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Famous Russian women

“Behind every great man stands a woman,” goes the saying. In a real sense that was true of the Russian prince Vladimir. Credited with Christianizing Russia, Vladimir was following in the steps of his grandmother, Princess Olga of Kiev, who attempted the task earlier and can be given partial credit for preventing Russia from turning Islamic.

Olga became regent for her son Svyatoslav in 954 upon the assassination of her husband, Igor I, Prince of Kiev. His costly wars had brought Russia to ruin. She immediately executed his murderers and ruled for the next twenty years, implementing fiscal and other reforms throughout the principality. Possibly already a convert to Christianity, she visited Constantinople and in 957 was baptized there. She returned to Russia with a Christ-like hunger for souls and attempted to lead her people to Orthodoxy. At the same time, she sent envoys to Rome, requesting teachers be sent to train her people in the faith. Led by her son, Svyatoslav, the pagan nobles resisted Christ and her efforts failed. Svyatoslav himself almost converted to Islam. Byzantium diplomacy averted that danger. No doubt Olga’s influence had a hand. Certainly she had created a political faction which was interested in seeing Russia Christianized.

Olga died in 969. Her pagan son gave her a Christian burial. She is recognized as a saint in both the Catholic and Orthodox branches of the church. Her feast day is July 11th.

Her grandson Vladimir began as a cruel playboy. He was, however, wise enough to recognize that a common faith could give his country unity. According to legend, he sent messengers to investigate the three great faiths of the Mid East: Islam, Judaism, and the Roman and Orthodox branches of Christianity. The epicure in Vladimir thought Judaism and Islam, with their dietary restrictions, undesirable. He found Roman Catholicism “too simple.” But his messengers sold him with their report of the ritual they witnessed in Byzantium. Speaking of the worship they saw in the Hagia Sophia they said, “We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth. It would be impossible to find on earth any splendor greater than this…Never shall we be able to forget so great a beauty.”

Vladimir embraced Orthodoxy and wed Anna, sister of a Byzantine emperor. After his marriage and conversion he is reported to have changed direction, to have put away former wives and to have become kinder. At any rate, the Christianity Olga had tried to transplant to Russia now took root. Vladimir’s subjects did not balk as had hers. In time the whole Northeastern Europe and North Asia was Christianized. One man’s personal tastes and political cunning had added a precious jewel to the kingdom of Christ. Russian orthodoxy came to rival the Greek in its extent, prestige and arts.

Birth: 27 Sep 1657 Moscow
Death: 14 Jul 1704 Novodevichi Monastery, Moscow
Father: Alexei I Mihailovich, TSAR OF RUSSIA (b. 1629)
Mother: Maria Iljinichna Miloslavskaja (b. 1626)

After death of tsar Fedor Alexeevitch boyare (Russian aristocrats) and patriarch (head of church) preferred 10 years old Peter Alexeevitch (later Peter the Great) to be a new tsar. Even though he was not the oldest of living sons of Alexey Mikhailovitch.

But there was one persone who didn’t like this choice – Sofia, sister of Ioann, the oldest son of Alexey. She organized Streltsi (military men) against Peter, they came into the Kremlin and killed Peter’s uncles, his mother’s adviser Matveev and pronounced Ivan co-tsar or Russia. The truth was that since that time little Peter and his poor minded brother Ivan were taking part in the ceremonials and public actions, but it was theirs sister Sofia who really ruled.

She was very strong, educated and wise woman for her time and she dreamt to be a tsarina. She never became it, but on the portraits she is always painted with the crown on her head. During her rooling in the country there were some army reformations applied, more European habits were brought to the Russian people, some people started dressing by the European fashion.

She was extremely active in internal and foreign policy. Russia concluded “The Eternal Peace” with Poland in 1686, and the Nerchinskii Treaty with China in 1689.

In 1687, the first educational establishment opened in Russia: the Academy of Slavic, Greek and Latin Studies.

There were also two military expeditions to the Crimea. In 1687 Sofia decided to go with a war to the Crimea against Crimean Hanstvo. But this war ended even before the army got to Crimea. So she decided to do it second time and sent her army to the Crimea again, but this time it didn’t work out either.

People lost trust in Sofia and her popularity gone. In 1689, Sofia was overthrown by supporters of Peter the Great and exiled to the Novodevichii Monastery. In 1698 she was forced to take the veil under the name of Susanna.

Catherine I, real name MARTA SKAVRONSKAYA (1682?-1727), empress of Russia (1725-27). Of peasant origin, she was born in Jakobstadt (now Jekabpils, Latvia) but was orphaned early in life and reared by a pastor in Marienburg (now Malbork, Poland).

When the Russians captured Marienburg in 1702, she was taken prisoner by the Russian commander, who sold her to Prince Aleksandr Menshikov, a close adviser of Peter the Great. She soon became Peter’s mistress and most influential counselor.

Peter, who had divorced his first wife in 1699, married Catherine in 1712. After his son Alexis died, Peter issued an ukaz (“imperial order”) declaring his right to name his own successor; he died in 1725 without doing so. Catherine, however, had been crowned empress-consort in 1724, and on Peter’s death she was proclaimed his successor; the claims of Alexis’s son (later Peter III) were bypassed.

Shrewd and courageous, Catherine defended Peter’s advisers against his rages, and in her own reign she established, and concentrated power in, the supreme privy council. Two of her eight children by Peter survived, Anna (mother of Peter III) and Elizabeth Petrovna (empress 1741-62).

Romanov, Anna I Ivanovna, EMPRESS OF RUSSIA

Birth: 7 Feb 1693 Moscow
Death: 28 Oct 1740 Winter Palace, Sankt-Peterburg
Interred: St.Peter & St.Paul Cathedral, Sankt-Peterburg

Father: Ivan V Alexeevich, TSAR OF RUSSIA (b. 1666)
Mother: Praskovia Fedorovna Saltykova (b. 1664)

Spouse: Friedrich Wilhelm, Duke of Kurland (b. 19.7.1692)
Married: 11 Nov 1710, Sankt-Peterburg

Anna Ioannovna (Anna I), a daughter of Ivan V and a niece of Peter the Great, ruled Russia from 1730 to 1740. She was the most autocratic of Peter’s successors. Her ascendancy to the Russian throne was supported by the Russian aristocracy. She was 37 years old at the time, a widow of a German duke and childless. The Privy Council members chose Anna over Elizabeth, a teenage daughter of Peter the Great, who was another contender to the throne. They imposed on Anna a constitution modeled after Sweden’s, which restored some of their previously lost privileges and freed them from compulsory service. She agreed not to marry again, gave up the royal right to declare war and to levy taxes, and allowed the Privy Council to name her successor. After coming to power, Anna enlisted support of opponents of the court aristocracy and rescinded all prior concessions.

Under Tsarina Anna power of the government shifted from the Privy Council to the ministers she brought from Kurland, the so-called German party, dominated by Baron Ostermann, an excellent administrator, Munnich, the builder of the Ladoga Canal, and Anna’s favorite, Ernst Johann Biron. The German party was strongly disliked by the Russians, especially Biron, who used his position for personal aggrandizement. Opposition to the ruling government, however, was punished with torture, death and exile.

Tsarina Anna rejuvenated the Russian army and established the cadet corps. She intervened in the War of the Polish Succession and, in alliance with Austria, warred against the Turks (1736-39). She also supported Russia’s emerging interest in ballet. The first public performance of the Russian ballet took place in 1735 and was staged for Tsarina Anna by Jean-Baptiste Lande, the dance master of the Military Academy. Noting the Russians’ love and talent for dance, Lande founded three years later, “Her Majesty’s Dancing School” with twelve children of palace servants as students. Soon after, ballet presentations became fashionable. Opera was also introduced to Russia during Anna’s reign, when an Italian composer Francesco Araja was invited to come to St. Petersburg to be director of the new opera company.


Born Dec. 7 [Dec. 18, New Style], 1718, Rostock, Mecklenburg [Germany]
Died March 7 [March 18], 1746, Kholmogory, Russia

in full Anna Leopoldovna regent of Russia (November 1740- November 1741) for her son, the emperor Ivan VI.

A niece of Empress Anna (reigned 1730-40), Anna Leopoldovna married a nephew of the Holy Roman emperor Charles VI in 1739 and gave birth to a son, Ivan (Aug. 2 [Aug. 13], 1740), who was named heir to the Russian throne by Empress Anna in 1740, shortly before she died.

A few weeks later, however, the empress’s appointed regent, Ernst Johann Biron, was arrested by certain members of the ruling German clique in Russia, led by Burkhard Munnich and Andrey Osterman. Munnich and Osterman appointed Anna Leopoldovna regent and assumed dominant positions in her government.

But they were unpopular among the Russians, and, when they weakened the administration by quarreling with each other, Anna’s major rival, Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter I the Great (reigned 1682-1725), staged a palace revolution (Nov. 25 [Dec. 6], 1741).

Elizabeth imprisoned Anna and her family in 1742 and in 1744 exiled them to Kholmogory, where Anna died.

Elizabeth Petrovna (1709-62), empress of Russia (1741- 62), born near Moscow, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I. She became empress in 1741 by staging a palace revolution that deposed the infant emperor Ivan VI and his mother Anna Leopoldovna, who acted as regent.

In 1743 Elizabeth won a historic diplomatic victory when her representative negotiated an advantageous end to the long-standing dispute between Sweden and Russia.

She was chiefly responsible for establishing and maintaining the alliance of Austria, France, and Russia that almost defeated Prussia in the Seven Years’ War. Until her death, a year before the end of the war, the armies of the alliance had been successful, but soon afterward the alliance disintegrated and Prussia gained the final victory.

She named her nephew Peter III as her successor.

Elizabeth’s nonpolitical achievements include the establishment of the Moscow State University in 1755 and the Academy of Arts at Saint Petersburg in 1757.

Catherine the Great (1729-96), empress of Russia (1762- 96), the second of that name, who continued the process of Westernization begun by Peter the Great and made Russia a European power. Originally named Sophie Fredericke Auguste von Anhalt- Zerbst, Catherine was born in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) on May 2, 1729, the daughter of a minor German prince. In 1745, she married Grand Duke Peter of Holstein, heir to the Russian throne. The marriage was an unhappy one, but the intelligent and ambitious Catherine soon managed to build up a circle of supporters in Saint Petersburg. In 1754 she gave birth to a son, the future emperor Paul. Catherine’s husband succeeded to the throne as Peter III in 1762. Erratic, unstable, and contemptuous of his Russian subjects, he soon alienated several important groups in Russian society. On July 9, 1762, following a pattern well established in 18th-century Russia, the Imperial Guards overthrew him and placed Catherine on the throne in his stead.

Catherine and the Enlightenment Catherine was well acquainted with the literature of the French Enlightenment, which was an important influence on her own political thinking. She corresponded extensively with Voltaire and Denis Diderot, gave financial support to them and a number of other French writers, and played host to Diderot at her court in 1773. Although this activity was partly aimed at creating a favorable image in Western Europe, she was probably sincere in her interest and her hope to apply some of the ideas of the Enlightenment to rationalize and reform the administration of the Russian Empire. Despite her interest in legal reform, however, the commission she appointed for that purpose in 1767 failed to accomplish its goals. Among Catherine’s more benevolent achievements were the foundation of the first Russian schools for girls and of a medical college to provide health care for her subjects. In the early years of her reign, Catherine sought to win the support of the Russian gentry, and, in particular, of a small group of nobles. She confirmed Peter III’s emancipation of the gentry from compulsory military service, granted them many other privileges, and showered her supporters with titles, offices, state lands, and serfs to work their fields. Thus, despite a professed abhorrence for serfdom, she did much to expand that institution by transferring state-owned serfs to private landowners, extending serfdom to newly acquired territories, and greatly increasing the legal control of the gentry over their serfs.

Later Conservatism Peasant unrest culminated in a great revolt (1773-75), led by the cossack Yemelyan Pugachov, that raged over much of the Volga River Basin and the Urals before it was finally crushed by military force. The revolt marked a turn toward a more reactionary internal policy. The cossack army was disbanded, and other cossacks were granted special privileges in an effort to transform them into loyal supporters of the autocracy. In 1775 a major reform of provincial administration was undertaken in an effort to ensure better control of the empire. A major reform of urban administration was also promulgated. The French Revolution increased Catherine’s hostility toward liberal ideas. Several outspoken critics of serfdom such as Nikolay I. Novikov and Aleksandr N. Radishchev, were imprisoned, and Catherine seems to have been planning to join a European coalition against France when she died on November 17, 1796, in St. Petersburg. Under Catherine, the territory of the Russian Empire was greatly expanded. As a result of two wars against the Ottoman Empire (1768-74 and 1787-91) and the annexation of the Crimea (1783), Russia gained control of the northern coast of the Black Sea. Russian control over Poland-Lithuania was also greatly extended, culminating in the annexation of large tracts of territory in the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795).

Character of the Reign One characteristic of Catherine’s reign was the important role played by her lovers, or favorites. Ten men occupied this semiofficial position, and at least two, Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin, were important in formulating foreign and domestic policy. Although assessments of Catherine vary, she undoubtedly played a key role in the development of Russia as a modern state.

The wives and fiancees of some Decembrists came to Siberia to share the lot of their men, overcoming the opposition of the authorities and of their relatives, losing their rights and possessions, and travelling thousands of kilometres by sledge and carriage. The women included Yekaterina Trubetskaya, Alexandra Muravyova, Maria Volkonskaya, and Polina Annenkova.

Yekaterna Trubetskaya, countess and wife of Sergei Trubetskoy, one of the founders and headers of the Northern Secret Society.
Many of the Decembrists’ wives voluntarily followed their husbands. According to Russia’s laws, convicts’ wives, if they so desired, were allowed to follow their husbands to Siberia. However, for the Decembrists’ wives a new law or, rather infringement of the law, was devised. In order to strike the Decembrists totally out of their lives, the Church and State passed a law whereby the Decembrist’s wives were considered widows and allowed to remarry within their husbands’ lifetime without an official divorce. However, Yekaterina Trubetskaya turned down this offer, and so did the other Decembrist’s wives. When they departed for Siberia, they left behind their privilegies as nobles and were reduced to the status of exiled prisoners’ wives, with restricted rights of travel, correspondence and property ownership. They were not allowed to take their children with them, and were not always allowed to return to the European part of Russia even after their husbands’ death.

But nothing could stop these courageous women. Yekaterina Trubetskaya was the first to leave for Siberia (in July 1826).

On government orders and on their own initiative, the local authorities tried to put obstacles in their way. Nicholas I resolved to shut the Decembrists off completely from the rest of the world. Correspondence with them was forbidden, and very little information about them reached their nearest and dearest. The tsar hoped that with the passing of time their names and the events linked to their names would be forgotten. Those plans were foiled, however, when the Decembrists’ wives set out after the “noble convicts,” as they were called by the Siberian people. The wives could not be banned from writing, and in their letters they were able to convey the truth to their relatives. The local officials were highly embarrassed by the presence of these brave women.

And so, after covering over five thousand kilometres, a vast distance in those days, and enduring inconceivable hardships on the way, the Decembrists’ wives faced one more ordeal in lrkutsk. They had to sign a “renunciation” allowing them to meet with their husbands not more than twice a week and only in the presence of an officer, and they had to give up their money and valuables, only a very small part of which they were to receive back for living expenses.

On the night of July 23, 1826, Sergey Trubetskoy was deported as part of the the first party of Decembrists sent to Siberia. And on the following day Yekaterina Trubetskaya set off for Irkutsk. During her long journey she was pursued by bandits in the taiga, and her carriage broke down on the ice of the River Yenisei, but nothing could stop her. At Irkutsk the officials did everything possible to prevent this brave woman from going any further. They detained her for about nine months, first forcing her to sign the renunciation paper mentioned earlier, and then telling her that her husband was already on the other side of Lake Baikal when he was in fact very close by, for the Decembrists had not yet been sent to work in the mines. Day after day Countess Trubetskaya suffered these obvious indignities, and in the end gained permission to leave for Blagodatsk, where the first party of Decembrists was imprisoned. Together with another Decembrist’s wife, Maria Volkonskaya, who had caught up to her on the way, she rented a little house with tiny rooms that were so cold that at night hoarfrost would form on the walls and their hair would freeze to the bed.

In 1827 the Decembrists were sent from Blagodatsk to Chita, and a few years after to Petrovski Zavod, where a prison was built for them. Everywhere they were moved, their wives helped them bear the burdens of prison life.

In 1839, Trubetskoy was deported to the small village of Oyok, thirty-eight kilornetres from Irkutsk, and Yekaterina Trubetskaya and their three daughters and son, who had been born in Siberia, went with him.

Although their relatives sent them large sums of money, the family still had financial problems. The house they built in Oyok cost a considerable amount, and they also they sent large sums of money to help their comrades scattered across Siberia’s vast cold territory. According to contemporaries’ memoirs, the Trubetskoys’ house was open to everyone, and its warm atmosphere was due mostly to Yekaterna Trubetskaya, with whom anyone felt at ease.

In 1845 the Trubetskoys were allowed to move to lrkutsk, where they rented a house. In 1854 they began to build a wooden mansion in the style of the 18th century, with a suite of rooms.
Unfortunately, Yekaterina Trubetskaya, who was so happy about the mansion being built, never had the chance to live there – she passed away on October 14, 1854.

The Decembrists made a great contribution to the study of the history, geography, economy and ethnography of Siberia. They also continued their literary and journalistic activities. N. Bestuzhev created a whole series of portraits of exiled Decembrists and their wives and children. These, like many other relics from the lives and activities of these remarkable men and women, are now on view at the museum in S. Trubetskoy’s house.

The Siberian soil tilled by the Decembrists became for some of them a place of eternal rest. In the graveyard of the Znamensky Monastery, there are small, modest monuments of Baikal marble on the graves of N. Panov, P. Mukhanov, and V. Beschasny. Yekaterina Trubetskaya and her children are also buried here.

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Maria-Feodorovna, widow of Alexander III, and mother of Nicholas II of Russia. Her parents were the impoverished Prince and Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg. A family of modest means, the Glucksburg, as they were commonly known, raised their numerous progeny in an unostentatious, pious, yet carefree environment. Not one person would have imagined that the Glucksburg children would rule in Denmark, Greece and Norway. The family also provided royal consorts for the thrones of Russia, Great Britain, Hannover, Romania and Spain. In fact, their progeny would extend its influence throughout the European continent, giving Prince Christian and his wife, the title of “grandparents of Europe.”

One of these marrying Glucksburgs was none other than Princess Dagmar of Denmark, better known as the Empress Maria- Feodorovna. Small-framed and vivacious, Dagmar was born at the family’s modest home, the “Yellow Palace,” in Copenhagen on November 26, 1847. At the time of Dagmar’s birth her father served in the small Danish army, while her mother, born Princess Louise of Hesse-Cassel, tended to the growing family. The family’s finances were so strained that both parents actively participated in the education of Dagmar and her other siblings.

The Glucksburgs’ fortunes began to improve when the childless, and scandal-prone, King Frederick VII of Denmark recognized Prince Christian as his heir in 1852. Since the main line of the Danish royal family would become extinct upon Frederick VII’s death, a royal heir had to be found. Prince Christian was not the closest relative to the throne, but his image was the least compromised by foreign entanglements. In the meantime, Dagmar and her ravishing elder sister, Alexandra, continued their education at the Yellow Palace.

The early 1860’s witnessed three events that brought the Glucksburgs to international prominence. First, Alexandra of Denmark married Edward, Prince of Wales; secondly, William of Denmark was chosen as the new King of the Hellenes, he adopted the name George I; and lastly, King Frederick VII died and was succeeded by Prince Christian under the name Christian IX. Suddenly, the matrimonial prospects of Princess Dagmar of Denmark were considerably improved. Her mother, now Queen Louise, had remained in contact with the Imperial Russian court, where she had wanted to find a substitute husband for her eldest daughter in the event that an alliance with Great Britain did not materialize. It is also important to note that Queen Louise and the Empress Maria-Alexandrovna, wife of Tsar Alexander II, came from two branches of the old German princely family of Hesse.

Once Alexandra was safely married to the Prince of Wales, Louise directed her endless enthusiasm and perseverance, as well as her extended family connections, on attracting the attention of her Romanov cousins. By the end of 1864, her enterprise seemed complete when it was announced that Princess Dagmar of Denmark would marry the Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, heir of Tsar Alexander II. The Glucksburgs’ matrimonial web seemed unstoppable, causing shudders in the Berlin chancellery where Otto von Bismarck ruled supreme. In 1863, after the death of Frederick VII, Bismarck orchestrated a war with Denmark over the control of the north German provinces of Schleswig and Holstein. By routing the Danish armies, Bismarck not only gained an important portion of territory, but also became the recipient of the undeterred hatred of the Glucksburgs. As the chancellor of the Prussian Hohenzollerns, Bismarck had solidified the Glucksburgs’ deep dislike for anything close to Prussia. This dislike, as well as deep suspicion, would be passed along from Christian IX’s children to his grandchildren, among them Tsar Nicholas II and King George V of Great Britain.

Tragedy struck poor Dagmar when the Tsarevich suddenly fell sick and died in 1865. At barely eighteen years of age, Dagmar found herself without her dashing groom. None too soon her mother and future mother-in-law decided to marry Dagmar off to the new Tsarevich. Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich of Russia was a tall, well-built, strong man. Remembered by his family for his ability to bend iron rods, Alexander had been secretly in love with his deceased brother’s future wife. Replacing Nicholas with Alexander was not to be a difficult task. On the other side, Dagmar slowly developed an intense love for her bear-like handsome new prince. Following Romanov court custom, Dagmar adopted the Orthodox religion under the name of Maria-Feodorovna. Soon after, Alexander and the newly baptized Maria were married in a sumptuous ceremony in St. Petersburg attended by many other royalty.

Maria and Alexander’s married life followed a leisurely path only interrupted by the arrival of children: Alexander inn 1867, Nicholas in 1868, George in 1870, Xenia in 1872, Michael in 1878 and Olga in 1882. Of the six imperial children, Alexander did not survive infancy, George died of tuberculosis in 1898, and Nicholas and Michael were killed during the Russian Revolution.

During the bitter cold winter of 1881, this peaceful existence came to an abrupt end at the hands of terrorists. In the afternoon of March 13, 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated outside the Winter Palace by leftist revolutionaries. His bomb-torn body was carried almost lifeless into the vast confines of the palace, and by darkness Russia had a new monarch, Alexander III.

As a general rule, Maria-Feodorovna relished her role as the wife of Europe’s most powerful monarch. She became the most elegant empress St. Petersburg had ever witnessed, and society followed her every whim. Maria-Feodorovna fulfilled her role to perfection, bringing an enormous degree of elegance to a court sorely famous for its wasteful decadence. The new empress also, though indirectly, influenced her husband’s deep suspicion of Bismarck and Hohenzollern Germany. Hatred of all things German, anyhow, had become a trademark of the Glucksburgs.

Like her sister Alexandra of Wales, Maria-Feodorovna was a devoted, doting mother who spoiled her children. She refused to let her five surviving children to grow, particularly her eldest son, the future Nicholas II. Consequently, the imperial children were completely unprepared for the role history had in store for them. Tsarevich Nicholas was most unsuited for the role of Tsar of Russia, a reality expressed by Nicholas himself soon after his father’s death when he lamented “what is going to happen to Russia?….I am not prepared…I know nothing of the business of ruling.”

When Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich asked his parents for permission to marry Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, Maria-Feodorovna opposed her son’s wishes. She feared that the arrival of this German princess, who was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was going to diminish her influence with Nicholas, and even displace her from her son’s adoring heart. Nicholas nonetheless insisted on his choice. Physically exhausted, and fearing that their opposition to Alix would estrange them from Nicholas, Alexander and Maria-Feodorovna were forced to relent. The fact that Tsar Alexander III was at death’s door played no small role in Maria- Feodorovna’s decision.

Alexander III’s reign came to an abrupt end on November 1, 1894. The Tsar had been suffering from nephritis and his massive body was unable to fight off the disease. Transported to the Black Sea imperial palace at Livadia, Alexander lingered for weeks while clinging to the last shreds of his once bear-like frame. It was at Livadia that Alexander’s reign ended and Nicholas’ began.

Shortly before Alexander III’s death, Princess Alix had hurriedly traveled to Livadia to be near her future husband and in- laws. Alix converted to the Orthodox religion and adopted the name Alexandra-Feodorovna. The couple married on November 26, 1894, in St. Petersburg. The Imperial court was still in mourning for the death of Tsar Alexander III. It was not an auspicious beginning for the new reign.

Alexandra-Feodorovna came from the minor German court at Darmstadt. Her mother, Princess Alice of Great Britain, had died in 1878 when Alexandra-Feodorovna was but six years of age. Consequently, Alexandra-Feodorovna was raised under the supervision and strict guidance of her grandmother, Queen Victoria. Needless to say, poor Alexandra was not well-suited to fill the role left empty by her dashingly glamorous mother-in-law. Nor was Maria- Feodorovna willing to abandon her position as the glittering doyen of St. Petersburg society. Her coldness toward Alexandra contributed to the latter’s further alienation from the Russian imperial court. Alexandra, who did not have an ounce of frivolity in her character, was only too happy to allow her husband’s mother the space Maria-Feodorovna’s imposing figure demanded. While the Dowager Empress, as Maria-Feodorovna was known after her husband’s death, ruled St. Petersburg, Empress Alexandra dedicated all her time to securing her husband’s complete love, trust and devotion. This interdependence between Nicholas and Alexandra would alienate them from the Imperial family and doom their reign as Russian monarchs.

The rift between the imperial couple and the imperial family contributed to the rising instability within Russia. Nicholas was torn between his family’s constant meddling in affairs of state, and his wife constant prodding to act more decisively. Alexandra’s inability to produce a male heir, after the birth of four beautiful daughters, led to considerable rumblings against her. And to worsen the situation, once the heir arrived in 1904, the poor little boy was afflicted with the dreaded “royal” disease, hemophilia. In what became the worst mistake ever made by the imperial couple, Nicholas and Alexandra decided to keep their son’s disease a secret, robbing themselves of the understanding and compassion of the Russian people. Instead, as the imperial couple’s life became more secluded and secretive, the rumor mills gained speed. Slowly, but surely, Alexandra and Nicholas’ reputation was eroded by wild tales about the child’s afflictions.

Further erosion of Nicholas and Alexandra’s prestige came about with the arrival of the mysterious monk commonly known as Rasputin. Grigori Efimovich, a Russian peasant, claimed to hold mystical powers capable of curing every illness. Alexandra, counseled by the mysticism-prone Grand Duchesses Militza and Anastasia, daughters of King Nicholas of Montenegro, allowed Rasputin entry into the imperial apartments. Mystical or not though, Rasputin’s presence transported the young Tsarevich Alexis into a stupor which would stop his profuse bleedings. As she sough to keep her son alive, Alexandra fell under the spell of the pernicious monk.

Unfortunately for Alexandra, Nicholas and their children, and due to the secretive nature of the Alexis’ illness, Russia was never allowed to understand Rasputin’s soothing role. Gossip mongers at court spread all sorts of rumors alleging serious sexual improprieties between Alexandra, her daughters and Rasputin. Secluded in the vast confines of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, Alexandra continued her secluded existence, unknowingly allowing the rumors to spread.

In the meantime, The Dowager Empress Maria-Feodorovna realized her complete inability to exert any further influence with her son. She could no longer convince Nicholas II to eradicate Rasputin’s influence from the imperial household. Nicholas, mortified by his son’s suffering and blinded by his devotion to Alexandra, refused to heed the advice of his mother. The gulf between the Tsar and his family gradually widened until it was unbridgeable.

After her husband’s death, forty-seven year old Maria- Feodorovna spent a considerable amount of time carrying out her duties as Dowager Empress. Her charities consumed great efforts, as did her involvement in Petersburg society. More often than not, Maria-Feodorovna spent a considerable amount of time traveling to Europe to visit family in Copenhagen, London and Athens. She also acquired a villa, Hvidore, in the Danish countryside where she usually retired with her sister Alexandra. Summers would find her cruising the seas aboard her luxurious yacht, the Polar Star.

It was during this period when the adventures of her children gave her much to worry about. Grand Duchess Xenia had married the Grand Duke Alexander Michaelovich, her father’s first cousin. Grand Duke Michael had resisted contracting a royal marriage and finally opted to elope with a twice-divorced woman by the name of Natasha Wulfert, his longtime mistress. The Dowager Empress felt yet another disappointment when the marriage she had arranged for her youngest daughter Olga, to Duke Peter of Oldenburg, collapsed. Maria-Feodorovna had arranged this marriage, much to Olga’s opposition, to keep her daughter within Russia. Peter on the other hand, a known homosexual in St. Petersburg, saw the opportunity represented by an arranged marriage to Olga: an enormous dowry and social position as the Tsar’s brother-in-law. Needless to say, the marriage of Olga and Peter brought nothing but disappointment and frustration to all involved.

The war years saw Maria-Feodorovna contributing to the Russian war efforts as head of the Russian Red Cross. She continued her charities and was constantly seen visiting hospitals and comforting wounded soldiers. It was during this time, when Russia’s government seemed adrift, that the Dowager Empress lost complete faith in her daughter-in-law’s involvement in governing the empire. Like many other Romanovs, Maria-Feodorovna desperately tried to convince her son that Alexandra’s involvement in affairs of state was eroding the monarchy’s support. As Russia’s military woes piled and the army turned into a disorganized embarrassment, Nicholas and Alexandra were blamed for the disasters affecting the country. Maria- Feodorovna even brought to her son’s attention the pernicious rumors caused by Alexandra’s relationship with the dirty Rasputin. All her complaints were brushed aside by Nicholas, who rarely wavered his support for Alexandra.

The revolution that toppled the Romanovs came as no surprise to many members of the imperial family. Only Nicholas and Alexandra seemed shocked by the Russian people’s decision to overthrow a regime that had epitomized inefficiency and corruption. Maria- Feodorovna had one opportunity to see Nicholas II just after his abdication in early 1917. After a brief encounter with her son, the Dowager Empress headed towards one of the imperial villas in the Crimea. While revolution spread throughout Russia, Maria-Feodorovna was joined at her seaside refuge by Grand Duke Alexander and Grand Duchess Xenia, their six sons, Prince Yussupov, his parents and his wife Grand Duchess Irina, daughter of Xenia and Alexander, and Grand Duchess Olga and her new husband Colonel Koulikovsky. Nicholas and Alexandra, along with their children, were sent into exile in the provinces. The imperial couple were initially sent to Tobolsk, and later on moved to Yekaterinburg, near the Ural Mountains. They were all assassinated by Bolshevik guards in Yekaterinburg in July 1918. Grand Duke Michael was also apprehended and eventually executed while in prison during the summer of 1918. Not content with the massacre of these Romanovs, Bolsheviks went around the civil war torn country trying to execute all remaining Romanovs. The year 1918 also saw the assassination of the following Romanovs: Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich, uncle of Nicholas II; Grand Duke Nicholas Constantinovich, grandson of Nicholas I; three children of Grand Duke Constantine Constantinovich: Ivan, Constantine and Igor; Grand Duke Dimitri Constantinovich, grandson of Nicholas I; Grand Dukes Nicholas Michaelovich, Serge Michaelovich and George Michaelovich, grandsons of Nicholas I; Grand Duchess Elizabeth, widow of Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich and sister of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. Prince Dimitri Pavlovich Paley, son of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich, was also assassinated. In all nineteen Romanovs were brutally executed by the blood- thirsty Bolsheviks. The imperial family never recovered from this tragedy.

Maria-Feodorovna and her surviving family left Russia in the spring of 1919. They boarded the British ship HMS Marlborough and never again set foot in their country. For a time Maria- Feodorovna stayed in London, the guest of her sister Alexandra and her nephew George V. Eventually she returned to Denmark where she occupied rooms at the royal palace in Copenhagen and spent time at Hvidore. She never accepted the fate of her sons and grandchildren, and in fact continued hoping that they all had managed to survive the revolution. Yet around her, life seemed to have frozen as all her loved ones slowly disappeared. Only the faint memories of her glamorous life in Russia remained, for by the time she died even her looks and mind seemed to be but a memory. Maria-Feodorovna passed away quietly on October 13, 1928.

Kollontai, Alexandre (1872-1952)

Russian Social-Democrat from 1890s, active in international Socialist Women’s movement, and a member of the Mensheviks before 1914. Elected to Central Committee in 1917 and Commissar for Social Welfare in the Soviet government. With Bukharin in ‘Left Communist’ faction, opposed signing of Brest-Litovsk Peace (Lenin was for signing immediately, Trotsky for delaying in hope of a revolution in Germany, the WO advocated a revolutionary war against Germany); leader of the Workers Opposition. Sent to diplomatic posts in Mexico and Scandanavia. Sympathised with the Left Opposition, but subsequently ‘conformed’.

Further Reading: Biography in the Kollontai Internet Archive

“Leave acrobatics to others, Anna…It is positively more than I can bear to see the pressure such steps put upon your delicate muscles and the arch of your foot…I beg you never to try again to imitate those who are physically stronger than you. You must realize that your daintiness and fragility are your greatest assets. You should always do the kind of dancing which brings out your own rare qualities instead of trying to win praise by mere acrobatic tricks.”

Thus was young Anna Pavlova admonished by her teacher, Pavel Gerdt.1 She followed this good advice and became a legend – indisputably one of the great ballerinas of the twentieth century and also one of ballet’s most influential ambassadors. Pavlova’s emotional, expressive, ecstatic style thrilled audiences all over the world, despite its lack of showy, virtuosic technique. In fact Pavlova didn’t have a lot of technique; her famous feet were actually quite weak. But she had passion, a complete commitment to her art and the power to communicate through movement.

At a time when fouettes were fashionable but Romanticism was not, when strong, meaty Italian ballerinas were favored and thin, dainty Russian girls weren’t, Pavlova resurrected the ethereal, delicate qualities of the Romantic ballerina and combined them with her enormously expressive style. Then she took it on the road. No dancer, before or since, traveled as extensively: 350,000 miles in fifteen years – and this was long before people used airplanes for traveling. She introduced ballet to remote crevices of the world and inspired balletomania thousands of miles from her native Russia. Sir Frederick Ashton, the brilliant choreographer and director of England’s Royal Ballet, became a dancer because he was smitten by the performances he saw Pavlova give when he was a boy – in Lima, Peru.2

Anna Pavlova was born on January 31, 1881 in a suburb of St. Petersburg. Her mother took little Anna to a performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Maryinsky Theatre (home of the Kirov Ballet) and the child resolved that some day she herself would be the beautiful Princess Aurora. She had to wait several years before the Imperial School of the Maryinsky Ballet would accept her, and even then her weak feet, poor turn-out, scrawny body and bad placement made her ballet career seem dubious. Pavlova was also said to be shy, unsociable, introverted and therefore without many friends.3

She graduated form the Maryinsky School not long after the invasion of the virtuoso Italian ballerinas – Legnani, Zucchi et al. had mastered multiple fouettes and other technical “tricks” that diminished the public’s desire for lyrical Romanticism and created a demand for the muscular Italian style. Pavlova hadn’t the strength for it; her delicate, highly arched feet were too weak for the flamboyant pointework coming into vogue.

But ultimately Pavlova made such a virtue of her over- arched feet that critics said they represented the yearnings of the Russian soul.4 She cleverly devised a shank and platform for her pointe shoes that conserved her energy and let her balance in arabesque until the audience was breathless. She took advantage of what she did have: extension, ballon, a pliable torso, feminine delicacy, tremendous expressiveness and she worked extremely hard, studying with Gerdt, Christian Johannsen, Nicholas Legat, Catarina Beretta and the great Petipa himself. In the end she triumphed.

Pavlova excelled in the repertory at the Maryinsky, especially in La Bayadere, Giselle, Le Corsaire and Don Quixote but dancing the choreography of Mikhail Fokine is what made her immortal. Les Sylphides (also known as Chopiniana), showcased Pavlova’s exquisite Romantic-style lyricism. The Dying Swan went even further. Quickly choreographed as a piece d’ occasion, The Dying Swan is technically just a matter or bourres and highly stylized port-de-bras meant to evoke the last moments in the life of a swan. The dancer, alone on stage in her spotlight, bourres forward and back, torso bending expressively, arms extended in a non-stop, soft-elbowed bird-like fluttering until she gracefully expires – usually in a seated pose with one leg outstretched and her upper body bent over it. The Dying Swan is an easy target for satire – campy, sentimental, even melodramatic – but when done well it has the power to be very moving.

By 1907 Pavlova had become a star at the Maryinsky, but that was just the prelude. Her need for artistic independence, the freedom to pursue her very individual style and to dance new and different work, as well as her need to have the spotlight all to herself led her to a solo touring career that lasted twenty years and took her all over the world. She danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes but not for long. She may have had doubts that the company could succeed, she may have been unable to bear Diaghilev’s notorious authoritarianism or she may have hated sharing the glory with the famous Nijinsky, the male star of the troupe.5

She lived most of her life on trains and in hotels. Toward the end she had to compromise by cutting difficult sections and performing only the less demanding pieces. One of her methods for conserving stamina was to modify her pointe shoe to make it easier to balance. It was considered cheating at the time, but actually it was the first modern pointe shoe and no ballerina today would even attempt toe-work without its equivalent. Pavlova took soft pointe shoes that were too big, inserted a piece of leather under the metatarsal for support and pounded down the platform to make it bigger and flatter. She would then darn it so it would hold its shape. However, the always image-conscious Pavlova wanted to appear as if daintily dancing on only the tiniest little pointed tip of a slipper, so she scrupulously retouched all photographs of herself to remove the broad platform of the shoe.

In 1931 she contracted pleurisy. Doctors could have saved her life with an operation that would have damaged her ribs and left her unable to perform. Pavlova chose to die rather than give up dancing. As she lay dying she is reported to have opened her eyes, raised her hand and uttered these last words: “Get my swan costume ready.”6

A few days later, at show time at the theatre where she was to have performed The Dying Swan, the house lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and while the orchestra played Saint-Saens familiar score, a spotlight moved around the empty stage as if searching in the places where Pavlova would have been.

In her own words: “What exactly is success? For me it is to be found not in applause, but in the satisfaction of feeling that one is realizing one’s ideal. When, a small child rambling over there by the fir trees, I thought that success spelled happiness. I was wrong. Happiness is like a butterfly which appears and delights us for one brief moment, but soon flits away.”7

Ulanova wrote a small book, The Making of a Ballerina, and it was translated from the Russian by S. Rosenberg in 1950. The first paragraph reads, “I did not really wish to be a ballet dancer. True, my first visit to the theatre fired my imagination, but I was not swept off my feet by that strong impulse for a stage career which precipitated so many to the footlights.”

The first performance she saw was, of course, a ballet. Ulanova’s father, Serge Ulanov regisseur of the Imperial Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, took her to see Sleeping Beauty. At the first appearance of the Lilac Fairy she screamed out, “That’s mama, my mama!” Ulanova’s mother, Maria Romanova, was a dancer and a teacher at the Imperial School.

After the 1917 Revolution life was difficult for all. Ulanova’s parents had to perform three times a day for film audiences as the films were being rewound, in addition to their performances at the Maryinsky.

Ulanova wept bitterly when she was taken by strangers to the Petrograd School of Choreography as a boarding student. Her parents found it necessary because their rehearsing, performing and teaching schedule did not give them the opportunity to care for her. At the school her mother was her first teacher, but Galina didn’t want to dance. She had a clear picture of her mother changing from clumsy felt boots to her toe shoes, wearing a crisp tarlatan tutu and performing with a smile. The smile didn’t deceive her, “I saw clearly how fatigued mother was and the strain it cost her to dance.”

At Ulanova’s first lesson at the school she pleaded with her mother to take her home, but her mother told her if she would stay until the New Year she could then come home. The New Year arrived, but since Ulanova had made friends at the school, she decided to stay. She also was making extraordinary progress in her classes. She was invited to perform at the Academic Opera as a little bug in Riccardo Drigo’s Caprices of a Butterfly. This debut gave her her first performing experience onstage. It also gave her joy at the thought that, “thank goodness,” she had made no mistates. Her next role was that of a bird in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden.

She danced the lead in Chopinana at her graduation performance — and her debut in the theatre was Princess Florine in the Blue Bird variation. At the age of eighteen, four months after her debut, Ulanova danced the leading role of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake. Ulanova said of her early performances: “I danced without deeply understanding the characters I impersonated.”

After her studies in the school under her mother’s directions, Aggripina Vaganova took over her training. Vaganova was significant in her development as a dancer.

Eventually, Ulanova started to have a social life with the intellectuals of her time. After performances they would gather at a someone’s home and discuss all the arts. She was fascinated by the theories of Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky and applied his ideas to her dancing. She claimed that she had danced Swan Lake a hundred times before she understood the ballet beyond the steps.

Ulanova was much admired for the poetry and dramatic projection of her dancing. But she was also a hard worker. She said, “A dancer must be a hard plodder. Daily practice is the meat and drink and it must never cease, not even during summer holidays.” She also danced often at the Bolshoi in Moscow and in 1944 left the Kirov to become the Prima Ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet. Besides the classical repertory, she created roles in: Fountain of Bakhchisaray (1933), Lost Illusion (1935), and Romeo and Juliet (1940), Tao-Hoa in a revised version of the Red Poppy (1949) and Katrina in the Stone Flower (1954).

In 1945, she danced her first appearance in the West in Vienna. Because of her close connection with the Communist party she danced in Rome in 1949, and Florence and Venice in 1951. Russia at the time had the Iron Curtain and very few artists were allowed in the West. With the Bolshoi Ballet she danced in London (1956) and New York (1959). I was fortunate to have seen her dance in America.

Those who did not have the chance to see her in person could have seen her films in the Art Houses of the West: excerpts from Swan Lake and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray (1953), Romeo and Juliet (1957), and Giselle (her Dying Swan was added as an extra) (1957).

Born in Moscow on 1 February 1939 she studied at the Moscow Choreographic Institute under the distinguished ballerina Elisaveta Gerdt. An exceptionally talented student she was taken into the Bolshoi immediately on her graduation in 1958 having already danced the complete role of Masha in Vainonen’s Nutcracker.

Her creative biography is inseparably linked with that of Vladimir Vasiliev. They have been partners both professionally and privately throughout their adult lives.

Early in her career at the Bolshoi she performed a few smaller assignments such as the peasant pas de deux in Giselle, Colombine in The Bronze Horseman, the Bell Dance in Act 2 of The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, which she danced in Galina Ulanova’s farewell performance, but soon under Ulanova’s guidance danced her first Giselle in 1960.

However her first major success had already taken place in 1959 with the role of Katerina in The Stone Flower. This was her first meeting with choreographer Yuri Grigorovich and a collaboration which was last 20 years in which she danced a number of leading roles in his productions, most notably perhaps for western audiences Phrygia in Spartacus and Masha in The Nutcracker. These ballets, alongside Giselle were the backbone to many of the tours undertaken by the Bolshoi in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Her other main roles during this time at the Bolshoi were Kitri in Don Quixote and Cinderella in Zakharov’s version of the fairy tale. She also danced Maria in The Fountain of Bakhchisarai. In 1973 she added Juliet in Lavrovsky’s version of the Shakespeare ballet to her repertoire.

Whilst Maximova took an active role in the development of Soviet contemporary ballet, she is unique among the artists of the Soviet period in that she was able to guest widely with foreign companies appearing with great success in the works of Bjart, Cranko and Petit.

She was always in great demand in Russia to work with the leading Russian choreographers. Maximova had a particular affiliation with the Moscow Classical Ballet. She performed the title role in Pierre Lacotte’s Nathalie and also roles of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and Eve in The Creation of the World, both choreographed by Natalia Kasatkina and her husband Vladimir Vasilyov.

Together with Vasiliev she toured independently from the main Bolshoi troupe from the early 1980’s and took on many new roles created for her by her husband. Perhaps the greatest of all was her performance in title role of his full-length ballet Aniuta premiered on stage in 1986 based on a film recorded four years earlier. She enjoyed huge success with the Kremlin Ballet in Moscow in 1990 in the title role of his production of Cinderella.

Since leaving the stage she has worked at the Bolshoi Theatre as a pedagogue, coaching the leading soloists in ballerina roles. Also since 1982 she has been on the faculty of dance at Moscow’s GITIS institute.

Maximova’s artistry is complex and intense and she was adored worldwide. She can charm through the comic and light-hearted roles with her captivating smile alone. But that is an over simplification. She has an immense dramatic range shown by her success in roles as diverse as Nathalie and Juliet. But all of these qualities fuse together in the role of Aniuta, which perhaps tested her dramatic skills as an actress most completely. She has wonderful technical clarity, beautiful clean line, wonderful footwork and the ability to invest passion and drama into the smallest movements. Fortunately many of her roles have been preserved on film, often partnered by Vasiliev and prove a lasting document to her achievements and also to one of the greatest ballet partnerships in the history of dance.

Born in 1925, Plitsetskaya’s early childhood was lived in the shadows of Stalinism. Her father’s disappearance in 1937 – confirmed as his death only fifty two years later – and her mother’s subsequent imprisonment left her, aged eleven, officially labeled as ‘daughter of an enemy of the people’. Her writing, in places, offers a unique personal perspective on the terrors of those years: not the detailed, picking-at-the-bones of an adult mind, but a child’s eye view – removed, detached, selfish, even. In a single paragraph, Plisetskaya paints a startling picture of the now famous pre-dawn arrests: the roughness, the search, her pregnant mother’s tears, her brother’s screams, the inquisitive neighbours. And there observing it all is little Maya: frightened for her father, but unable to separate that fear from her concern that her new dress, sewn by her mother for the impending parade in Red Square, would now never see the light of day.

Unfortunately, not all the writing matches this vivid episode and too much of the book, like many autobiographies, is made up of long lists of names. The inclusion of the Russian patronymic, in addition to the first and last name, seems to add a dozen pages to an already lengthy book. In forty-nine chapters, Plisetskaya weaves through her life, recording the rehearsals and performances interspersed with ‘political instruction’, the communal apartments, the KGB minders and the mindless bureaucracy that made up the life of a Soviet artist. Her regular brushes with authority are recounted in detail, and few opponents emerge well from the tale.

Throughout it all runs her struggle to shake off the official designation nevyezdnaya – unexportable – that kept her from travelling with the Bolshoi Ballet on their tours abroad. A photograph of a flying leap in 1956 – exactly the year in which Plisetskaya was barred from joining the Bolshoi at Covent Garden – demonstrate the powerful physicality that London was missing.

The ban was finally lifted in 1959, when she was allowed to tour the US, but her absence from that triumphant London visit in 1956 seems to have denied her her rightful place in the British version of ballet history. Here, she is best known for a record number of performances on the gala circuit of Anna Pavlova’s Dying Swan, but her repertoire and choreographic endeavours were extensive. She danced Swan Lake over eight hundred times and in the book she lists the world leaders who sat through those performances. If you thought that Prime Minister Gandhi, Presidents Kennedy and Nasser, Emperor Haile Selassie, Marshal Tito, Chairman Mao and Comrade Kruschev had nothing in common, think again. They all saw Maya Plisetskaya dancing a swan.

Maya Plisetskaya’s career stretched over sixty years – and counting. Her latest performance was in 1996, at the age of 71, and I certainly wouldn’t put money on her hanging up her pointe shoes for good. Her account of that career can be read as a colourful – if highly personal – account of one of the most extraordinary periods in recent history: not only the view from the other side of the curtain, but the view from the other side of the iron curtain, too.

In the late 19th Century, Russia’s Tsarist autocracy was under siege. Oppositional political parties were formed, in violation of the law. One of these parties was the “Social Democratic Party.” Vladimir Lenin was the leader of a faction of this group called the “Bolsheviks,” or “majority,” though they were actually the minority (Kublin 123). The factions were divided on certain philosophical opinions, but like the rest of the Social Democrats, the Bolsheviks were devoted to socialism and worked toward the goals of revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar. The Bolsheviks would eventually succeed. It was on the cusp of these revolutionary events that the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova was born in 1889. She witnessed as a child the reign of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II. In her lifetime she also witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution, the Stalinist Terror and Purges, and Russia’s involvement in both World Wars. She would be persecuted by the Soviets for her links to pre- Revolutionary Russia, but she survived, a symbol of truth and integrity. Today she is considered one of the four great Modern Russian lyric poets, with Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelshtam and Marina Tsvetaeva (Herschemeyer vii).

Akhmatova was born Anna Andreevna Gorenko. She was raised in an upper class family in the town of Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg. At an early age, she became interested in poetry, though it was not fashionable at the time. When her father found out about her aspirations, he told her not to shame the family name by becoming a “decadent poetess” (Kenyon 2). He forced her to take a pen-name, and she chose the last name of her maternal Great-Grandmother, a Tartar, from whom she inherited high cheekbones and striking features. She started signing her name “Anna Andreevna Akhmatova.” That same year, the Revolution of 1905 took place. Thousands marched to the Tsar’s palace, and many were shot by palace guards on “Bloody Sunday.” From then on, the downfall of the Autocracy was near. Nicholas II implemented reforms to try to stop the strikes and unrest, but his government was weakening.

In 1910, Akhmatova married Nikolai Gumilev. He was a romantic figure, a poet and adventurer enamored with North Africa. Gumilev founded a literary movement in Russia called “Acmeism,” which was a reaction to the current Symbolism. The Acmeists emphasized clarity and directness, in contrast to the Symbolists, who the Acmeists believed clouded their poetry with ideologies and intangibilities like mysticism and symbols (Gibian 1). Shortly after Gumilev and Akhmatova were married, he left on a journey to Abyssinia, leaving her behind. While Gumilev was away, Akhmatova wrote many of the poems that would be published in 1912 in her first book, Evening.

Akhmatova’s first book was wildly popular. She became a cult figure among the intelligentsia, and often read at a cabaret in a St. Petersburg cellar called the Stray Dog Cafe. She became well-known as a part of the St. Petersburg literary scene and remained forever connected with that city. In her early lyric poems she concentrates on love, with a confessional, frank style. Akhmatova was a master of the Acmeist ideals of real experience and clarity. The same year she found success as a poet, her son Lev was born. He was raised by his paternal grandmother, who disliked Akhmatova. Akhmatova protested this situation, but her husband took the side of his family. She would visit with her son during holidays and summer. Later, Akhmatova would write that “motherhood is a bright torture. I was not worthy of it” (Kenyon 3).

Two years later, Akhmatova’s second book, Rosary, was published. It, too, was widely read and critically popular. A parlor game based upon the book was even invented. One person would recite a line of poetry and the next person would try to recite the next, until the entire book was recited. Though Akhmatova was enjoying professional success, her personal life was falling apart. Her marriage to Gumilev–in trouble from the start–was failing. They were unfaithful, and Gumilev was jealous of Akhmatova’s success. That year was a time of great tumult, politically, as well. World War I broke out in Europe, and in August Germany declared war on Russia. Also, Akhmatova’s beloved St.Petersburg was renamed Petrograd. Akhmatova would write about the war in her next book of poems,White Flock, which was published in 1917. Russia suffered heavy losses during WWI and this helped to contribute to the downfall of the Romanov empire.

Akhmatova’s fourth book of poems was published in 1917, the same year the Bolshevik revolution took place and changed Russia forever. Early in 1917 the “March Revolution” occurred and the Tsar was forced to abdicate and a Provisional Government was installed. Meanwhile, World War I was still raging. The Russian troops did not have enough food or weapons and other necessary supplies. The people did not want Russia’s involvement in the war to continue, yet the Provisional Government continued it. Following the March Revolution, Lenin seized an opportunity for the Bolsheviks to gain power. Almost as powerful as the Provisional Government was the “Soviet,” a council of citizens such as workers or soldiers. The Soviets wielded enormous influence. Lenin maneuvered Bolsheviks into influential Soviets like the Petrograd Soviet. This set the stage for the Bolshevik Revolution in the Fall of 1917 (Kublin 154). After the Revolution, a civil war was fought in Russia that ended in 1921. When the Civil War ended, the Bolsheviks (known also as “Communists”) were in control of Russia’s government and military. Three years after the Civil War ended, Lenin died.

Plantain was published the year the Civil War ended, 1921. It was Akhmatova’s fifth book of poetry. By this time she had divorced Gumilev, but the two poets still remained friends. After the divorce she married Vol’demar Shileiko, the next in a series of failed relationships in Akhmatova’s life. He, too, was jealous of Akhmatova’s fame. Like many during this time period, they didn’t have enough to eat, or enough fuel to keep warm. In the fifth book, several poems appear about this period of time.

Lenin, after he seized power, began using tactics of terror. The Cheka, or secret police, had the power to arrest and to execute without a trial. It was used to liquidate the opposition, or anyone else they wished to get rid of. In 1921, Akhmatova’s ex-husband, Nikolai Gumilev, was arrested and executed for anti-government activities. He was falsely accused of taking part in a plot to overthrow the government. Akhmatova was devastated.

The government’s agenda to spread fear was a response to the fact that the Bolsheviks were never a majority. If the Bolsheviks could keep an opposition from being organized, they could stay in power. If the citizens were afraid to trust anybody–including their families–an opposition could not be organized. Many of Akhmatova’s friends left Russia and the terrible persecution.

Joseph Stalin gained power in 1924, after the death of Lenin. He perfected the tactics of terror that his predecessor had initiated. The Communist rule turned into a totalitarian dictatorship fueled by paranoia. In the 1930’s the Terror peaked. The Stalinist Purges claimed millions of victims. Public show trials were performed, where the accused were forced to read prepared confessions. Many of Akhmatova’s friends and fellow writers were arrested or executed. In 1933 her son Lev was arrested, and again in 1935.

One of the agendas of the Bolsheviks, once they took control, was to eliminate all vestiges of pre- revolutionary culture. “Petit bourgeois” culture like lyric poetry had no place in the new Communist society. The government formally established “Socialist Realism” as the guideline for all of the arts. Writers were required to evoke an ideal Socialist State (Reeder 225). There was an unofficial ban on Akhmatova’s poetry from 1925 until 1940. During this time, Akhmatova devoted herself to literary criticism, particularly of Pushkin, and to literary translation work. During the latter part of the thirties, she composed a long poem, Requiem, dedicated to the memory of Stalin’s victims. In 1940, a collection of previously published poems, From Six Books, was published. A few months later it was withdrawn.

In 1941 Germany declared war on Russia. Akhmatova gave a radio speech in 1941 during the Siege of Leningrad urging the women of Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg/Petrograd) to be courageous. Even though Akhmatova was forbidden to publish her poems, she was asked by the government to speak because she symbolized Russian culture and was associated with the city of Leningrad. During the war, Akhmatova was evacuated to Tashkent with other writers as well as artists and musicians.

Immediately after the war, Akhmatova enjoyed popularity. In 1946, however, there was an official decree banning publication of her poetry. Andrey Zhadanov, the Secretary of the Central Committee, expelled her from the Writer’s Union. Zhadanov called her “half nun, half harlot” and said, “What positive contribution can Akhmatova’s work make to our young people? It can do nothing but harm” (Reeder 292). When Akhmatova was expelled, it meant that her ration card was taken away. The poet had no means of support. She relied on her friends for the rest of her life.

Lev Gumilev, Akhmatova’s son, was arrested again in 1949. He was not released until 1956. To try to win her son’s release, Akhmatova wrote a few poems in praise of Stalin and the government, but it was of no use. Later she requested that these poems not appear in her collected works.

In 1953 Joseph Stalin died, and Nikita Krushchev became leader. In 1956 Krushchev gave an infamous speech to high ranking Party leaders. He denounced Stalin, calling him a tyrant. That same year, Akhmatova’s son was released from prison.

Akhmatova’s poetry was again published in 1958 and 1961 but with heavy censorship. Young poets like Joseph Brodsky flocked to her. To them, she represented a link with the pre-Revolutionary past–that which had been destroyed by the Communists. Brodsky would later call Akhmatova “The muse of keening” (McFadden).

On March 5, 1966, Akhmatova died peacefully. It was the 12th anniversary of Stalin’s death. Akhmatova is considered one of the finest Russian lyric poets, and perhaps the finest female Russian poet of all time. She has been compared to Antigone because she kept the memory of pre-revolutionary Russian culture alive when the government was trying to destroy it. Akhmatova also kept the memory of the victims of the Terror alive in her poetry.

Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow. Her father, Ivan Tsvetayev, was a professor of art history and the founder of the Museum of Fine Arts. Her mother Mariya, née Meyn, was a talented concert pianist. The family travelled a great deal and Tsvetaeva attended schools in Switzerland, Germany, and at the Sorbonne, Paris. Tsvetaeva started to write verse in her early childhood. She made her debut as a poet at the age of 18 with the collection Evening Album, a tribute to her childhood. The book was privately published and was dedicated to the narcissist diarist Bashkiartseff (1858-1884). For Russian writers Bashkiartseff became the ideal of the female artist, and her writings were also dealt by Simone de Beauvoir in her study The Second Sex. Evening Album was favorable reviewed by Nikolai Gumilyov (1886-1921), a poet and literary critic, who was accused after the Revolution of antiregime conspiracy and shot without trial.

In 1912 Tsvetaeva married Sergei Efron, they had two daughters and one son. Magic Lantern showed her technical mastery and was followed in 1913 by a selection of poems from her first collections. Tsvetaeva’s affair with the poet and opera librettist Sofiia Párnok (1885-1933) inspired her cycle of poems called ‘Girlfriend’. Párnok’ career stopped in the late 1920s when she was no longer allowed to publish. The poems composed between 1917 and 1921 appeared in 1957 under the title The Demesne of the Swans.

Another affair Tsvetaeva had with Konstantin Rodzevich (1895-1988), an ex-Red Army officer. ‘Poem of the Mountain’ and ‘Poem of the End’ were inspired by this relationship. Rodzevich was captured by the White Army and he fled to Prague, where he graduated as a lawyer. He was an active member of pro-communist organizations, joined during World War II the French resistance and spent two years in captivity in Germany. In 1960 he sent his Tsvetaeva archive to Moscow, and argued that Tsvetaeva created a ‘myth’ out of their affair.

After 1917 Revolution Tsvetaeva was trapped in Moscow for five years. During the famine one of her own daughters died of starvation. Tsvetaeva’s poetry reveal her growing interest in folk song and the techniques of the major symbolist and poets, such as Aleksander Blok and Anna Akhmatova. Fascinated by Akhmatova’s lines, conveying the confusion of love, “I drew my left-hand glove / onto my right hand – ” Tsvetaeva stated: “The whole woman, the whole poet is in these two lines; the whole Akhmatova, unique, unrepeatable, inimitable. Before Akhmatova none of us portrayed a gesture like this. And no one did after her.” (from Poets with History and Poets without History, 1934)Tsvetaeva wrote six plays in verse and narrative poems, including ‘The Tsar Maiden’ (pub. 1922). The central opposing characters are the fair-haired King-Maiden and the evil stepmother of the young tsarevich, who try to win his heart. Betrayed by the stepmother the King-Maiden tears her heart out of her chest. The evil stepmother turn into a snake and the tale concludes with the uprising of the populace. Another response to the Civil War was The Desmene of the Swans, which glorified those who fought against the communists. The diary-like cycle of poems begins on the day of Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication in March 1917, and ends late in 1920, when the anti-communist White Army was finally defeated. The ‘swans’ of the title refers to the volunteers in the White Army, in which her husband Sergei Efron was fighting as an officer.

In 1922 Tsvetaeva emigrated with her family to Berlin, where she rejoined her husband, and then to Prague. This was a highly productive period in her life – she published five collections of verse and a number of narrative poems, plays, and essays. She blended elements from Orthodox prayers and folklore with modernist idiom, and often sought inspiration from the 18th century and the (Russian) romantic age, from which she adopted the idea of the poet as a rebel or an outcast: “We are poets, which has the sound of outcast,” she once wrote. Molodets (the swain), completed in Czechoslovakia in the late 1922, was her second fairy tale in verse and was widely reviewed by the émigré press. Tsvetaeva and Natal’ia Goncharova, who drew illustrations for it, tried in vain to publish it in French. Le Gars, based on this Russian work, was published in Paris in 1986.

In 1925 the family settled in Paris. Tsvetaeva’s collection Craft was published in Berlin in 1923. In Prague in 1924 she wrote ‘The Poem of the End’, dealing the parting of two lovers and her extra-marital affair. After reading it Pasternak wrote to Tsvetaeva that it “draws its readers to its world like tragedy” and praised her as an artist of extraordinary great talent. Personal themes were developed further in ‘From the Seacoast,’ ‘Essay of the Room,’ and ‘The Staircase,’ all written in 1926. In The Ratcatcher, a narrative poem from 1925, Tsvetaeva drew parallels between revolutionaries and rats. This thinly veiled poem about the Russian Civil War was not published in full in the Soviet Union until 1990. The poem was a homage to Heinrich Heine’s ‘Die Wanderratten’ and borrowed the story from ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’.

By the 1930s, Tsvetaeva’s poems were no longer printed in her native country. She published her essays in such émigré publications as Volia Rossii, Chisla, Poslednie Novosti, and Sovremennye Zapiski. Sometimes her essays were printed in a brutally cut form and in 1926 he attack on the Russian émigré literary establishement made her persona non grata. Her style could be aphoristic and poetic, and she used paradoxes, provoking the reader into joining her in the search of uncertain truths.”The same water – a different wave. / What maters is that it is a wave. / What matters in that the wave will return. / What matters is that it will always return different . / What matters most of all: however different the returning wave, / it will always return as awave of the sea. / What is a wave? Composotion and muscle. The same goes for / lyric poetry.” (from ‘Poets with History and Poets without History’)

During her years in Paris Tsvetaeva wrote two parts of the planned dramatic trilogy. The last collection published during her lifetime, After Russia, appeared in 1928. Its print, 100 numbered copies, were sold by special subscription.”The volume concludes with greetings from the lyric heroine to the Russian rye. According to Tsvetaeva’s numerous statements, Russia borders land that is the embodiment of God; it can be suggested, therefore, that the meditative tone of many poems from the collection comes from the transcending human experience of her past and from the broadening of her spiritual and cultural horizons.” (Alexandra Smith in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. by Neil Cornwell, 1998)In Paris the family lived in poverty, the income came almost entirely from Tsvetaeva’s writings. When her husband started to work for the Soviet security service NKVD, the Russian community of Paris turned against Tsvetaeva. “All poets are Jews in a Christina world,” she once bitterly declared. Her limited publishing ways for poetry were blocked and she turned to prose. In 1937 appeared MOY PUSHKIN, one of Tsvetaeva’s best prose works. To earn extra income, she also produced short stories, memoirs and critical articles. She also wrote a series of personal and literary mamoirs about Valery Bryusov (1873-1924), Andrey Bely (1880-1934), Maksimilian Voloshin (1877-1932), and Mikhail Kuzmin (1972-1936)

In exile Tsvetaeva felt more and more isolated. Friendless and almost destitute she returned to the Soviet Union in 1938, where her son and husband already lived. Next year her husband was executed and her daughter was sent to a labor camp. Tsvetaeva was officially ostracized and unable to publish. After the USSR was invaded by German Army in 1941, Tsvetaeva was evacuated to the small provincial town of Elabuga with her son. In despair, she hanged herself ten days later on August 31, 1941. She had written in 1922 in ‘The Tsar- Maiden’:I am nowhere. / I’ve vanished in no land. /Nobody catches up with me./Nothing will bring me back. According to Boris Pasternak, her suicide might have been prevented if the literary bureaucrats had not behaved with such appalling heartlessness to her.

Tsvetaeva left behind a great body of work, that broke new ground for women poets. In her poems Tsvetaeva used characters from the Bible, heroines of the classical mythology, and Russian folklore and history. She experimented with many styles, and her collection Razluka (1922, separation) impressed the poet Andrey Bely so that he wrote one of his collections in Tsvetaeva’s style. Boris Pasternak also admired her work and later wrote: “The greatest recognition and reevaluation of all awaits Tsvetaeva, the outstanding poet of the twentieth century.” Tsvetaeva herself described her friend as looking like an Arab horse.

Bella Akhmadulina (Izabella Akhatovna Akhmadulina) is a famous Russian poet, translator, esseist. She was born in Moscow on April 10, 1937.

First marriage – Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1954); second – Youri Nagibin (1960).

Since 1974 she has been married to famous Russian artist Boris Messerer.

Bella Akhmadulina’s poetry was first published in 1954. In 1960 she graduated from the Gorky Literary Institute.


Written by Becky Wilson, Class of 1997 (Agnes Scott College)

An extraordinary woman, Sofia Kovalevskaya was not only a great mathematician, but also a writer and advocate of women’s rights in the 19th century. It was her struggle to obtain the best education available which began to open doors at universities to women. In addition, her ground-breaking work in mathematics made her male counterparts reconsider their archaic notions of women’s inferiority to men in such scientific arenas.

Sofia Krukovsky Kovalevskaya was born in 1850. As the child of a Russian family of minor nobility, Sofia was raised in plush surroundings. She was not a typically happy child, though. She felt very neglected as the middle child in the family of a well admired, first- born daughter, Anya, and of the younger male heir, Fedya. For much of her childhood she was also under the care of a very strict governess who made it her personal duty to turn Sofia into a young lady. As a result, Sofia became fairly nervous and withdrawn–traits which were evident throughout her lifetime (Perl 127-128).

Sofia’s exposure to mathematics began at a very young age. She claims to have studied her father’s old calculus notes that were papered on her nursery wall in replacement for a shortage of wallpaper. Sofia credits her uncle Peter for first sparking her curiosity in mathematics. He took an interest in Sofia and made time to discuss numerous abstractions and mathematical concepts with her (Rappaport 564). When she was fourteen years old she taught herself trigonometry in order to understand the optics section of a physics book that she was reading. The author of the book and also her neighbor, Professor Tyrtov, was extremely impressed with her capabilities and convinced her father to allow her to go off to school in St. Petersburg to continue her studies (Rappaport 564).

After concluding her secondary schooling, Sofia was determined to continue her education at the university level. However, the closest universities open to women were in Switzerland, and young, unmarried women were not permitted to travel alone. To resolve the problem Sofia entered into a marriage of convenience to Vladimir Kovalevsky in September 1868. The couple remained in Petersburg for the first few months of their marriage and then traveled to Heidelburg where Sofia gained a small fame. People were enthralled by the quiet Russian girl with an outstanding academic reputation (Perl 131).

In 1870, Sofia decided that she wanted to pursue studies under Karl Weierstrass at the University of Berlin. Weierstrass was considered one of the most renowned mathematicians of his time, and at first he did not take Sofia seriously. Only after evaluating a problem set he had given her did he realize the genius at his hands. He immediately set to work privately tutoring her because the university still would not permit women to attend. Sofia studied under Weierstrass for four years. She is quoted as having said, “These studies had the deepest possible influence on my entire career in mathematics. They determined finally and irrevocably the direction I was to follow in my later scientific work: all my work has been done precisely in the spirit of Weierstrass” (Rappaport 566). At the end of her four years she had produced three papers in the hopes of being awarded a degree. The first of these, “On the Theory of Partial Differential Equations,” was even published in Crelle’s journal, a tremendous honor for an unknown mathematician (Rappaport 566).

In July of 1874, Sofia Kovalevskaya was granted a Ph.D. from the University of Gottingen. Yet even with such a prestigious degree and the help of Weierstrass, who had grown quite fond of his pupil, she was not able to find employment. She and Vladimir decided to return to her family in Palobino. Shortly after her return home, her father died unexpectedly. It was during this period of sorrow that Sofia and Vladimir fell in love. Their marriage produced one daughter (Perl 133). While at home, Sofia neglected her work in mathematics but instead developed her literary skills. She tried her hand at fiction, theater reviews, and science articles for a newspaper (Rappaport 567).

In 1880, Sofia returned to her work in mathematics with a new fervor. She presented a paper on Abelian integrals at a scientific conference and was very well received. Once again she was faced with the dilemma of finding employment doing what she loved most– mathematics. She decided to return to Berlin, also home to Weierstrass. She was not there long before she learned of Vladimir’s death. He had committed suicide when all of his business ventures had collapsed. Sofia’s grief threw her into her work more passionately than ever (Perl 134).

Then, in 1883, Sofia’s luck took a turn for the better. She received an invitation from an acquaintance and former student of Weierstrass, Gosta Mittag-Leffler, to lecture at the University of Stockholm. In the beginning it was only a temporary position, but at the end of a five year period, Sofia had more than proven her value to the university. Then came a series of great accomplishments. She gained a tenured position at the university, was appointed an editor for a mathematics journal, published her first paper on crystals, and in 1885, was also appointed Chair of Mechanics. At the same time, she co-wrote a play, “The Struggle for Happiness,” with friend, Anna Leffler (Rappaport 568).

In 1887, Sofia again received devastating news. The death of her sister, Anya, was particularly hard on Sofia because the two had always been very close. Fortunately, it was not long afterward that Sofia achieved “her greatest personal triumph” (Perl 135). In 1888, she entered her paper, “On the Rotation of a Solid Body about a Fixed Point,” in a competition for the Prix Bordin by the French Academy of Science and won. “Prior to Sofya Kovalevsky’s [Sofia Kovalevskaya] work the only solutions to the motion of a rigid body about a fixed point had been developed for the two cases where the body is symmetric” (Rappaort 569). In her paper, Sofia developed the theory for an unsymmetrical body where the center of its mass is not on an axis in the body. The paper was so highly regarded that the prize money was increased from 3000 to 5000 francs.

Also at this time, a new man entered her life. Maxim Kovalevsky came to Stockholm for a series of lectures. There he met Sofia, and the two had a scandalous, rocky affair. The basic problem was that they were both too passionate about their work to give it up for the other. Maxim’s work took him away from Stockholm and he wanted Sofia to give up her hard-earned positions to simply be his wife. Sofia flatly rejected such an idea but still could not bear the loss of him. She remained in France with him for the summer and fell into another one of her frequent depressions. Again, she turned to her writing. While she was in France, she finished Recollections of Childhood (Perl 136).

In the fall of 1889, she returned to Stockholm. She was still miserable at the loss of Maxim even though she frequently traveled to France to visit him. She eventually became ill with depression and pneumonia. On February 10, 1891, Sofia Kovalevskaya died and the scientific world mourned her loss. During her career she published ten papers in mathematics and mathematical physics and also several literary works. Many of these scientific papers were ground- breaking theories or the impetus for future discoveries. There is no question that Sofia Krukovsky Kovalevskaya was an incredible person. The President of the Academy of Sciences, which awarded Sofia the Prix Bordin, once said: “Our co-members have found that her work bears witness not only to profound and broad knowledge, but to a mind of great inventiveness” (Rappaort 569).

MMI – MMIII copyright c Irina Shvayakova & Andrew Karpov, 2001-2003, The Russian Women Network


 
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