Nature and Nurture in Liudmila Ulitskaia’s Kazus Kukotskogo: Maternal, Male and Medical Subjectivities

Elizabeth Skomp, Sewanee: The University of the South

Liudmila Ulitskaia’s Kazus Kukotskogo (The Kukotskii Case, 2000), winner of the 2001 Russian Booker Prize, may be classified as a family chronicle in the general vein of her 1996 novel Medeia i ee deti. In addition to the central family motif, the tropes of birth, reproduction and maternity hold pride of place, partially owing to the work of the eponymous protagonist, the gynecologist Pavel Aleksandrovich Kukotskii, and partially because of their evident metaphorical richness.

This paper will analyze the problematic and shifting ideas of maternity and reproductive politics against the backdrop of the Soviet period as depicted in Kazus Kukotskogo. By drawing from Marianne Hirsch’s critique of maternal subjectivity (The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism), I will illuminate the tension between various female/maternal subjectivities and the male/medical views most prominently voiced by Kukotskii in the text. My analysis will use Adrienne Rich’s definition of motherhood as “the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children” (Of Woman Born). An examination of this relationship on both the individual and social levels lies at the core of my analysis.

Although the primacy of birth in the text is firmly established, the biological mother at times seems to function merely as a childbearing vessel; this negative representation is striking within a text that significantly privileges issues of birth, reproduction, and fertility, not to mention the special position traditionally accorded to the mother in Russian literature and culture. Indeed, we see the eventual insignificance, inadequacy, disappearance, death or madness of nearly every biological mother in Kazus Kukotskogo; more often than not, another individual appears to be better suited for the maternal role. This mother-substitution and the textual question of pravo golosa (right to speak) on questions of maternity prompt an interrogation of the relationship between the structure of the family and the composition of the narrative.

Finally, I will situate Kazus Kukotskogo in the broader context of maternal subjectivities found in Ulitskaia’s oeuvre as well as other contemporary Russian female-authored narratives about birth and maternity. My conclusions will highlight the ways in which Ulitskaia challenges the concept of the ideal/idealized mother and suggests an alternative notion of family and community against the historical backdrop of Soviet science.