Revolutionary Ideology Meets Popular Taste: The Image of the New Woman in Early Soviet Fiction

Tatiana Osipovich, Lewis and Clark College

The concept of the "new woman" played an important role in early Soviet ideology, and many fiction writers tried to create heroines who embody the Bolshevik ideal of the progressive woman. Like her prerevolutionary predecessor, the Soviet "new woman" rejected her traditional role as lover, wife, or mother and sought independence and public service. Unlike her earlier counterpart, she belonged to the working class, embraced Bolshevik ideology, and served the revolution. Surprisingly, this new gender construct became popular among the general reading public and inspired the creation of highly successful theater and film productions, which remained part of Soviet popular culture for many decades.

In my paper, I try to explain the popularity and longevity of the revolutionary heroine in Soviet mass culture by exploring her archetypal nature. I argue that, in order to make the new character more accessible to ordinary people, early Soviet fiction writers combined Bolshevik ideology with popular mythology. They created images that borrowed extensively from patriarchal stereotypes of the strong and defiant woman.

As I demonstrate in my paper, the most common sources for them were the myth of the Amazons, "bad wife" folk tales, the romantic female rebel, or the woman of loose morals of decadent literature. Like her patriarchal stereotypes, the new Soviet heroine was ambiguous. While not without virtues (strength, courage, intellect, or progressive ideology), she was often portrayed as dangerous or even murderous (Lavrenev's "The Forty First" and Tolstoj's "Viper"), mannish and ridiculous (Neverov's "Marja the Bolshevik"), promiscuous (Sejfullina's Virineja and Malashkin's The Moon from the Right Side), or a neglectful mother (Gladkov's Cement). The flaws of these early Soviet heroines not only attracted the interest of the general reading public, which held the patriarchal stereotype of the defiant woman, but helped to shape attitudes towards women's emancipation in Soviet Russia.