The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

A Chorus of Women: An Exploration of the Feminine in 19th and 20th Century Russian Literature

Nina Youkhanna

The voice of women in Russian literature is a complex subject of study. This complexity is centuries-old and was most prominent in the nineteenth century when women were categorized into two opposing models: a sinful temptress mirroring Eve or a saintly mother emulating the Madonna. Passivity and submissiveness were characters of feminine strength. Silence, paradoxically, was the ultimate form of feminine eloquence. In Soviet-era literature, the myth of the often-silent iron-willed mother continued to be a popular trope with the added zealous devoutness to Marxist ideology. This study seeks to examine the change in the representations of feminine discourse in nineteenth and twentieth century Russian prose. The principal approach is Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogic discourse. Bakhtin claims that a character can only be revealed when (s)he is in dialogue. From this perspective, this study focuses on instances where the feminine discourse is engaged in or absent from the dialogue and the consequences of each case.


You have come to bury me.

Then where is your pick, where your spade?

You have only a flute in your hands.

I will not blame you,

For is it a shame that at some time, long ago,

Forever my voice fell silent.

Anna Akhmatova, 1912


Russian literature has produced some of the most iconic fictional heroines that the world has ever known. From Pushkin’s Tatiana to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, each woman has a unique voice that captures the paradigms of femininity in Russian culture. Russia’s strong patriarchal roots, which are grounded in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, had a profound influence on these paradigms. Literature of the nineteenth century promulgated these prototypes of femininity by dividing women into either saints or sinners. Women were most powerful when they were silent. Thus, they were relegated to the paradoxical position of “superior inferiority.” In literature and in society, the cult of the Mother and the Madonna was seen as the embodiment of feminine perfection.

The Bolshevik Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union attempted to radically modernized women’s position in society. The Marxist credo, which at its basis sought to eradicate oppression, appealed to many Russian women who saw a hope for equality in the utopian promises of Communism. Women in the USSR achieved unprecedented milestones when compared to their European counterparts. They were granted political, legal, and social equality and given opportunities for better education and job training (Clements 41). Despite all these changes, the Bolsheviks were not able to change the traditional opinion regarding the inferiority of women. Reality in the USSR was wholly different from the image presented by the statistics. Women were generally less politically active (Clements 22), and were mostly absent from positions of leadership (Schuster 265). In addition, sexism remained an obstacle for many women who were seen as less dependable than men because their priorities were their children and family life (Schuster 266).

During the Stalinist era, the repressive regime promoted the image of the “New Soviet Woman” who was able to perfectly balance work and family life (Clements 73). This “double burden” of the Soviet women led many to toil in harsh living conditions and demanding physical labour (72). The political and economic upheavals that accompanied the collapse of the USSR, particularly after the Western influences that flooded the country during the 1980s, had a paradoxical effect whereby society returned to “conservative gender roles” and “polarized images of womanhood [as] mistress and wife” (Sutcliffe, “Engendering” 28).

Russian prose of the nineteenth century was almost entirely male-dominated, as the works of the great Alexander Pushkin had set a standard for all literary productions. This phenomenon continued in the Soviet Union, where the most prominent prose authors were men. Although female poets such as Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova had gained recognition among Soviet intellectuals, women’s prose did not fully emerge until the late 1980s, when the policies of perestroika and glasnost allowed for a greater freedom of expression (Lapidus 20). With the advent of writers such as Ludmila Ulitskaya and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, women authors established a prominent literary presence in the short prose genre.

Feminist critics have analyzed the ambivalent position of women in Soviet-era culture and literature. Many focused on the feminine identity, which was caught in between Communist theory and Soviet praxis, whereby the centuries-old paradigms of femininity persisted despite the economic and political freedoms granted to women. Few, however, have focused on how this discrepancy affected feminine language and the feminine voice in the literature of that era. This study aims to explore the effects of the socio-political changes of the twentieth century on feminine discourse in Russian literary prose.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the polyphony of the novel and the dialogic will provide the theoretical basis for this study. Bakhtin asserts that “[t]he novel as a whole is a phenomenon multiform in style and variform in speech and voice” (Dialogic). This characteristic infuses the genres of the novel and the short story with verisimilitude. Real Soviet women’s discourse was burdened with centuries-old expectations and new models of femininity which made their language different from those of previous eras. Bakhtin’s polyphonic theory allows for a close inspection of this feminine language. Additionally, Bakhtin views polyphonic dialogue as the telos of the novel. Through this dialogic relationship, “languages throw light on each other” because “one language can, after all, see itself only in the light of another language” (Dialogic). The feminine discourse reveals itself when it is in dialogue, and more importantly for this study, when it is silent.

Chapter One examines an iconic heroine of the Russian literary canon: Sonia Marmeladov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866). Although it was written in the second half of nineteenth century, Dostoevsky’s heroine in this seminal work had a profound influence on female depictions in Soviet-era literature. Feminine redemptive silence is contrasted with masculine destructive verbosity in a dialogic opposition that is at the center of Dostoevsky’s novel. Feminist critics have investigated Sonia’s voice in the novel, or lack thereof, in relation to Bakhtin’s dialogic theory. Their analysis will provide the groundwork for the exploration of feminine speech and silence in the works that follow.

Chapters Two and Three examine two female characters in male-authored Soviet-era works: Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Matryona’s Home. The former was written between 1928 and 1940, and the latter was published in 1963; both works are considered part of the dissident tradition. The discourses of the two eponymous heroines, Margarita and Matryona, are used as emblems of larger concepts. They are polemical characters in relation to the outside reality, but within the confines of the novel they either remain monologic (to use a Bakhtinian term) or they are suspended from the dialogue in favour of patriarchal balance.

Chapters Four and Five focus on two women-authored novellas: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Sonechka and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s The Time: Night. Although both works were published in 1992, the year following the dissolution of the USSR, they look back at Soviet history through individual rather than the collective narratives. Women writers sought to present females that were closer to their own realities and experiences of the past. In women’s prose, the feminine voice is no longer mythologized, but unapologetically presented as it really is: at times docile and naive, and at others monstrous and controlling.

Sonia: The Silent Madonna

In his study of Dostoevsky’s poetics, Mikhail Bakhtin maintains that the chief characteristic of the author’s novels is “[a] plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousness, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices” (italics in original)(6). Although Bakhtin’s analysis remains gender-neutral, the multiplicity of voices allows a space for feminine discourse within the novel. Sonia Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment is one of Dostoevsky’s most iconic heroines, yet ironically her main contribution to the dialogic discourse is her silence. Harriet Murav declares that “[w]hatever woman is in Dostoevsky—absence, image, memory trace, a blank space, albeit a Christological blank space—she is not a speaking subject” (51). Nonetheless, it is this lack of a defined “voice” that links Sonia with the image of the ideal Christian Russian woman that Dostoevsky so admires. Sonia’s eloquent silence rests on the Russian Orthodox edifice. It is linked with the virtue of self-sacrifice, and stands in contrast with Raskolnikov’s masculine individualistic Napoleon theory. When the silence is broken momentarily at the moment in which she reads the Lazarus story to Raskolnikov, her voice becomes a powerful catalyst in the murderer’s potential salvation.

Sonia’s silent role in Crime and Punishment is a reflection of Russian society’s ideals in the late nineteenth-century. The Russian Orthodox Church placed great importance on such virtues as “subordination, submissiveness, and self-sacrifice for men as well as women” (Clements xiv). In Russia’s pre-Revolutionary patriarchal society, women were expected to possess these virtues in relation to their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Dostoevsky’s Slavophile contemporaries rejected Western values and instead embraced the anti-individualistic ideology of the Orthodox Church. Richard Stites argues that this lead to “a romantic idealization of the Russian woman as the embodiment of Virtue and Maternity” (16). Rina Lapidus echoes the profound effects of European Romanticism on Russian writers who saw woman “as concept, […] an ethereal, heavenly creature” whose love elevated the soul of man to “merge with God” (11). If woman is seen as a concept rather than an independent individual, then her discourse becomes a didactic device used to inspire the male hero. Paradoxically, in the Orthodox tradition, the earthly woman was thought to be a daughter of Eve, “a fallen creature enveloped in sin unworthy of serious consideration” (Lapidus 12). Thus, the voice of real women was dismissed as faulty and even immoral. Ultimately, women’s voices were distorted (in both reality and literature) by either the patriarchal filter of the church or by the idealizing tendencies of the Romantic authors. Dostoevsky combines these two dichotomous views of woman as saint and sinner and creates in Sonia a prostitute whose purity and devotion is almost otherworldly.

While Bakhtin recognizes the dialogic potential of the hero, his view of secondary characters like Sonia implies that she lacks the self-identity or “self-utterance” that validates her autonomy. Despite her influential role, the female interlocutor of the Bakhtinian hero remains an “other”—a voice among many that the hero must use to “orient” himself and “find [his] own voice” (Bakhtin, Problems 239). Thus, Sonia “enters Raskolnikov’s inner speech not just as a character or a type, not just as a personage in the plot of his life […], but as a symbol of a certain orientation of life and an ideological position” (238). Sonia can be viewed as an allegory. Her discourse exists solely in relation to Raskolnikov’s dilemma because she lacks his intense inner dialogue. Bakhtin asserts that “major heroes are […] not only objects of authorial discourse but also subjects of their own directly signifying discourse” (italics in original) (7). In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s worldview is purely his own construction, whereas Sonia’s blind devotion is a centuries-old attitude of the Russian tradition. Raskolnikov is a dialogized character thanks to his polemical voice; he is the “author of a fully weighted ideological conception of his own” rather than “the object of Dostoevsky’s finalizing artistic vision” (5). Sonia, on the other hand, remains monologic because her voice is an entirely authorial construction—used only as mouthpiece for Dostoevsky’s belief system—rather than a product of an independent, unfinalized self.

Sonia’s voice is absent for the first half of the novel and her identity is constructed by the male characters who surround her. Elizabeth Blake notes that “before Sonya ever utters a word, her father, Raskolnikov, and Luzhin present competing identities for her ranging from a model of Christian self-sacrificing to a common prostitute” (255). Marmeladov recounts his woes to Raskolnikov in a drunken paroxysm that reveals Sonia’s magnanimous act of self-sacrifice. The father’s view of his daughter as a saint is embedded into Raskolnikov’s mind since that first fateful meeting. This becomes evident at the end of the novel when Raskolnikov declares: “I chose you out long ago to hear this [confession], when your father talked of you” (Dostoevsky Crime IV, iv). Luzhin later creates another image of Sonia as a young woman of “notorious behaviour” (III, iii). The two filtered versions of Sonia—Marmeladov’s idealized image and Luzhin’s pejorative account—are reflections of the dichotomous image of women (as saint or sinner) in nineteenth-century Russian society.

Sonia’s portrayal as a taciturn young woman allows for her father, Luzhin, and even Raskolnikov to alter her identity as they see fit. Her lack of self-identity renders Sonia a failure in the dialogic sense. With her “soft little voice” (I, ii), she is unable to defend herself against Luzhin’s accusations of theft, and she only ”[stares] at Luzhin […] unable to say a word” (V, iii). She often stammers in the presence of others and is rendered utterly helpless when Raskolnikov questions her unyielding religious beliefs. Even the members of the family with whom she rents her room all stammer or “can’t speak plainly” (IV, iv). Her discourse is doubly distorted because she is literally in a physical space of inadequate speech. Both Sonia and her neighbours are unable to effectively communicate with each other, thus negating any opportunities for dialogue. However, beneath Sonia’s dialogic incompetence there exists a theodicy that attempts to “to reconcile the injustices she witnesses in the here and now with a belief in divine providence” (emphasis in original) (Blake 253). This unanticipated depth in Sonia’s consciousness is revealed in the private conversation she has with Raskolnikov wherein her unfiltered voice is finally heard.

Sonia’s silent discourse is a prerequisite for her self-imposed suffering and her acceptance of divine providence. Her meekness follows the example set by the Virgin Mary’s humble response at the Annunciation: “be it unto me according to thy word” (King James Bible, Luke 1:38). Her sinful profession might link Sonia with Mary Magdalene, yet while both are repentant prostitutes, the former’s intentions are noble from the beginning. In addition, instead of the Magdalene anointing Jesus’ feet, in Crime and Punishment Sonia’s feet are kissed by Katerina Ivanovna as a sign of seeking forgiveness, affirming her Christ-like status. Murav contends that Dostoevsky’s Madonna figure “has a certain twist”: she “is mad, described as either possessed or holy-foolish. Her discourse consists of silence, sobs, and incoherence” (51). Sonia’s discourse combines the obedient humility of the Virgin Mary and the holy-foolish “silence” of Dostoevsky’s Madonna.

At the same time, Sonia’s reticence is not a sign of weakness or passivity, but rather a sign of immense strength and willpower. After all, Sonia “silently” speaks the world of God in a manner similar to Christ’s eloquent silence in “The Grand Inquisitor” in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Nina Pelikan Straus suggests that in Dostoevsky, “women’s powers to influence men are understood to emerge paradoxically from their legal and sexual disempowerment, from a Russian context in which women’s sufferings are closely associated with Christian martyrdom and crucifixion” (144). It is precisely this oxymoronic “superior inferiority” (144) of the devout prostitute that is able to salvage Raskolnikov’s tormented soul and lead him on a new path of redemption.

Dennis Patrick Slattery notes that the iconography of the Madonna in Dostoevsky “counteract[s] the liberal, more secular images of idolatry those who are possessed by their own grand idea wish to promote” (qtd in Murav 145). In the same vein, Sonia’s silence serves the purpose of counteracting Raskolnikov’s musings on his Napoleonic theory. Raskolnikov expresses the act of overstepping the boundaries of civil and religious law as “uttering a new word” (Dostoevsky Crime I, I), and his plan to kill the old pawnbroker stems from his desire to express this “new word”. Slattery suggests that Raskolnikov is “morally imprisoned by [the] words” (73) of his article. Raskolnikov’s arrogant word is contrasted with Sonia’s humble silence as she sacrifices her honour in order to provide for her siblings. Furthermore, Sonia does not read the “new word” of Raskolnikov’s article but the old word of the Biblical Lazarus story. Murav sets this opposition in a new perspective by arguing that, in reading the raising of Lazarus, “[Sonia] is associated with the ‘Word’ that resurrects, in opposition to Raskolnikov and his ‘new word’ that kills” (51). Thus, Sonia’s voice becomes the “vessel of Christ’s own speech,” (Slattery 74) and the “word of Christ remembered” (77). In the beginning, Sonia’s voice is inaudible and Raskolnikov’s is conveyed through the murders of Alyona and Lizaveta; by the end, Sonia utters Christ’s Word, which leads Raskolnikov to become “obstinately silent (Epilogue, ii).

The polemical dialogic at the heart of the novel is between a feminine and a masculine voice. Straus maintains that the “feminist ‘light’” in Dostoevsky is used to dramatize the “‘Russian man’s darkness” (6). Hence Sonia’s feminine speech “embodies docility and Christianity,” and Raskolnikov’s “Napoleonic idea embodies masculine fantasies of freedom and modernity” (27). Dostoevsky personally championed feminine superiority since, as he declares in his A Writer’s Diary, “sincerity, perseverance, seriousness, […] honour, [and] a longing for truth and sacrifice” are qualities more strongly present in Russian women than men (278). These beliefs are reflected in Dostoevsky’s fictional world, where women (saintly or demonic) suffer because of men who are either plagued by vices or so greatly influenced by the nihilistic theories of the West that they have lost touch with their Russian roots. Feminine sincerity and masculine corruption clash repeatedly in parallel threads of male/female conflicts (Svidrigaylov/Dounia, Luzhin/Sonia). Nowhere is Dostoevsky’s moral dialogic more pronounced than in these confrontations, by which the author shows that the feminine experience is perhaps closer to Russian authenticity than its masculine counterpart.

In A Writer’s Diary, Dostoevsky declares, “The Russian man, in these last decades, has become terribly prone to the vices of acquisition, cynicism, and materialism; woman has remained much more purely devoted than he to the idea and to serving the idea” (502). As a university student, Raskolnikov is exposed to Western European philosophical debates on religion, morality and human nature. On the other hand, the heroine does not have access to such ideas. Her education is limited to what her father tries to teach her, and she rejects Lebeziatnikov’s liberal ideas in favour of Orthodox Christian values. Slattery argues that Raskolnikov’s article discloses “the disembodied and abstract nature of ideas when they become dislodged and dismembered from a larger tradition” (74). Raskolnikov and Sonia’s voices are not merely projections of masculine and feminine experiences, but also of the “new” concepts of the West and the “old” ideals of the Russian Orthodox East, respectively.

The “modern” men in Crime and Punishment (Raskolnikov, Lebeziatnikov, and Svidrigailov) have clearly strayed from the authentic path of Mother Russia, and their efforts to liberate their egos are met with failure. Only Sonia’s unwavering belief in the Christian notion of submission remains as a path to salvation, and Raskolnikov is saved once he accepts that path. Dostoevsky, through Sonia’s voice, provides an answer for the “woman question” that concerned the intellectuals of nineteenth-century Russia. Blake suggests that Dostoevsky constructs an “artistic image of Russian womanhood in Sonya Marmeladova” that “directly opposes the model of sexual emancipation for women proposed by Lebeziatnikov” (268-269). Indeed, Sonia’s faith and virtue are rewarded (in accordance with the structure of a Christian resurrection tale) with a new life, “provided for financially by Svidrigailov and spiritually by Raskolnikov” (253).

Bakhtin argues that a character “becomes for the first time that which he is, […] not only for others but for himself as well” (Problems 252) solely through dialogue. He goes on to state that because “[a] character’s self-consciousness in Dostoevsky is thoroughly dialogized”, the inner workings of the hero can only be revealed by “addressing him dialogically” (251-252). Both these statements are true of Sonia, whose innermost thoughts are revealed by the act of reading to Raskolnikov. When she reads the Lazarus account from her Bible, Sonia no longer stammers, but is able to confidently read “by heart” (Dostoevsky, Crime IV, iv). Sonia speaks not with her own words, but with the biblical text so that “through the act of proclamation the revealed Word becomes her own” (Blake 262-263). In the same way that Christ’s Word raises the dead Lazarus, so too does Sonia’s voice awaken Raskolnikov’s soul and move him to confess and expiate his sins. The Lazarus story, as read by Sonia, becomes Raskolnikov’s new narrative, which “emerge[s] to replace the one he has adopted as a credo for the Napoleon complex he swirls helplessly within” (Slattery 74). This polyphonic reading, and the resulting association with Christ, imbues Sonia’s speech with newfound authority with which “she decisively asserts the primacy of her Christian voice over Raskolnikov’s rationalism” (Blake 267).

In conclusion, silent endurance and self-sacrifice lend power to the feminine voice so that it is paradoxically made superior through its inferiority. Dostoevsky’s heroine, thus, provides an answer to the “woman question” that preoccupied the Russian intellectuals of the nineteenth century. In the face of calls for women’s emancipation, Dostoevsky shows that the power of the Russian woman’s voice resides in her eloquent silence, her readiness to self-sacrifice, and her emulation of Christ and the Madonna. Within the polyphony of the novel, Sonia’s voice is not individuated, but used as an emblem of Christian Orthodox virtues that challenge the atheistic nihilism of Western European rationalism. Thus, Dostoevsky’s treatment of the feminine voice lacks verisimilitude and nuance because his understanding of the woman’s inner world is superficial and, ultimately, biased. In the dialogue between the feminine and masculine voice, the former oscillates between meek silence and theological discourse, but in both cases it is meant to elevate the soul of the Russian man beyond the nihilistic void through which he has fallen.

Margarita: The Boisterous Witch

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 not only changed the socio-political landscape of Russia, but also altered the standards for artistic productions thereafter. The Communist Party dictated the specific criteria for the portrayal of the ideal literary Soviet hero and heroine who were often removed from Soviet reality. In this environment there grew a dissident literary movement that sought to undermine these glorified archetypes by presenting flawed protagonists. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, his magnum opus, belongs to the dissident tradition of the turbulent Stalinist period.

The eponymous heroine, Margarita, occupies a dynamic position in Bulgakov’s novel as a muse, a witch, and even as the personification of Christian virtue. With each new identity, Margarita’s voice is modified so that at times it bursts into loud diabolical laughter and at others, it is silent. The dialogic relationship between the Master’s “masculine” authorial discourse and Margarita’s “feminine” readership places her voice in an ambiguous position: she is powerful, but with limitations. Bulgakov combines folkloric and Christian elements and ascribes them to Margarita’s voice in order to challenge the perfect image of the Soviet heroine.

During the Bolshevik Revolution, the liberation of Russian women became a major part of the Communist Party’s program. Lenin, in particular, used the female voice as a tool to spread Bolshevik propaganda within the family and the community. The Communist Party promoted the notion that the key to women’s liberation was the eradication of private property (Clements 39). Alice Schuster explains that Lenin “wanted to turn women into ardent defenders of the new order to prevent them from undermining the men’s revolutionary ideals” (261). This politically conscious Soviet superwoman was expected to bridge the gap between her “small family” and the “big family” of society (Lapidus 19) in order to raise children who would go on to become superlative citizens.

Margarita defies all the political characteristics of the Soviet heroine. Bakhtin characterizes the heteroglossia of carnival literature as “parodic, and aimed sharply and polemically against the official languages of its given time” (Dialogic). The feminine discourse, in Bulgakov’s carnivalesque novel, is part of that same heteroglossia which aims to critique the official “image” of the Soviet superwoman outlined above. Margarita’s voice, instead of serving a lofty collectivist socialist purpose, is used to aid her personal quest and her lover’s artistic salvation. She makes a pact with the Devil, not for Faustian knowledge or for a Communist political dream, but to achieve personal, expressly apolitical happiness. Rather than being a good atheist citizen, she is ready to believe in the Devil’s existence and his ability to “fix everything” (Bulgakov 309). The only “order” she defends is Woland’s anarchic system, and the only revolution she is interested in involves the destruction of the critics who tormented the Master. In fact, when Woland asks Margarita for her wish, she responds: “’I ask that [the Master and I] be returned to the basement apartment on the side street near the Arbat’” (246). Margarita voices her desire as a vision of personal bliss that necessitates private property: the basement apartment that served as the lovers’ safe haven. In addition, Margarita is childless and leaves her husband’s home in order to be with her lover, thus stifling any discourse relating to her “small family”.

Margarita’s transformation into a witch changes her personality and, for a brief time, breaks the chains of feminine silence. After the Master’s mysterious disappearance, Margarita is heartbroken and continues to live unhappily with her husband. She comes to silently accept her tragic fate, until the day Woland arrives in Moscow. When she meets Azazello, she is unable to resist his discourse, and “[falls] into submissive silence” (193) when he extends to her an invitation “from a certain distinguished foreigner” (192). The heroine is presented as a miserable woman whose voice seems devoid of any willpower or independence. In fact, when the reader first meets Margarita through the Master’s narrative in which he recounts his story to Bezdomny at the hospital, her voice—as with that on Dostoevsky’s Sonia—is filtered through male discourse and is only later allowed to break free.

When Margarita uses Azazello’s cream, it not only alters her physically to look younger, but also gifts her with a stentorious voice. This liberation of the heroine is manifested in her nakedness and, more importantly, in her laughter, which changes from “a mirthless laugh” (193), to her “[laughing] unrestrainedly” (197) at the miraculous transformation. The golden cream causes Margarita to “[feel] free, free of everything” (197), and she releases her wild impulses of destruction while “[bursting] out into gales of laughter” (201).

Saint Hildegard links laughter with the Fall of Adam, whose body was infested with a “wind” that set loose “inappropriate intemperance, hilarity, and echoing laughter” (132). Thus, laughter is juxtaposed against “the voice full of heavenly joy” that permeated the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve’s temptation, and is associated with the “fall of the pure” and with “carnal desire” (132). Margarita is Adam’s counterpart since they are both tempted by the Devil and corrupted by laughter. Unlike Sonia’s silence, which is broken only to be associated with Christ’s Word, Margarita’s boisterous laughter is an explosive and even destructive energy that is associated with the Devil and the fall of humanity. Margarita’s “fall”, however, is a form of liberation, a deliverance from her miserable life. This is an uplifting fall: a happy paradox wherein Margarita’s transformation into a witch is a challenge to the patriarchal Christian God.

Bakhtin emphasizes the power of laughter in the carnival tradition and its role in defying the “official language” and the rigid conventions of society. He asserts that laughter “presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts” (Rabelais 92). Hence, Margarita’s laughter not only challenges the patriarchal God, but also Soviet society with its false virtues and its negation and oppression of the mystical and the artistic.

Ultimately, Margarita is not allowed to remain a witch, and both her powers and her laughter are lost when Azazello poisons her. At the moment of death, “the temporary witch’s squint and cruelty and wildness of [Margarita’s] features disappear. The dead woman’s face brightened and, finally, softened, and her smile was no longer predatory, but more that of a woman who had gone through a lot of suffering” (Bulgakov 313). Margarita is rewarded with the “silence” of her new afterlife home and the promise to stay with the Master and “guard [his] sleep” (325) for eternity. Margarita must sacrifice her spirited laughter in order to live happily with her beloved. In The Master and Margarita, the topos of feminine silence is disturbed only temporarily, but must return in the end in order to restore balance to the patriarchal world.

Margarita’s discourse, as a witch, encompasses both the diabolical laughter of revenge and the gentle murmurings of a mother, evident in her striking ability to sooth a little boy she frightens in Latunksy’s building. The cruelty inherent in the collective punishment she visits on all the residents of the privileged literary community is mitigated by the tender feelings that Margarita demonstrates toward the innocent, as embodied by the scared child. Her compassion, however, is best demonstrated when she asks Woland to release Frieda from her guilt, knowing that she has just forfeited her only wish. Margarita “becomes in [Woland’s] hands, almost in spite of herself, a comforter and healer, a source of mercy” (Beaujour 73) leading to her benevolence towards Frieda. Through her voice, Margarita sets Frieda free as the former utters the magical words: “‘You are forgiven. You will not be given the handkerchief anymore’”(Bulgakov 242-243). Elizabeth Beaujour asserts that, due to her altruism, “Margarita is in fact the true bearer of Christian charity in the novel” and that she is “a disciple of Yeshua as well as of the Master” (78). The Jerusalem accounts fail to mention any important Biblical women, especially the Virgin Mary. The compassion of feminine discourse is therefore removed from its original account and placed in Moscow, where Margarita inherits the traits of the Madonna. While it is true that Margarita is neither pure nor virginal, she still maintains the alienating “morally superior” position that classic Russian literature allocated to women by association with the Virgin who, in the Dantean tradition, is the mediator between God and humanity. Although Bulgakov grants his heroine an unconventional discourse—that of a witch—there remains in her feminine voice traces of the “heavenly creature” whose main strength resides in Christian ethics.

Margarita’s voice is defined mainly through its opposition to the Master’s voice. Her strength is contrasted with his weakness, and her role as muse is defined by his creative genius. When Sonia and Raskolnikov engage in literal and symbolic dialogue, the feminine emerges as the loftier voice and the only one able to shatter the murderer’s arrogant “word”. The discourses of the Master and Margarita are not ideological opposites, yet they remain locked in a zero-sum game.

In her role as the Master’s lover and saviour, Margarita’s voice appears to triumph over the artist’s moral limitations. She calls him “Master” because of her unwavering belief in his creative genius and her devotion to his novel. The act of bestowing the title on her lover gives immense power to Margarita’s voice as “the one who names”. The Master differs from Raskolnikov in that the latter is ideologically arrogant whereas the former is a coward. The feminine-masculine roles in Dostoevsky are reversed in The Master and Margarita, where man is the victim and woman is the agent of change. Margarita’s discourse joins with that of the Devil, aligning her with greater powers that give her authority to punish and forgive. While she embarks on a peripatetic adventure, the Master remains immobile, unable to save himself or anyone else. Indeed, in the end it is Margarita’s utterance, directed at Woland, that redeems the Master and allows him another chance to live in peace.

Bakhtin argues that one of the hero’s tasks in the novel is “to separate [his] voice from another voice with which it has inseparably merged” (Problems 239). Bulgakov’s heroine attempts to do the opposite: to merge her voice back with the Master’s. She is, ultimately, his disciple and follower. When she is in Woland’s company, the power with which her word is endowed is used only to avenge and then save her beloved. Despite her strength, her discourse is secondary to the Master’s and is utilized only to affirm his artistic brilliance and compensate for his failings. This is exemplified when the Master suddenly appears in Woland’s room after Margarita appeals to the latter to save her lover. As soon as the Master sits down, Margarita falls on her knees beside him and notices that “her nakedness was suddenly gone and she was now wearing a black silk cloak” (Bulgakov 243). If Margarita’s nudity and laughter, as discussed above, are associated with freedom of discourse, then the covering up of her body immediately following the Master’s materialization becomes significant in representing the dominance of his discourse.

Margarita is not only the Master’s lover, but also his devout reader. Whereas Sonia reads the Word of God, Margarita reads the words of the Master’s “alternative” New Testament. Bulgakov’s heroine is denied the artistic vision that is reserved mainly for the male, whose words retain their authority despite his fragility. The inferiority of the feminine reader is best exemplified in the scene of the release of Pontius Pilate. Margarita feels compassion for the Procurator and she attempts to free him, as she has done with Frieda. “‘Let him go,’ suddenly shouted Margarita piercingly, just as she had shouted when she was a witch” (Bulgakov 323). Needless to say, her cry does not produce anything except Woland’s mocking laughter. Only the Master’s voice can release Pilate: “[The Master] cupped his hands over his mouth like a megaphone and shouted […]. ‘Free! Free! He is waiting for you!’ The mountains transformed the Master’s voice into thunder, and the thunder destroyed them” (Bulgakov 324). The authorial voice is associated with a natural force, thunder, that is able to obliterate Pilate’s chains and release him from his misery. Margarita’s discourse is silenced in the end and her influence is diminished in the face of the indestructible power of the male artist.

In conclusion, Margarita’s discourse is focused on a personal quest rather than a collective one, and she is removed from the political activism of the superwoman promoted in Soviet propaganda. Real women struggled to survive in crowded communal apartments, toiling to provide for their families while working in physically demanding jobs. In this case, Margarita’s voice is not a representative of the harsh daily lives of actual women in Soviet Russia. Her alliance with Woland’s company and her transformation into a witch removes her even further from this reality, and her undying love for the Master elevates her to an unattainable status. Despite her “terrible perfection”, however, Margarita’s voice is stifled by the Master’s discourse once she has achieved her goal of liberating him. Within the polyphony of the novel, Bulgakov’s heroine follows the tradition of the superior woman who embodies in her discourse the virtues that can rescue the Russian man from the “darkness” inside him.

Matryona: The Suffering Mother

In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Matryona’s Home (1963), the female protagonist represents the timeless motif of the suffering peasant mother. The iconography of the mother has a long history in the Russian literary canon, and it often symbolizes the all-giving, perpetually suffering homeland. Matryona is an uneducated labourer whose goodness and simplicity exemplify the uncorrupted traditional peasant values. The key contrast between the romanticized Soviet mother and the Russian peasant mother is that the former is arrogantly righteous, while the latter is humbly modest. The feminine discourse in this story is rooted in its symbolic power to represent Mother Russia, traditional values, and the superiority of feminine discourse.

Matryona, like Dostoevsky’s Sonia, is a silent woman. One could almost go so far as to imagine Matryona as Sonia in old age — still quiet, meek and imbued with faith almost a century later. Matryona lives alone with a stray cat, assorted vermin, and her precious rubber-plants which “peopled [her] loneliness like a speechless but living crowd” (Solzhenitsyn 30). Her movement is characterized by soundlessness, as she moves about the kitchen “quietly, considerately, doing her best not to make a noise” (31) or lies on the stove when ill. Her silent lifestyle amplifies her meekness and amiable personality; it is what sets her apart from the oppressive male characters, the exploitative bureaucracy of the collective farm, and the gossip and feigned wailing of the women present at Matryona’s funeral at the end of the story. In Dostoevsky’s writings, “good” women are triumphant because they are able to silently endure hardships while prioritizing familial and social values over their own self-interest. Analogously, Solzhenitsyn evokes the Russian peasant mother’s superiority through her silent devotion to her family and her community.

The image of the mother as a representative of the traditional Russia has long been a prominent theme in literature and art. In the Soviet Union, this was especially manifested in Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother (1906), which was seen as an ideal model for Socialist realist works. In this novel, the protagonist is a widow who follows her son’s footsteps by joining the revolutionary movement. Gorky used the maternal discourse to communicate the importance of “socialist love” over personal love and the need to serve the “common cause” (Lapidus 18). Joanna Hubbs notes that “the maternal myth was appropriated by the Soviet regime to connect the nation on an affective level” (234). The self-sacrificing woman-mother resembles a mythical heroine who safeguards the collectivist utopian hope, not only for her family, but also for all of Russia.

Matryona does not resemble Gorky’s heroine, and her discourse is not politicized in the same manner. While Gorky’s protagonist, Pelagueya Nilovna, transforms into a revolutionary worker, Matyona lives a docile life in the Soviet state where the worker’s uprising has already prevailed. Solzhenitsyn, however, suggests that greed and materialism have not been eradicated from the Russian male psyche. Matryona, through her nonacquisitiveness and prosocial attitude, stages a kind of “silent resistance” by subverting the prevalent avarice in Soviet society. Furthermore, the ideal Soviet mother as portrayed by Gorky is arrogant in her unwavering faith to the Communist doctrine. This is particularly exemplified in Pelagueya’s proclamation at the end of the novel that her oppressors “will not drown reason in blood; they will not extinguish its truth!” (Gorky). Matryona, on the other hand, remains humble, does not speak of vengeance, but instead silently aids those who destroy her home even unto her death.

Matyona’s maternal discourse is strongly linked with Mother Russia. Matryona’s maternal voice is born out of her surroundings, the Russian countryside, which, Hubbs notes, “seems to recall prodigal children to their primordial home” (xiii). The narrator escapes to the rural part of the country in order to “lose [himself] in deepest Russia” (Solzhenitsyn 29). Hubbs argues that Russian writers represented the motherland as a “fount of creativity” and inspiration, but also as the suffering victim of her children’s misdeeds (xv). Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of Matryona parallels these representations: she becomes a moral teacher for the narrator as she suffers at the hands of the bureaucracy and her opportunistic relatives. Both Matryona and the motherland never lose their dedication to their “children” and continue to selflessly give their love without expectations of acknowledgement. The overlap between the discourses of the feminine and the motherland climaxes in the accident, wherein Solzhenitsyn implies that Matryona’s disfigured body is a metaphor for Russia’s “tragic destiny” (Hubbs 237). Matryona (and Russia) is maimed “by men driven by the crudest of material impulses” (237). The suffering old woman therefore epitomizes the grief of the motherland which is exploited by the Soviet regime and the insatiable greed of men. Hence, as in the previously discussed works, the voice of the earthly woman is not individualized, but rather mythologized as a symbol for larger ideological concepts that conveys the author’s nationalistic sentiment.

Matryona has a clear affinity with the legendary babushka figure of Russian folklore who is usually portrayed as a benevolent matriarch. From the 1960s to the 1980s, there was a prominent return of the babushka owing to the dramatic decrease in the male population, the majority of which either died in World War II or perished in the Gulags (Doak 172). This left the grandmother with the duties of raising children and providing for the family alongside young single mothers (173). The babushka featured especially in “village prose”, which examined the countryside of the Soviet Union and was characterized by “a search for national values, a concern for the environment, and a nostalgia generated by the loss of traditional rural life” (Parthé 3). Naturally, older women were perfect ambassadors for the ideals of this genre because they were considered the preservers of folkloric and spiritual traditions. In Matryona’s Home, the babushka’s discourse is linked with the romanticized rural Russia and the morally superior pre-modern Slavic ethics which have been marred by the Communist state.

Barbara Clements notes that, in the 1930s, Stalin’s government launched campaigns among peasant women to encourage education and enrollment in political and social programs (71). These attempts failed to shake the strong roots of peasant beliefs and convictions that had existed for centuries. Eventually, the Soviet regime renounced these efforts and allowed older women to practice Orthodox rituals and traditions (Hubbs 235). Solzhenitsyn’s tale reflects this reality by depicting the countryside as a “microcosm of pre-revolutionary Russia” (235) where religion and superstition remain a part of daily life. The superstition element is seen in the village women’s fear that Matryona’s children died because she was cursed (Solzhenitsyn 38). Even Matryona’s “strongest beliefs were superstitious” (Solzhenitsyn 35), and she has an ambivalent relationship with modernity for she is afraid of trains (35). Matryona’s discourse is therefore closer to ideals of nineteenth-century womanhood rather than the Soviet champion imagined by Gorky. Her principles are based not on the atheistic collectivist ethos of the Soviet regime, but on Christian virtues wherein humility plays a key role.

Matryona’s altruism is manifest in her readiness to assist. When asked for assistance, she “gave up what she should be doing next and went to help her neighbour” (Solzhenitsyn 34). Her selfless actions are devoid of envy or malicious thoughts, even when exploited by the chairman of the kolkhoz where she formerly worked. In her dialogues with others, Matryona simply does not begrudge her effort and never accepts payment for her labour. Critics have suggested that this generosity and perseverance in the face of difficulties raise her to the status of a saint (Ivanits 73, Lefcowitz & Lefcowitz 451). She closely resembles the Madonna who gladly renounces her own body in the service of humanity. Intriguingly, Solzhenitsyn emphasizes that Matryona is far from being a true believer, but is “a heathen” (Solzhenitsyn 35) who is never seen praying or crossing herself. Hubbs suggests that Solzhenitsyn did not intend for Matryona’s compassion to be connected with Christianity, but rather to an older religion (236). This could possibly be the pre-modern peasant myth of the all-giving Mother Earth, which, Helena Goscilo notes, influenced the way Christian Russia regarded the Virgin Mary (“Mother” 69). On the other hand, Matryona’s faith may be a silent one, like her voice, since the narrator affirms that there were icons on her walls and that she started every job with “God bless us” (Solzhenitsyn 35). Whether pagan or Christian, Matryona’s voice is a distilled essence of prosocial religiosity without any righteous feelings. Her humility is all-encompassing, which contrasts with the arrogant revolutionary feminine voice in Gorky’s Mother.

Matryona’s voice has another link with tradition in its connection to fairy-tales. The narrator describes her voice as “a warm, throaty gurgle, the sort of sound grandmothers make in fairy tales” (Solzhenitsyn 31). He is led to her by an old milk-seller, who resembles the helper archetype in the fairy-tale schema. Joanna Hubbs notes that when the new lodger first meets Matryona, she resembles Baba Yaga lying on her stove in a house alive with various creatures (236). Her initial cantankerous reaction to the stranger may resemble the evil witch, but soon the narrator learns that Matryona is a “restorative moral force” and a mentor (236). By equating her discourse with a well-known fairy-tale character, Solzhenitsyn employs the same literary convention as Soviet authors who resorted to mythology in their representations of the heroine-mother.

Bakhtin affirms that “one can approach [the inner man] and reveal him—or more precisely, force him to reveal himself—only by addressing him dialogically” (Problems 252). Similarly, Matryona’s “inner self” is revealed to the narrator during their nocturnal dialogue where he is able to see her in a new light. Her utterance metaphorically brings Matryona into existence after the narrator “had forgotten that [she] was in the room” (Solzhenitsyn 37). Through speech, woman is able to exist and Matryona is finally able to tell her own story. Although this dialogue should have revealed Matryona’s nature to the narrator, he grasps her true essence only at the end, after her death, in his exchange with her sister-in-law. The narrator affirms: “It was only then, after these disapproving comments from her sister-in-law, that […] I understood [Matryona] as I never had when I lived side by side with her” (45). Ironically, Matryona’s voice is entirely absent from this dialogue, yet it is precisely this absence that reveals the dead woman’s true nature. While both Sonia and Margarita benefit from being addressed dialogically, Matryona does not. She is an object rather than a subject of discourse, ensuring that in some ways she remains an emblem rather than an individual.

Matryona’s meek discourse is contrasted with Faddei’s greed and cruelty in another allegorical conflict between the feminine and the masculine voices. There is a clear separation between the two characters in terms of their appearance. Faddei retains his black hair and youthful health, whereas Matryona is crippled by illness and old age. The narrator observes the tension between the two when he notes that Faddei obviously hadn’t much to say to Matryona” (Solzhenitsyn 36), while Matryona stood “like a mute suppliant” (37). Whereas in Crime and Punishment and The Master and Margarita, the hero and heroine engage in dialogue, Faddei and Matryona keep a pact of silence. When the issue of the top room that must be disassembled becomes urgent, Faddei “became a frequent visitor, laying down the law to Matryona and insisting that she should hand over the top room right away, before she died” (39). Matryona’s passive discourse is set against Faddei’s assertive methods and ultimately the result is tragic for the feminine voice, for it is the greed of the old man that causes the death of Matryona. Hubbs argues that “Faddei appears to reincarnate the brutality and rapacity of the Soviet regime and of Russian men” (236). Echoing Dostoevsky’s sentiments, the spiritual magnanimity of the feminine discourse yet again morally triumphs over masculine materialism and arrogance. Her voice carries the soul of Russia’s traditions and its undeniable goodness that has survived despite the harrowing events that ravaged its sacrosanct land.

Solzhenitsyn, then, follows the Dostoevskian tradition that sees woman as the only one capable of saving and restoring the “Old Russian” values. Faddei’s character resembles the demonic figures from fairy tales whose ruthlessness and stinginess symbolize the malevolent forces in Soviet life (Ivantis 71-72). Thus, the opposition between female and male voices in Matryona’s Home has greater implications whereby the two forces also represent concepts of good and evil. Evil, in this case, stems from the acquisitiveness and obsession with “property” that permeated the Soviet Union. Hubbs notes that, despite her death, Matryona remains “the only true Communist” because “[her] ethos continues to challenge that of the state [in] her selfless devotion to her fellows, [and] in her lack of desire for material gain” (237).

In conclusion, Solzhenitsyn employs the age-old long-suffering Mother motif to challenge Soviet arrogant discourse and expose its inherent hypocrisy. Matryona’s kindness reveals the greed of her community and shows that the abolition of private property did not lessen the materialistic obsessions of Soviet citizens. Her humble voice echoes the romanticized past, where basic social values were the true indication of egalitarianism rather than the arrogance of economic and scientific progress. By equating Matryona’s voice with Mother Earth and fairy-tale babushkas, Solzhenitsyn suggests that the roots of the Russian spirit are good, but they have been marred and distorted by patriarchal Soviet ideology. Paradoxically, Solzhenitsyn utilizes the same methodology used by Socialist Realist writers to critique this ideology: mythologizing woman. Despite her positive characteristics, the woman remains a simulacrum of the motherland, unable escape the symbolic discourse imposed upon her by male authors in the Russian tradition.

Sonechka: The Domesticated Madonna

The tradition of female passivity originated in Eastern Orthodoxy and was reiterated in the classical literature of the nineteenth century, later returning in the socialist propaganda of the Soviet state. Helena Goscilo argues that this caused Russian women to “[internalize] […] the traditional male system of prerogatives so thoroughly that they themselves propagated the very inequalities that marginalized them” (Dehexing 10). Although the period of glasnost and perestroika in the 1980s called for liberalism and openness, the new programs failed to change the rigid gender roles of Soviet society (2). However, the Western influences that penetrated the USSR at that time, specifically the discourse of feminism, led to renewed discussion regarding women’s “proper niche in life” (13). Despite this newfound focus on women’s issues, Russian women’s perception of themselves remained confined to traditional roles. This attitude extended to female Russian authors who, in their writings, “tended to focus on what they knew best and what interested them most: human interaction, often heterosexual relations, family dynamics, generational conflicts, problems of self-fulfillment, and the conflicting claims of job and home” (17). In the mid-1980s the so-called “new women’s prose” emerged as a departure from the feminine literature of the previous era. “New women’s prose” denoted works that were “determinedly and consciously gynocentric, in contrast to those writers who denied significance of issues of gender” (Adlam 16). This new form of women’s prose also aligned itself with the period’s alternative literature, which, Carol Adlam notes, distanced itself from the moralizing ideological approach of Socialist Realism (5).

Russian critics often used women’s prose synonymously with the banal writing of byt, the everyday, with all its negative qualities: “petty, small-scale, mundane, exhausting, repetitive, and ultimately deadening” (Sutcliffe, “Engendering” 2). This stood in opposition to the male-dominated Russian canon, which often focused on universal problems and the existential crises and epic struggles of men. Beginning with Dostoevsky, the three authors discussed previously confront grand themes such as man’s struggle against nihilism, the artist’s attempt to individuate himself in a collectivist society, and the destruction of traditional values in the face of modernity. Women’s prose, on the other hand, utilized an inductive approach to understanding life by focusing on the trivial details of the everyday rather than the deductive approach used by the majority of Russian male authors (38).

Ludmila Ulitskaya published her first novella, Sonechka, to critical acclaim in 1992. The events of the novella are set in her not-so-distant past and encompass major events in the Soviet Union, including the Purges, the Second World War, the Thaw, and stagnation. Over the course of the story, Ulitskaya’s eponymous heroine changes from a pseudo-intellectual to a domesticated housewife. The feminine discourse in Ulitskaya is characterized by change and used as an instrument to convey the effects of grand events on the individual and the home. The tension of the masculine/feminine dialogue is centered on the notion of creativity and the possibility of a feminine domestic aesthetic that is equal to male artistic ingenuity. While Sonechka’s voice is heard mostly through passive murmurs and sighs, Ulitskaya does not dismiss the heroine’s domestic discourse but validates it among other types of feminine voices, avoiding her male predecessors’ tendency to moralize feminine virtue or promote its superiority.

Ulitskaya views history through the feminine discourse of domesticity and personal difficulties. Sonechka and her family live through the major upheavals of the twentieth century, yet these events are relegated to the background. The narrative instead highlights the effects they have on the individual. Benjamin Sutcliffe calls this a “transhistorical temporality” which offers, through the representation of women’s domestic life, “an indirect critique of history” (“Engendering” iv). Sonechka’s domestic discourse is underscored amidst the social turmoil of that period as opposed to the large-scale “masculine” economic and political struggles (3). The feminine voice, however, remains indifferent and sometimes naïve of the historical changes occurring outside the home. Sonechka escapes to the classics of Russian literature in order “to wriggle out of having to live in the shrill pathos of the 1930s and let her soul graze the expanse of the great literature of nineteenth-century Russia” (Ulitskaya 5). After her marriage, Sonechka is only interested in how external events benefit or harm her family, as is evident when she dreamily says to Robert, “‘When the war is over and we have won, our life will just be so happy” (15), revealing her political naivety. In addition, she does not engage in the intellectual conversations between Robert’s male artistic friends which “[bear] precious little relation to the concerns of the times outside the door” (31). She merely continues her domestic task of mending her daughter’s stockings and “[basks] reverently in the warmth and light of [the men’s] universally relevant conversation” (31). In this sense, Sonechka resembles Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn’s heroines who live in turbulent times, yet speak only of romantic love and the urge to be part of the community, respectively. There is essentially no dialogue between historical reality and the female protagonist in Sonechka. Unlike the dialogized Dostoevskian male hero, Sonechka is not “turned outward” (Bakhtin, Problems 251), but inward.

Sonechka is engaged, at least in the beginning, in an exchange of another kind: a dialogue with literature. She is described as a “bookworm” (Ulitskaya 3) who obsessively consumes literature, and the first literary character she is identified with is Natasha Rostova from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The heroines of (male-authored) Russian literature, which include Tolstoy’s Natasha were, as discussed above, portrayed as possessing “a ‘natural’ superiority, untutored and virgin” (Heldt 4). If Sonechka’s initial exchange and first influence is these idealized literary martyrs, then the question, as posed by Diane Price Herndl, is which is her true discourse and which is the one she has learned from tradition (7). Sonechka’s life unfolds in an almost formulaic archetype of the altruistic and victimized women that are seen in Dostoevsky’s and Solzhenitsyn’s narratives. In her dreams, Sonechka weaves her own narrative in which she “existed as a fully fledged heroine (or hero) walking a tightrope between the will of the author, of which she was fully aware, and her own autonomous urge to movement, deeds, and action” (Ulitskaya 4). Ulitskaya’s heroine, in wakefulness, also hesitates between the monologized voices of women in the literature she reads and her own autonomous, dialogized will. This begs the question of whether she accepts Robert’s betrayal because of her magnanimous personality, or because she merely follows in the footsteps of her literary heroines. Her return to reading in her old age, and the cyclical nature of her life, seems to affirm that she is trapped in the will of the canonical male authors.

In addition to her love of reading, Sonechka is defined by her awkward, almost caricature-like corporeality: her nose shaped like a pear, her “unmemorable rear end”, and her large breasts (Ulitskaya 3). Goscilo asserts that the “new women’s prose” developed a “strategy of externalization, of maximal palpability, whereby not tearful lamentations but the female body—as the text’s physical and tropological center—testifies to women’s experience” (Dehexing 89). The body becomes the “language” of the woman rather than her actual utterance. So while Sonechka’s voice is barely heard, her body speaks volumes. If the tradition of male-authored literature claimed the Russian woman’s speech and silenced it, then female authors were forced to find a new medium through which they could communicate their unique experiences. In the heroine’s discourse, her womanly body combines the identity of mother and wife. The former by providing breast milk for her daughter and the latter by giving sexual pleasure for her husband, whereby “[Sonechka’s] body wordlessly and joyously [satisfies] the appetites of these two precarious beings who were inseparable from her” (Ulitskaya 24). Physicality, therefore, is concomitant with the family in Sonechka’s discourse (Sutcliffe, “Mother” 616), as opposed to the younger generation who view the body as a means of experimentation and self-discovery (Tania) or as a tool to be used for survival (Jasia). In all three cases, though they carry different connotations and consequences, the feminine body is brought to the forefront rather than hidden away in shame.

Sonechka’s discourse changes after her marriage to Robert, where she turns away from the escapist fantasies of literature toward the banalities of everyday existence. Her talent for reading is replaced by the mundane tasks of mothering and housekeeping, which Sonechka views as more significant than any literary event or character. The imaginative discourse of the heroine is abruptly severed by reality, suggesting that the intellectual and the domestic cannot coexist in a woman’s life. Yet Ulitskaya does not depict Sonechka’s domestication as a negative transformation, thus defying the Russian literary canon by shifting the ideal away from (masculine) spirituality and intellectualism to (feminine) everyday life (Salys 446).

Ulitskaya does not dismiss domesticated discourse or view it as sterile and uninspired; conversely, the quotidian is seen as “an artistic resource” and a “conduit to higher meaning” (Sutcliffe, “Engendering” iv). Even Robert affirms, at times, “the truly aesthetic quality, the sublime meaningfulness and beauty of Sonechka’s domestic creativity” (Ulitskaya 43). The aspects of domestic life become a way to reconnect with and express the heroine’s creativity and spirituality. Ulitskaya stated in an interview that Sonechka “constructs her life […] with ease, and with great naturalness around family, for family. […] [S]atisfaction with life is found in direct correlation to how much she succeeds in fulfilling her duty, as she understands it” (qtd in Salys 452).

Ulitskaya, as opposed to the male authors discussed above, finds balance in her writing about women because she explores other feminine discourses. The author grants Tania and Jasia happiness despite their being entirely removed from the domestic discourse of family life. Tania is rewarded with a child and a prestigious career and Jasia with a fairy-tale happy ending. All three voices are authenticated and presented without judgment as a nuanced challenge to the traditional binaristic view of women as either saintly mother or whore.

Even in Ulitskaya’s novella, however, there remains a slight connection with the revered figure of the Madonna. Sonechka’s self-abnegation could be seen as a reflection of the Madonna’s clemency. Ulitskaya, however, subverts this connection by emphasizing the Jewishness of the heroine. Sonechka fulfills her religious duties through domestic tasks where the first, second and third courses she serves her family are equated to the three components of the Old Testament—the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim—and she sees her protection of the orphaned Jasia as a mitzvah (good deed). Ulitskaya undermines the traditional trope of the female martyr by removing the Christian indoctrination from her heroine, thereby asserting that the root of this trope is cultural (or even biological) rather than religious.

Bakhtin asserts that “[t]he word lives, as it were, on the boundary between its own context and another, alien, context” (Dialogic). The feminine discourse, then, desires to interact with the “other” in order to find its own identity and create subjective meaning. Ulitsakay acknowledges this necessity to communicate and refrains from the comparative approach which favours one discourse (usually the masculine) over the other. Rimgaila Salys argues that in Ulitskaya’s text, “females define themselves in life ‘relationally,’ that is, in connection to and with an awareness of others around them, while males define themselves ‘oppositionally,’ separating themselves from role models and peers” (443). Thus, Robert follows the topos of the artist/intellectual, as seen in Dostoevsky and Bulgakov, who affirms his own individual genius by separating his voice from the cacophonous noise around him. Robert’s discourse is inundated with a diversity of experiences: travel, fame, women, and even apostasy of his Jewish roots. While Robert’s discourse is thoroughly dialogized by associating with the public sphere, Sonechka is confined by her biology to a domestic bubble. Ulitskaya, in an interview, corroborates this essentialist view of gender: “A man’s world and a woman’s world are two different worlds. In some places, they intersect but not fully. There are spheres of predominantly male interests and areas of female interests” (Gosteva 80). This continues in the tradition of “gendered binarism” in Russian culture, which “feminizes nature and masculinizes culture” (Goscilo, Dehexing 45). Ulitskaya, however, does not value one discourse over the other; although Robert dismisses Sonechka’s love for Russian literature and rarely addresses her dialogically, his discourse is not presented as oppressive or malicious. Salys argues that Ulitskaya “acknowledges [Robert’s] male oppositionality, […] his drive to consume the world, as an inevitable and integral part of the creative process” and “recognizes—and elevates—Sonechka’s fulfillment of the ideal in everyday life through the relationality that undergirds her centrality in the novella” (Salys 462).

In conclusion, Sonechka, in the tradition of the “new women’s prose,” turns away from the classical works of nineteenth-century Russia and the didactic narratives of the Soviet era by refusing to “offer moral tutelage to the people” (Adlam 6). Ulitskaya’s narrative presents three feminine voices, all of which, including Sonechka’s silence, are validated as a positive. The feminine focus on the banal details of daily life provides a unique view of history from the individual’s perspective. The feminine body and maternal domesticity provide a new language for Sonechka, whose self-sacrifice is not ridiculed but instead rewarded with peace and contentment in her old age. The discourse of the feminine byt is removed from its pedestrian associations and corroborated as a meaningful and fulfilling sphere, rather than belittling it in favour of masculine “high” discourse. Ulitskaya offers no absolute paradigm of femininity, but allows for flexibility and change to be the two primary aspects of the feminine voice. However, there remains in her view the problematic biological essentialism of femininity and masculinity. Although creativity is allowed to both sexes, the spheres in which this creativity is exercised are separate as two different worlds.

Anna Andrianovna: The Underground Woman

If all the fictional women discussed above were given an opportunity to shout, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Anna Andrianovna would be the loudest. In her short novel, The Time: Night (1992), Petrushevskaya refuses to impose a discourse of religion, iconography, love, or sentimentality on her heroine, but instead lets her speak for herself. Although she is considered a writer of “new women’s prose,” Petrushevskaya rejects the category of “women’s literature,” as Kristin Anne Peterson points out, and maintains that her style is “terse and masculine” (167). She differentiates herself from other women writers, such as Ludmila Ulitskaya, when she asserts: “I write about events, catastrophes. Never about everyday events” (qtd in Peterson 163). Devoid of domestic harmony and sentimentality, the author’s world in The Time: Night is filled with “physical deprivation and hardships […], emotional violence, pain and abuse” (Woll 125). The voice of the heroine, Anna Andrianovna, is grotesque in its exaggerated self-serving narratives of the gentle babushka and the self-sacrificing mother. The feminine voice is trapped in this self-mythologizing pattern, passing it on from mother to daughter, rendering history a cyclical entity devoid of any hope for change. Her narrative swallows all others and is radical in that it silences the male and consigns him to an inferior position. Petrushevskaya’s text partakes in “critical dialogue with the mythical versions of femininity” (Doak 179) and sardonically debunks the internalized iconography of Woman that has been present in Russian culture and literature for centuries.

Connor Doak notes that Anna Andrianovna employs the romanticized narrative of the old woman or grandmother prevalent in Soviet “village prose” as an “autobiographical strategy to act the role of martyr” and “maintain the archetypal role of the caring babushka” (174). Petrushevskaya ironizes this idealized image of the old woman through Anna Andrianovna’s self-created narrative of martyrdom and the contradicting reality of her egotistical tyranny. The babushka of Soviet literature, such as Solzhenitsyn’s Matryona, was painted as a gentle and caring, but often silent, woman who had no other purpose than to provide for those around her. In The Time: Night, the grandmother is given a prominent voice with which she narrates her own story. Feminine taciturnity is shattered and Anna’s personality explodes onto the pages to reveal the clandestine workings behind the meek Mother myth. What is revealed in Anna’s writing is the disturbing monstrosity of a controlling and self-delusional woman who tyrannizes her family “through nurture and narration” (Peterson 239). This is evident in Anna’s obsessive love for her young grandson, Tima, whom she occasionally keeps from his mother (Anna’s daughter), and her self-pitying accounts of how she cares for the child despite his being a heavy burden to her. The reader’s first impression of Anna is her visit to her neighbours under the guise of social calls, but in reality looking for food. Tima causes a scene in the house of Masha, Anna’s ex-colleague, which prompts Anna to remark: “That’s why people don’t want to see us, because of Tima” (Petrushevskaya 2). When offered food, she “behave[s] like the Queen of England” (2), denying it to herself and instead offers it to her grandson. She recreates the motif of the Madonna’s suffering for her child. Yet, in her nocturnal confessions, she calls him a “demanding little wretch” (11) and reprimands Alyona for “dump[ing] her child on a frail old woman” (13).

Anna uses young Tima as leverage in her arguments with Alyona in order to exacerbate her martyr complex and to align herself with the kind babushka or the sorrowful Madonna. Even in her love for Tima, Anna is focused mainly on herself in conjunction with the grandchild as if they are an inseparable unit, declaring: “My little sunshine! Always and everywhere it’s been just you and me and that’s the way it’s going to stay” (21). Anna is similar to Sonechka, who defines her voice through a relational approach, yet in the former’s case “the discourse of sentimental, familial love […] easily become[s] a vehicle of oppression for both grandmother and grandson” (Doak 177). Anna becomes enslaved to her grandchild, and he in turn is smothered by her obsessive love. Thus, the mutilation of the venerated babushka icon through Anna Andrianovna’s self-absorbed and destructive discourse challenges the Russian archetype of the saintly old woman.

In Petrushevskaya’s world, Anna Andrianovna’s character is not only divorced from the aforementioned idealized depictions of motherhood, but motherhood itself is de-romanticized and defiled. For Anna, motherhood is an unfulfilling and disappointing role, as she muses that ‘mother’ is “the holiest of words, but time goes by and you’ll find you have nothing to say to your child, and your child has nothing to say to you” (Petrushevskaya 51). There is a certain similarity between Anna and Ulitskaya’s Sonechka, as both are abandoned by their children. Yet while the latter can only accept her suffering in silence, the former is able to verbalize her anger and express her frustration and the occasional revulsion she feels for Alyona and Andrei, her children.

The feminine voice in The Time: Night is given full freedom to address the reader directly in the first person, without any higher-order narrative instance. This allows Anna, as the unreliable narrator, to construct her identity as an ostensibly positive example of motherhood. She does this by repeatedly drawing the reader’s attention to her altruistic motivations, and by using overstated lyrical language when speaking of her love for her progeny. The discourse of self-sacrifice is shown in her role as a grandmother: she denies herself food, a career, and a social life for the sake of providing for little Tima. Anna amplifies her kindness by calling Tima a “poor little orphan” (Petrushevskaya 6) even though he is not an orphan, and emphasizes the fact that he calls her “mother,” making her sacrifices even more profound. She also likens her children, especially her son Andrei, to parasites that seek to steal her resources and affection. Ultimately, the concept of motherhood is twisted in this text. Helena Goscilo argues that Anna Andrianovna’s self-denial “originates in less than admirable virtues” and serves “as a mode of unappeasable sadistic control and vampirism—all in the name of love” (“Mother” 108). Anna constantly manipulates her children by playing the role of the victim—“What have I done to deserve this?” (Petrushevskaya 8)—and insists that her suffering is a “natural” consequence of great maternal love. By employing these mind games, Anna wishes to control her children and to “wield psychological power for [her] own complex and largely unacknowledged ends” (Goscilo, “Mother” 104).

Helena Goscilo maintains that mothers in Petrushevskaya’s narratives “erase [their] offspring narratively by allowing them no existence or voice independent of the voracious maternal ego” (“Mother” 105). Anna Andrianovna’s power is especially exercised in the way she negates her daughter Alyona’s voice and erases her from the dialogue. Mother and daughter fail to communicate, often leading to misunderstandings and resentment. They rarely converse through direct verbal dialogue, but instead through indirect means such as Alyona’s diary or overhearing each other’s arguments with someone else. Despite her wish to make the reader believe the opposite, Anna appears to be the one responsible for this lack of communication. She continues conversations in her head rather than with her daughter (Petrushevskaya 100), and imposes her own interpretations on Alyona’s diary. In a sense, Anna monologizes Alyona since she does not give her daughter the freedom to construct an independent narrative. Anna’s judgmental and sarcastically cruel comments on her daughter’s promiscuity and naïvety render her a tyrannical “author,” unwilling to accept the “unfinalizability” of the other. The ending becomes grotesque as Anna imposes the ultimate silence on her family through the narrative of mass suicide, whereby she begins to imagine its aftermath even before confirming her fears.

In the mother-daughter relationship, history appears to repeat itself pointlessly without any signs of progress or change. There is a certain hypocrisy in the way Anna Andrianovna condemns Alyona for having children out of wedlock and starting an affair with a married man, as the daughter is merely repeating the mistakes of the mother. In addition, Anna bemoans her mother Sima’s despotic arrogance in the latter’s “eternal wisdom against [Anna’s] stupidity” (Petrushevskaya 117) and her maternal “possessive” love (81). Yet Anna ironically does not see the similarity to the way she treats Alyona. To add an extra layer of complexity, Anna mocks the martyr discourse in Alyona’s diary while perpetuating it in her own narrative. Helena Goscilo argues that daughters remain copies of their mothers even when they actively avoid repeating the older women’s mistakes. This results in “the peculiar end effect of stasis, of a perpetuum mobile within the temporal space that produces ‘history’—conceived as rote repetition without significant change or momentum” (Dehexing 37). This futile reverberation of the feminine identity mirrors Soviet history, which recycled concepts time and time again without any real evidence of the progress that was proclaimed in its propaganda. In relation to the feminine discourse, the same tropes and archetypes echo through literary history, from Pushkin to post-Soviet conventional prose. Thus women’s idealized discourse has been confined to the same formula for centuries, internalized by both real and fictional female characters. Petrushevskaya questions the verisimilitude of feminine stock characters and invites the reader to see beyond their ideological shallowness.

In Petrushevskaya’s text, there is no dialogue between the masculine and the feminine discourses because the male voice is silenced. In a complete departure from the texts discussed above, the all-powerful feminine voice swallows the male utterance into her own narrative and interprets men as mere objects in her world. While Alyona is allowed to speak, although indirectly through her diary, Andrei only exists as a character in Anna Andrianovna’s self-narration. This is a clear gender inversion of the Dostoevskian male hero for whom women only feature as externalized elements of his own discourse. There are no challenges offered to the matriarchal storyteller on the part of the men, and so she paints them as she sees fit. She sees men as cruel vampires sucking the life out of the women with whom they come in contact. Petrushevskaya satirizes the aforementioned ethos of the “superior” Russian woman who is morally and emotionally antithetical to the “superfluous” man. The irony is that both men and women are hysterical, bewildered, and caught in a cycle in which they are equally “inflicting and experiencing pain in an unbroken chain of mutual abuse” (Goscilo, Dehexing 19).

In Anna’s egotistical narrative, men are ludicrous, childish, and destructive. She recounts how, during her neighbourly visits, the men in these families are weak, throwing tantrums and running to the matriarch to tell their “sob stor[ies]” (Petrushevskaya 6-7). The men are cruel, “brutish and mean” (7) in contrast to the women who, though sometimes reluctantly, offer food and company to Anna and Tima. Anna, in the role of the nightmarish mother-in-law, did not take well to Alyona’s husband, Sasha, when he lived in their crowded apartment. Anna makes her loathing clear when she interjects with comically vicious comments in Alyona’s diary: “He simply shared my bed, ate [no comment needed there –A.A.] drank tea [belched, peed, picked his nose –A.A.] shaved [his favourite occupation –A.A.] read, did his assignments and wrote up his lab notes” (italics and brackets in original)(22). Anna’s loathing for men is hardly repressed in almost all her interactions with them.

Andrei, Anna’s son, is a different story. While always inventing excuses for his behaviour, she portrays him as a victim of his horrific experiences in prison and his alcoholism. He is infantilized in his dependence on his mother, who in turn uses him as “another opportunity for personal myth-making” (Doak 178) where she fashions herself after the poet Anna Akhmatova, the heroine’s namesake, whose son was also sentenced to a prison camp. Although Andrei steals from Anna Andrianovna, threatening and insulting her on more than one occasion, she continues to slave for the sake of her beloved son and, as in Tima’s case, articulates her suffering and love for him in effusive terms. Anna declares: “Andrei came back from camp and ate my herring, my potatoes, my black bread, drank my tea and devoured my mind as always and sucked my blood, he was flesh of my flesh but yellow, filthy, tired to death” (Petrushevskaya 73). There are hints in the narrative that allude to Anna’s double standards and favouritism in the descriptions of her two children. While she sees Alyona’s sexual experiences as shameful and undignified, Anna does not protest when Andrei brings home two prostitutes to prove his manhood. Anna’s relationship with her son exposes the perverted masochism of the mother discourse and the way in which it becomes a force of destruction and disintegration in the family dynamic.

In conclusion, Petrushevskaya’s writing is cynical in its approach to family life, depicting its members as egos ricocheting endlessly off each other without purpose or resolution. Petrushevskaya critiques the invented archetypes of femininity and motherhood that permeate the classical Russian literary canon. By giving her heroine a voice through which she is able to express her innermost thoughts, the author exposes the horrors of the previously idealized home life. She dramatizes the unsettling consequences that occur when the feminine voice loses its flexibility and instead seeks to promulgate fixed paradigms of idealized womanhood.


The male-authored literature produced in the Soviet era followed the paradigms of femininity set in nineteenth-century Russia. Although women gained more freedom, society remained patriarchal and the feminine voice was still weighed down by silence in twentieth-century works. Silence in Dostoevsky’s world is connected to Christian humility and rewarded in the end with a chance for redemption. Among the feminine characters discussed above, Solzhenitsyn’s Matryona embodies this virtue most prominently. Her voice is hardly heard in the short story, yet she portrays the prosocial ethics that oppose the evils of communism. Margarita and Sonechka initially possess a strong discourse, but in the end they return to self-imposed silence. Only Anna Andrianovna is able to escape the confines of silence through writing. Petrushevksaya’s heroine subverts conventional views of women through her dark humour and sardonic narrative. Once woman is allowed to speak, she shatters expectations and reveals a depth that has been denied her in the Russian canon.

The motif of motherhood is an idiosyncratic element of Russian literature. From associations with the Virgin Mary to the close affinity with the all-encompassing homeland—and later in Soviet propaganda, with the zealous socialist—motherhood is often depicted as conceptual rather than individual. While the Soviet male authors discussed above celebrate the cult of motherhood, their female counterparts see the Madonna complex as “grotesquely incommensurate with [their] real-life experience as well as their literary aspirations and means” (Goscilo, Dehexing 97). Ulitskaya and Petrushevskaya problematize this complex by subverting their heroines’ link with the Madonna. While Sonechka is removed from this association on account of her Jewish faith, Anna Andrianovna’s motherhood is portrayed as monstrous. Thus, female writers reject the idealized discourse of motherhood as a destructive process for real women who can never emulate such an elevated example.

The male writers of Soviet literature followed Dostoevsky’s example by using the feminine voice as a vessel for their own campaign against what they saw as repressive ideologies. Margarita and Matryona’s discourses, as noted previously, are polemics against Soviet mendacity and greed. All three male writers presented here show little interest in the growth and struggles of womanhood. Woman is a mysterious “other” that can only be deciphered through symbolism and indirect discourse. Conversely, the women writers attempt to ground the elevated Woman and present instead the struggles of everyday life, family strife, and domestic banalities.

The common denominator for all fictional women in this study is their dialogical opposition to their male counterparts. The three male authors present the feminine and masculine discourse as ideological opposites: Eastern versus Western values in Dostoevsky, muse versus creator in Bulgakov, and Soviet greed versus peasant kindness in Solzhenitsyn. In these dialogues, the feminine voice triumphs through its “superior inferiority” and, what Barabara Heldt calls its “terrible perfection” (5). Ulitskaya’s dialogical opposition is grounded in essentialism: men and women are biologically and intellectually different. Ultimately, there is no competition between the two discourses because they are both validated and allowed to peacefully coexist. Petrushevskaya’s world, however, is full of conflict, among which is the perpetual blaming of men by women. The Time: Night presents the most violent clash between the two discourses in the complete absence of the masculine voice.

Gendered binarism is felt everywhere in Russian society, and this has produced an adverse effect on feminist discourse in post-Soviet culture. Many women writers and intellectuals, including Ulitskaya and Petrushevskaya, despite their gynocentric preoccupations, do not consider themselves feminists (Goscilo, Dehexing 10). Today, Russian society is still considered patriarchal and is known for its rigid outlook on gender roles. In 2013, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church claimed that feminism was “very dangerous,” and urged women to focus on their domestic and maternal duties. He argued that Russia’s destiny lies in the hands of women, so destruction of gender roles could lead to the destruction of the motherland (Elder). This, in essence, continues the trend of women’s “terrible perfection” which has been endorsed by Russian literature for centuries.

In conclusion, the oppression of women’s voice is still an important issue in contemporary Russian society. Examining the feminine discourse in the literature of the nineteenth century and the Soviet era reveals the patterns of thought that ensure the inferior position of women today. The feminine voice must, however, be given a chance to exist, to vociferate, to engage in dialogue with the world. For, after all, “two voices is the minimum of life, the minimum for existence” (Bakhtin, Problems 252). ■




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