I was so fortunate while writing LAMENT to have a sister with a serious collection of books on Russian history. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d certainly never have read Women in the Soviet East, a book written in German by Fannina Halle and translated by Margaret M. Green for U.S. publication by E.P. Dutton New York in 1938. And Claudia (my sister, to whom LAMENT is dedicated) would never have had the book to give me if it hadn’t been for her friend Vikki, whose mother Reni’s name is on the bookplate. Reni’s family were Jews from Russia and there were large quantities of socialism on her shelves to say the least. I’m delighted to say the Vikki has read LAMENT and been very, very generous with her praise. Thank you, dear reader and lovely person Vikki.
An equally sympathetic follow-up to Woman in Soviet Russia which Halle had published in 1932 (Claudia got hold of this one for me as well), Women in the Soviet East is unmistakably shadowed by the Soviets’ abortion ban of 1936. An event more disillusioning for an honest ardent feminist like Fannina Halle is hard to imagine. Here she is, described by the Tate Gallery and sketched by her friend Oskar Kokoshka:
From Halle, direct to LAMENT: the Cultural Palace of Emancipated Womanhood in Baku, where Fanny meets her future husband; and the Institute for the Peoples of the North in Leningrad where Yuri goes. Two places featured glowingly in the Soviet East volume, which also offers a notably lucid depiction of the life forced on women before the coming of the Bolsheviks to their Far Eastern communities. Married as children, worked as illiterate slave labor, put outside in animal pens during childbirth, women were brutalized, degraded. The Revolution really changed that, for a time. Astoundingly brave Bolshevik women went east to spread the new principles and way of life–the new byt–to their oppressed sisters, “for the most part Mohammedan,” as Halle notes. Many of these pioneer reformers wound up shot, raped, dumped in ravines, set on fire; others kept coming, braving the worst, persisting, until the women of the Far East had begun to attend night schools and colleges and contribute to newspapers and read novels and write poetry and work as technicians of all sorts and be cared for in hygienic clinics and hospitals. This was momentous. It inspired Halle to write:
What confronts us, then, is a phenomenon that places immense masses of women in the foremost ranks of the “Europeanization” and emancipation of the East, the mobilization of vast forces, hitherto passive, which promise wholly new contributions to the enrichment of human culture, and we must recognize its bearing as gigantic, its significance as worldwide. And, whatever may have occurred in the past two decades in the immense territories of the Soviet Union, stretching across two continents–whatever attitude one may assume towards it–the fact remains that reconstruction is nowhere more clearly to be seen; nowhere is the gulf between yesterday and today wider. One thing, therefore, is now placed beyond question: a new leaf has been turned in the history of the ancient continent of Asia, and half of it at least will be written by the awakening women of the Russian East.
I’m not sure this is a flawed prophecy. Its clock’s still running, it could turn out to be true. I know that when I read that sentence I was very glad to be writing about a woman who winds up living in Eastern Siberia.