The Importance of Being Provincial: Nineteenth-Century Russian Women Writers and the Countryside

Around the mid-nineteenth century, a number of Russian women writers depicted themselves as provincial women writers by making the Russian landscape figure prominently in their work. This phenomenon cannot simply be explained as a question of provenance, because although most began their lives in provincial towns and cities, at least half later lived and wrote in either Moscow or St. Petersburg.

In an interesting discussion of Russian provincialism, Irina Savkina (1996) examines the conception of distance from the capital in Maria Žukova’s work as an essential, though unexamined, opposition between the provincial and the capital in Russian culture. Savkina argues that this opposition underscores the marginality of provincial heroines as both provincial and women. In addition, I think the prevalence of this opposition in works by women reflects these writers’ pervasive sense of their own marginality.

Yet I think that by constructing themselves at the margins as provincial women writers, Žukova (1804–55) and such others as Elena Gan (1814–42), Nadežda Soxanskaja (1823–84), Marko Vovčok (1833–1907), and Nadežda (1824-89) and Sof′ja Xvoščinskaja (1828–65) found their literary voices on aesthetic issues. Moreover, in writing about the Russian countryside, women writers implicitly stated their wish to be taken seriously as Russian writers.

By positioning themselves at the margins, in the countryside, women writers created a niche for themselves in aesthetic debates over Russian realism. Critics claimed that women wrote simply or autobiographically and therefore could not be good realist writers. While men wrote about the whole of Russian society, women were limited by their experience to writing about interiors and by extension, about small, enclosed subjects. Not coincidentally, critics delayed women’s entry into realist writing just when realism became the foundation of writers’ professional aspirations.

In creating a literary persona of the provincial woman writer, women declared themselves professionally as different from more traditional women writers (as constructed by critics), specifically writers of society tales. More importantly, they displayed ambition in competing with certain male realist writers, especially Turgenev. This is evident from Nadežda Xvoščinskaja’s and Soxaskaja’s criticisms of Turgenev’s renditions of country speech. Perhaps Turgenev sensed the challenge when he became Vovčok’s literary protector and translated her first collection of folk tales from Ukrainian into Russian. As one measure of who mattered more to whom, in her diary, Apollinarija Suslova noted that Vovčok’s mother bragged to her about how long Vovčok could keep Turgenev waiting—two hours.