His to Stake, Hers to Lose: Women’s Reactions to Male Gambling in Nineteenth-Century Russia

Ian Helfant, Colgate University

In the past decade, a number of scholars have examined the real and mythical underpinnings of masculine behaviors and strategies of identity in nineteenth-century Russian life and literature. Examples include studies of the Cossack myth (Kornblatt, 1992), dueling (Reyfman, 1999), and high-stakes gentry gambling (Helfant, forthcoming). At the same time, a constellation of texts focusing upon women’s lives and neglected women authors, as well as feminist rereadings of works by male authors, has spurred reevaluation of the issues of identity faced by women in nineteenth-century Russia and the representation of these issues in both dominant and repressed discourses (Heldt, 1987; Kelly, 1994; Clyman and Vowles, 1996; and others). This paper draws critically upon both of these current trends to investigate a very specific issue in cultural studies: the ways in which women reacted to and represented male actions which had dire consequences for them as dependents in a male-dominated world. More specifically, it explores women’s reactions to the high-stakes gambling, gambling losses, and frequent prodigality which were a central component of male gentry identity but which often impacted terribly upon the wives, daughters, and sisters of the male “protagonists” involved. Real-life examples range from Karolina Pavlova, who became a social outcast after she attempted to prevent her husband from squandering her fortune at cards, to Dostoevskij’s wife Anna, who found herself abandoned for weeks during her honeymoon while Dostoevskij played roulette, to the wife of Puškin’s card partner I. E. Velikopol′skij, whose despairing letters concerning her husband’s cardplay foreshadow the mental breakdown which she later suffered. Literary examples include Karamzin’s “Poor Liza,” who is forsaken by Èrast after he loses his fortune at cards, to the wife of a profligate provincial landowner in Begičev’s 1832 didactic novel The Xolmskij Family, to Tolstoj’s Dolli in Anna Karenina, who accedes to her husband’s incursions upon her inheritance even as she agonizes over the fate of her children. This paper investigates cases like these within the context of recent feminist theory to address the real-life and literary repercussions of gambling behaviors for women. It discusses, for example, the paradoxical fact that while nineteenth-century Russian legal codes afforded women a surprising degree of financial independence (as demonstrated by Wagner, 1994, and Wirtschafter, 1997) they often found themselves emotionally or socially unable to assert these legal rights in order to protect their own interests. Moreover, women’s reactions to gambling behaviors are rarely foregrounded in literary texts, which focus upon the more gripping narratives of the male protagonists. The paper demonstrates that some Russian women internalized and identified with, while others contested, prevailing male representations of desperate gambling and financial recklessness.