The Russian intelligentsia was a unique cultural movement, made up of people from across Russian society who were “united by that thirst for knowledge and passion for living out the full consequences of their ideas—whatever the consequences,” writes scholar Richard Greeman.
One of those ideas was the emancipation of women. For the nineteenth century, especially in the context of Russia’s patriarchal autocracy, the intelligentsia was surprisingly feminist. Even girls’ secondary schools were hives of radicalism, long before the 1917 revolutions.
One exemplary case from among this (relatively) feminist intelligentsia is Vera Mikhailovna Podorovskaya-Frolova (1856-1907). Podorovskaya was the mother of Victor Serge (1890-1947), the lifelong revolutionary who Susan Sontag called “one of the most compelling of twentieth-century ethical and literary heroes.” In tracing Serge’s ancestry, Richard Greeman explains how the dissent against Tsarism opened extraordinary doors for women and demanded enormous sacrifices. Greeman writes:
What is truly remarkable is that she and thousands of other Russian women were able to educate themselves and to play an independent, active social role—often surpassing the men—in such a backward, authoritarian, patriarchal society. Paradoxically, these emancipated Russian women were far in advance of the European and American women of their day.
Vera Podorovskaya came from a family of grand nobility but minor wealth. She was educated to be liberal and humanitarian, and quickly learned how powerless such ideas were in the context of Tsarist Russia. For her, radicalization came from the realization that reform was impossible. Greeman notes that “[t]he intelligentsia’s members were held together not by common social origins nor by common economic interests, but by a common alienation from society and common belief in the power of ideas to criticize and transform it.”
In 1876, the proto-revolutionary Vera married the St. Petersburg banker Vladimir Frolov, and, over the course of the next few years, had two daughters. So far, so bourgeois. In 1888, however, she went to Geneva to continue her education, taking her eldest daughter with her. (She may also have gone to ameliorate the tuberculosis, which ultimately was her undoing.) Her husband stayed in St. Petersburg with their younger child.
Vera would not have been able to travel without her husband’s permission on a passport. Greeman writes that “such an arrangement [of separation], nearly unthinkable in the Victorian West, was hardly unusual among the Russian intelligentsia, where women’s personal liberation flowed with inevitable logic from their intellectual liberation.” In Geneva, Vera hooked up with the exiled Leon Kibalchich, six years her junior and the son of a priest, which made him a Russian commoner. He was distantly related to Nikolai Kibalchich, one of the members of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) group, who were hanged for their role in the assassination of Alexander II, in 1881.
Teaming up with Leon to go “in search of bread and good libraries,” as their son Victor Serge put it, was a definitive abandonment of bourgeois life for Vera. She had come to believe her lucky birth and situation should give way to serving the cause of the great majority of Russian people. And that that could not be done inside Russia. Her decision to leave was followed shortly by her end. Serge described his mother’s fate as “poverty, exhaustion, tuberculosis.”
Greeman’s work may help us to understand how Vera could have made such a radical (in numerous senses) life change:
A sense of noblesse oblige and aristocratic guilt certainly motivated the strand of revolutionary Russian intelligentsia from which Victor’s mother emerged, and it helps to understand how she made the difficult choice to throw over a life of privilege for the hard life of a wandering scholar and political exile.