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The Woman Question

While every unhappy family might be unhappy in its own way, women in 19th-century Russia could find solidarity in their plight.

Like the majority of her European counterparts, a Russian woman's father and husband controlled most aspects of her life. Even noblewomen, as portrayed by Anna Karenina, could not vote, hold their own passports, or attend high schools or universities -- secondary education was unavailable to women until the 1850s, and higher education was unavailable until the 1870s. What little education high-born women received was largely vocational, amounting to skills in marriage, housekeeping, and motherhood. Noble Russian women did enjoy one legal right not held by most other European women: They could hold property.

Marriage was the career goal of the Russian woman, though she would find it ultimately a restrictive, confining institution. Among nobility, matches were often arranged through parents, who chose husbands from the same class or better, seeking aristocratic backgrounds that would add to a family's social and financial status. Character was of lesser importance, if considered at all. It was not uncommon for women to select their own husbands, though they were expected to choose from upper-class men they met at social occasions such as parties and balls organized by relatives for that purpose. Once married, a wife's duties were to take care of her husband, preside over the household, and bear children. The 1836 Code of Russian Laws stated, "The woman must obey her husband, reside with him in love, respect, and unlimited obedience, and offer him every pleasantness and affection as the ruler of the household." Husbands determined when their wives traveled, conducted business, studied with tutors (perhaps French or literature, though not in academic terms), or gained employment (extremely rare). Many dictated daily activities, such as deciding when wives could leave the house. Children were the property of a woman's husband, even if she had a child with another man via an adulterous affair.

One female Russian writer of the mid-19th century, Elena Gan, expressed what many must have felt. "Truly, it sometimes seems that God's world has been created for men alone; the universe is open to them, with all its mysteries; for them there are words, the arts and knowledge; for them there is freedom and all the joys of life. From the cradle a woman is fettered by the chains of decency."

Such legal inequality sprang from the Russian ideal of women held up to and during this time. "Decency" was the key word: women were seen as either chaste or impure, and impure women were worthless. Russian society dictated that men marry well-behaved virgins. Once married, women were viewed as child-bearers living under a patriarch's rule; obedience replaced chastity as the utmost requirement. Those who strayed outside the rules were seen as "unnatural" and were treated harshly, whether with violence or social casting-out. This attitude prevailed in most European societies, and had some roots in organized religion. The Russian book Domostroi, or Household Arrangements, written by a 17th-century monk named Sylvester, advocated methods of wife-beating for those women who disobeyed; his only admonishment was to go easy on pregnant women for the sake of the unborn child. He also advised against damaging a woman's eyes, because a blind wife wouldn't be able to carry out her tasks.

In 1861, the serfs of Russia -- some 80 percent of the population -- were freed, and at about this time Russian intellectuals became more interested in the plight of women in society, or what they called the "woman question." In Russia, the search for an answer was taken up largely by writers, the majority of whom were male; most women remained uneducated. Russian writers were often seen as prophets -- the lack of political freedom and discussion under a succession of totalitarian tsars made their voices all the more necessary. Art critic John Berger once commented, "In Russian art, there is an emphasis on truth and purpose rather than on aesthetic pleasure. Russians expect their artists to be prophets because they think of themselves as subjects of prophecy." Russian writers such as Tolstoy worked with great seriousness of purpose at exposing injustices, and were often frowned upon by authorities. (Late in his career, Tolstoy was actually monitored by the government, and his belongings were searched for possible threatening materials.) The modern author Alexander Solzhenitsyn referred to his Russian literary counterparts as "an alternative government."

Tolstoy chose to discuss the "woman question" framed in a comparison: He contrasted Anna's search for meaning in life with that of Levin, the Tolstoy stand-in character. And Tolstoy did something shocking for his time: He made Anna -- an adulteress -- a sympathetic character. Anna wasn't unhappy because she disobeyed her insufferable, stifling husband and had to be punished; she was unhappy because she didn't find, in Tolstoy's eyes, meaningful love. Tolstoy believed, at the time he wrote Anna Karenina, that true love and happiness could be achieved only through a marriage of equals. Anna finds temporary happiness outside marriage; ultimately, however, her lack of independence and social inequality within an adulterous relationship causes her grief. Tolstoy contrasts Anna's story with his character Levin, an enlightened man who succeeded in his quest for meaning in life by choosing a wife he considered his partner rather than his subordinate. Throughout the book, Tolstoy shed much light on hypocrisy in society, particularly the double standard under which men could stray in marriage without punishment whereas women could not. He also described a "don't ask, don't tell" policy among many high-born adulterers, including discreet women who cast Anna out of their circle for actions similar to their own.

Though Russian male writers were the most public voices arguing for legal and social equality between the sexes, female reformers began to organize around midcentury. The groups that emerged are often divided by historians into three categories: feminists, nihilists, and radicals. Most members of all three groups were from the upper class, though the growing stream of women into the workplace after the liberation of the serfs and the start of the industrial age saw a slow but steady change in social status among female reformers.

Feminists sought not revolution, but legal equality and reform by women on behalf of women. They achieved much: charity for poverty-stricken women, the eventual opening of universities and medical schools to women, and self-direction in a country that saw little. Mostly nobility, they believed specifically in greater independence for women of their own class, with assistance to women in lower classes (shop girls, prostitutes, and orphans were some of their charity cases).

Nihilists, influenced by numerous male counterparts, wanted to overturn all accepted values, including those of everyday life. They, too, sought greater independence for women, though not through government channels. Nihilists expressed their opinions not in political or intellectual groups, but in ordinary actions: They wore their hair short, smoked cigarettes in public, and disdained religion, the family, and societal hierarchy, among other things. Many moved away from family life into communes in bigger cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow, where they enjoyed greater freedom in choosing what they did and when they did it. Some moved on to radicalism and terrorism, though others treated nihilism more as fashion -- much like many fads today. Often feminists and radicals accused nihilists of being out for themselves, criticizing a perceived lack of interest in the greater good.

Radical women took part in a revolutionary movement, actively trying to overthrow the government. Starting up in the 1860s, they at first took secondary roles to men such as that of messengers and recruiters. By the 1870s, however, they'd moved into factories and villages, inciting riots and spreading propaganda. Many got into legal trouble, with hundreds arrested, jailed, and exiled to Siberia. One female radical, Vera Zasulich, began an "era of assassination" by shooting at police in Moscow in 1877. Another radical, Sofya Perovskaya, led the riot against the Tsar that ended in his murder in March 1881. She and her cohorts were hanged.

Essays + Interviews:
The Roots of the Story | The Making of Anna Karenina
Tolstoy's War with Love | The Woman Question

Essays + Interviews | Who's Who | A Tolstoy Timeline
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