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Mothers and sons and Russian literature *.

Using basic information about the history of the Russian family to set up some elementary points of reference, the lecture examines the ways in which a series of eminent Russian male authors from the eighteenth century to the present day have represented in their fiction the relationship between mothers and their adult sons. They are found to have treated the mother figure in three main ways: elimination, idealization and demonization.

Keywords: Elizabeth Hill Memorial, mothers, Russian literature, sons


I am going to be discussing mothers and sons of different orders: some real, some fictional. They have in common the fact that they are native speakers of Russian. I explicitly disclaim any more general validity for my observations, despite the temptation I have felt to speculate about how and why certain stereotypes seem to cross national boundaries and others do not. I also make no attempt to present a narrative about the historical development of the mother-son relationship in Russia and its representations in various media; that may eventually be a subject for a much larger study. Instead, I want to focus impressionistically on some particular cases that over the years have drawn me to what I feel is a plausible general scenario for this topic.

Elizabeth Hill could, with some justification, be called the mother of all British professors of Russian. I am a stepson of hers at most, though. I was never formally taught by her, but instead attended another institution, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in the University of London, which sometimes defined itself by opposition to her and all she stood for. But, like everybody who ever met Liza, I shall never forget her. Indeed, I think about her often, and particularly in one context. On several occasions I had the bracing experience of being driven by her through the streets of London in the rush hour; and ever since, every time I see a scene in a film that takes place in a car where the driver manages to negotiate traffic while talking to the person in the front passenger seat without ever taking his (almost always his) eyes off that person--so that one gets more and more anxious and mentally pleads with the driver to keep his (her!) eyes on the road--I always think of Elizabeth Hill. Whether this experience has any broader resonance, perhaps as a symbolic enactment of what it has been like to be a university teacher of Russian in England during the last forty years, is a matter I shall not pursue.

This is the third lecture in this series, and there is a reason why I am particularly proud to have been invited to deliver it. Just over seventy years ago another series of memorial lectures was instituted in this university in honour of another woman who, among many other things, has a claim to have been the mother of Cambridge Russian: Jane Ellen Harrison (1860-1928). Like Elizabeth Hill, she had no biological sons, but she did have numerous sons in spirit. The first of the lectures in her honour was delivered by her mentor Gilbert Murray, and concerned her work in classical anthropology. The second, though, concerned her involvement with Russian, and was delivered at Newnham in 1929 by my hero D. S. Mirsky, the great literary critic who came to this country as an emigre in 1921 and then made the fatal decision to go back to Russia in 1932 (Mirsky, 1930; Smith, 2000). And it happened to be Mirsky who taught Elizabeth Hill as both an undergraduate and a graduate student; not here, but in that other institution in London, the one from which I started out. So today I have a strong sense of historical continuity.


Russian literature from its beginnings to the present day is largely, and in its conventionally canonic manifestations almost exclusively, the testimony of males to their experience. I say this notwithstanding my recognition of and sympathy for the huge effort that has been made by scholars in the last twenty years to work towards gender balance in the historiography of the subject (notably Heldt, 1987; Kelly, 1994; Ledkovsky et al., 1994; Barker and Gheith, 2002), an effort so effective that it is already being taken for granted. (1) All these canonic males have in common the fact that they were of woman born. (2) Their reactions to this situation form an aspect of their fictions that has a special intensity and seems to be a manifest source of anxiety. The fundamental situation is, unavoidably, biological, and the most widespread attitude to it among elite Russian males, it seems to me, is spelled out in a lyric by Evgenii Evtushenko, 'Ia khotel by' (1972). As usual, this poet can be trusted to come out with flamboyant formulations of commonplace ideas:
   I would like to love
   every woman in the world,
   and I'd like to be a woman,
   if only once ...

   Mother Nature,
   men have been diminished by you.
   Why do you not grant motherhood
   to men?

   If there inside him,
   beneath his heart,
   a child were to twitch, just like that,
   then the male, certainly,
   would not be so cruel.
   (translated from Evtushenko, 1984: 488) (3)

According to this view, the ultimate mother, Nature, has bestowed on women the power to bring new life into the world, and the lack of this power makes men the cruel creatures that they are. We may go on to say that men apparently feel threatened by this situation; and they try to make up for it in various ways: for instance, they conceive, give birth to and nurture books, among other things, rather than babies, to preserve their identity and memory after they are dead; they are driven to pass on their intellectual gene pool, one could say. This is one reason why they have often tended to resent women who give birth to books not babies, usurping male territory. (4)


The aspect of this huge subject that I am particularly interested in here is the way male Russian authors have depicted their relationship with their mothers after they have matured and become adults; I am not concerned here with infancy and boyhood, which has been discussed by Andrew Wachtel in particular (1990). To set the scene I need to glance briefly at some general patterns that this relationship has followed in life rather than art. This is not scholarly demographics, I emphasize, but information extrapolated from looking at the biographies of dozens of male Russian writers born since the early eighteenth century.

Two important Russian writers were perforce brought up by their mothers, because their fathers died before they were born. One was the eighteenth-century poet Vasilii Kapnist (1757-1823), who seems to have been none the worse for the experience and grew up to be a remarkably sensible and well-adjusted person. The other is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (b. 1918), whose father was killed in a hunting accident when his mother was three months pregnant. He was brought up entirely by women, with well-defined and not untypical results if we judge by the female characters in his fictions; I will return to this topic later.

Since they were almost all from the upper classes, Russian male writers as infants were given to nurses. (5) They attached emotions to these women that are in other circumstances reserved for biological mothers: Pushkin is the obvious example (6) Pushkin soon went away to school, and from the age of eleven hardly lived with his parents at all. Gogol, on the other hand, was brought up entirely by his biological mother, a young widow who focused on her son. Lermontov too had his life controlled by his mother and then his grandmother until he was sent to cadet school at sixteen. The most striking example of motherly control of the process of growing up is probably Turgenev; his mother behaved in most important respects like a man. She had a child by someone who was not her husband (incidentally, the man concerned was the father of Tolstoi's wife); and among other things she organized her son's sexual initiation, choosing a peasant girl for him when he was sixteen. But this is unusual, I think. Generally speaking, the nineteenth-century pattern is of the boy leaving home and mother behind and entering the male world in early adolescence. When we get to the late nineteenth century, and the rise of the bourgeois family after about 1880, this situation seems to change, and boys have a relationship with their mothers that lasts into maturity. To take some examples of writers whose work I will mention later, this was the case with Blok, Pasternak and Bulgakov--and also, incidentally, Evtushenko, who in that same poem even had the temerity to describe the circumstances of his conception, necessarily derived from what one would normally regard as completely confidential conversations with his mother.

The most remarkable mother-son relationship that has been documented among pre-revolutionary Russian writers concerns Aleksandr Blok (Khodasevich, 1983). Blok's mother lived with his father for a total of one year, then left him behind in his job at Warsaw University and went back to Petersburg with her infant, who was then raised in a household consisting entirely of women until his mother remarried. Blok basically lived with his mother for his entire life except for ten months immediately after his marriage to Lyubov" Mendeleeva; there were occasional separations when Blok went on trips or his mother was institutionalized or at the country estate. Notwithstanding the fact that they spent so much time living together, something like three-quarters of all the 700-odd letters we have by Blok are addressed to his mother. (7) They form the principal source for his biography, and together they constitute an intriguing human document: Blok tells his mother literally everything all the way through his life, including the details of his excessive drinking and habitual whoring.

The story of mothers and sons in the Soviet period awaits its investigator. One of the fundamental aims of Bolshevik social policy, of course, was to do away with the 'bourgeois' family, and particularly with the central nurturing role of the individual woman. What actually happened was that women acquired the male obligation to work outside the home, but retained the responsibility to work inside the home as well: the notorious double burden. Their emanci-pation in formal terms did not change their primary responsibility for childrearing, and, in fact, there has been an increase in the share that women have had to take in it, for a number of reasons. (8) Male mortality has been higher, and men have not been encouraged to think that they should participate in the home as well as at work. Male domestic absenteeism is normal in Russian society, and male irresponsibility is even more normal, especially in respect of child nurture.

If one looks at the biographies of Soviet writers one finds that with relatively few exceptions they have been brought up by single mothers and maintained contact with them in adulthood. Blok's mother outlived him, and so did the mothers of Mayakovskii, Esenin, Vysotskii and many many other self-destructive lads. But on the whole they have not chosen to say anything about their sons; as always, it is the males who have done the naming and defining. There is no mother equivalent for the widow literature and role as established unsurpassably by Nadezhda Mandel'shtam. Sometimes this has been unavoidable; Evgeniya Ginzburg, for example, was arrested and separated from her son Vasilii Aksenov for many years. (9) But normally it is because women have chosen silence in the face of patriarchy, just as working-class males have chosen it in the face of the ownership of the culture by the ruling classes.


How have the male Russian writers dealt with this paradigm of life events in their artistic works? It is obviously imprudent to attempt a characterization of the way an entire national literature has distributed its emphases over the course of modern history, but it is nevertheless worthwhile making the attempt. It seems to me that they have constructed the mother figure in three main ways: ignored it, eliminated it or idealized it. In some relatively rare cases they have demonized it.

The title of this lecture, obviously, refers to Turgenev's title Fathers and Sons, which names the intergenerational relationship that dominates in the literature--the male side. The male sibling relationship is named in The Brothers Karamazov, and one feels that it could perhaps have been better named Father [singular] and Sons, had not Turgenev got in first. There is no equivalent major work for the mother-son relationship (unless one considers Aksakov's masterpiece a major work of fiction), which is remarkable in view of what I was just saying about the actual process of upbringing. To take some obvious examples: we know practically nothing about Evgenii Onegin's relationship with his mother, or Pechorin's. Gogol's fiction deletes the relationship; there are cameos of mothers and sons, but no developed account of them. Tolstoi seems not to be interested, apart from Anna and the young son who burdens her relationship with Vronskii. There are plenty of nursing mothers in his work, but no developed studies of mothers and mature sons; Vronskii's mother appears in only one scene in Anna Karenina, for example. Blok, whose relationship with his mother I have just briefly characterized, never wrote about the mother-son relationship in his creative work; he dedicated just a couple of poems to the mother he addressed in those hundreds of letters. (10) On the whole, Russia's classic male authors have been interested in the patriarchal world after the power and control of the mother has been superseded. Boris Slutsky once wrote a characteristically blunt, unadorned lyric asserting this point of view as a matter of principle:
   Mothers nurture the baby, not the poet.
   He is the first to leave home.
   [Lermontov's] 'Demon' or [Maiakovskii's] 'About This'
   are not a mother's merit and success.
   Other women rock the cradles
   of the best poems, short and long,
   while the mothers of poets grow feeble,
   giving birth in torment, then leaving the scene.

   Eventually, when years have gone by,
   the mother's share is one small line of verse,
   one little line out of all that brilliance.
   And then not every mother gets one. And not always.
   (translated from Slutsky, 1991: 139)

Slutsky's principal legatee, Joseph Brodsky, was even more categorical in his elegy for his mother:
   What does the mother and her saucepans
   have to do with the perspective that opens out from the life
   of the son?
   (translated from Brodsky, 1998: 26)

Needless to say, there are many exceptions to all this. In particular, there are two significant nineteenth-century Russian novels in which we are given more than a marginal view of the relationship between a mother and a mature son. They are (notwithstanding its title) Turgenev's Fathers and Sons and Dostoevskii's Crime and Punishment. Both these novels may in fact be understood primarily as studies of transition made by male children out of the mother's realm and into the patriarchy. In Turgenev's novel, the principal mother-son relationship that we observe involves Bazarov. He is one of the most uncompromising sexists in the literature; his progressive, 'scientific' outlook does not extend to the admission of women as full participants in society. When confronted by the opportunity to pair with Odintsova, a female who is his equal, he cannot face the threat to his identity, and he goes back to his mother, who dotes on him unquestioningly, and he dies without leaving her bosom. His mother is a caricature (and no doubt something of a consolatory substitute for Turgenev's real mother; the latter is portrayed with what one assumes is greater verisimilitude in Diary of a Superfluous Man). Mrs Bazarova is superstitious and thoroughly traditional in her outlook; she surrenders the running of the property to her husband, and she exists to serve and provide home comforts. When he knows he is dying, Bazarov says, showing his usual boorish rejection of sentiment that is so appallingly selfish and cruel: 'Yes, indeed, just try denying death. It will deny you, and basta!' 'Who's that crying?' he added after a pause. 'My mother? Poor thing! Now who's she going to be able to feed that amazing borsht of hers to?' (translated from Turgenev, 1955: 183). Bazarov's friend Arkadii Kirsanov, on the other hand, does the right thing: following his acquiescence in his father's choice of an intellectually inferior but biologically sound creature as a substitute for his dead mother, he chooses the same sort of mate for himself, no doubt to pass on the Kirsanov genes, entirely in the way that Turgenev's rival Tolstoi would have approved.

Crime and Punishment offers a much more problematical and profound treatment of the mother-son relationship (Anderson, 1986). Raskolnikov too has no father, and he is faced with becoming a father substitute--looking after his mother and sister and emerging as an adult male (the lattera much better way of referring to the process than talking about Napoleon complexes and suchlike). How does he achieve this transformation? As we know, he commits murder. His victim is a transmogrified mother figure; the old moneylender represents that intolerable threat to patriarchy, an independent woman who exercises power and control. Dostoevskii, though, has his hero kill not just the old woman, but also her sister; that is, he kills not only the cruel and powerful mother figure but also the meek and saintly one. Raskolnikov's crime and his recognition of its magnitude make him into an adult man. He pays no attention to the material reward that he acquires through the murder. But the problem of his mother is solved: Dostoevskii makes Razumikhin marry his sister and take over as the man responsible for his mother. Mrs Raskolnikov is more or less dropped at the end of the novel; the son has made the transition into the patriarchy and is on his way, and she is of no further significance.

Perhaps in passing here we should pay tribute to Three Sisters, the only female rival to The Brothers Karamazov; the male world of murder and self-indulgence becomes the passive world of female withdrawal and abstinence. In passing too it is worth mentioning just one other exception to the general authorial neglect of the mother-mature son relationship in the classic Russian literature of the nineteenth century; it concerns poetry, and particularly the poetry of Nikolai Nekrasov, whose work is thickly populated with mother figures who are fashioned as vessels for this writer's obsessive and particularly corrosive sense of guilt. The feeling of guilt for not having done right by one's mother, most usually by neglect, is probably the most universal attitude in literary constructions by Russian men, and it finds its most memorable and influential expression in Nekrasov, as does so much else in this great and now seldom read writer.

The way Soviet writers have tended to delete the mother figure is especially remarkable when one bears in mind what I have just said about the even more central role in nurturing that fell to mothers after the Revolution. (11) Solzhenitsyn, that most authoritarian patriarch among modern Russian writers and in this respect no dissident, is symptomatic. Here is the hero of his best novel, V krugu pervom (The First Circle, 1968), in a patently autobiographical moment as he searches for a book and stumbles across his mother's old letters and diaries; he did not know his father but reveres his memory, and was brought up entirely by his mother, whom he belatedly registers as a human being:
   Innokentii had heard this praise from everyone on all sides, and
   so he too had got used to feeling very proud of his father, of his
   struggle on behalf of the simple people against the rich, mired as
   they were in luxury. Meanwhile, towards his mother, who was
   eternally preoccupied with something, feeling bad about
   something, grieving about something, always loaded down
   with books and hot-water bottles, his attitude was almost
   condescending, and, as usual for a son, he had never
   contemplated the fact that his mother had not only him, his
   childhood, and his needs, but also a life of her own; that she too
   had her illnesses; that she had died at the age of forty-seven.

   But now all this unrolled before him in his mother's letters
   and diaries ... And from those diaries his mother emerged as
   not just an appendage to his father, as the son had grown used
   to thinking, but instead a separate world. And Innokentii now
   found out that all her life his mother had loved another man,
   but had never been able to live with him (translated from
   Solzhenitsyn, 1978: 71).

Again, the mother is consigned to oblivion as the son enters and inhabits the patriarchal world that Solzhenitsyn's novels present to the exclusion of almost everything else, as do the major fictions of his officially approved peers. With the spectre of Anna Karenina always hovering over Russian mothers, one wonders if the son's (i.e. Solzhenitsyn's) reverence for the caring and serving mother here would have been preserved if she had consummated the love her son belatedly finds out about. This aspect of Hamlet's motivation, it seems, has not been taken up by a major Russian author, notwithstanding the continuing impact Shakespeare's prince has had on the Russian imagination in other respects.

Some other major writers eliminate mothers by killing them off. It is quite remarkable that two of the most highly regarded Russian novels of the twentieth century, Bulgakov's Belaia gvardiia (The White Guard) and Pasternak's Dr Zhivago (1957) begin with the death and funeral of a matriarch. Bulgakov's novel was written in the early 1920s, soon after the shattering events it describes; the death of the mother heralds the chaos and disintegration of Kiev during the Civil War. The desolation that these novels evoke so memorably is in a very real sense the result of the absence of a mother; here, there is a broad hint at one of the most important roles that the mother figure has been made to symbolize by male Russian writers, especially poets: the suffering mother as Mother Russia, one of the most stereotyped images in the literature. The orphaned men grope their way towards patriarchy, and none of the relationships that develop during the course of the novel seem likely to replace the missing maternal element. The death of Iurii Zhivago's mother, the first event in the novel, takes place when the hero is still a little boy. His recollections are in the vein of pure idealization, to the point of beatification, as he prays:
   confirm my mind in the true path and tell Mummy that I'm all
   right here, and that she shouldn't worry. If there is life beyond
   the grave, then O Lord, grant Mummy a place in Heaven, where
   the countenances of the saints and the righteous shine like unto
   stars. Mummy was such a good person that she could not have
   been a sinner, O Lord, have mercy upon her, make it so she does
   not suffer. "Mummy!' With heartrending anguish he summoned
   her from the heavens, like a newly canonized saint, then
   suddenly he could hold out no longer, and he fell to the ground
   and lost consciousness (translated from Pasternak, 1990: 15-16).

In a very substantial sense, the life that follows is aquest for a replacement for this dead mother. The result of this quest is that Zhivago ends up with three widows, all of whom he has deserted; but one of his daughters has been given his mother's name, Masha. This, of course, is the familiar form of Mariya, and behind this mother image we glimpse another fantasy that has exercised the imagination of the Russian male: their mother as the suffering, wise, passive and unspotted Virgin Mary, with the strong implication that as the only son they themselves are someone very special indeed. (12) Not only do Russian authors condone male promiscuity but condemn it in females, they even seem to want their mother to be a virgin. In the light of this attitude one understands the power of the taboo that is named and broken in the most widespread Russian male curse (which I will not spell out, but note that the verb in it is a perfective past in the first-person singular, and not an imperative as many people think).

There is one work of fiction in which the mother figure has been eliminated by institutional forces; the development of what we used to call test-tube babies has given its postulates a new and unforeseen relevance. Evgenii Zamyatin's My (We, 1924) imagines a situation where the early Soviet theory of the family has been put into practice: the state has taken over the nurturing role and mothers have been abolished apart from their role in parturition. What is the result? The hero and narrator of the book, D-503, spends his adult life vacillating between two manifest mother figures thinly disguised as mates. And he ends up with the following primal scream:
   If only I had a mother like the ancients did, one of my own, my
   own mother. And if I could be for her not the builder of 'The
   Integral', not number D-503, not a molecule of the Unitary State,
   but a simple piece of humanity, a piece of that very mother,
   trampled, crushed, abandoned ... And no matter if I'm nailing
   someone or being nailed myself--which may be one and the
   same--if she could hear what nobody else hears, if her lips,
   those of an old woman, grown over with wrinkles--(translated
   from Zamiatin, 1986: 252). (13)

Ignoring or idealizing mothers in the way I have described is the prevalent pattern in the literature. There are then some untypical but significant cases of demonization. The character some people have seen as the first credible human being in Russian literature happens to be an evil mother: this is Fonvizin's Prostakova, who appears in his comedy The Minor, written in the 1760s. She manipulates her adolescent son to the point of extinguishing his identity, and for doing so she is eventually punished. She was surpassed about one hundred years later by Saltykov-Shchedrin's Mrs Golovlyova, the principal character in Gospoda Golovlevy (The Golovlev Family, 1875-80), and the most horrendously manipulative mother in Russian literature or any other that I have come across, short of Medea. Passive aggression as opposed to the Prostakova/Golovleva kind is represented in the mother-son relationship in Chekhov's first major play, The Seagull; the relationship ends with the suicide of the son, the token that he is incapable of making that transition to the patriarchy I was talking about earlier. Finally, there is the only major work that names the mother in its title, Gorky's novel of 1907 that was eventually promoted as a model for Soviet Socialist Realism. Here, a mother gradually replaces her religious consciousness with political commitment as a result of observing her son's development from lout to activist. Quite exceptionally here, the son exercises a decisive influence on the mother; for once, the mother's love for her son is not an end in itself, but a stimulus towards the higher purpose of political commitment, and the female principle is by implication inferior to the male.


I am moving towards some conclusions; or, rather, towards some further hypotheses. Why should it be that Russian male authors have shied away from discussing the relationship between the mother and the mature son, or Have tended so much to stereotype the mother figure when they have portrayed her? Clearly, the process of mothering, raising the son until he is old enough to leave, is generally not considered to be a fit subject for serious literature; obviously, because during this period the male author plays not a heroic but a subordinate role. (14) But the fundamental reason seems to me to lie in the anxiety identified by Evtushenko in the passage I began with, but manifested not in the humane manner he suggests. Instead, the female creative act and woman's natural creative capability represents a threat (or perhaps insult) to patriarchy, that is, to politics, war, intellect, money, science and art--all the repositories of public power that men control. Women seem to be able to do something and be somebody that is in a sense more authentic, more 'natural', more genuinely creative, than the doings of men. And so women have to be constructed, fantasized, in such a way as to exorcize this threat: they are made to embody life, the nation and so on, while the men get on with ruling it. This division of functions is what these Russian fictions present and promote; they are fictions about patriarchal ideology by the owners of the culture, no matter how dissident those owners might consider themselves to be in relation to it. And the mother figures belong to one particular category: women who have not yet named themselves. Again, Boris Pasternak says it much better than I can; or, rather, he makes his ultimate fictional woman say it. Here is Lara's message of comfort to Zhivago; she is made to celebrate a division of functions under which men soar and women crawl:
   'Keep me always in submission. Remind me continually that I
   am your blindly loving, unthinking slave ...'

      She wound her arras around his neck and, fighting against
   her tears, concluded:

      'You see, we're in different situations. You have been given
   wings so as to fly beyond the clouds, but to me, a woman, wings
   have been given so I can press close to the earth and protect my
   fledgelings from danger' (translated from Pasternak, 1990: 428-9).

To end with, I want to balance what I have been saying by recalling two works of fiction that seem to me to stand as exceptions to the patterns I have been identifying. The first is my favourite Russian novel, among other things because it presents the most profound study of family relations in the literature: Nabokov's Dar (The Gift, 1937). In it we find the only developed representation I can find in major Russian fiction of the relationship between a mother and her grown-up son where the man accepts his mother as an ordinary human being; he loves her tenderly and is concerned with her welfare, but he does not think of her as the Virgin Mary, the embodiment of Russia, or a witch from hell; during the course of the fiction he makes the transition to the patriarchy, and finds a partner without damage to his relationship with his mother. And, finally, a novel that puts everything I have said about the construction of motherhood by men into a different perspective, the novel that one feels a Russian woman simply had to write sooner or later in order to counter from first-hand experience the portrayals of mothers I have been talking about: Liudmila Petrushevskaia's Vremia noch' (The Time Is Night, 1992). Here, a woman writer has created a mother figure who is a true tragic heroine, who narrates the fiction she inhabits, but who is not idealized in any way. The book breaks every taboo I have implied in speaking about men speaking about their mothers, and one would have thought it would have exploded the male mythologizing of motherhood once and for all--but somehow I doubt it. It is no accident, as the Russians say, that in both these great fictions the husbands of the mothers have disappeared.

I have permitted myself some sweeping generalizations and gross over-simplifications. I do not want to suggest that the texts I have mentioned can in any way be reduced to the aspect of them I have been discussing; there is obviously much more to them all than stories about mothers and their sons. But I hope I have said enough to show that what I have been talking about is not a series of arbitrary cases, and that this subject matters, to the extent of being present in every male fiction, even if by neglect.


(1.) For a summary of the insights and achievements of gender-based research in the subject, and a spirited argument against retreat from them, see Marsh (1996).

(2.) I echo here not so much the Bible as the title of the book that has most influenced my approach to this topic: Rich (1977). A more militantly feminist view of the mother-son relationship is presented in Arcana (1983). I have learned a great deal, especially about the myth of benevolent motherhood, from the anthropological study by Hrdy (1999). As far as I know, there are no Russian equivalents for these books. On the representation of mothering in Russian culture, I have learned from Barker (1986); this book includes valuable discussion of mother-son relations in some important literary texts, including The Queen of Spades, Crime and Punishment and A Raw Youth.

(3.) This theme is revisited on a personal level in the long poem Mama i neitronnaia bomba ('Mummy and the Neutron Bomb'); here, Evtushenko uses his relationship with his mother to provide an extensive juxtaposition of positive and negative, the creation versus the destruction of life, private and public, female versus male. See Evtushenko (1986: 3-56). This poem, first published in 1984, was awarded a State Prize in 1986.

(4.) For an instructive review of recent Russian attitudes on this subject, centred on the TV programme 'Masterpieces Can Only Be Created by a Man', see Ivanova (2003).

(5.) I do not know how far down the social scale this practice was to be found; but it may come as a surprise to learn that it persisted well into the Soviet period. The poet Evgenii Rein, b. 1935, has published an eloquent tribute to the woman concerned in his case ('Niania Tania', in Rein 1989: 113-17), which echoes the most eloquent twentieth-century poem on this subject, Vladislav Khodasevich's 'Ne mater'iu, no tul'skoiu krest'iankoi' ('Not by my mother, but by the Tula peasant woman'): Khodasevich (1989, 128-9).

(6.) The most useful compendium of literary material on the subject of Russian mothers and sons I have come across is Korotaev (1979). Pushkin is represented here by the poems dedicated to his nanny. It is highly instructive to compare this book with Shinder (1992); I find it impossible to imagine any Russian poet committing to public print the kind of liberties that American male poets permit themselves in the se|ections included here. Some examples: "My mother never forgave my father / for killing himself, / especially at such an awkward time / and in a public park, / that spring / when I was waiting to be born' (Stanley Kunitz, 'The Portrait', 14); Robert Hayden's account of a mother savagely beating her son and feeling 'avenged in part for lifelong hidings / she has had to bear' ('The Whipping', 16); Stephen Dunn at the age of twelve being matter-of-factly granted permission to touch his mother's breast ('The Routine Things around the House', 78-9); and, most unthinkable of all (mercifully), the reference to his aged mother's private parts in Allen Ginsberg's 'Kaddish' (40-3).

(7.) These letters were first published, partially and with numerous cuts, in Beketova (1927).

(8.) For a concise discussion of these issues in their historical development, see Buckley (1989).

(9.) Bulat Okudzhava's mother, like Aksenov's a professional Party worker, was arrested and 'sat' for seventeen years (his father was shot). One of Okudzhava's most plaintive songs is 'Nastoiashchikh liudei tak nemnogo' ('There are so few real people') with its remarkable conclusion: 'Nastoiashchikh liudei ochen' malo: / na planetu--sovsem erunda, / na Rossiiu--odna moia mama, / tol'ko chto ona mozhet odna?' ('There are very few real people, / for the planet hardly any at all, / for Russia there's only my mummy, / and what can she do on her own?')

(10.) Blok's older contemporary Maksimilian Voloshin (1877-1932) hada relationship with his mother Evgeniya Ottobaldovna (known as 'Pra') that was similarly close and long-lasting, but Voloshin did incorporate this subject into his poetry: see particularly 'Mrak ... Mater' ... Smert' ... Sozvuchnoe edinstvo' ('Gloom ... Mother ... Death ... A harmonious unity'), written on 5 July 1917. The poem presents the most mature, unsentimental and uncliched discussion of the idea of motherhood I have so far come across by a Russian poet; it was first published only in 1977. See Voloshin (1995: 156-7).

(11.) As some sort of evidence for this assertion I can only cite the enormously wide-ranging survey in Gasiorowska (1968), with reference to the paucity of material under index entry 'Motherhood'. Gasiorowska was writing, though, before the world became aware of the major fiction of Andrei Platonov, in which mothers and their sons loom large; for some insightful discussion see Bullock (2004).

(12.) I know of no Russian equivalent to Warner (1985).

(13.) The reference to 'nailing' would seem to refer to the Crucifixion; this section of We breaks off after the word 'wrinkles' in this extract. In Chapter 2 of a contemporaneous work, Boris Pil'nyak's Zhenikh v pohmochi, dated May 1925 (translated as 'The Bridegroom Cometh'), there appears what may well be the most grotesque surrogate mother figure in Russian literature, a monster evidently based on the behaviour of ants or bees, whose function is reproduction and nothing else. See Pil'niak (1994: 514-21). Pil'niak's story 'Nizhegorodskii otkos' ('The Nizhnii Novgorod Slope', 1927) comes very close to breaking a powerful taboo by portraying sexual attraction between a mother and her sixteen-year-old son, the only case of this I have come across.

(14.) I will mention only one of what must be many exceptions to this sweeping claim: Iurii Trifonov's novella, Obmen (The Exchange, 1969), the most profound representation of intra-family relationships in orthodox Soviet literature that I have encountered; here the mother is the linchpin of the family, the father is dead, and the grown-up children (a son and a daughter, plus the son's wife) negotiate their relationship with the mother as she nears the end of her life.

* Elizabeth Hill Memorial Lecture, Department of Slavonic Studies, University of Cambridge, 6 November 2003.


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G. S. Smith is Emeritus Professor of Russian at the University of Oxford, and Emeritus Fellow, New College. Address: 15 Dale Close, Oxford OX1 1TU, UK.


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