Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kremlin Wives

Although the role of women at the pinnacle of the Kremlin society isn't the most important aspect of the history of gender during the Soviet experiment, Larissa Vasilieva's book, Kremlin Wives, is a surprisingly illuminating good introduction to the subject of communist women's history. Published only shortly after the collapse of the Soviet state, Vasilieva was able to interview a number of important Kremlin women as well as to attain relevant files related to their frequent brushes with Stalin's security organs.  Vasilieva, who was herself a relatively privileged member of the Soviet apparatchiki, tells the story of Soviet womanhood through the biography of elite Soviet women.  These women include the wives of Lenin, Stalin, Beria, Budyonnaya, Molotov, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev, to name just a few of Vasilieva's fascinating subjects.

For the most part, the Kremlin wives were highly intelligent leaders in their own right.  Certainly Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, as well as Lenin's mistress, Inessa Armand, made important contributions to the revolutionary movement, and Krupskaya in particular helped to shape the Soviet worldview, especially regarding education.  Even so, both women always put Lenin first, and their willingness to take a back seat to Lenin's political primacy was a portent of things to come.  Although revolutionary history is filled with examples of heroic female Russian revolutionaries, male Soviet leaders were never entirely comfortable  Until Raisa Gorbachev proved that the Soviet Union was able to accept another dynamic, educated, and highly visible woman in public affairs  (and many Soviet citizens retained serious reservations about Raisa's public role), Krupskaya was the last wife of the Party's leader who exercised a clear position of leadership in her own right.  

With the rise of Stalin, the role of elite Soviet women became much more conservative.   Whereas many revolutionaries had at least entertained ideas about free love, female emancipation from child reading duties, divorce, and the link between bourgeois family structures and capitalism, the cult of Stalin soon reconciled Soviet political culture to pre-revolutionary gender norms.  While Stalin's own wife (or his second wife to be more accurate), Nadezhda Alliluyeva, worked, and maintained her own professional identity, her suicide ( if not murder) seemed to mark the limits of Stalin's tolerance for independent women.  

Of course the predominent theme of Kremlin Wives is, almost necessarily, a description of how women dealt with all-encompassing terror.  Marshal Budyonny's second third wife is illustrative. While making the Marshall a happy home by playing the role of a traditional domestic housewife, Maria Vasilievna, also had to contend with the fact that the Marshal's second wife, Olga Stefanovna, had been imprisoned on trumped up charges. Molotov's wife, Paulina Zhemchuzhina, was actually imprisoned even as her husband continued to serve Stalin.  Beria's wife, Nina Beria, had to contend with the fact that her husband was systematically raping young women, in addition to overseeing the state's more formal mechanisms of terrorizing its citizens.  Nina seems to have chosen to live in denial, although the Vasilieva is right to point out that it can be very difficult to pass judgement on any of the Kremlin wives when they were fearful of being sent to the gulag or killed of they voiced any criticism of Stalin or his henchmen. 

With Stalin's death, the daily regime of terror soon subsided.  However, it's difficult to say that the effects of terror didn't last until the very end of the Soviet Union, if not beyond.  Nina Kukharchuk, Khrushchev's wife, had survived the terror by remaining in the shadows.  She wasn't a glamorous woman, but she had once served to promote Soviet power in its infancy.  Born poor,  Nina Kukharchuk remained a stalwart communist functionary who accompanied her husband on a few famous diplomatic missions but mostly strove to support her husband in his domestic life.  Her successor, Victoria Pretrovna, also adopted a low profile, accommodating her husband, Leonid Breshnev, even as he moved from one mistress to another. While not necessarily personally corrupt, Victoria Pretrovna supported her relatives even as they abused the privileges of the communist elite.

Taken as a whole, the Kremlin wives were both similar to, and different from, ordinary Soviet women.  The Kremlin wives were, generally speaking, a confident group of women, at least insofar as anyone living so close to the edge of terror could be considered confident.  The Kremlin women were extremely privileged in many respects, and many made use of the special stores, dachas, and governesses that were available to them.  However, their lives were extremely complicated.  The Soviet Union never fully worked out its attitude toward women.  Were they supposed to work outside the home or in the home?  Were nannies okay or a sign of bourgeois privilege?  Was it possible to play a public role in public affairs?  Did women have an important role to play in the formation of policy related to childhood, education, or family life in general?  How much education, and what type of education, was desirable?  The Soviet Union collapsed even as these debates raged around Raisa Gorbachev.

Some quotes from the book:

"If she doesn't shut her mouth the Party will appoint old Elena Stasova as Lenin's widow in her place!"  Vasilieva citing Stalin.

"Intelligent, beautiful, and as delicate-looking as porcelain, Alexandra Kollontai put women's sexuality at the center of the Communist agenda."

"What is rarely mentioned is that the revolutionaries fought a small detachment of palace gaurds and the Petrograd Battalion of Women.  In other words, the Bolsheviks' victory that night was over women."

"The Kremlin, the seat of Soviet power, was also a vast communal apartment complex."

"Even the best parents ruin their children by bringing them up at home."  Lyadov-Mandelstam.

"Can a collective person be produced in an individual family?  To this we must say a categorical no."  Lyadov-Mandelstam.

"No Kremlin wife's opinion was ever officially welcomed.  Those who challenged that fact--such as Molotov's wife, Zhemchuzhina, as we shall see--were promptly arrested."

"We're creating a new state," she wrote.  "People need us.  It would be hypocritical to deny ourselves the things people always acquire when they come to power."

"Larissa Reisner was a tangle of contradictions.  She could turn simple immorality into an exploit. Osip Mandelstam recalled that Larissa once threw a party solely to enable Cheka agents to arrest the guests."

"She cast her lot with him like a tiny sailboat drawn to a giant ocean-going steamer."  Svetlana Alliluyeva describing her mother's relationship to Stalin.

"He went so far as to offer to shoot his wife, an impulse evidently familiar to many Kremlin men in those days."

"This time she found the beaches empty.  All the fashionable women from last season were now in jail."

"As the Soviet system scythed and leveled its human resources, fear was a daily staple and worked its way deep into the Russian character."

"The personal has no social significance."  Kaganovich.

"A large quantity of male debauchery."  From an official inventory of Beria's office.

"Stalin wanted to create a mighty state, and he succeeded.  Of course there had to be victims.  But no politician then could see any other path that would us to our precious goal without victims."  Nina Beria.

"...Kremlin life is part of a complex distribution system of privilege that must always be kept a secret."

1 comment:

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