Maternal Ambivalence and the Roddom: Examining Arbatova, Sukhanova and Palei

Elizabeth Skomp, Williams College

As perhaps the quintessential site of uniquely female experience, the roddom reveals a wide range of attitudes toward maternity and women’s reproductive potential. By juxtaposing Mariia Arbatova’s “Menia zovut zhenshchina,” Natal’ia Sukhanova’s “Delos” and Marina Palei’s “Otdelenie propashchikh,” three short prose works set in the late Soviet era, this paper aims to analyze the ways in which the authors alternately subvert traditionally venerated motherhood and reaffirm long-established, culturally entrenched values.

“Maternal ambivalence” references the conflicting elements found at the intersection of female identity and maternal identity. Whether self-generated, suggested, or imposed, previously held notions of the maternal ideal often clash sharply with the scenarios presented in these texts. Through narratological analysis, we may examine various constructions of the mother-role as seen by Arbatova, Sukhanova and Palei. Differentiated authorial approaches permit a multifaceted appraisal of the mother motif: Arbatova’s semi-autobiographical, avowedly feminist text strives to emblematize a shared female experience; Sukhanova employs a male narrator to articulate a comparatively traditional and pro-natalist viewpoint; and Palei draws upon her medical background to depict the visceral, physical aspects of the roddom experience, thereby bringing body politics to the fore.

The scholarship of Goscilo, Heldt, Hubbs and Kelly on the respective roles of the mother and the maternity hospital in Russian literature and culture will serve as a starting point for broadly situating the primary texts both culturally and historically. Drawing upon this foundation, the paper ultimately will attempt to determine the sources of maternal identity and attitudes toward motherhood as seen in contemporary Russian literature.