Nadezhda Durova: Nineteenth-Century Russian Queer Celebrity and Patriotic Icon
Blog post by Dr Margarita Vaysman
In the sixth of our blogs, Dr Margarita Vaysman (Lecturer in Russian, University of St Andrews) examines the peculiar fate of Nadezhda Durova aka Cornet Alexandrov, the famous female cavalry officer in the Tsar Alexander I’s army, who is feted as a patriotic icon in contemporary Russia.
Keywords: military memoir, queer history in Russia, queer celebrity, Russian literature, autobiography
The celebrated memoirs of Nadezhda Durova, a female cavalry officer who, disguised as a man, served in the Russian Army during the Napoleonic wars, have been popular with Russian readers since their publication in 1836. The Notes of the Cavalry Maiden remained inaccessible to the English-speaking readers until, in 1988, not one but two translations appeared in the US.[i]
Despite the text’s availability and recent interest in queer history in Russia,[ii] the most intriguing aspect of Durova’s celebrity – her everlasting presence in the twentieth and twenty-first century Russian popular culture and even the school curriculum remains, with very few exceptions,[iii] largely unexplored.
The Cavalry Maiden
Durova’s personal story, vividly conveyed in her autobiography with a few changes, is fascinating enough - a daughter of an army major, she left home in Sarapul, a small city in the Ural region of Russia, at the age of 23. By this time she had already married and born a son. However, in 1807, accompanied by her ferocious horse Alkid, she enlisted and joined the Russian army’s lancer regiment, the Uhlans, posing as a mail officer. Understandably concerned with maintaining her cover, she had most likely chosen this regiment as its officers were famously clean-shaven. For years, she served with this and other regiments disguised as a man using the pseudonym Aleksandr Sokolov. Durova served incredibly well in combat, and as a reward for her bravery (and because of the army-wide search her family had initiated after they received a note from her informing them of her new circumstances) she was summoned to St Petersburg for a formal audience with the Tsar Aleksandr I himself. Whether he was impressed with her bravery in battle or worried that the news of female soldiers enlisting would be bad PR for the Russian army, the Tsar suggested she continue to serve in the army and take on a new alias, Aleksandrov, derived from his own name.
The publication of Durova’s memoirs in 1836 propelled her to short-lived but intense literary fame. Published in The Contemporary, a literary journal founded and edited by Aleksandr Pushkin, The Notes of the Cavalry Maiden became the toast of the Russian literary society. In a manner conventional for the period, the leading Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinskii even suggested the text was so full of ‘masculine power and strength’ that it must have been written by Pushkin himself![iv]
Durova became a welcome guest in St Petersburg literary salons. Fortunately for contemporary researchers, there are a great number of vivid, if unflattering, recollections of her in some of the most well-known literary memoirs of the period. This is, for example, the description of Durova found in the Memoirs (1889) of Avdotia Panaeva, a writer and hostess of The Contemporary’s literary salon in the 1840s-1860s: ‘She was of medium height, with a face the colour of soil, and mottled, wrinkled skin; her face had a long-ish shape, with features devoid of beauty; she kept squinting, even though her eyes were already quite small… Her hair was cut short and styled as a man’s. Her manners were also manly: she sat on the sofa…. with one elbow on her knee, in her other hand she held a long cigarette holder and kept smoking…’.[v]
The Hussar Ballad
Later in the twentieth century, with the inclusion of The Notes… into the Soviet school curriculum, the image of a brave female officer was used by the Soviet authorities to promote the values of patriotism and service to the homeland.[vi] The 1962 Soviet musical The Hussar Ballad (featuring a character of Lieutenant Rzhevskii, one of the most popular heroes of Soviet jokes) transformed the narrative of Durova’s military adventures into a cross-dressing love story and glossed over any controversial issues of gender normativity raised in the original text of the The Notes.... Shurochka Azarova, the musical’s main character, whose story was loosely based on Durova’s adventures, first tries on a Hussar’s uniform for a masquerade ball held at her uncle’s estate. She then joins the army to follow the handsome officer, Rzhewski.[vii] Conversing in rhyming couplets, together they fight against Napoleon’s cowardly troops. Thanks to the lasting popularity of the film (directed by El’dar Riazanov, who was the producer of a number of iconic Soviet comedies), Azarova/Durova remains a familiar character to contemporary Russian audiences. However, recently there has been a surge of renewed interest in Durova’s literary and material legacy, due to the overall militarisation of public discourse in contemporary Russia.
In the wake of the ongoing armed conflict with Ukraine, discussions of patriotism, masculinity, and civil responsibility to the motherland now feature widely in state-controlled and/or state-sponsored Russian media. Resurrecting Soviet patriotic icons, such as Nadezhda Durova, alongside, for example, the other female military heroes of the First and Second World War, often becomes a part of such debates.[viii]
A museum, based in the house where Durova lived before she died in 1866, has opened in 1993 in her native Elabuga and in 2003 local historians supervised re-publication of Durova’s little-known literary fiction. In 2012, her correspondence with Pushkin and the latest edition of the The Notes… were reissued in a commemorative edition funded by the local government to mark the 200th anniversary of Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812.
The treatment that Durova’s queer identity receives in these twentieth and twenty-first century revisions of her autobiographical narrative is intriguing. Whereas Durova considered her male identity to be her true self and, it could be said, was prepared to be on active military duty to defend her right to live as man, in both Russian and English-language scholarship her female identity is referred to as the ‘true’ or ‘real’ one.[ix] Moreover, pre-queer theory criticism of Durova’s work consistently praised her as either an ‘Amazonian’ or as a woman whose patriotism left her no choice but to disguise herself as a man if she wanted to play an important role in the man’s world of politics, military action and, in a sense, even the male-dominated genre of the military memoir.
Whereas such scholarly approaches are dated and reflect the conventional way of discussing queer identities before the advent of queer theory, the reflections of Durova’s contemporaries give us an exciting opportunity to reconstruct the social perception of queer identities and queer celebrity in early and mid-nineteenth century Russia. Durova’s correspondence with Pushkin, for example, is full of instances of fascinating miscommunications. For instance, in her letter from 7 June 1836, Durova writes to Pushkin begging him to change her name as the author of The Notes… from ‘Nadezhda Durova’ for ‘known under the name of Aleksandrov’. To a modern reader, this reads as a plea to be able to hold on, in the public eye, to her hard-won male identity – an issue, exacerbated by the fact that in Russian most surnames have very distinct female (-ova) and male (-ov) endings. In a wonderful example of tone-deafness, Pushkin writes back on 10 June, urging her not to be shy – if she was brave enough to face the enemy on the battlefield, he says, she should be able to cope with seeing her own name in print.[x]
Contemporary Russian media, historiography and even advertising, are equally unperceptive to Durova’s gender non-conformity. In a wonderfully ironic manner, the local confectionary plant in Durova’s hometown of Sarapul is producing sweets called ‘The Cavalry-Maiden,’ where the image used on the wrapper is a picture of a pin-up majorette. A recent article on the state funded Russian news channel, RT, praises Durova as the ‘Russian Joan of Arc.’[xi]
This obvious interest and demand for patriotic icons in contemporary Russian public discourse seemingly trumps Durova’s ambiguous gender identity. However, some signs of it emerge nonetheless: compare, for example, how Durova is portrayed in the two monuments, one in Elabuga and another one in Sarapul.
The monument in Elabuga, erected in 1991 at the gates of the local cemetery where Durova is buried, portrays her as dainty maiden riding an elegant and no less dainty horse. It might seem that this image pays homage to The Hussar Ballad’s Shurochka more than it does to Nadezhda Durova herself.
Durova’s monument in Sarapul (one of three!), on the other hand, shows a stocky figure with closely cropped hair and an almost suggestively giant sabre on her hip. With the inscription that reads ‘Russia’s first female officer’,[xii] this monument seems to attempt a reflection of Durova’s identity as someone who identified as a man rather than a woman throughout her adult life. In its ambiguity it comes close to perhaps the most touchingly sensitive post-humous descriptions of this remarkable person - an epitaph, etched in 1901 on Durova’s gravestone: ‘Nadezhda Andreevna Durova, by the will of Emperor Aleksandr – cornet Aleksandrov.’
Belinskii, V. G., Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow: AN SSSR, 1953), v.3
Childs, Kevin, ‘Russia’s Other Heroes: The Gay Voices of 1812’ https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kevin-childs/russias-other-heroes_b_1756392.html [Accessed 19/12/2017]
Childs, Kevin, ‘Russia’s Queer Generic Code’ by the same author < https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kevin-childs/russias-queer-genetic-code_b_3736429.html> [Accessed 19/12/2017]
Durova, Nadezhda, The Cavalry Maid. The Memoirs of a Woman Soldier, trans. by John Mersereau Jr. and David Lapeza (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis Publishers,1988)
Durova, Nadezhda, The Cavalry Maiden. Journals of a Female Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars, trans. by Mary Fleming Zirin (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).
Durova, Nadezhda, Zapiski Kavarelist-Devitsy, ed. by A. A. Sheptalin (Izhevsk: Udmurtiia, 2012)
Esipov, G., ‘Amazonskaia rota pri Ekaterine II’ in Istoricheskii Vestnik, 1886/1, pp.71-75.
Essig, Laurie, Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self and The Other (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999)
Healey, Dan, Bolshevik Sexual Forensics: Diagnosing Sexual Disorder in Clinic and Courtroom, 1917-1939 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2009)
Healey, Dan, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001 and in Russian by Moscow: Ladomir Press, 2008)
Healey, Dan, Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017)
Panaeva, Avdot’ia, Vospominaniia (Moscow: GIKHL, 1956)
Pushkin, A. S., Perepiska, vol.2 (Moscow, 1982)
Roldugina, Ira, ‘Otkrytie seksual'nosti: transgressiia sotsial'noi stikhii v seredine 18 veka v Sankt-Peterburge: po materialam Kalinkinskoi komissii (1750-1759)’, Ab Imperio, 2/2016, pp. 29-69
Zirin, Mary F., ‘A Woman in the ‘Man’s World’’ in Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography, and Gender, ed. by Susan Groag Bell and Marylin Yalom (New York: SUNY Press, 1990), pp. 43-53
[i] Nadezhda Durova, The Cavalry Maid. The Memoirs of a Woman Soldier, trans. by John Mersereau Jr. and David Lapeza (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis Publishers,1988); Nadezhda Durova, The Cavalry Maiden. Journals of a Female Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars, trans. by Mary Fleming Zirin (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).
[ii] Dan Healey’s and Laurie Essig’s ground-breaking work has done a lot to spark l interest in Russian queer history . See, for example, his Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001 and in Russian by Moscow: Ladomir Press, 2008) and Bolshevik Sexual Forensics: Diagnosing Sexual Disorder in Clinic and Courtroom, 1917-1939 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2009); as well as the latest Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017); Laurie Essig, Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self and The Other (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999). For a sample of scholarship on the subject in Russia, see I. S. Kon, Sex and Russian Society (London: Pluto, 1993), Ira Roldugina, ‘Otkrytie seksual'nosti: transgressiia sotsial'noi stikhii v seredine 18 veka v Sankt-Peterburge: po materialam Kalinkinskoi komissii (1750-1759)’, Ab Imperio, 2/2016, pp. 29-69.
[iii] Recent anti-gay legislation in Russia has sparked interest in historical figures of ‘non-traditional’ (as contemporary Russian public discourse puts it) sexualities, including Durova. See, for example, Kevin Childs, ‘Russia’s Other Heroes: The Gay Voices of 1812’ https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kevin-childs/russias-other-heroes_b_1756392.html [Accessed 19/12/2017]; as well as ‘Russia’s Queer Generic Code’ by the same author < https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kevin-childs/russias-queer-genetic-code_b_3736429.html> [Accessed 19/12/2017]. Durova also often features in the higher education syllabi in Anglo-American Slavic studies: I teach a seminar on her memoirs in my module in Russian Literature and Culture in St Andrews, and the 2016 Yale Senior Essay Prize from the Yale Gay and Lesbian Alumni/ae Association had been awarded to a student’s essay on ‘queer adolescence’ in Durova’s writings (Sarah Giovanniello, Marching Sideways: Queering Adolescence in Nadezhda Durova’s The Cavalry Maiden).
[iv] ‘What wonderful language, what wonderful style this Cavalry Maiden has! It seems that Pushkin himself must have given her his quill of prose, and it is to him that she owes this masculine power and strength, this bright expressivity of her style…’. V. G. Belinskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow: AN SSSR, 1953), v.3, p. 149. (Translations are mine unless otherwise indicated).
[v] Avdot’ia Panaeva, Vospominaniia (Moscow: GIKHL, 1956), p. 62-63.
[vi] Mary Zirin offers a good catalogue of the use Soviet propaganda made of Durova’s image in ‘Translator’s Introduction’ in Nadezhda Durova, The Cavalry Maiden, pp.ix-xxxvii, p. xxviii.
[vii] Interestingly, this mirrors a rumour that was circulating during Durova’s lifetime. The documented version of it can be traced back to Pushkin’s friend and a poet of a ‘Hussar’s life’ Denis Davydov. See ‘Letter from Denis Davydov to Aleksandr Pushkin from 13 October 1836’ in A. S. Pushkin, Perepiska, vol.2 (Moscow, 1982), p. 486.
[viii] Female soldiers in general have, in recent years, becomee a particular fascination of Russian popular culture. In popular literature, a prime example is Boris Akunin’s best-selling crime-fiction novel The Battalion of Angels (2011). Set in 1917, the novel tells the a story of the Imperial Russian Army’s female ‘Battalions of Death.’. A 2015 Russian film Battalion (dir. Dmitrii Meskhiev) offers another version of the same events. Another excellent example is one of the last pre-war Russian-Ukrainian co-productions, the film Battle for Sevastopol (dir. Sergei Mokritskii, 2015) is a biopic of a legendary Second World War Soviet Sniper, Ludmila Pavlichenko.
[ix] This is a case, almost without fault, for the majority of Russian and English-language scholarship on Durova. For a prime example, see Mary F. Zirin, ‘A Woman in the ‘Man’s World’’ in Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography, and Gender, ed. by Susan Groag Bell and Marylin Yalom (New York: SUNY Press, 1990), pp. 43-53. Zirin also puts Durova firmly in the category of ‘female warrior’ rather than women struggling to live under a male alias, placing Durova alongside Fa Mu Lan, Aeneid’s Zenobia and Joan of Arc in ‘Translator’s Introduction’ in Nadezhda Durova, The Cavalry Maiden, pp. ix-xxxvii, p. xvii.
[x] See ‘Letters between Nadezhda Durova and Aleksandr Pushkin’ in Nadezhda Durova, Zapiski Kavarelist-Devitsy, ed. by A. A. Sheptalin (Izhevsk: Udmurtiia, 2012), pp. 114-115. Durova did get her way, eventually: the 1839 edition of her journal lists the author as ‘Aleksandrov’ with the surname ‘Durova’ following below in brackets. Durova had also changed the order of words in the description kavalerist-devitsa [cavalry maiden] to devitsa-kavalerist [maiden-cavalry officer], possibly to emphasise the masculine gender of the latter noun.
[xi] ‘Prominent Russians: Nadezhda Durova’ in RT’s Russoepdia: Get to know Russia better
< https://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/history-and-mythology/nadezhda-durova/> [Accessed 19/12/2017]
[xii] This particular PR ‘gimmic’ that Durova has acquired over the years, is incorrect. There have been several women serving in the Russia army before 1812. See, for example, an account of Catherine the Great’s ‘Amazon company’ in G. Esipov, ‘Amazonskaia rota pri Ekaterine II’ in Istoricheskii Vestnik, 1886/1, pp.71-75.
Dr Margarita Vaysman