(This blog post had to happen sometime.)
Sure, we’ve all fallen in love with people, but some of us have also fallen in love with books. I was in my early twenties, living in a newly post-Soviet Moscow, where I’d gone to work after college. Censorship had collapsed along with the Soviet Union, and many types of previously banned literature were flooding the Russian market. Tables with piles of books for sale were regular features outside many of the city’s metro stations. They were an incongruous mix of serious fiction by the likes of Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn, self-help manuals, erotica of dubious provenance, and Russian translations of detective novels by James Hadley Chase. I don’t have an exact memory, but given that a good number of my books from that period were purchased off such tables, it is highly likely that this is where I found a novel titled Zhenskii Dekameron — The Women’s Decameron (transl. W.B. Linton, publ. Atlantic Monthly Press; other editions in Russian and English exist). Without a doubt, the fact that the word zhenskii was in the title was a major selling point. It was by a writer named Julia Voznesenskaya (here and elsewhere, I am using the spelling of authors’ names as they appear on their English translations, but given my willingness to die on the hill of Library of Congress transliteration, I am absolutely cringing inside). I’d never heard of her. She changed my life.
Voznesenskaya wrote The Women’s Decameron in 1985 while in exile in what was then West Germany. Many writers were expelled from the Soviet Union, but what makes her case highly unusual was that it was due to feminist activity. She came to feminism via her involvement in the dissident movement in the 1970s, for which she was arrested and imprisoned. Although she wasn’t initially interested in women’s issues, time in all-women’s camps and prisons changed her mind. She and three other women founded the Soviet feminist movement (it was tiny, but still a thing); they formed a women’s club and put out journals of women’s writing, for which they were hounded by the KGB and made to leave. Three of the four founders, including Voznesenskaya, were religious, and their views resembled Russian Orthodox teachings more than feminist theory, but The Women’s Decameron bears little trace of this. In the West, they broke up over their religious-secular divide, but not before being interviewed by Ms. Magazine. In the process of editing this post, Olga found a Calvert Journal article about the exhibition Leningrad Feminism 1979, devoted to this Soviet feminist collective; it was shown in St. Petersburg earlier this year, and once COVID-19 conditions allow, will move to Moscow and then to locations in Western Europe. Thank you so much, Olga, for this amazing, and unexpected find — hopefully, this exhibition is a start to making these Soviet feminists better known in both Russia and the West. Voznesenskaya herself won’t know about it: she died in Berlin in 2015. There’s a good chance, though, that she wouldn’t want anything to do with it. After emigration, she wrote detective novels, but then spent some time in a French monastery, whereby she renounced her previous works and turned to writing Russian Orthodox fantasy (don’t ask; I don’t know).
The Women’s Decameron is Voznesenskaya’s first, and best-known work, although in this case, “best-known” is a relative term (I was surprised and overjoyed when several people on Twitter responded to my, um, numerous posts saying they’d read it, although given all the brilliant Russian literature people on Twitter, I shouldn’t have been surprised). Because Voznesenskaya was exiled, The Women’s Decameron was not published in the Soviet Union; when it became available in post-Soviet Russia, it went seemingly unnoticed. She may be most familiar in Slavic academia in the West, and even then, not so much.
My poor love deserves better. A reworking of Boccaccio’s Decameron from a female point of view, the novel features ten women of different backgrounds and life experiences quarantined together after giving birth in a late Soviet-era maternity ward because of a spreading infection (if nothing else, read it for the unintentional parallel with our current situation, although I promise you, there’s much more to it than that). They pass the time telling stories about their lives and those of their friends and families in ten chapters containing each of their ten stories, with an author-narrator who opens and closes the pieces. Each chapter is devoted to a different theme; when I teach this novel in my course Writing the Body in Contemporary Russian Women’s Fiction, we read “First Love,” “Sex in Farcical Situations,” “Rapists and their Victims,” and “Happiness.” Love and happiness (or, rather, a distinct lack thereof) are common themes in Russian literature; but the two other titles, and the all-female space of this novel, signal that The Women’s Decameron is a different type of book.
Russian literature has no shortage of women writers and female protagonists. But as Barbara Heldt notes in Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature, which I could cite directly if it weren’t for the pandemic-induced closure of our university library, what is considered the Russian canon is overwhelmingly made up of male writers and male protagonists. Female protagonists, while crucial to the plot, are usually complements to their male counterparts, and their own development is rarely shown. Other scholars have pointed out Russian literature’s puritanical approach to the body and sexuality, which were not considered appropriate subjects for “high” literature. Once in a while, male characters got to be physical, but women rarely did, and one was thrown under a train for trying.
This changed in the liberalized atmosphere of glasnost’ and the early post-Soviet period, which witnessed an explosion of women’s voices. In defiance of Russian and Soviet patriarchy and puritanism, writers such as Svetlana Vasilenko, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Valeria Narbikova, and Marina Palei, among many others, created a female-centered space in Russian literature, with women protagonists who were both intellectual and physical beings. Their works, often explicitly concerned with the act of writing, were characterized by a palpable presence of female bodies in various manifestations: sex, violence, pregnancy, abortion, disease, etc. While none of them had read French feminist theory, and several openly eschewed any association with feminism, they were, in Hélène Cixous’s formulation, writing the body. In Slavic Studies in the West, these writers, who do not form a coherent whole but have enough in common to be talked about together, became known as New Women’s Prose, first and foremost due to the pioneering efforts of Helena Goscilo, in such publications as Dehexing Sex: Russian Womanhood During and After Glasnost (having relied on it extensively in my dissertation, this one I have on my shelves).
The few scholars who have written on Voznesenskaya place her in the general category of Soviet women’s literature, while those who write on New Women’s Prose don’t include her. This is understandable, since living in West Germany, she had no connections with the other Russian women writers. But the striking similarity is that Voznesenskaya also writes the body: The Women’s Decameron centers women’s narratives of sexuality, violation, etc. It’s a pretty convincing argument, if I do say so myself (I did say so myself, in my dissertation and in the article I wrote about The Women’s Decameron).
An account of sex on the roof due to a lack of privacy in an acute Soviet housing shortage – that’s in there. The story about appearing in front of a theater audience in bed with your lover due to the mechanism of an inopportunely revolving stage — that’s in there too, as is a romp with an American “spy” on top of the heads of three KGB agents hiding under the bed during a room search gone awry. Also in there are the more somber stories of child sexual abuse and the many instances of rape, some of which the women verbalize for the first time to each other. Powerless to stop being raped in life, they support each other and try to heal themselves through telling their stories. And in one instance, they, and we, are overcome by unadulterated hilarity and gratitude because a character was able to get highly painful revenge on her would-be attacker with a pair of imported mittens. Female bodies, both their pleasures and pains, are very much written here.
Admittedly, in a novel that consciously tries to represent a spectrum of women’s experiences, making them all mothers is a regressive move. That said, Voznesenskaya goes against convention in allowing motherhood to coexist with sexuality (take that, Tolstoy), and notably, the characters bond over a range of topics, not motherhood itself. Indeed, she espouses several ideas that make her ahead of her time. She openly terms one protagonist a feminist, which, let’s just say isn’t something one expects from late Soviet-era works (or, really, many other eras). There is also a recognition that other types of oppression intersect with gender: several protagonists’ lives are shaped by their economic standing, whereas another’s is by being Jewish, the latter also indicative of Voznesenskaya’s rejection of Soviet anti-Semitism. A storyline about one of the protagonists’ love interests mentions racism toward those from the Caucasus. There’s more to say about what else The Women’s Decameron does, including revealing aspects of Soviet life that the regime tried to silence, but that would require another post.
When I say Voznesenskaya changed my life, partially I mean that she largely determined my academic path, handing me my dissertation topic and leading me to discover the other contemporary women writers, whom I teach and have written on. More fundamentally, I mean that The Women’s Decameron was my first time reading a Russian work that gave voice to viscerally honest, specifically female experiences. Over the years, I’d had lots of amazing conversations with Russian books, but this was the first one that spoke back in a shared language. In the women writers course, my students really respond to this novel. Some of them say about all the writers that they didn’t know there was Russian literature like this. I didn’t either, until Voznesenskaya, and through her several others, showed me that there could be.
Below is the opening of The Women’s Decameron. The right-hand image underneath that shows the never-to-be-detached Post-it notes from graduate school. Although this novel is, sadly, out of print, the English translation is still available here and, as much as I don’t want to recommend a particular mail-order giant, here. In Russian, it seems to be available here and online here (although I have no personal knowledge of either of those sites). Try it. Who knows; you might fall in love, too.
The Women’s Decameron by Julia Voznesenskaya
“How is it possible to read in this bedlam!” thought Emma. She turned over on to her stomach, propped the Decameron between her elbows, pulled the pillow over her ears and tried to concentrate.
She could already visualize how the play would begin. As they entered the auditorium and spectators would not be met by the usual theatre attendants, but by monks with their cowls drawn down over their eyes; they would check the tickets and show the spectators to their seats in the dark auditorium, lighting the way and pointing out the seat numbers, with old-fashioned lanterns. She would have to call in at the Hermitage, look out a suitable lantern, and draw a sketch of it … The stage would be open from the very beginning, but lit only by a bluish moon. It would depict a square in Florence with the dark outlines of a fountain and a church door, over which would be the inscription “Memento Mori” – remember you must die. Every now and then some monks would cross the stage with a cart – the corpse collectors. And a bell, there must definitely be a bell ringing the whole time – “For whom the bell tolls.” It was essential that from the very beginning, even before the play started, there should be a feeling of death in the theatre. Against this background ten merry mortals would tell their stories.
Yet it was difficult to believe that it happened like that: plague, death and misery were all around and in the midst of this a company of cavaliers and ladies were amusing each other with romantic and bawdy stories. These women; on the other hand, did not have the plague but a simple skin infection such as frequently occurs in maternity hospitals, and yet look at all the tears and hysterics! Perhaps people were much shallower nowadays. Stupid women, why were they so impatient? Were they in such a hurry to
start the nappy-changing routine? God, the very thought was enough to make you want to give up: thirty liners, thirty nappies and as many swaddling sheets, rain or shine. And each one had to be washed, boiled and ironed on both sides. It could drive you crazy. In the West they had invented disposable nappies and plastic pants long ago. Our people were supposed to be involved in industrial espionage, so why couldn’t they steal some useful secret instead of always going for electronics?
“Hey, girls! You could at least take it in turns to whine! The noise is really bugging me. If my milk goes off I’ll really freak out!” This outburst came from Zina, a “woman of no fixed abode” as the doctors described her on their rounds; in other words, a tramp. Nobody came to visit her, and she was in no hurry to leave the hospital.
“If only we had something nice to think about!” sighed Irina, or Irishka as everyone called her, a plump girl who was popular in the ward because of her kind, homely disposition.
And then it suddenly dawned on Emma. She lifted the Decameron high above her head so that everyone could see the fat book in its colourful cover. “Dear mothers! How many of you have read this book? “Naturally about half of them had. “Well,” continued Emma, “for those who haven’t I’ll explain it simply. During a plague ten young men and women leave the city and place themselves in quarantine for ten days, just as they’ve done to us here. Each day they take it in turns to tell each other different stories about life and love, the tricks that clever lovers play and the tragedies that come from love. How about all of us doing the same?”
That was all they needed. They immediately decided that this was much more interesting than telling endless stories about family problems.