It was during my freshman year of college that I first heard of International Women’s Day, as part of the curriculum in my Russian language and history classes. Learning what the day was, and how it was annually celebrated throughout Russia, blew my mind. As I learned how prominent IWD was in Russia, and had been throughout the USSR-years, my mind was blown even further. Through subsequent discussions with my professors and TAs, all emigres from the USSR, former Soviet-bloc countries, or post-Soviet Russia, I learned that they were just as confused, if not outright horrified, at the lack of IWD celebration in America, and how our only women-focused holiday is Mothers’ Day. They were proud to tell me of how IWD was inspired by striking female garment workers in New York City, and how their rallying cry was picked up by socialists, first in Germany, and then in the USSR. (For those unaware of the origins of IWD in labor organization activism, European socialism, and the USSR, I recommend this quick read on the history of IWD published in Teen Vogue in 2018.)
I arrived at university, a small private liberal arts college in middle-of-nowhere middle America, as a naïve and sheltered 18-year-old. Through the combined efforts of religion, family, and community, I showed up as a declared Russian Studies major, but with no exposure to Russian or Soviet culture other than sporadic Russian novels read throughout middle and high school, and a morbid fascination with the last decades of (and the deaths of) the Russian royal family. What I found instead was a language, a culture, a history, a people, and a country with more depth than I ever expected. I also found feminism, in a manner of speaking, for the first time in my life.
In my Russian literature classes, I read books, plays, and poems by more women writers than I had been exposed to in all my years of schooling prior. I fell in love:
- The poetry of Anna Akhmatova
- The fairy tales about Baba Yaga
- The children’s stories and poems of Agniya Barto
- The life story of Nadezhda Durova as told in her book The Calvary Maiden;
- East European writers including Czech author Iva Pekárková
- Fascinating women characters created by male authors, like Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy) and The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman (Andrzej Szczpiorski)
- Memoirs by Eugenia Ginzburg (Journey into the Whirlwind) and Slavenka Drakulić (How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed).
And after watching various Russian and Soviet films as part of curricula, and an entire semester on Russian/Soviet/Russian cinema, I fell in love with the films and the filmmakers too.
I hadn’t watched many movies in general, and definitely not any international/subtitled films, or any silent films. So my first exposure to the very beginnings of cinema was the early Russian films from the pre-revolutionary era, like Vladimir Gardin’s Anna Karenina (1914) and War and Peace (1915). Seeing the masterpieces of the silent era, from the early years post-revolution, was life-changing. Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov) and Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928) left me spellbound and awe-struck. Eisenstein’s later films, Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1944, 1958), were similarly imprinted on my mind as masterpieces.
My first exposure to post-war musicals? Soviet ones like Tanya (1940, Grigori Aleksandrov), a musical-comedy based on a Soviet spin on the traditional Cinderella fairy tale. Aleksandrov’s Volga-Volga (1938) was memorable as a hysterical comedy. The first biopics I saw? Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Anna Pavlova (1983, Emil Loteanu).
The Cranes are Flying (1957, Mikhail Kalatozov), War and Peace (1965-67, Sergei Bondarchuk), Window to Paris (1993, Yuri Mamin), Burnt by the Sun (1994, Nikita Mikhalkov), and more films than I can even list off gave me a glimpse of expert filmmaking, script writing, cinematography, directing, and editing.
The first films I saw as an adult woman that depicted adult women in respectable positions, equal to the men in their lives and in the films, were all Soviet or Russian films. My favorite films were listed in the prior paragraphs, but I have to also mention my almost-favorites:
The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (1976, Eldar Ryazanov)
A Slave of Love (1976, Nikita Mikhalkov)
Office Romance (1977, Eldar Ryazanov)
Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1980, Vladimir Menshov)
A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines (1987, Alla Surikova)
Little Vera (1988, Vasili Pichul)
Later, after college, I was able to see more recent Russian films, like Country of the Deaf (1998, Valery Todorovsky), Women’s Property (1999, Dmitry Meskhiev), and Hipsters (2008, Valery Todorovsky). While not all of those films would be considered feminist manifestos, I came of age as a film watcher with so many examples of films that not only met but exceeded the Bechdel Test.
Experimental films like the documentary Anna: 6-18 (1980-1993, Nikita Mikhalkov), the trippy one-shot historical drama Russian Ark (2002, Alexander Sokurov), the part artsy / part spiritual / part religious propaganda narrative film The Island (2006, Pavel Lungin) showed me different ways of depicting our stories and our world.
And the actresses who performed in such a diverse list of films?
Tatiana Samoilova (The Cranes Are Flying)
Lyubov Orlova (Volga-Volga, Tanya)
Margarita Terekhova (Monologue, 1972, ; Mirror, 1975, Andrei Tarkovsky)
Barbara Brylska (Irony of Fate)
Yelena Koreneva (A Lover’s Romance, 1974, Andrei Konchalovsky; The Very Same Munchhausen, 1979, Mark Zakharov)
Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė (Burnt by the Sun)
Elizaveta Boyarskaya (The Irony of Fate II, 2007, Timur Bekmambetov),
Those women, to name just a few, were all such strong and vibrant actresses who collectively showed me what it can look like to live and love and work and play as a strong resilient woman.
Women directors like Esfir Shub, Kira Muratova and Alla Surikova taught me what it means to stand up to demands to censor themselves, their work, their stories, their lives. Shub, in particular, blew my mind, as a working editor and director credited as an influence on both Einsenstein and Vertov. To refer to her best known films, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), The Great Road (1927), and The Russia of Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy (1928), as masterpieces might just be an understatement, as these three silent documentary films came from the mind and hands of the woman who is credited with creating the compilation form of documentary films and pioneering the montage style of editing that Eisenstein and Vertov would become famous for.
Male directors, most notably Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky, taught me things as well, in their depiction of women in their works. I first heard of Women’s Misery, Women’s Happiness (also known as Misery and Fortune of Women, 1929, Eduard Tisse and Sergei Eisenstein) because of Eisenstein’s involvement, and it was my first introduction to a non-religious discussion of abortion and unwanted pregnancies. One of Eisenstein’s lesser known works, The General Line (1929), focuses on one peasant woman’s struggles against her community in the early years of the USSR.
Tarkovsky most definitely created a male-centered cinematic universe, but it is one in which he and his male protagonists are all defined by their relationship to long-suffering women, and their presence (or absence) in the men’s lives. In Mirror (1975), we see an autobiographical version of this, with literally his own mother Maria playing herself, and his second wife cast as both the young version of Maria (in the flashback sequences) and as the protagonist (and the Tarkovsky surrogate) Aleksei’s estranged wife in the present-day timeline. In his other films, we can see Tarkovsky’s other obsessions, the elements of nature (water, earth, air, and fire) and the physical aspects of space and time. In Mirror, we see all of that, plus his focus on or obsession with suffering women, and we see how his own past with his mother Maria influenced all of his cinematic works, up to the point of casting her as essentially herself.
Talking about women in the works of Tarkovsky could be an essay, or even a book, on its own. Same with addressing the role of women in Eisenstein’s works. But needless to say, seeing women in their films, and in the films of Shub, Muratova, and Surikova, and in all the other films listed above, and more, was a formative experience for me as a young woman, on the cusp of adulthood, out of the house and away from the sheltering confines of my childhood for the first time. My professors and TAs in the Russian department exposed me to a wide range of Russian, Soviet, and East European cinema, as well as to a whole swath of readings about them, from original source documents to essays about various films to reading the scripts themselves. Having such exposure, and having discussion space in my college classes to talk about the films and the essays and the books and the scripts, well, I start to run out of superlatives to describe that experience.
I spent four years at that college, collecting a double major in Russian Studies and Political Science, spending months abroad in Uzbekistan and in Russia in addition to my time on campus. In retrospect, my exposure to Russian and Soviet cinema, and by way of that, exposure to feminism, activism, International Women’s Day, and ultimately, what the role of an adult woman in a non-religious-based setting could look like, was one of the best take-aways from those years. And I am a better woman for it.