Pushkin’s Nanny

For generations of Soviet kids, Alexander Pushkin’s nanny, Arina Rodionovna, represented a serf woman from the past, caring and supportive, but also living a very hard life. A recent study found that even today Russian school children think she was the most important person in his childhood. Her story, as Pushkin presented it in a few lines of Eugene Onegin, haunted my childhood:


“Tell me about your young years:

Were you in love – or something else?” –

Oh, no, Tanya, in those ages

We’d heard just nothing of all that,

Because my mother-in-law, late,

Would have killed me in other cases.” –

“But how then you still got married?” –

“It seems, the will of God prevailed it.

‘Your Vanya’s younger,’ I was told –

“And I was thirteen years old.

For two weeks, she-match-maker here

Called on my family, at last,

My dad gave me his blessing fast.

I wept then sorely for fear;

Braiding my hair, they wept much,

And, singing led me to a church.

And left me living midst the strangers.”



Another image of abject gender inequality was a painting by Vasili Pukirev “ Unequal Marriage” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasili_Pukirev). Every time I visit the Tretyakov Gallery, I remember my textbook passages about how unjust the women’s condition was in Tsarist Russia, and how the young man standing behind the bride was probably a painter himself, representing her lover who had to witness this young woman married off to a man three times her age or older. The thought of an arranged marriage was abject to my romantic Soviet self. As a girl, I was put in a position of comparison and identification with Arina Rodionovna, Pushkin’s nanny, and this young woman. If it were you, what would you choose: be a serf, married off at 13, or be given away to a wealthy family forever (since “forever” was the only option for women then, just think of Anna Karenina)?


Between these two images, Soviet girls learned how a poor woman’s life could turn out: being born a slave in a huge estate, given off as a child bride, become a single mother of four, and then leave your own children behind to take care of your landlord’s children; alternative, as in Pukirev’s painting, would be to get married off still very young (sixteen? eighteen?) to a wealthy man, often looking like your grandfather, so as to help your family with finances. Dostoevsky’s novels in the school program presented a similar girl’s lot. The whole Crime and Punishment is a curse on society where the most innocent young woman has to prostitute herself to support her loved ones, and this is where her virtue lies: she is a saint because of her sacrifice. Even if she questions the structural conditions that lead to her prostituting herself as the only option to make money for the family, “a girl needs to do what a girl needs to do.” And because she does it, she is saved. She is better than Raskol’nikov, the novel’s protagonist, who rationalizes his murder of a “bad old spinster” as beneficial to humanity (he is “forced” to kill to be able to afford his education). In short, it was a very vivid preparation for the Bolshevik revolution in my textbooks: one could not live like this for too long, and as a girl, I could not agree more.


Great literature (always and only by male authors) was used to tell me: look, you live a much better life now because you were born after the revolution. Not only there is no slavery. There are no arranged marriages, and no prostitution as the only option for a young woman to earn a living in the USSR. You can read, you can write, you can become whoever you want to become: a cosmonaut, a doctor, or a scientist. I was reminded time and again how bad it was for women, especially poor women, in pre-revolutionary Russia. Of course, I was grateful to be born as a girl in 1969, rather than 1769 or even 1869 (the vast majority of the population, especially women, could not read or write, or had any mobility outside of marriage). I understood only later how huge was the chunk of other literature that did not appear in my Soviet textbooks about post-revolutionary times: what happened in Soviet political prisons, camps, Gulag, to “sister-comrades;” what non-Russian women thought about Soviet Russian women coming to “rescue” them from their “backward traditions”; what happened to women across Europe after the Red army “liberated” them from Hitler; how family planning and marriage laws were continuously used for political Soviet goals and population control; and what Kollontai and other women writers of the Russian women’s movement had to say about the “woman’s question.”


I was supposed to be grateful. The patronizing and paternalistic quality of the Soviet discourse of “freeing women” (and little Soviet girls like myself) by the concerned and righteous men left me without much imagination about the history of women freeing themselves. Pushkin did not write much about Arina Rodionovna’s situation as a family slave, away from her own children, giving love to his family. These rare words by Tatyana Larina’s nanny, that could evoke sympathy, were quickly interrupted by the main heroine of the novel: Tatyana herself, with her own moral struggle for “doing the right thing” as a woman.


What was missing from that Soviet girl’s education was any other form of critical analysis but class analysis. Yes, economic independence is great, but the lack of feminist analysis severely downplayed sexual violence, systemic gender inequality and lack of reproductive rights, and after a short-lived critique of the notion of “bourgeois family” a newly established notion of a “normal” Soviet and now “traditional Russian” family brought back homophobic and patriarchal laws. Understanding these issues is not going to be easy, also because almost no “great” (according to school textbooks) Russian literature can help with that. Yes, it is nice not to be married off to a stranger at 13 or be a property of some landlord. But can we please agree that this is only a start, Arina Rodionovna?

Olympic Games and Chewing Gum


My classmate Tamara was insistent. We needed to stay for the Olympic games in Moscow in the summer of 1980, in order to approach foreigners and ask for some chewing gum. I still remember her training us how to do it. You approach a foreigner with a smile, a ten years old Tamara said, raise your eyes so you can look into their eyes directly, and slowly ask in English: “Uncle, would you have any chewing gum, please?” Her mother, a medical researcher who visited international conferences, taught her how to ask for chewing gum. There was no chewing gum in the USSR.


For us “foreigners” were all American. It did not really matter whether they were from the US or not. The fact that Americans boycotted those Olympic games did not stop us from imagining them coming and providing us with things. Being quintessentially “American” meant wearing a cowboy hat and blue jeans, putting legs on the table, speaking loudly, and chewing gum. Oh yes, and sunglasses. How to become an American? Get some gum and start chewing. Of course, it was also an appalling and rude thing to do. Any properly brought up young person knew that. But that was the whole point, to be transgressive. Tamara was the most outspoken member of our class on matters of style. Every morning she would make comments about our clothing and appearance, positive or negative. I always felt it was not very Soviet of her. Just when she also told us that gum is a form of currency, we could exchange it later for other things we wanted.


Other classmates and I were stunned. Asking foreigners on the streets to give us chewing gum was a challenging plan. Not only we had not started learning English by then. The very idea of approaching a foreigner was a no-go and we all knew that. Foreigners were rare and not allowed to mingle with us. Moreover, everything was done to make us spend that summer outside of Moscow. I spent it in the south of Moldova working on corn fields (that’s another story). The Moscow Olympics memory for me was a carpet that my parents brought from Moldova. It depicted the symbol of those games, a Russian toy bear, Olympiyski Mishka, in green and blue colors, and hung in my room for decades.


Recently a different friend shared her chewing gum story. She spent that 1980 summer in Saint Petersburg. One day, on a visit to the cruiser Aurora (famous for participating in the Winter Palace siege by the Bolsheviks in 1917), a foreign man approached her, smiled and offered some gum and candy. He said “hello.” Many thoughts crossed her mind: Should I say hello in return? Should I take his candy? Would it mean that I am betraying my motherland right here right now? One of her close relatives traveled around the world for work, but never talked about it at home. What would that relative say? Would I cause him any trouble by this contact with this foreigner? Can I smile? She remembers to this day how frozen she felt at the moment, a little kid with a country on her shoulders. As she was describing her feelings and their vivid memory, we were sitting at a Mexican restaurant in Moscow in the summer of 2013. We concluded that her ten years old daughter is unable – thankfully – to understand those feelings today. The girl speaks three languages that she can practice on a regular basis. And she can buy gum at any bus stop in Moscow. I asked what happened at the end, on that summer day on the cruiser Aurora. “I said nothing to him, but took the chewing gum,” she answered.