According to one of my mailing lists, a poll to identify the women who best symbolize modern-day Russia has seen the top two places given to ageing lite entertainment diva and staple of celebrity gossip magazines, Alla Pugacheva (I could never see the point, even ironically – perhaps because I like music), and the arch-Putinite governor of St Petersburg, Valentina Matvienko. This was a very depressing note on which to greet International Women’s Day, especially on its 100th anniversary, so to erase that memory, let us recall instead a more interesting and inspiring example of Russian (or rather, Ukrainian) womanhood, Maria Nikiforova (1885-1919).
Marusya, as she became known, left home at 16 to work in a factory, and soon became involved with an anarcho-communist group. In 1908 she was sentenced to 20 years’ hard labour for her participation in terrorist activities, but escaped from her Siberian prison and eventually, after a brief spell in the States, settled in Paris. In 1913 she attended the Russian anarcho-communist conference in London (if I can find more details about this visit, she may well appear in a later Russians in London post), and at the outbreak of war she seems to have sided with Kropotkin and the anti-German faction. Like many exiled radicals, she returned to Russia after the February revolution of 1917, first carrying out agitational work in Petrograd before returning to her native Ukraine, joining forces with Makhno, first to defend the revolution, then to support the Bolsheviks, then against them (as anybody who’s ever read anything about the Civil War in Ukraine will know, it was a very complex situation with multiple sides and a constantly changing political landscape), in both regular battles and guerilla warfare. Steadfast in her views, Marusya was known for her brilliant skills as an orator, and her courage as a fighter. She was arrested several times, by various sides, and was executed by the Whites in Sevastopol in September 1919.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Marusya, despite her fame at the time, is so little known today. As I’ve noted previously, the Bolshevik party was not the most women-friendly of organizations, and it seems as though the combination of being the wrong gender and on the losing side was enough to condemn her to obscurity. However, it has to be said, there’s also very little written about her in materials about Makhno and anarchist history, although a book by Malcolm Archibald has rectified the situation somewhat. He is also the author of the brief biography of Marusya on the Makhno archive. Some people might balk the idea of Marusya Nikiforova as a role model, because she advocated violence and was fully prepared to carry it out herself, but she was evidently a remarkable woman who should still be remembered today.