Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Wives Behind Russia's Literary Giants

Russian Literature

Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam [1899-1980]: The wife of Osip Mandelstam, the poet, who perished in  Stalinist Russia in 1938,  Nadezhda became an acclaimed writer in her her own right. Her books, Hope Against Hope, published in 1970; and Hope Abandoned published in 1974, are well-written memoirs of the early years of Stalinist repression and the struggles of her husband for artistic freedom. [Nadezhda in Russian means "hope"]
Source: FindaGrave

For the greats of Russian literature—Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov and Mandelstam—their wives served as help-mates in every way, placing the needs of their husband-writers above theirs, much to the detriment of the women. Such is the conventional thinking of today, forcing a 21st century view of earlier traditional times on today's readers. But things are not always so neatly dissected. The latest book that looks at such a relationship is The Wives: The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giants by Alexandra Popoff (Pegasus, 336 pp., $27.95).

In a book review in The New Republic, Yelena Akhtiorskaya writes:
Alexandra Popoff’s book is a look at Russian writers’ wives—greatest hits edition—the women who brought us the men who brought us the classics. Included are Anna Dostoevsky and Sophia Tolstoy (the originals), Véra Nabokov, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Elena Bulgakov, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, each of them paired with a handy epithet—Nursemaid of Talent (Mrs. Tolstoy) or Mysterious Margarita (guess who). The central argument of The Wives is twofold: that great writers have demanding habits, and that the women who tended to those habits deserve recognition.
Short of rattling off the words, which of course is the essence of the activity of literature, wives are responsible for the books—not an altogether absurd claim by Popoff’s logic. These women made profound sacrifices for the sake of their husbands’ vocation. Natalya Solzhenitsyn, for example, spent eighteen years secluded in “a zone of quiet” in Vermont, assisting Solzhenitsyn fourteen hours a day; “people might say it’s a convict’s life, but we are happy.” What’s more, the glamour that befell their husbands never touched them. Dostoevsky was a celebrity, but his wife Anna went about in rags (or rather, she stayed home).
But, and here is Popoff’s main point, they do not deserve pity along with credit. “This book should change a popular perception of such lives as miserable, lonely, and unfulfilled,” writes Popoff in a neatly tacked-on epilogue
Now, many women (and enlightened men) today still might argue otherwise; that such women led miserable lives, chiefly because they were subservient to the interests and needs of their husbands, and thus lived unfulfilled lives. The wives' letters might show otherwise, but that never stopped ideological feminists from pushing their views.

Of course, by doing so, by making such judgments, today's modern women are projecting their views and desires onto these women, who lived generations ago. Even today, there are women who enjoy being in the background; if it's a free decision on their part, they should neither be shamed nor bullied into acting or thinking otherwise. That is true freedom.

You can read the rest of the article at [The New Republic]


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