Slot:       30C–4          Dec. 30, 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.                                                

Panel:     Mothers and Magdalenes: Russian Women Writers and Orthodoxy

Chair:     Stuart Goldberg, Georgia Institute of Technology


Title:       My Sister is Death: Akhmatova and Pasternak’s Weeping Marys

Author:   Martha Kelly, Stanford University

Half a century after Vladimir Solovyev produced his poetic philosophy of Sophia, two survivors from Russia’s Silver Age created retrospectives of that earlier period and centered them on salvific female figures.  Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago both envision poetry as an element that sustains life in the midst of historical disaster, and both envision poetry as a female element.  Both model, moreover, this sustaining force on female figures from the Christian tradition—Mary Mother of God and Mary Magdalene, adapting Russian Orthodoxy’s presentation of them in its liturgy.

This paper compares the use by Akhmatova and Pasternak of Orthodox liturgical ideals of the feminine, suggesting that the key to their differing approaches lies in the varied ways they present the female body and the differing images they choose from Holy Week services.  At the heart of both works dwells the figure of Mary weeping.  Her tears bear the power of grace and restoration to a fallen creation, as they impart the very substance of herself.  Yet for Pasternak, the body of the Mary figure resembles a living tree, and for Akhmatova, a stone.  In each instance, the poet presents the female body as a hypostasis of one moment of the Passion Week narrative.

The case of Akhmatova and Pasternak’s late female ideals indicates the presence of Orthodox religious systems of meaning at the heart of the Russian poetic imagination. Current scholarship tends to underestimate both the awareness and use of these systems of meaning by twentieth-century writers.  Closer examination, though, of such uses enriches an understanding of writers’ presentation and construction of Russian culture, not least in times of historical crisis.  Such examination also sheds light on Russian literary constructions of the female body as a fabric of cultural cohesion.


Title:       Angelina Polonskaya: Atheist Ice Dancer as Orthodox Poet

Author:   Sarah Pratt, University of Southern California

Angelina Polonskaya has an unorthodox background for a poet:  a degree in physical education and a career as an ice dancer.  After more than a decade on ice, however, Polonskaya made a crucial decision.  As the website Сетевая словесность ( nonchalantly puts it, “Закончив ледовую карьеру, решила посвятить себя литературе.”  Polonskaya has published five collections of verse, including a volume in English published by Northwestern UP in 2004.

Evan as a professional poet, however, Polonskaya appears to reject both the Russian poetic orthodoxy and the Russian religious Orthodoxy that form the bedrock of Russian culture.  In a review from Vecherniaia Moskva posted on her website, Polonskaya claims to doubt the existence of the human soul, and asserts that talent is nothing more than “a combination of genes.”  Few Russian poets have ever made statements like these.  The surrealist cast of Polonskaya’s homepage, the fact that the website can be easily accessed in both Russian and English, and her skillful use of the web to publish her work, post interviews, correspond with fans, and promote her image literally and figuratively (the site includes a glamorous headshot, as well as snapshots of readings, tours, etc.) – indeed, the fact that Polonskaya has her own website at all – suggest a “trendy chick poet” of the twenty-first century. 

Polonskaya truly is trendy and has a talent for marketing as well as poetry, but a look at some of the titles of her poems suggests that there is something beyond this:  “The Monk and the Child,” “Novitiates,” “Salvatore,” “Sunday,” “Islam,” “Missionaries.”  A close reading reveals a poet with deep spiritual concerns who, purposefully or not, builds poems that resonate with the imagery, stories, and lexicon of the church.  This paper examines the complex identity of the atheist ice dancer turned Orthodox poet.


Title:       Zhiznetvorchestvo in Paris: The Theme of Motherhood in the Works of Mother Maria (Skobtsova)

Author:   Natalia Ermolaev, Columbia University

The figure of the suffering mother and her sacred prototype – Mary, the Mother of God – is encountered in the works of many female writers of the Silver Age, from Zinaida Gippius’ “Адонаи” (1914), Mariia Shkapskaia’s Mater Dolorosa (1921), Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Подруга” (1914-1915) and “Стихи к Блоку” (1921) cycles, to Anna Akhmatova’s Реквием. 

An important female writer from this milieu whose work on the subject has previously been overlooked is Elizaveta Skobtsova (1891-1945), the poet and theologian known better by her monastic name, Mother Maria. The centrality of the suffering mother figure is evident in her earliest poetry and artwork (the poems “Notre Dame,” 1914, “Руфь,” 1916; the painting “Материнство,” 1913-1917) and remains the thematic backbone of her mature oeuvre written after emigration to Paris in 1923. In her voluminous literary work (poetry, essays, plays) and visual art (embroidery, iconography, painting) Skobtsova experiments with various aesthetic, emotional and theological implications of motherhood and Orthodox Christian Mariology. 

This paper looks at the changing role of motherhood in Skobtsova’s works - from her poignant depictions of the deaths of her children (her sketches Умирающая Настенька (1926); the cycle of poems on Gaiana’s death, 1936), to the merging of the voice of the suffering mother with the Mother of God (“Не буду ничего беречь,” 1936; the “Покров” cycle, 1942), to the universal, transcendental motherhood that becomes the cornerstone of Skobtsova’s theological vision.  In her essays О подражании Богоматери (1939) and Почитание Богоматери (n.d.), Skobtsova develops a powerful and unique Mariology where the notion of Godmotherhood (Богоматеринство) serves the new paradigm for the Orthodox life in the modern world.

In analyzing Skobtsova’s use of the motherhood theme in the context of Russian women’s writing, we gain a better understanding of how Russian women’s literary self-expression developed in the early 20th century.  By comparing Skobtsova’s works to other trends in Orthodox Mariology and Sophiology, we discover a significant new strain in the conceptualization of the feminine aspect of the divine in modern Russian religious thought.