Most “Great” Russian Writers Were Men. Here’s How We Need To Change That Today

Most "Great" Russian Writers Were Men. Here's How We Need To Change That Today by @AndrewDKaufman #russianwriters #russianlit #literature #women

Alexander Pushkin monument, St. Petersburg, Russia

Russian Writers In History

I’ll never forget the uncomfortable conversation I had years ago with my good friend, writer, and philosopher Marietta McCarty. She was sharing with me her struggles to get men in her field to take seriously the notion that women could be philosophers, too. Surely I was more enlightened than that? she wanted to confirm. Of course I was, I told her with a self-assured smile.

“How many women writers do you teach in your Russian literature classes this semester?” Marietta then asked.

“Uh, none,” I replied sheepishly.

I attempted to fill the embarrassed silence with an explanation for my glaring oversight. Through my college and graduate school, I explained, almost all of my teachers were men. The vast majority of the Russian writers considered “great” were men. Most anthologies had been written by men about male writers.

When you dig a little deeper, you understand why things turned out this way: During the golden century of Russian literature—the age of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky—men had a virtual monopoly on the literary world. They were the critics and tastemakers, the journal editors, and publishing house owners.

And many of them didn’t believe women had any business trying to write serious literature. When one extremely talented poet and novelist, Karolina Pavlova, started to make a name for herself, male critics and editors mercilessly lampooned her for choosing a literary career over a domestic life of pickling and jelly-making. Not surprisingly, Pavlova died in obscurity, only to be rediscovered a half-century after her death.

Where Are The Female Russian Writers?

What I’d intended as an explanation was, I can now see, also an excuse for, well, laziness. I simply hadn’t done the work to educate myself about Russian women’s writing. As a teacher, I was repeating the patterns of privilege and bias I’d inherited from my teachers, who in turn learned it from theirs.

In so doing, I perpetuated patriarchal attitudes that had defined the world of Russian literature for generations and silenced women like Karolina Pavlova.

In other words, I was unintentionally complicit in systems of oppression that I may not have created and certainly wouldn’t condone. Yet as an educator, I had tacitly supported those systems by not actively challenging them.

The conversation I had that day with Marietta, as well as many equally honest, uncomfortable, but necessary conversations I’ve had over the years with my loving wife, Corinne, was a catalyst for change.

Most "Great" Russian Writers Were Men. Here's How We Need To Change That Today by @AndrewDKaufman #russianwriters #russianlit #literature #women
Two friends: Marietta introduces me at my Charlottesville book talk 

Adding Female Russian Writers To Curriculum

For starters, I’ve since added more women writers and perspectives to my literature classes. We now read Pavlova’s 1848 novel, A Double Life, the only major work managed to publish in her lifetime. The largely autobiographical work is about a young woman trapped in a stifling aristocratic culture that demands she be lovely, sweet, and virtuous, whereas at night she escapes to the world of dreams, where she makes contact with an essential, lost part of her identity.

We read Nadezhda Mandelshtam’s Hope Against Hope (1970), one of the great twentieth-century memoirs about life at the height of Stalinism. We also read two of Russia’s supreme poets, Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova, whose visionary works depict what it meant for a woman to live and love at that dark time.

Reading these and other works has given my students the chance to explore the roles that gender stereotypes have played in their lives and how social environment affects their ability to express essential parts of themselves. In my course Books Behind Bars the incarcerated students in particular now had a language with which to explore the culture of toxic masculinity so pervasive in prison. These important conversations had rarely happened before in my classes.

Women In History

Beyond these changes, I committed to better understanding one of the most dramatic upheavals in Russian culture of the mid-nineteenth century: the rise of a distinct feminist movement. Admittedly, I already knew something about this era, but only as context for my two books about Tolstoy, whose contempt for women’s liberation drips from his pages.

Though his perspective ultimately won the day in Russian literature, there was a lesser-known counterculture of brave women who fought for progressive ideals, and their stories fascinated me.

One woman who came of age under the influence of the feminist movement was a young stenographer named Anna Snitkina, who became the second wife of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I spent most of a decade researching and writing the first and only book about her in English.

Anna became Russia’s first solo woman publisher, releasing seven editions of Dostoyevsky’s Complete Collected Works, a venture that earned her and her family $5,000,000 in today’s money. She created Russia’s first literary museum, produced an extensive bibliographical index that remains a bedrock of Dostoyevsky studies, and wrote one of the most important memoirs in Russian literary history.

And without Anna at Dostoyevsky’s side as his editor, proofreader, manager, and muse, today’s world would likely not have The Brothers Karamazov, The Possessed, or The Idiot.

And yet before my book, the extent of her extraordinary contributions were virtually unknown.

I also started learning about exceptional women closer to home. Before launching the #WomeninHistory segment on my Twitter handle, I’d never heard of such pioneers as Nellie Davis Tayloe Ross (1876-1977), the first woman to serve as governor of a U.S. state and the first woman director of the U.S. Mint; or Agnes Mongan (1905-1996), the first woman to direct a major art museum in the United States; or Patricia Roberts Harris (1924-1985), the first Black woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.

Women’s History Month, happening right now, is partly about celebrating the accomplishments of women like these. But it’s also an opportunity for hard, honest reflection about why such celebration is still the exception rather than the rule, and whether I’ve done all I can to dismantle the culture of patriarchal privilege and its close cousins, misogyny and toxic masculinity, that are alive and well right here in our own country.

Finally, Women’s History Month is my chance to express gratitude to those strong women in my life who have cared enough to help me face uncomfortable truths and made me a better teacher and person.

Thank you.


The Gambler Wife by @andrewdkaufman

Optioned for film!

I’ll let the publisher do the speaking here:

In the fall of 1866, a twenty-year-old stenographer named Anna Snitkina applied for a position with a writer she idolized: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A self-described “emancipated girl of the sixties,” Snitkina had come of age during Russia’s first feminist movement, and Dostoyevsky—a notorious radical turned acclaimed novelist—had impressed the young woman with his enlightened and visionary fiction.

Yet in person she found the writer “terribly unhappy, broken, tormented,” weakened by epilepsy, and yoked to a ruinous gambling addiction. Alarmed by his condition, Anna became his trusted first reader and confidante, then his wife, and finally his business manager—launching one of literature’s most turbulent and fascinating marriages.

The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky, offers a fresh and captivating portrait of Anna Dostoyevskaya, who reversed her husband’s freefall and cleared the way for two of the most notable careers in Russian letters—her husband’s and her own.

Drawing on diaries, letters, and other little-known archival sources, Andrew Kaufman reveals how Anna warded off creditors, family members, and her greatest romantic rival, keeping their young family afloat through years of penury and exile. In a series of dramatic setpieces, we watch as she navigates the writer’s self-destructive binges in the casinos of Europe—even hazarding an audacious turn at roulette herself—until his addiction is conquered.

And, finally, we watch as Anna frees her husband from predatory publishers by founding her own publishing house, making Anna the first solo female publisher in Russian history.

The result is a story that challenges ideas of empowerment, sacrifice, and female agency in nineteenth-century Russia—and a welcome new appraisal of an indomitable woman whose legacy has been nearly lost to literary history.


Other recent blogs I’ve written about Russia that may be of interest:

Why Most Russians Still Love Putin 

If Only Putin Had a Soul, Tolstoy Could Be the One To Save It. Here’s Why


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Order The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky
PEN/America finalist, now optioned for film!

The Gambler Wife now in paperback

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