In this paper I discuss the notion of a “proper” versus “improper” wife of a cultural figure as exemplified by the constellation of famous Russian widows, including L. D. Blok, Axmatova, Nadežda Mandel′štam and Čukovskaja. As Beth Holmgren demonstrated, in Soviet society (particularly at the time of Stalin’s purges) gender distinctions became strongly emphasized amongst intellectuals. In the absence of their dead or prosecuted husbands, brothers and fathers, it “fell to women to preserve the cultural artifacts—the texts, images and practices.” Both Nadežda Mandel′štam and Lidija Čukovskaja chose to live in the shadow of, respectively, the deceased husband (Mandel′štam) and the revered poet (Čukovskaja). L. D. Blok and Axmatova, however, did little to promote the cultural legacies of their late husbands but concentrated primarily on the advancement of their own professional careers. In fact for almost thirty years Axmatova played the role of a “deceased” husband to Lidija Čukovskaja. The latter voluntarily undertook to preserve Axmatova’s legacy for posterity. While Axmatova was quickly elevated to the position of a cultural icon, a martyr and a model for many women to follow, it became the fate of L. D. Blok to be portrayed as an outcast and the totally useless wife of a great poet.
Although not published at the time, L. D. Blok’s recollections of her relationship with Aleksandr Blok were widely circulated among intellectuals and were criticized especially by Axmatova and her companions. What these women might have found particularly upsetting about L. D. Blok’s memoirs was the very “private” quality of her life and writing. By the 1930s—when L. D. Blok embarked on writing her memoirs—memory (and memoirs) were no longer regarded as purely private phenomena. Instead they became a powerful weapon in social, political and cultural struggles (viz. memoirs of Belyj, G. Ivanov, Trotskij, Xodasevič, to name but a few). Thus Nadežda Mandel′štam’s memoirs—in which, unlike L. D. Blok, she was less preoccupied with telling the “truth” than with “manipulating” the reader—quickly acquired the status of not only an objective historical document but also a means of deconstructing Stalinist institutions. Thus, paradoxically, while bemoaning the loss of their privacy that was imposed on them by the Soviet regime, women-intellectuals were, in fact, engaged in recycling their very private affairs in order to re-present them later as deeds of public importance. In this cultural, social and political climate both L. D. Blok herself and her ways of remembering inevitably fell outside accepted literary, ethical and aesthetic norms.
I will conclude by discussing more recent works such as Viktor Erofeev’s Russian Beauty (1982) and Emma Gerštejn’s Memoirs (1998) as a counter-discourse to ethically charged recollections of Nadežda Mandel′štam and Lidija Čukovskaja.