Wisdom’s Voice, Wisdom’s Body: Women and the Sophian Feminine in the Silver Age

David Borgmeyer, Independent Scholar

In the The Dying Swan (1916), directed by the pioneering filmmaker Evgenii Bauer, the character of Lidiia is strongly connoted as an iteration of Sophia, the divine feminine and incarnation of Wisdom who was popular among poets, thinkers, theologians, artists, and others at the beginning of the 20th century. Already muted by the genre itself, the ‘sophian’ Lidiia is doubly silenced: she is portrayed as a mute, who can only communicate by writing on a slate.

This voicelessness can be taken in part as a metaphor for current research into Sophia. Scholarship making mention of sophian variations across Russian culture in this period is not uncommon, yet this paper proposes to explore a perspective rarely met in the research published on the topic: that of women. Indeed, most of the best-known sophian figures are men: Vladimir Soloviev, Aleksandr Blok, Andrei Bely, et cetera, and there is very little investigation of the meaning of Sophia for women in Russian culture. Yet there are women for whom Sophia was as telling on their lives and works as she was for men – though not always by their own choice. Several “types” of responses to the idea of Sophia by women will be discussed, focusing on the uses of voice and body and exploring the tension between them, giving some expression and presence to the otherwise nearly mute and invisible female sophian discourse in Silver Age culture.

Some of the ‘sophian women’ in this period claim to be the possessors of esoteric wisdom – or even Wisdom incarnate. These women, such as Anna Mintslova or Anna Schmidt, typically concealed or de-emphasized their gendered physical bodies, using their voices to cast themselves in a literary-life role, then using the claim to secret wisdom or supernatural status to exert authority over others, especially men. On the other hand, another type of sophian women is that who had the role of Sophia thrust upon them, also, usually, by men. Representatives of this type include Sophia Khitrovo and Liubov’ Mendeleeva-Blok, who left a rich autobiographical text in which she both rejects and embraces herself as Blok’s prekrasnaia dama, manipulating the representation of her body to parade and parody herself. What she has to say is valuable not only for the insights she can offer into Blok, but also for the fascinating refraction of the idea of the feminine in the Russian Symbolist milieu.

One other facet of the sophian experience by women are those who themselves create literary works about the sophian divine feminine rather than living the role with their physical bodies. Women, such as Poliksena Solovieva – pseudonym Allegro, employed themes of the idealized feminine as many of their male colleagues did, but sometimes with significantly different approaches. The voices of these sophian women – indeed all sophian women – are important to hear, especially if we seek to understand the central role of Sophia in Silver Age culture.