Today, I’m participating in a blog tour with Ellen Alpsten, author of Tsarina (available from St. Martin’s Press).
Ms. Alpsten was gracious enough to share her thoughts on feminism in 18th century Russia. Please see below. Hope you enjoy! And, be sure to support your indie bookstores. You can buy the book here on Bookshop.org.
Feminism in 18th century Russia
Both researching and writing Tsarina made me think a lot about women and the lives they had had – despite ‘my’ Catherine I. setting the scene for an hitherto unprecedented and never repeated century of female reign, it is hard to speak of ‘feminism’ as such in 18th century Russia, which was still a world away from the ideals and ideas of enlightenment. Women were beasts of burden: People often speak of the ‘good old days’, thinking of social cohesion and man’s limited horizons, which make for a simpler and easier life, but for women those were frankly terrible days.
Think about it – no education other than household chores, early marriage (sometimes at the age of 12!) to a man who suited your parents, annual childbirth, which was a gamble of life and death, seeing half of your children die due to the harsh climate and lack of healthcare, no privacy, no me-time, no dreams, your frustrated husband probably turning violent with drink, just toiling, toiling, toiling from dawn till dusk. Life was marginally better for women of high standing and the Petrine laws of inheritance changed their situation substantially – ‘The Great Northern War’ was next to its immense cost and suffering a harbinger of progress and modernity. If all men are out in the field, the women have to run the trade and the shops. If all sons fall in battle, an unmarried eldest daughter must be allowed to inherit, whilst a widow will have property.
The Italian newspaper ‘La Stampa’ published a glorious review of Tsarina, pointing out the ‘female condition’ as a strong point of the novel: the misery of being born a woman in those days. The reviewer sums Tsarina’s’ attitude up: “Her voice overcomes a fate raging against her.” Thus, in Catherine’s life we witness a milestone in female emancipation and empowerment. It is the ‘ultimate Cinderella story’, as Daisy Goodwin called it, but bears testimony of the strength of the human nature and the absolute will to survive. Every possible card in the world was stacked against her, yet she rose to the most unimaginable height of history. But not only her psychological strength is impressive, her physical condition, too: she bore the Tsar thirteen children, only to see most of them die. She traveled with him all over Russia and Central Asia and accompanied him into the field. Even though she accepts his straying and his affairs, their relationship is also very modern: Peter the Great and her were lovers, but above all great friends. He loved her courage, her practical jokes, and her level-headedness. He also appreciated her mildness: she often softened the blows of his anger. When we look at her portraits today, people might struggle to see her appeal – though that is a very modern message, too. You can make it happen without adhering to a beauty ideal. If a contemporary wrote: ‘She wasn’t beautiful, but as warm as an animal,’ he speaks of her sex appeal, but above all about her indomitable spirit!