Enter the Women: Rewriting the Life of a Decembrist

Judith E. Kalb, University of South Carolina

This paper addresses issues of the literary reinterpretation of historical figures through analysis of the unique view of the Decembrist Ivan Ivanovich Gorbachevskij (1800–1869) presented in the memoirs of Ekaterina Oskarovna Dubrovina (1846–1913), one of Russia's first female professional writers. Gorbachevskij, the only Decembrist to have lived out his life in the place of his imprisonment, Siberia's Petrovskij Zavod, is commonly known both for the lasting quality of his youthful revolutionary ideals and for the loneliness that beset him in his later years, as his fellow Decembrists were enjoying other locales and their families. While Gorba&chachekevskij is thought to have fathered several children with the wife of the medical assistant Nikita Luckin (Gorbachevskij, 1963; Syroechkovskij, 1916), Gorbachevskij scholarship has not focused on his relationship with this woman or with other women in Petrovskij Zavod. In her 1898 memoir Na Petrovskom Zavode, however, the Siberian-born Dubrovina, née Deixman, who had been tutored by Gorbachevskij as a child, turned her attention precisely to this facet of the Decembrist's life.

Dubrovina, now largely forgotten, was a best-selling novelist in late nineteenth-century Russia. Published in a quantity of journals and newspapers, her multitudinous tales feature a range of subjects, often women, from coldhearted, shallow society maidens to oppressed and poverty-stricken women "of the people" (Zirin 1994; Kalb 2001). In keeping with the thematics of much of her other work, Na Petrovskom Zavode diverges from previous and subsequent renderings of Gorbachevskij's life to present the women in Gorbachevskij's life, including the Siberian Old Believer mistress who has borne him a son and aristocratic women such as Dubrovina's mother, Aleksandra Petrovna Dejxman, and Ekaterina Nikolaevna Murav'eva, wife of Nikolaj Nikolaevich Murav'ev ("graf Amurskii"). Through its focus on the women in Gorbachevskij's life, as well as the relationships between them, Dubrovina's text presents a useful corrective to the exclusionary nature of much of the writing on Gorbachevskij and also provides a window into aspects of Siberian society in the mid-nineteenth century.