 29 Nov. 2006             <http://www.stolaf.edu/depts/womens-            studies/ws399/ws399_04/Projects/Notter_Research/russiaanalysis.html>.

Barthelette, John. “The Redeemed Prostitute In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment And Other          Works.” 28 Nov. 2006 <http://www.fyodordostoevsky.com/essays.php>.

Brian, Paul. “19th-Century Russian Literature.”1998. 28 Nov. 2006             <http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/russian.html>.

“Cavalry Maiden.” 2002. The Voice of Russia. 1 Dec. 2006           <http://www.vor.ru/Events/1812_14.html>.

Choi, Aurora. “A Russian Magdalen: Dostoevsky’s Saintly Prostitute.” 7 May 1995. 30 Nov.     2006 <http://www.fyodordostoevsky.com/essays.php>.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. 1981.

Hartnett,Eoin. Feminism. 28 Nov. 2006 <http://multitext.ucc.ie/d/Feminism>.

Khotkina, Zoya. “What does Russian feminism (as the basis for a social movement) look like?”             Moscow Centre for Gender Studies. 28 Nov. 2006    <http://www.femcities.at/004/Portraits?aid=1289>.

Link, Andrea. “Christianity in Literary Creation: Chateaubriand and Dostoevsky.” 20 Nov. 2006             <http://www.creationism.org/csshs/v13n2p11.htm>.

Manzano, Yanet. “Liberal, Conservative, and Socialist Ideals vs. Feminism before the 20th        Century.” 1999. 28 Nov. 2006       <http://ww2.cs.fsu.edu/~manzano/Writing/papers/history/feminism1.html>.

 “Slavery.” Encyclopædia Britannica’s Guide to Black History. 2006. 28 Nov. 2006             <http://search.eb.com/blackhistory/article-24156>.

Scotto, Peter. “Women in Medieval Russia.” 29 Nov. 2006             <http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/nvaget/eurst/medievalrussia.html>.

Smith, Nicola. “Nastasya Filippovna: A Woman Scorned.” 1 Dec. 2006             <http://www.fyodordostoevsky.com/essays.php>.

Temicheva, Elena. “Image of the century.” Woman Plus 1 (1994). 30 Nov. 2006             <http://www.owl .ru/eng/womplus/2000/obraz.htm>.

Voronina, Olga. “The Philosophy of Sex and Gender in Russia.” 29 Nov. 2006             <http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Gend/GendVoro.htm>.

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