Digging deep into a Russians psycho to find a complex version of a Bond Girl in there. Angie, think twice!
I recently engaged in a conversation with my American friend about Russian culture which ended up with a story that I feel compelled to share here. I think it could fit well in a “Russia Beyond the Headlines” section. This is about a core female archetype in Russia that is called “the Decembrist wife.” Ask any Russian if they know what “Decembrist wife” or “Dekabristka” (Декабристка) means and they’ll tell you that indeed they do.
The following trials and arrests sent scores of officers into exile in Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Far East. Wives and fiancés of many Decembrists followed their husbands, accepting the Spartan conditions of their new life, sometimes fighting for permission to follow them. This is how the term “Decembrist wife” emerged.
A martyr woman willing to share the hard fortune of her man is not exclusive to Russian culture. What’s notable, however, is the place it takes in the hierarchy of values and how it reigns over other priorities. The degree to which the public is responsive explains the emergence of memes and cultural phenomena. This is how my conversation with an American friend happened in the first place and made me think of a song from a wildly popular Soviet historical drama The Captivating Star of Happiness (1975).
Shot on the 150th anniversary of the December revolt, with the headline “Devoted to All Russian Women,” it narrates the story of several Decembrists and their wives. The popularity of the film was enormous, beaten only by its feature song. The song became a household cantata for generations of Russians and can be likened to the cultural currency of Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” for western listeners. Ours was “Do Not Promise Eternal Love to the Maiden.” Life could have arguably been ever so easier for a Russian woman, but the song was too beautiful not to embrace. It did hell of a good job cementing and romanticizing an already well established concept of a typical Russian love triangle: Him, Her and a Higher Cause. One can not deem dismiss it the same way one can not deny Nabokov’s Lolita its literary value.
Russians loved it. When millions of people exhibit such energy for something, there is often some deep archetypal pattern it has stirred up. The movie and the song tapped our collective subconscious. It revealed the importance of “Decembrist Wife” in our culture. She serves the protagonist of numerous movies, books and songs that inevitably hit home with Russians.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed, this devotion was thrown under the bus and deemed an obsolete manifestation of female suppression and inferiority. During this difficult time for my country, values and atrocities were tossed in one bin as we turned our hopeful faces to Western culture. Ironically (or logically so) It coincided with our lining up at the theaters to watch Gone With the Wind half a century after it came out on the US screens. Scarlet O’Hara became a new role model for scores of Russian women and girls. In a typical Russian, totalitarian way, we succumbed to a new idol, quoting Scarlet as our role model and keeping Gone with the Wind as our night table book. Scarlet morphed with Russian women producing sometimes unnatural, caricature characters. This is how the Russian ”Natasha” rose above the newly demolished Iron Curtain and quickly found her niche in Western pop culture.
I had mixed feelings after watching Gone with the Wind. At the time I was twelve, too young to form any notion about it. Now, after living in the US for so many years, I understand and admire Scarlet, but I also understand how much cultural context goes into her appeal and how utterly contradictory she is to the very core of the Russian “Decembrist Wife” archetype. It goes deeper than mere socially constructed norms; it is interwoven with the very essence of our life. I also better understand my suppressed interest in Melanie. As a teen I did not dare to explore this secret curiosity. I was guided by the installed idea that Melanie represents lifeless and obsolete female profile. But as we all grow up, we (hopefully) develop a grasp at exploring our own ideas and feelings. In Margaret Mitchel’s novel Melanie Hamilton is meant a flat character, existing mainly to enhance Scarlet’s key features of fierce independence and self-interest. But the very context of Russian culture provides ‘Melanie’ archetype with an opportunity to evolve into a complex, multidimensional personae, which corresponds with the “Decembrist wife”.
The “Decembrist wife” who chooses to stick with her man and thus subject herself to enormous hardship does not immediately indicate unfortunate self-depreciation. The prerequisite for her act is a bold, defiant man, who rises for something that goes beyond indulging himself.
Once again, a stoic woman true to her man is well accepted and is socially approved anywhere. My point is that I know of no other culture where this image has risen to the level of an archetype and a heroic myth. I can name a dozen traditional societies in which a woman adopts the ubi tu Gaius, ibi ego Gaia mentality, but this is not a heroic myth, it is a a social norm; two very different things. The “Decembrist wife” is taking her decision independently. She often fights for it and maintains her degree of autonomy, borderline detachment through the entire journey. Furthermore, the “Decembrist wife” in her pure form is not taken for granted. She is appreciated, even glorified by those very men. Sometimes in plain Russian in the privacy of our homes, sometimes in the form of poems, songs, and films shot by male directors in the most exquisite and genuine way.
Not surprisingly, such “demand” produces an overwhelming counterfeit of abusive pseudo-defiant male/pseudo-martyr female scenarios so widespread in Russia. In its simplest and most common form, this romantic pattern waters down to a cargo cult of female submission to a male in distress, with alcoholism and abuse standing in for the role of idealism and noble causes. This, in turn, causes the real devotion to be thrown away like that baby with the bathwater in the course of feminist advancements.
I must say that works of the American psychiatrist and a Jungian analyst, Jean Shinoda Bolen helped me wrap my mind about all this. In her book “Goddess in Every Woman” she brings the Greek pantheon to life as our inner archetypes and applies the power of myth to our personal lives. I have come to realize that Russian “Decembrist Wife” is an evolved version of Persephone. In the same way that American culture celebrates archetypes of Athena, Artemis and Appolo, Russian cultural context provided Persephone an opportunity to grow and develop into a complex character.
As the stormiest part of the post-Soviet social unrest ceased, Russia stepped into the 21st century trying to get a hold of its renewed identity. Sometimes it falls into retrograde, sometimes it mimics the west in caricature, sometimes it nails it. In the stream of films and pop culture emerging in Russia in this past decade I saw the new woman: a strong, independent, self-sufficient character, who adapted Scarlet and made it her own. But I also saw how another type of a strong woman kept evolving, serving as proof of how deep and strong the “Decembrist wife” archetype sits in the Russian character.
In a very popular historical drama Admiral (2008) events take place in the 1920s Russia now torn by the bloodiest events of the Russian history: Revolution-Civil War-World War One. The plot evolves around the White Army officer Kolchak resisting the Bolsheviks (who achieved where the Decembrists failed). Executed by Bolsheviks and vilified throughout Soviet history, Kolchak is now offered to Russians as a hero along with his woman who shared his tragic fate. Two unbearably beautiful Russian actors are reenacting the “Decembrist wife” scenario to an overwhelming cheer.
With ideologies constantly colliding, duties conflicting with personal interest and power struggles penetrating Russian society at all levels, the opportunities for female stoicism and devotion are plentiful. No wonder it is archetyped, glorified and counterfeited.
The TV series Isaev (2009), another well-received and the last historical drama I am going to torture you with today is about a secret agent in the 1920s. Dissecting their own history is Russians’ favorite pastime. This reincarnation of the “Decembrist wife” may look like Bonnie & Clyde to some of you. But given the context, it is actually closer to a Bond girl, who in essence is an evolution of Melanie Hamilton: a stoic, but humble character. When Angelina Jolie was recently offered to play a Bond girl she allegedly responded that she was more interested in playing Bond. But Angie, you have already played one…
Western culture views strength and independence as highly visible, physically manifested qualities. A deep, introverted female character does not stand a chance to develop into a successful heroine (Though “50 Shades of Grey” does claim its share of significance.) Curiously so, Russian historical context provided Scarlet’s antagonist, Melanie Hamilton turned Bond Girl an opportunity to develop into a complex character of “Decembrist Wife.” Only, unlike Bond and his girls, these characters lack in cool factor. With a peculiarly Slavic brand of melancholic romanticism, they are painfully introverted and emotionally intense. Note how in a canonic chasing scene facial expressions are emphasized over catastrophic scenery. Angie, think twice..
Being a “meme” for longer than the term “meme” has existed, “Decembrist wife” takes upon itself an array of connotations and applications in the Russian language, from mockery to adulation and everything in between, depending on the context. Some Russian women carefully watch to not fall into this path, scolding their less progressively-minded sisters. Yet others take pride in throwing themselves into this role and there are others who keep repeating their “Decembrist wife” script without ever realizing what is going on.
Western woman who was focused on claiming her freedoms, rights and independence for several decades seems in peace with an idea that “making it” is her chief social agenda. This is Athena’s archetype in action. Goddess Artemis, a quintessential activist has been in highest esteem in the Western World for several decades now. In the last five years I started seeing in the American social media more emphasis of motherhood (Demeter) as a sole woman’s calling noble enough. The “Decembrist Wife” is about neither. She can work, she can be a mother and she can combine both with various degrees of success, but neither motherhood nor professional success will make her feel fulfilled. She is a woman, who sees getting her man’s back as a full time job. This is an emotional connection of Persephone and Hades in Jane Shinoda Bolen Jungian terms. She can also further expand her emotional intensity to those in need of her spiritual support.
Having said all that, I can hardly call it a widely accepted idea in Russia. Debates over their role among Russian women are pretty fierce – which alone serves as an indicator how sensitive this subject is. We inescapably celebrate the “Decembrist Wife” in movies and songs, but are much more reluctant in accepting her as a reality of our every day life. Which is probably why it is so invisible outside of Russia and why it took me so many letters to explain the phenomena to the English speaker here. Oh, those Russians…