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Marriage in late imperial Russia

Today I went to a really great seminar given by Barbara Alpern Engel at SSEES on marriage breakdown in the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II. Engel is very well known as a specialist on women’s history who, among other things, has written the brilliant Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-Century Russia. Today she focused on the language of women’s petitions to the authorities to allow them to leave abusive husbands, and argued for the development – among educated women at least – of a discourse that counterposed the ‘despotism’ of the husband with assertions of the individual dignity and rights (lichnost’) of the woman. This is particularly interesting because it appropriates the political language of nineteenth-century Russian radicalism and shifts it to the personal sphere. It may well be for this reason, as Engel argued, that the authorities themselves, both in investigating marital petitions and discussing reforms to marital law, tended to adopt similar language – for them it divested radicalism of the terms it habitually employed to promote the idea of the integrity of the person and to critique the state’s relation to the individual.

One of my colleagues asked the question that came to my mind, which was whether a similar idea of ‘lichnost”, and its relation to women, was also apparent in ‘high’ literature (Engel discussed its use in prescriptive literature, such as manuals on domesticity and marriage) of the late imperial period. It would be fairly easy to establish the prevalence and context of uses of the term in Tolstoy, Chekhov etc with the aid of concordances, and I may well do that in an idle moment (probably around 2014). Of course, as Engel said, it would mostly be impossible to discover whether either the women writing the petitions or the officials reading them were familiar with any literary texts that dealt with the question of ‘lichnost”, but it would be interesting to see whether this discourse was developing in other spheres at the same time.

Barbara Engel’s new book, provisionally titled (according to her University of Colorado web page) Family Matters: Marriage, Its Discontents, and the State in Late Imperial Russia, from which her presentation was taken, is due out early next year. I’m certainly looking forward to it, and on the basis of today’s talk I would strongly recommend it.

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