Featured Post

The Trump Tripartite

Much like living in America in a post 9/11 world, living in in the aftermath of the Decembrist revolt brought a certain paranoia to the Russian regime. So deep was the neurosis that in 1833 Sergey Uvarov-the Minister of Education of Russia-presented the following statement of ideology:
"It is our common obligation to ensure that the education of the people be conducted, according to Supreme intention of our August Monarch, in the joint spirit of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality. I am convinced that every professor and teacher, being permeated by one and the same feeling of devotion to the throne and fatherland, will use all his resources to become a worthy tool for the government and to earn its complete confidence." Thus began The Triad of Official Nationality (Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality). Although it is understood that interpretations of the Trinity are different than they were in the 19th century, commonalities still exist. In fact, so common are the core …

Welcome to Rodionovsky

The sprawling grounds of Rodionovsky Institute—Institute de Demmlselles or Institute for Daughters of Noblemen—included a garden lined with old linden trees and a nearby ravine the girls found too eerie to investigate. Nonetheless, Vera Figner enjoyed walking the garden on pleasant summer days, a nice reprieve from the cloistered environment of the classroom. After all, it was by design that young ladies were kept “like hot-house plants,” cut-off from family and outside influence.[1] With the traditional bully battle cry of “keep the masses uninformed,” educational institutions of Imperial Russia regularly omitted writings of literary intellectuals like Vissarion Belinsky and Nikolay Nekrasov.

To make matters worse, courses at Rodionovsky were grossly inadequate. How is it, Vera wondered, that a professor’s lessons on zoology do not include an anatomical model? Or that botany class failed to make use of a microscope? Perhaps the answer to these questions is best explained by the words of Niels Bohr "The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy…”

And the classroom wasn’t the only place of limited information. Even in the dormitory of the Institute—a space traditionally used for study—unauthorized reading was strictly prohibited. But for Vera, this firm rule was a mere formality.

By design, it was mostly dark in the large dormitory. At night, a sparse flutter from a candle perched atop a high copper basin and a small gaslight used to illuminate an icon of Christ were the only sources of light the girls had. For many students, the candle flame was more than a source used to pay homage to Christ, they were the girl's connection to the outside world. A world precariously placed between discontent and all out rebellion. The dimly lit dormitory provided enough light for Vera to balance her thoughts through the pages of English novels brought to the institute from her friends back home in Kazan. 

One night, Vera quietly opened her desk and eased out a copy of a novel. Before she settled herself in her usual reading spot – a corner desk near the prayer table, Vera heard the floor creak, and she knew she’d have to contend with Grigoryevna, the despot of the dormitory. A peevish twig of a woman with brilliant black eyes and striking facial features, Grigoryevna watched over the girls during ‘lights-out,' but Vera knew her routine—hours of fervent prayer, occasionally suspending her marathon sessions to check on the girls and back to her pious obsession. It became a battle of wills—Vera kneeling at the alter feigning prayer and Grigoryevna surreptitiously eyeballing the young lady until Grigoryevna, realizing she couldn’t outlast Vera’s firm determination, returned to her sanctuary. Once Grigoryevna left, Vera would pull her book from under the table and continue to read.

The clandestine routine continued as literary works such as Friedrich Spielhagen’s One man in the field is not a warrior (Odin v pole ne voin) and Nekrasov’s poem Sasha were smuggled into the Institute. Spielhagen’s tale relayed the dignified ambitions of characters Sylvia and Leo in their fight for equality while Nekrasov’s poetic verse showed characters Sasha and Agarin’s fleeting.
In fact, the moment Vera read Nekrasov’s poem, Sasha, her mind began to soak up meaning in the words. Sasha, the main character, became enamored with Agarin, a young gentleman from a neighboring estate. Agarin gracefully spoke of social ills and plans for the welfare of the working class, and although the two lost touch, Agarin’s words remained. Some years later, Sasha saw Agarin, but instead of the confident silver-tongued man she remembered, Agarin words seemed bloated and meaningless. Recalling Nekrasov’s poem, Vera found a life lesson, “make your actions match your words,” and the phrase became the “watchword” of her life.  

As these words left an indelible impression on Vera as did senior student Olga Sidorova. The daughter of an associate of Vera’s father, Olga displayed rare physical beauty. Vera adored the older student and as a devotee shadowed Olga through the halls of Rodionovsky. Vera mimicked Olga’s good behavior as well as bad, and there was plenty of bad behavior. In fact, Olga used her steel-trap memory and brilliant mind for mischievous deeds rather than for good.

As Vera and Olga sat in the dormitory, Olga recounted elaborate conspiracy theories of Dmitry Pisarev’s death. The Russian revolutionary writer, Olga said, didn’t die by suicidal drowning in the Baltic Sea as purported but rather died by the hands of the Russian government. 

While Vera listened with intrigue, Olga sank her arm under her mattress and fished out a newspaper with the heading Колокол or Bell printed in big black letters. Olga said she smuggled Alexander Herzen’s revolutionary paper out of her father’s store and brought it to the institute to read.

[1] Knowles, James. The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review. Vol. XLIII (New York: Leonard Scott Publication Company, 1898). 118.

Knowles describes the different types of institutions in 19th century Russia.  


Popular posts from this blog

What Everyone Should Know About Repression

The Trump Tripartite