Reading Mother Russia: Surprises and Possibilities in the Telling of Russian History
Betsy Jones Hemenway

Once upon a time there lived a rich widow, with a beautiful face and vigorous body, not old and not young, by the name of Mother Russia...

When I began researching my dissertation on narratives of the 1917 Russian revolutions, I expected to be reading a lot of dull party tracts. Was I in for a surprise. Instead, I have found myself studying a large collection of revolutionary folk tales, or skazki, written by political activists and published in newspaper, pamphlet, and book form. Issued in tens and hundreds of thousands of copies during the years 1917-1921, these tales describe various aspects of the revolutionary process, from the plight of the common peasants to the revolutionary struggle and its victorious outcome. Work on these texts has allowed me to adopt a fresh approach to the political culture of revolution, to deconstruct revolutionary discourse, and to introduce analytical concepts such as gender and national identity into the larger scholarly debate on the revolution.

Although published in the summer of 1917, the skazka quoted above, The Tale of Kol'ka the Tavernkeeper [a.k.a. Nicholas II], Proshka Menshevik, and Proshka Bolshevik, harks back to ancient folklore and implicitly hints at a foundational narrative of the Russian nation. Mother Russia is the widow of two great epic heroes and the mother of all Russians, most of whom are "hard-working people and valiant warriors," but whose actions help to bring about the debilitating illness of their mother and, subsequently, the collapse of the Russian empire in the early twentieth century. Thus, through texts on the apparent periphery of revolutionary discourse, we can see that one aspect of the 1917 revolutions is the story of a family in crisis. In many ways, this story represents a central dilemma of the Russian revolution - to kill Mother Russia (that is, Russia as nation) and create something new, or to preserve the past and a distinctive Russian national heritage.

The metaphor of nation as family and the analytical category of gender extend beyond skazki into other kinds of texts, such as party newspapers, political pamphlets, and revolutionary posters and songs. Indeed, once I discerned the basic parameters of the debate on gender and nation, I began to see it everywhere. Political activists reveal their positions in the revolutionary struggle through their attitudes toward "the Motherland" as an emblem of nation and of women's position within society. For instance, in the vociferous debates that erupted in newspapers and pamphlet literature after October 1917, the moderate socialists emerged as the faction most concerned with preserving the unity of the revolutionary movement and the Russian nation, while the Bolsheviks were intent on international revolution and on crossing national boundaries. In the place of Mother Russia, the Bolsheviks presented the "Working Woman" as their ideal symbol, yet she too stood as an allegory, while the actions of individual women - and the space for their participation in the revolutionary process - were rhetorically effaced.

While my goal is not primarily to restore women to the historical narrative, I do explore the discursive practices that restricted their range of activity (limiting Bolshevik women to women's and children's issues, for example) and for the most part erased them from the narrative of revolution. This is one way in which my research constitutes a profoundly feminist project that re-reads the historical sources and tries to shift the locus of scholarly debate. In the field of Russian and Soviet history this work is just beginning, but historians are demonstrating that the narratives and ideologies of revolution, as articulated in skazki and other texts by Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, and others, were not monolithic or even consistent. Rather, throughout the political struggle to overthrow the tsar and to establish a new Soviet order, revolutionaries did not hold fast to one position but shifted and adapted when necessary, producing a profoundly uneven and contested ideology and "master" narrative.

What is the significance of these changes? More than seventy-five years after the fact, a much more complicated picture of the Russian revolution is emerging, one which for the first time allows multiple modes of analysis and interpretation of a crucial period in world history. As archives in the former Soviet Union open up to foreign researchers, scholars are also exploring new, even unconventional, sources without the blinders of the bipolar Cold War world. Thus, not only are we seeing the early twentieth century in Russia differently, we perhaps are able to understand better current political conflicts and the deeply rooted cultural and political traditions that weave throughout Russian history.

Betsy Jones Hemenway is a doctoral candidate in Russian and Soviet history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is currently working on a dissertation titled Telling Stories: Russian Political Culture and Tales of Revolution, 1917-1921. Her article "Mother Russia and the Crisis of the Russian National Family" will be published later this year in the journal Nationality Papers.


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