Women’s Migration in Contemporary Russian Literature

Karin Sarsenov, Lund University, Sweden

The 1990s in Russia witnessed a wave of emigration unique in the country’s history: for the first time, numerous Russians were leaving native soil not for political, but for economic reasons. Women’s potential for marriage to wealthy foreigners or employment as sex workers resulted in a stigmatization of the Russian female immigrant in the public imagination and national discourse. All too rapidly the already potent symbol of the prostitute as an expression of masculine national anxiety became virtually institutionalized.

Russian nationalistic narratives, as investigated by Irina Sandomirskaja (2001), center on the male subject’s movement in relationship to the feminized Rodina, and do not allocate a corresponding position to women. The strong association between “woman” and “hearth” in these narratives outlaws women’s movement and put the female immigrant at risk being dismissed as a prostitute.

As shown by Helena Goscilo (1996) and Eliot Borenstein (2003), the prostitute can also become a celebrated symbol of the raped and humiliated Russia. When imagined by contemporary Russian popular culture she becomes a redeemer, spiritually superior her invaders. Narratives of the “whore with the golden heart” soothe wounded patriotic feelings in times when economical, political and cultural influences of foreign extraction invade Russia’s public arena.

In Russian women’s prose about women immigrants, these discourses could be resisted or reinforced, but due to their great influence, they have to be responded to. This paper investigates three woman authored texts that deal with women’s migration, with the aim of extracting these responses. Ljudmila Ulickaja’s story “Zü-ürich” (2002) provides the alternative to prostitution, external respectability, with anti-Semitic overtones, thereby deconstructing the notion of decency. The title of Nina Sadur’s novel The German (1997) evokes associations with a range of nationalistic tropes based in World War II propaganda. Nevertheless, the novel eventually subverts the core symbols of this rhetoric. By stating the elusiveness of key symbols of national belonging - the journey, the ring, and the soil – any sharp national distinction is refuted. Anna Grom and her Specter by Marija Rybakova (1999) is an epistolary novel from a dead Russian woman to her German beloved. The narrator confronts attempts to marginalize her on gendered and national basis by switching the emphasis from the sexual arena to the artistic. By charging prostitution with the sin of routine, rather than illicit sexuality, the narrator seeks to dissociate herself from the omnipresent stigma.


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