Feminist Encounters: A Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics 4, no. 2, “East European Feminisms, Part 1: The History of East European Feminisms,” eds. Maria Bucur and Krassimira Daskalova, 2020.
Reviewed by Birgitta Bader-Zaar
University of Vienna
Presenting Eastern European feminisms to a global readership of feminist theorists, scholars, and activists is the aim of the second 2020 issue of the journal Feminist Encounters. Guest editors Maria Bucur and Krassimira Daskalova auspiciously use this opportunity to focus the historiographical section on the entangled history of Eastern and Southeastern European women's movements and feminisms, that is, “the transfer of ideas and agendas” both transnationally in the region and in relation to women's global international networks. This special issue includes engagement “with specific and relatively unknown historical sources,”1 in this case primarily women's magazines of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which have generally formed a valuable resource for historians of women's movements and reflect the rise of women's literacy. As the editors emphasize, they “became a vehicle for circulating ideas about women's emancipation, feminism and the ‘New Woman,’” infusing imaginations of the nation “as well as constructing a cultural literacy of modernity that implicitly called into question existing gender norms.”2
Several of the contributions focus on this entangled history as a transfer of ideas, mainly from the “West” to the “East,” albeit tailored by the feminists of the region to what they considered to be specific national contexts. Based on Karen Offen's concept of relational feminism, Valentina Mitkova argues that not only feminist journals, but also popular publications—in her case household periodicals from Bulgaria—“contributed to the political mobilization of women”3 by trying “to correspond both to the specifics of their Bulgarian (and Balkan) social, economic and cultural reality, and to emancipatory tendencies on a global scale.”4 Irina Iukina studies Russian suffragists and their interactions with international women's organizations, especially based on the International Woman Suffrage Alliance's journal Jus Suffragii (The Right to Vote). She corrects “Western” research that assumes that Russian women interested in international cooperation can be categorized under the term “westernizers,” and rather assesses this interest as “a pragmatic search for allies” based on ideas of international female solidarity.5 Feminists at times employed circuitous routes to disseminate their views, as Ana Kolarić shows in her analysis of the Serb magazine Žena (Woman). Here, reports on the British suffrage movement and in the section on international news from the women's movements served as spaces to publicize emancipatory ideas that could not be conveyed via the articles that reflected a more traditional outlook on nation- building.6 Based on the journal Ženski pokret (Women's Movement) in the interwar period, Isidora Grubački argues that ideological divisions among Yugoslav feminists over the roles of ethnicity and the family within nation-building versus social justice and general equality also help explain the ambiguous character of the Little Entente of Women, a regional association of feminists from Eastern Europe and the Balkans.7 As the contribution by Aslı Davaz on the international relations of the Union of Turkish Women in the interwar period demonstrates, its entangled history did not necessarily only relate to regional networks or the transfer of ideas from “West” to “East.” European activists—here French feminist Cécile Brunschvicg—were also interested in informing the international community about activities in the “East,” emphasizing examples of feminist institutions there that could serve as general models.8
All these articles succeed in giving us an idea of the various features of entangled histories in the region; some, furthermore, are based on theoretical concepts developed mainly in Western gender theory. The bibliographies all show an extensive use of references in vernacular languages and in English. While this certainly supports the impression of an integration of scholarly exchange that is not overshadowed by a concept of “otherness,” a problem still persists regarding the reception of knowledge published in other European languages than English,9 a rift that still remains to be overcome.
The historiographical section ends with two contributions that present generally useful impulses for feminist history. Sandra Russell's study of Ukrainian feminist poets during the transitional period of the perestroika of the late 1980s traces their depictions of political and social expectations concerning the performance of “womanness” in a new national setting.10 Her work exemplifies how fruitful literary sources can be for historical analyses. Finally, Francisca de Haan reminds us of relevant points in her assessment of a global and specifically Eastern and Southeastern European entangled history of women's movements and feminisms (in an interview by Krassimira Daskalova): the importance of a pluralist view of feminisms and women's movements, of countering the urge to reject countries’ communist pasts, and of considering feminist socialists more. Specifically, the history of non-elite women, of “peasant women, poor women, working-class women, women from ethnic minorities”11—an intersectional perspective—needs to be included.
Maria Bucur and Krassimira Daskalova, “The History of East European Feminisms Revisited,” Feminist Encounters: A Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics 4, no. 2 (2020), article no. 23, 2,
Valentina Mitkova, “Household Periodicals, Modernisation and Women's Emancipation in Bulgaria (1890s to WWI),” Feminist Encounters, article no. 24, 1,
Irina Iukina, “Russian Suffragists and International Suffragist Organisations: Solidarity, Discipleship, Victory,” Feminist Encounters, article no. 25, 6,
Ana Kolarić, “Beyond the National: Notes on the International Women's Movement(s) in Žena (‘The Woman’),” Feminist Encounters, article no. 26,
Isidora Grubački, “The Emergence of the Yugoslav Interwar Liberal Feminist Movement and the Little Entente of Women: An Entangled History Approach (1919-1924),” Feminist Encounters, article no. 27,
Aslı Davaz, “An Annotated Archive of Entangled European Feminist History: The Union of Turkish Women, the Second Balkan Conference and Cécile Brunschvicg's Visit to Balkan Feminists (1923-1935),” Feminist Encounters, article no. 28,
A highly relevant example is Elife Biçer-Deveci's book Die osmanisch-türkische Frauenbewegung im Kontext internationaler Frauenorganisationen: Eine Beziehungs- und Verflechtungsgeschichte von 1895 bis 1935 [The Ottoman-Turkish women's movement in the context of international women's organizations: A relational and entangled history from 1895 to 1935] (Göttingen: Bonn University Press, 2017), published in German and not referred to in this historiographical section of the issue.
Sandra Joy Russell, “Toward a Ukrainian Feminist Poetics: The Last Soviet Poetry of Iryna Zhylenko, Natalka Bilotserkivets, and Oksana Zabuzhko (1985-1991),” Feminist Encounters, article no. 29,
Krassimira Daskalova, “Entangled Histories of Women's Movements and Feminisms: An Interview with Francisca de Haan,” Feminist Encounters, article no. 30, 4,
Maria Bucur, The Nation's Gratitude: World War I and Citizenship Rights in Interwar Romania, London: Routledge, 2022, vi–viii, 231 pp., $160.00 (hardback), $48.95 (ebook), ISBN: 978-0-367-74978-1.
Book review by Evguenia Davidova
Portland State University, USA
With this new book, Maria Bucur, the author of several publications on the modern history of Romania and the history of gender relations, embarks on a new scholarly and civic task to explore veterans’ (in)visibility by excavating forgotten sources from multiple archives. What emerges from this pioneering research is a complex history of state policies in response to the immense human losses during the Great War that placed soldiers’ sacrifices at the center of their legitimating discourse. While Romania almost doubled its population and territory, with the ruling elites being the main beneficiaries, it was the ordinary people—the veterans, widows, and orphans—who paid a dear price for this post-World War I enlargement. By tracing the struggles of these three groups to receive their state benefits, the book provides an intertwined story of the gendered etatization of the welfare system from above and the citizenship in the making from below.
The book consists of seven chapters. The first two focus on the establishment of the legal framework that turned veterans into a “privileged category of citizens” (1). The “protagonist” of this institutional story is the Oficiul Naţional pentru Invalizi, Orfani şi Văduve de Război, or IOVR (National Office for Invalids, Orphans, and War Widows). From its outset in 1920, the IOVR embodied the state's centralizing and paternalistic responsibilities toward its citizens by providing pensions and benefits to veterans and their families. Due to a lack of government infrastructure, the IOVR worked with a plethora of nongovernmental partners (more than 250 organizations). Yet its moves under the purview of different ministries harmed policy implementation, obscured local authorities’ accountability, and produced inefficiencies and mismanagement. Even though more than fifty veterans’ laws passed in the interwar period, the failure of the government to uphold its duties not only radicalized some veterans but also mobilized all beneficiary groups, especially women, to interact with various administrative services. The subsequent three chapters follow the three groups of beneficiaries’ actions, interactions, and inactions. The penultimate section places the “nation's gratitude” in a longer political, socioeconomic, and cultural continuum during World War II, the socialist period, and after 1989. The last chapter positions the Romanian case within a broader European context.
By applying an intersectional analysis of gender, class, ethnicity, locality, and able-bodiedness, Bucur signals a polyphony of voices: central and local administrators; various communities within the “homogenous” groups of veterans; widows; and orphans. Initially, the IOVR services’ main target—more than a million hero-citizens—received benefits according to citizenship, not ethnicity, race, or religion. This policy, however, changed with the adoption of the Romanianization laws in 1938. Class disparities between officers and rank and file, though, were present from the start. Even though a special subgroup of veterans with disabilities became eligible for medical care and rehabilitation, this was not served suitably. Disabled veterans’ neglect by the IOVR administration and its critiques contributed to emergent discourses of disability in interwar Romania.
War widows were another underserved group within the IOVR's purview. Such disregard, however, was due not only to lack of funding. According to the then existing legal patriarchal system, women were treated as legal dependents. This double marginalization compelled widows to become their own agents in navigating the bureaucratic system and in negotiating their benefits, and thus achieved an “unexpected empowerment” (217). Therefore, the IOVR administration offered a “virtual school of citizenship” to more than three hundred thousand women (145). Unlike the veterans, who sought their rights mostly through associations, women acted predominantly as individual citizens. In addition to narrating fascinating stories, Bucur also analyzes the writing styles and rhetorical strategies of women's petitions, which began using a language of rights more frequently in the 1930s.
The “children of the nation” were also not prioritized within the IOVR's administration and were mostly in the hands of the nongovernmental sector. Not surprisingly, most orphan care in these organizations was performed by women. Moreover, gender inequities permeated the state's approach to war orphans, from appointing family councils (and sidelining mothers) to oversee orphans, to establishing a different status for orphan girls compared to boys with regard to educational opportunities and jobs.
The book is successful in analyzing citizenship in the making as an interactive and uneven process between the centralizing and nationalizing state and its beneficiaries. In the process of these interactions the state became more “legible” (143), but the citizens also became more educated about the government's obligations. Furthermore, Bucur provides persuasive evidence of how women asserted their rights as citizens and made themselves visible to the government. Whereas feminism has become popular among educated urban women, it was not a mass movement in a country where the majority of the population lived in rural areas and was illiterate. And yet Bucur amplifies women's voices from all walks of life.
The Nation's Gratitude: World War I and Citizenship Rights in Interwar Romania is a valuable contribution to the intersection of gender, class, ethnicity, voluntary organizations, and state and nonstate nationalism. Bucur successfully puts on the European map the history of Romania's war veterans, with a special focus on disability. The book will be of interest to students and researchers engaged in gender studies and the study of voluntary associations, antisemitism in Eastern Europe, and European and Romanian social history.
Sanja Ćopić and Zorana Antonijević, eds., Feminizam, aktivizam, politike: Proizvodnja znanja na poluperiferiji. Zbornik radova u čast Marine Blagojević Hughson (Feminism, activism, politics: Knowledge production in the semiperiphery. Collection in honor of Marina Blagojević Hughson), Belgrade: Institute for Criminological and Sociological Research (IKSI), 2021, 621 pp., ISBN: 978-86-80756-42-4.
Book review by Minja Bujaković
European University Institute, Florence, Italy
This volume, edited by Sanja Ćopić and Zorana Antonijević, represents an homage to Marina Blagojević Hughson's work and activism. The title perfectly captures three crucial elements in Blagojević Hughson's work, and—arguably—life: feminism, activism, and politics. Inspired by her work and ideas, the editors gathered essays by thirty-one authors, who reread her theories and applied them to their respective contexts. The selected essays speak very well to each other, serving as proof of the diversity and richness of Blagojević Hughson's work. The volume is organized into six thematic sections that include topics ranging from knowledge production and the transfer of knowledge, violence, war, peacebuilding, and feminist epistemology to masculinity and sports studies.
The book successfully manages to blur the boundaries between academic and nonacademic spheres. It illuminates how the contributors’ personal interactions with Blagojević Hughson affected their work and, in doing so, it fulfills Hughson's aim to make her work supradiscipinary. As Biljana Dojčinović explains in her essay, Hughson's supradisciplinarity requires the crossing of boundaries between disciplines, and even institutions, as a way to connect the academic and the personal; and that is exactly what this collection achieves.
This is well presented through the circular composition of the volume: it starts with a touching introduction by Blagojević Hughson's daughter, Filipa Blagojević, and editors’ reflections on her life and work, and ends in two connected chapters: the sixth chapter, encompassing Blagojević Hughson's husband's and friends’ reminiscences on the time spent with her, and the last, seventh chapter, written by Blagojević Hughson herself, through which she talks back to the readers, finally closing this rich circle.
The first chapter is dedicated to the theory of the semiperiphery and to knowledge transfer and production, topics extensively researched by Blagojević Hughson herself. Living and working between a center and the periphery, in the semiperiphery, shaped Hughson's thinking. As Sonja Avlijaš demonstrates in her essay, Blagojević Hughson, being aware of her positionality, developed her theory of the semiperiphery, showing how lived and personal experiences should be used to contextualize and requestion knowledge transferred from the center before applying it to the semiperiphery. Expanding on that, Ivana Spasić argues in her thought-provoking essay that social inequalities can be struggled with through contextualized knowledge production. This topic is further explored by Marija Babović, who presents an analysis of Blagojević Hughson's book Sutra je bilo juče (Tomorrow was Yesterday), focusing on her theory of the transformation of patriarchy in the semiperiphery. Milica Resanović shows how the semiperiphery can be used as a research tool for understanding global inequalities and the center–periphery relationship. Lastly, Jeff Hearn creatively discusses how concepts of semiperipheral and transnational are embodied in transnational researchers and their relations to transnational societies.
Chapter 2 demonstrates the importance of Blagojević Hughson's contribution to gender studies, especially in the context of the semiperiphery. While Mirjana Bobić discusses Blagojević Hughson's pioneering contribution to the development of gender demography in Serbia, Ana Pajvančić-Cizelj highlights Hughson's contribution to the sociology of gender in Yugoslavia and later, Serbia. Four essays of the chapter are dedicated to the understanding and transformation of gender roles. Olivera Pavićević introduces the concept of relational autonomy, emerging from her feminist reconceptualization of personal autonomy. While the results of Jelena Pešić's and Dragan Stanojević's work on gender roles (conducted between 1989 and 2018) show the increasing resistance toward traditional gender roles, Slađana Dragišić Labaš's research suggests that gender equality still represents a challenge, particularly in the countries of the semiperiphery, such as Serbia. The chapter closes with Biljana Milovanović Živak's analysis of a poem, showing how school curricula and literary criticism nurture misogynistic discourse.
The third chapter focuses on the integration of gender equality in the public sphere, especially in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Marijana Pajvančić and Jelena Milinović's essays demonstrate the way that Blagojević Hughson contributed to the process of gender mainstreaming and raised awareness of gender equality in the aforementioned countries. Zorica Mršević and Svetlana Janković discuss the transfer of knowledge from center to periphery and vice versa, reminding readers of Hughson's criticism of the direct import of knowledge from the center without precise contextualization. Krassimira Daskalova tells the story of Sonia Bakish, the editor of Zhenata dnes (Woman Today), showing how individuals such as Blagojević Hughson relied on their institutional positions to challenge gender roles in their respective societies. Finally, Karen Gabriel shows the reaction of the government in India to COVID-19, which drastically worsened the position of women in the semiperiphery.
The fourth chapter discusses the issues of war, reconciliation, violence, and safety. Vesna Nikolić Ristanović discusses the instrumentalization of war rape victims in media and in feminist activism and scholarship. Sanela Bajramović focuses on the peacebuilding missions and transfer of knowledge in the postwar period facilitated by women activists crossing borders. Nevena Petrušić examines Hughson's views on the structural causes of violence against women and, lastly, Aleksandra Bulatović discusses the need to create a security system that features women as active and equal agents.
Critical studies of masculinity are the focus of the fifth chapter. While Lilijana Čičkarić discusses Blagojević Hughson's research project on masculinity in Serbia, titled “Muškarci u Srbiji, promene, otpori, izazovi” (Men in Serbia, Changes, Resistance, Challenges), John Hughson introduces her ideas on transnational masculinity and male institutions, which they explored in collaborative projects. The idea of gendered institutions is further examined by Prem Kumar Vijayan, who uses the case of India to discuss the role of the university as a gendered institution built on male hegemony. The chapter ends with Dragana Jeremić Molnar's and Aleksandar Molnar's close examination of the theory of the Aryan Männerbund.
The sixth chapter consists of essays written by Blagojević Hughson's friends and colleagues, depicting their meetings and conversations. While Biljana Dojčinović and Tanja Đurić Kuzmanović fondly remember their professional collaboration with Hughson, the personal dimension vibrantly stands out in the moving essays of Zilka Spahić Šiljak, Branislava Knežević, and Nina Lykee. An essay written by Marina Blagojević Hughson's husband John Hughson exudes almost palpable tenderness and affection through his description of their day-to-day life and conversations. Svetlana Tomić sheds light on the creative and artistic side of Marina Hughson by sharing their correspondence and a poem of Hughson's written in English. Tomić manages to materialize Hughson's spirit by describing her office, which was decorated with a door sign that read “Marina's Intellectual Kitchen.” The final section, Blagojević Hughson's interview with herself, represents the most inspiring—and personal—part of this volume, offering an emotional conclusion to it.
Overall, this collection certainly cannot be characterized as a “light read”; it requires meticulous reading and provokes some serious rethinking of the discussed ideas. At the same time, the volume is rich with emotions, which leaves room for vulnerability and self-questioning. And just as Blagojević Hughson developed ideas in her “intellectual kitchen,” preparing them with patience, letting them simmer and cook to a perfect degree, the volume invites readers to follow the same recipe: find a cozy space for reading and thinking, and let the ideas be processed until perfectly “cooked” and ready for table presentation.
Krassimira Daskalova, Zhorzheta Nazarska, and Reneta Roshkeva, eds., Ot siankata na istoriata: Zhenite v bulgarskoto obshtestvo i kultura, volume 2, Izvori za istoriana na zhenite: Dnevnitsi, spomeni, pisma, beletristika (From the shadows of history: Women in Bulgarian society and culture, volume 2, Sources of women's history: diaries, memoirs, letters, fiction), Sofia: Sofia University Press, 2021, 621 pp., BGN 30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-954-07-5180-1.
Book review by Milena Kirova
St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia
This is the second book in a sequence of volumes of primary sources for women's history in Bulgaria.1 Krassimira Daskalova, Zhorzheta Nazarska, and Reneta Roshkeva have edited a large and impressive book. This is so far the most significant collection of primary sources dealing with Bulgarian women's history. The book's first part presents five women who graduated from the prominent women's institution established by American Protestant missionaries in Constantinople, the Home School (in 1871), which later (1891) developed into Constantinople Woman's College. The second part of the volume is entitled “The Bulgarian Women's Movement in the Twentieth Century and Its Leaders.” The most prominent activist of this movement, Dimitrana Ivanova, is presented. Finally, the book ends with the most comprehensive lists, compiled by Krassimira Daskalova, of the young Bulgarian women who both graduated from or studied at the abovementioned institutions.
In 1863, the American Male College, which became known after its founder, missionary Christopher Robert, as Robert College, was founded in the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Eight years later, again in Constantinople and again at the initiative of American missionaries, an American school for girls was also founded. Its aims, evident also in its name—the Home School—were modest at first and conformed to the perceptions of women's role and social status in Southeastern Europe in the 1870s. As already mentioned, later it developed into Constantinople Woman's College.
Thirty-five Bulgarian girls attended the Home School; fifteen graduated. Two hundred and seventy-eight Bulgarian girls attended Constantinople Woman's College, half of whom graduated with a Bachelor's degree. Considering the development and quality of women's education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these figures are significant. Yet there is an almost complete lack of information about this fact in traditional Bulgarian historiography. The present collection represents the first systematic attempt to compensate for this absence, drawing on the methodology of women's history, by providing primary sources related to specific women alumnae of the two women's educational institutions.
The first part is devoted to the women alumnae of both the Home School and the College. It begins with a full-length study (sixty-five pages) by Daskalova, which contextualizes the history of the girls’ institutions and provides thorough and well-researched background information about Constantinople at the end of the nineteenth century and in the first three decades of the twentieth. Daskalova's introduction narrates the history of the two educational institutions, sketches portraits of some of the American female teachers there, and outlines the social profile of the Bulgarian alumnae. The author also places particular emphasis on the Bulgarian female teachers at the women's college. Women's voices amplify the academic narrative. Among the first Home School graduates were Elenka Dimitrieva-Encheva and Penka Racheva-Dimitrieva. Vasilka Dimitrieva, Sonya Kraeva-Kikimenova, and Nedyalka Kableshkova-Varbenova—whose lives are also discussed in this part of the volume—are representative of the second generation of Bulgarian graduates from the American Constantinople Woman's College.
The presentations of each of these five women follow the same pattern. First, the volume provides a biographical account by a descendant of the family to which the woman belongs, accompanied by exciting photographs from private collections. Then, the volume adds biographical information and deepens the narrative in a scholarly context. Finally, the book includes the creative legacy of each of these women. The diary of Elenka Dimitrieva, the first Bulgarian girl who graduated from the Home School, is chronologically the earliest one, preserved in the family archive. The next—Penka Racheva's diary—covers the last year of her study at the girls’ school (late 1882–summer 1883). The original of Racheva's diary is housed at Columbia University in New York. These two diaries were originally written in English; for the first time, they have been translated into Bulgarian for this volume, which includes both the English and Bulgarian versions.
The representatives of the next generation of girls, who graduated from the College—the already-mentioned Vasilka Dimitrieva, Sonya Kraeva-Kikimenova, and Nedyalka Kableshkova-Varbenova—were born in the last decade of the nineteenth century. All three participated in the Bulgarian women's movement in the interwar period, held leadership positions in various societies, and frequently traveled abroad as activists of the Bulgarian Women's Union.
Sonia Kraeva-Kikimenova's exposition is fascinating: a helpful article by Zhorzheta Nazarska on the history and specifics of women's memoir writing in Bulgaria and the Balkans precedes the presentation. Nazarska emphasizes the writing of autobiographical prose, a topic on which little is still known in this country, including by scholars of Bulgarian literature. Kraeva-Kikimenova created a rich and varied autobiographical discourse, an authentic document of the sensibility and outlook of intelligent young Bulgarian women, without knowing about the example of other writings in the Balkan autobiographical tradition in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
I want to pay special attention to Nedyalka Kableshkova-Varbenova. Among the six women presented in the volume, she is the only one who writes fiction, although she remains unknown in the history of Bulgarian literature. Apart from a collection of short stories published in 1944, Kableshkova wrote the previously unpublished autobiographical novel Fasadi (Facades) after her divorce, at the end of her life around the mid-1970s. Fasadi is a fascinating read, a true bildungsroman about the emotional and spiritual growth of a young Bulgarian woman from World War II to the late 1950s.
Part II of the collection focuses on only one woman, Dimitrana Ivanova, the prominent leader of the Bulgarian Women's Union between 1926 and 1944. Krassimira Daskalova presents her biography in a detailed and comprehensive portrait. Ivanova's memoirs—nearly a hundred pages—are a valuable contribution to the history of the women's movement in Bulgaria up to the 1950s.
Finally, I found it exciting and revealing to some extent that all the women featured in the collection were extremely long-lived, even by contemporary standards: they lived between seventy-seven and ninety-three years, and their average age exceeded eighty-four. This makes them contemporaries of an unimaginable number of events and changes in Bulgarian and world history. Moreover, I am tempted to think that there might be some connection between longevity, a sense of social mission, and a strong, fighting spirit. Or at least, I hope there is when it comes to women.
Krassimira Daskalova, ed., Ot siankata na istoriata: Zhenite v bulgarskoto obshtestvo i kultura [From the shadows of history: Women in Bulgarian society and culture] (Sofia: Bulgarska groupa za izsledvane istoriata na zhenite i pola and Dom na naukite za choveka i obshtestvoto, 1998).
Melissa Feinberg, Communism in Eastern Europe, New York: Routledge, 2022, 229 pp., $44.75 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-8133-4817-9
Book review by Malgorzata Fidelis
University of Illinois at Chicago
It is rare to see a book primarily intended as an undergraduate textbook that is as powerful and engaging as Melissa Feinberg's Communism in Eastern Europe. In the Foreword, Feinberg tells us about the origins of this book. When asked by an editor if there were books not available in print that she needed for her courses, Feinberg expressed her desire to see a new survey of Eastern Europe after 1945. The editor then asked her to write one. I have no doubt that this would have been the answer of many other academic instructors who teach Eastern European history. I have been teaching a survey on communism in Eastern Europe for several years without a textbook. The ones available were much too grounded in the Cold War narrative that I wanted to challenge. Feinberg's book delivers exactly what many scholars and students have been waiting for: a survey of Eastern European communism that defies oversimplified East versus West binaries and is grounded in a nuanced understanding of the region's history. Moreover, the book provides a human face for Eastern European history through integrating a variety of voices from the bottom up, giving us a window into communism as a lived experience.
The book is divided into eight chronological chapters. Chapter 1, “Communism Comes to Eastern Europe,” deals with the origins of communism in Eastern Europe, emphasizing the upheaval of World War II and the agency of local actors in conjunction with international agreements and great powers’ politics. Chapter 2, “Creating a Stalinist Society,” focuses on social restructuring under Stalinism that was shaped by industrialization and migration, as well as by repression and show trials. Chapter 3, “Socialist Modernity in the 1950s and 1960s,” turns to communist regimes’ attempts to create an alternative socialist modernity that would aim not only at industrial development and egalitarianism, but also at satisfying citizens’ needs for material comfort, leisure, and travel. Chapter 4, “Reform and Retrenchment, 1956–1968,” deals with the challenges of post-Stalinism and the attempts to assert autonomy by different Eastern European countries, with Czechoslovakia leading the quest for socialism with a human face in 1968. Chapter 5, “Consumerism and its Consequences during Late Socialism,” delineates the contours of the 1970s, centered on normalizing Eastern European societies through consumer culture and the attempt to depoliticize everyday life. Chapter 6, “Decade of Crisis,” centers on the 1980s as a time of economic crises and new movements, from Solidarity in Poland to perestroika in the Soviet Union, both of which contributed to the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989. Chapter 7, “From Communism to Neoliberalism,” discusses the contradictory effects of the transition from communism to market economy and liberal democracy. The emphasis is on the human cost of that transition, from rapid impoverishment of many segments of society to the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. Chapter 8, “Eastern Europe in the 21st Century,” illuminates recent developments in Eastern Europe, including the impact of European integration, the rise of authoritarian populism, and the politics of memory.
For the purpose of the book, Eastern Europe is defined according to Cold War categories: as the former Eastern Bloc and Yugoslavia. Although one may take issue with what actually constitutes “Eastern Europe,” the Cold War definition makes sense here since the book explores the post-1945 era, dominated by the political and ideological division of Europe. From the very beginning, however, Feinberg encourages the reader to critically assess that division and think about Eastern Europe outside of measuring everything according to “some imagined Western ideal.” One of the most powerful statements in the book articulates the contradictions and complexities of the system that has been too often conceived in the oversimplified terms of the state's total control over a powerless society. According to Feinberg, communism was defined by its contradictions. “It censored books but also ended illiteracy. It put some people in jail for their political beliefs but gave women legal equality with men and access to a wide range of new careers. It was a world where bananas were almost impossible to find in the stores, but where on average people had more to eat than even before” (3).
Feinberg makes clear that the communist system was not entirely imposed and exercised from above, but resulted from a complex interplay of political and social forces. At the same time, she is sensitive to diversity within the region, showing how different countries adjusted the principles of the Soviet model to their national and local circumstances. Some of the most powerful parts of the book are those in which Feinberg integrates personal voices of historical actors, such as that of Heda Kovaly, a Czech-Jewish woman who attempted to build a new life in postwar Czechoslovakia after the cataclysm of World War II and the Holocaust. In a similar way, personal testimonies help balance the accounts of terror and repression under Stalinism with the experience of upward mobility by traditionally disadvantaged groups: workers, peasants, and women. Time and again, Feinberg departs from simple dichotomies of resistance and compliance, or repression and liberation. She warns against reproducing a false dichotomy promulgated by the Cold War model, “in which people on both sides of the Iron Curtain were pressured to take sides and declare themselves to be either fervent Communists or committed capitalists” (46).
Feinberg pays particular attention to recovering traditionally marginalized voices, especially those of women, from young wives defying their husbands and entering employment to elite women such as Milada Horáková, executed in a Stalinist purge. She does more than “insert” women into the story of communism, but rather redefines that story by showing how the system operated on multiple levels, including in shaping individual identities and private and intimate relations. We also see how gender operated as an organizing principle of a new classless society. Communist leaders had established gender equality long before Western states did so. At the same time, the official vision of gender equality changed over time, and was often adjusted as much to local patriarchal cultures as to the economic and political needs of the state. In addition to women, other marginalized groups are brought to the forefront, especially in later chapters, including Roma and LGBTQ communities.
While challenging the totalitarian paradigm, Feinberg shows that one of the best ways to understand communism is to examine it through the prism of modernity. Communism included an attempt to create a modern consumer culture, leisure, and pleasure that were alternative to those created under capitalism. Feinberg shows, for example, the centrality of consumer politics to how the state related to its subjects, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, social actors appropriated that politics in a variety of ways, including through creating a vibrant second economy. Some of the most interesting discussion is devoted to the variety of ways in which Eastern European citizens accessed the outside world, reminding us that the Iron Curtain was not impermeable, and that socialist modernity included exposure to the nonsocialist world. After 1956, in particular, travel opportunities expanded. In addition, student exchanges and professional and scientific cooperation enabled mobility across borders and cultural and intellectual interactions that went beyond Europe. Relations with the Global South, for example, took place through trade, professional exchanges, and cultural diplomacy. At the same time, anticolonial struggles in places such as Cuba and Vietnam could serve as an inspiration for leftist rebels and reformers in Eastern Europe, who periodically challenged the ruling parties with alternative interpretations of socialism. Those who did not travel still found themselves capable of tapping into different perspectives from the dominant state's messaging, such as by listening to Radio Free Europe.
Feinberg should be commended for her thoughtful analysis of the fast-changing political landscape of the region in recent years. The last two chapters, dealing with the postcommunist transformation, challenge the oversimplified narratives of “democratization” and the “return to Europe.” She delineates diverse trajectories of the transition within the region but highlights the shared neoliberal model and its destructive impact on society and politics. “The move to a market economy had erased socialism's shortages,” she writes, “but it had not necessarily brought happiness” (183). The current rise of right-wing populism and anti-gender movements in the region is grounded, to a large extent, in the neoliberal shift, which provided a fertile ground for populist leaders to claim to represent “the moral voice of the people, who they see as oppressed by self-serving elites” (201). My only critique of these masterfully written chapters on the post-1989 era is that the agency of social actors is less pronounced here than in the chapters that focus on the communist era. Feinberg concentrates on the populist political leaders in Hungary and Poland, who have dismantled democratic institutions and undermined basic human rights. She could have included more discussion of the bottom-up responses and contestation that developed against those policies, such as the women's protests in Poland. Like communists before them, authoritarian populists are not all-powerful. The process of negotiation, resistance, and accommodation is still an important part of the Eastern European social and political landscape.
Communism in Eastern Europe humanizes the experience of communism. Rather than serving fixed answers and models, it encourages the reader to engage with the tensions and ambiguities embedded in both the communist and postcommunist eras. It is a superb and much-needed book that sets a new standard for writing synthetic accounts of Eastern European history.
Fabio Giomi, Making Muslim Women European: Voluntary Associations, Gender, and Islam in Post-Ottoman Bosnia and Yugoslavia (1878–1941), Budapest: CEU Press, 2021, 420 pp., €88.00 (hardback), ISBN 978-963-386-369-5.
Book review by Stefano Petrungaro
Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy
This book is a study of the Muslim voluntary associations in post-Ottoman Bosnia and Yugoslavia, with a focus on their gender dimension. At the same time, Fabio Giomi's work is much more than this, because it intertwines the Muslim associational landscape with non-Muslim associations, voluntary associations with the political scene, and Bosnian reality with the two postimperial contexts in which it belonged—that is, post-Habsburg and post-Ottoman—as well as with the Yugoslav environment. The volume thus reconstructs a relevant chapter of the cultural, social, and political history of Yugoslavia and the Balkans.
This work has the charm of a mosaic, of tiles collected with passion, and not simply from major libraries or national archives, but also from minor places, private institutions, and sources placed at the author's disposal by individuals. Its approach recalls anthropological fieldwork, relying on the establishment of solid personal networks, built through time, and indebted to the trust gained from the interlocutors.
The analysis keeps the big historical and historiographical issues together, as well as the individual historical personalities—men and most of all women—whose memory had almost been lost, and which Fabio Giomi has recovered, shining upon it the light it deserves. The analysis, thus, is full of portraits of Bosnian Muslim women: poets, teachers, singers, activists, of noble and less noble origins. They are the women with whom this book intended to deal, and who actually occupy its virtual space. It is a gesture that is at the same time methodological and cultural-political: to leave the center of the stage to historiographically silent actors in order to contrast a stereotypical vision of an extreme subalternity. The book gives back agency to those who actually already had it, acknowledging that they actively contributed, sometimes even in unexpected and creative ways, to redefining the image and social role of women in Bosnian Muslim society.
The author offers detailed insights into the—sometimes ephemeral—lives of a wide range of Muslim philanthropic and cultural associations, at the same time providing the reader with useful tools for gaining an overview of the Muslim associational landscape, identifying the main political orientations and the different discourses and practices developed by the activists’ groups. The book demonstrates that voluntary associations were the arena in which the challenges posed by modernity were elaborated and domesticated, ascribing a clear centrality to the social role of women. The investigation strives to consider not only how the men debated such issues, and how they shaped associational life, but also how women actively contributed to it. World War I represents a watershed from this perspective: Muslim women began to participate directly in associational experiences, challenging the rules of sexual and confessional segregation. The late Habsburg years had already initiated relevant changes in Bosnian Muslim society, promoting female education, and progressive Bosnian men and a minority of women actively supported such politics. But after 1918 educated Muslim women who had already published in the pages of the associational press began to visibly enter the public space and to establish and participate in voluntary associations.
Giomi presents fascinating discussions about the debates emerging around gender issues and social norms. The sophisticated scrutiny of the sources reveals all the complexity that these issues could acquire in daily life, and thanks to the excellent visual sources that the author has collected and deciphered, the study shows both changing gender norms, especially in the urban context, and the ability of women to circumvent, overcome, and very creatively adapt those norms.
The book reveals how the Muslim associational world was divided not only along national lines—Serbian, Croatian, or Yugoslav, depending on the period and the sensibilities—but also in terms of class. Class distinctions characterized the internal life of the organizations, as well as the relationships of the philanthropic associations, managed by members of the Muslim middle class, toward poor Muslim women. Furthermore, alongside more progressive groups, (neo)traditionalist ones also emerged, shaping a vivid rivalry among Muslim associations and producing deeply different interpretations of (European) Bosnian Muslim religious identity and the role women should embody.
Considering all the variegated forms of female commitment in the voluntary associations, the book successfully challenges the Orientalist stereotype of silent and repressed Muslim women, instead describing how they began to study and to teach, to sew and to work, to write and to speak, even to dance and to sing in public and in mixed male-female settings.
It is important that the author refuses to limit himself to the description of what is evidently true: that this was a deeply limited female emancipation, often led by men who did not foresee full political rights for women or contest the ideology of separate spheres. The conclusion is nonetheless that it would be inopportune to reduce women's experiences to mere and updated variants of traditional patriarchalism. Apart from the explicitly traditionalist associations, all the progressive ones, beyond their political differences, provided Bosnian Muslim women with spaces, virtual and physical, for testing, experiencing, and adapting new forms of sociability, of artistic expression, of education, of mobility, of intellectual autonomy. In other words, the voluntary associations already represented tools of female empowerment before the next, socialist chapter of Yugoslav history.
Yulia Gradskova, The Women's International Democratic Federation, the Global South and the Cold War: Defending the Rights of Women of the “Whole World”? London: Routledge, 2020, 222 pp. £29.59 (e-book), ISBN: 9781003050032.
Book review by Alexandra Talaver
Central European University, Vienna
Yulia Gradskova's book contributes to the growing field of scholarship on the Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF),1 and beyond—to the transnational women's movement as a whole. The WIDF was established in 1945 and was active in many transnational campaigns for peace and women's rights. However, until recently it was almost completely forgotten by historians. Francisca de Haan, who has rediscovered the organization, explains the situation by noting that Western historiography tends to reproduce “Cold War” cliches and has dismissed the WIDF as a communist and not a feminist organization.2 Gradskova suggests complicating the question by asking why, then, the WIDF is not remembered in former socialist European countries either. Thus, she attempts to look for other reasons for the WIDF's erasure from historiography besides ideological ones, and she pays particular attention to the inner workings and the development of the organization.
In the first chapter, Gradskova sets the agenda of her study. The book moves in many different directions, but one of the main questions is how the WIDF discourse on women's rights was shaped by Cold War divisions, and what the role was of the Eastern Bloc and the Global South in this process. Gradskova aims to engage in a critical reading of the WIDF's “presumably ‘universal’ (written for women of ‘the whole world’)” (6) documents through postcolonial lenses, which allows her to reveal contradictions and silences. She combines the WIDF's institutional history with a micro-level analysis of personal encounters and trajectories to indicate how power dynamics and discourses within the organization changed over time. The book covers the period from 1955, the year of the Bandung Conference, marking the emergence of “Third World” countries as significant political players, to 1985, when perestroika began in the USSR.
In the second and largest chapter, Gradskova explores the role of Moscow in shaping the WIDF's agenda and politics. Working with sources from the Soviet Women's Committee located in the Russian archives, the author explores the tactics that Soviet representatives in the WIDF Secretariat employed to influence the organization, and the challenges they faced. Gradskova's work with the sources in Moscow allows her to provide a detailed account of Soviet interests. Also, and importantly, her findings allow her to dismantle the myth of the WIDF's obedience to Moscow.
After discarding the myth that the WIDF was a communist organization obedient to the Kremlin, in the following six chapters Gradskova explores the inner logic of the WIDF's development. The third chapter focuses on the conceptualization of peace and its interconnectedness with women's rights and children's rights in the Federation's agenda. The author shows that although the WIDF emphasized women's special role as mothers in its struggle for peace, the organization never conceptualized motherhood in conservative, religious, or domesticating terms. Quite the opposite: motherhood in line with the socialist tradition was seen as one among many other women's rights. However, Gradskova demonstrates how the WIDF's advocacy for peace was challenged by the Soviet military interventions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan. At the same time, the WIDF's peace agenda was criticized by members of the Federation involved in anticolonial and liberation movements.
Gradskova discusses the latter in detail in the fourth chapter, which shows how the problems of women from the Global South were represented in official and unofficial communications with the WIDF. She agrees with other scholars that the advocacy of women's rights in colonial and dependent countries was one of the WIDF's priorities from its very first years. Thus, because of the WIDF's active stance against the French colonial war in Vietnam, its headquarters had to leave Paris in 1951. The foundation of this transnational solidarity was the idea of sisterhood, based, according to Gradskova, on the notion of the union of working women for the cause of radical economic and social change that would bring an end to their exploitation.
As Gradskova argues in the fifth chapter, the flaw of that approach was that it considered socialist modernity, represented by the Soviet Union, as the only model for women's emancipation. She shows that the Soviet Union used its “borderlands”, that is, the former colonies of the Russian empire turned into Soviet republics, as a showcase of socialist modernization for developing countries. The importance of the region was revealed, as Gradskova suggests, by the nomination of a representative “new Uzbek women” (108), Zuhra (Zahra) Rahimbabaeva, as the Soviet representative to the WIDF Secretariat in Berlin in the late 1960s.
Chapter 6 demonstrates that over time, women from decolonized countries gained visibility in the WIDF's structures. Gradskova argues that even though the WIDF was chaired by “white communist women” (133), in the 1970s women from Asia, Africa, and Latin America constituted the majority of its Bureau and Council. This situation led to a shift in the key discussions within the WIDF, indicating the need for a more nuanced understanding of the multilayered inequalities within Asian and African countries, as well as raising the question of the representation of different regions within the WIDF. Chapter 7 zooms into biographies of several activists in order to deconstruct the category of “woman activist” from the Global South” (136).
As presented in Chapter 8—against the background of the growing feminist movement in Western countries—in the 1970s and 1980s the WIDF lost much of its appeal for women from Western Europe and the US. Women's organizations from the Global South, thus, became the main basis of growth for the WIDF, and the former profited from the WIDF's resources, infrastructures, and solidarity campaigns.
Overall, Gradskova's book presents a complex picture of the inner workings of the WIDF. At the same time, the author leaves us with a number of contradictions and unresolved issues. On the one hand, during the 1970s and 1980s the WIDF gained more visibility as an influential transnational organization. In 1967, it regained its consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), allowing it to function as a platform for women from the Global South. Its role was such that Javier Perez de Cuellar, UN Secretary-General, in 1991 noted that “during all these years, the federation has played an important role in promoting equality of women's rights” (169). On the other hand, Gradskova highlights a process of growing heterogeneity and regionalization within the WIDF during the same time period.
There are several minor factual mistakes that should be indicated. Nina Popova was the head of the Soviet Women's Committee from 1945 to 1968, not from 1941 (64, 198); its first head was Valentina Grizodubova. Valentina Tereshkova was its head only until 1987, not until 1991 (198), and she was succeeded by Zoya Pukhova.3 Eugénie Cotton was WIDF president until 1967, the year that she died, not until 1968 (198).
To conclude, Yulia Gradskova's book makes a valuable contribution to the history of the WIDF, showing that it was a complex transnational platform for women all over the globe, not a “Soviet front” organization (194). The book is recommended for those who are interested in the history of the transnational feminism movement, as well as that of the relationship between the Socialist Bloc and the Global South.
To name a few works: Francisca de Haan, “Continuing Cold War Paradigms in Western Historiography of Transnational Women's Organisations: The Case of the Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF),” Women's History Review 19, no. 4 (2010), 547–573,
de Haan, “Continuing Cold War Paradigms.”
“Annotatsiia Fonda Komiteta Sovetskikh Zhenshchi [Annotation of the Soviet women's committee fund],” n.d., http://opisi.garf.su/default.asp?base=garf&menu=2&v=3&node=150&fond=894&opis=&cf=737001 (accessed 23 June 2022).
Dagmar Gramshammer-Hohl and Oana Hergenröther, eds., Foreign Countries of Old Age: East and Southeast European Perspectives on Aging, Aging Studies, vol. 19, Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2021, 386 pp., €45 (paperback), ISBN: 978-3-8376-4554-5.
Book review by Daniela Koleva
St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia, Bulgaria
That age is a key social category is beyond any doubt.1 That women and men age differently is likewise. It has been mostly gerontology and geriatrics that have unpacked these truisms, in their specific ways. The emergence in the past few years of aging studies as a transdisciplinary field, taking a holistic approach to aging, promises to overcome the limitations of traditional disciplinary parceling and to fill in knowledge gaps. This new field has sought to address social and cultural aspects of aging. This is clearly visible in the new collected volume of the Aging Studies series from Transcript-Verlag, focusing on the countries of Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Amplifying the topicality of the book by the spotlight on the COVID-19 crisis, the editors compare anti-COVID measures across countries to demonstrate that chronological age is crucial for both government policies and individual behavior. Both policies and behaviors have varied depending on the cultural and social context. That is, people are “aged by culture,” as the editors aptly claim, evoking a recent title. But the authors convincingly demonstrate throughout the book that people also age “by gender,” and this is my take on it here.
The volume is divided into three parts, offering different approaches to old age, aging, and the situation of the elderly in the countries of the region. Setting the historical context with a longue-durée perspective, Karl Kaser captures two trends driven by modernization processes: increasing life expectancy and declining respect for the elderly. Against the backdrop of these changes, two features remain constant: the marginal role of institutionalized care for the elderly and family care as women's responsibility. Both practices have led to a specific family structure: vertically extended families consisting of three to four generations. The author observes an increase of their share in some parts of the region, and puts forward a hypothesis about the “re-traditionalisation” of family structures.
In the next chapter, Siegfried Gruber diversifies this picture, based on microdata from a few regions between the Baltics and Albania from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Using census data, he shows that from the point of view of historical demography, Eastern Europe cannot be considered a single and homogeneous region. While patrilocality and co-residence with adult children were prevalent, there were significant differences between regions. For example, older women were most often wives or mothers (when widowed) of household heads. Surprisingly, however, in some regions about 10 percent were household heads, while in Romania this share was above 20 percent (60).
The second part of the book presents a range of research, focused on various aspects of older people's lives. In an ethnographically dense study, Ana Aštalkovska Gajtanoska and Ilina Jakimovska reconstruct the attitudes of elderly people in rural North Macedonia toward the changed conditions and patterns of aging resulting from urbanization and transnational migration. While for men, old age has been defined based on their social status and role in village life, for women it is much more dependent on their biological cycle and the control of their bodies. Furthermore, the authors capture the changing perceptions of old women in the countryside: from being socially valued as a source of knowledge (e.g., as healers) and custodians of tradition (ritual “experts”), to overwhelming feelings of loneliness and uselessness.
The next chapter demonstrates different aging scenarios for men and women, as well as for different social strata. The authors Natalija Perišić and Nadežda Satarić use a combination of surveys and focus groups, along with assessing the state of social and health care, to analyze social inequalities among older people in a Belgrade quarter from a feminist perspective. Their thesis is that gerontology constructs its object “neutrally,” without taking into account gender, thus underestimating the real situation of the elderly. In fact, older women are more severely affected by social inequalities and their consequences, such as the risk of poverty, ageism, the traditional burden of household activities, chronic diseases, and so on.
L'ubica Vol'anská, Marcela Káčerová, and Juraj Mayo focus on the elderly who live independently in their households in Slovak cities. Based on demographic statistics and in-depth interviews, the authors capture the transformations of the traditional norm of intergenerational solidarity. It is curious how gender here appears to be an “elephant in the room”: present but almost unnoticed by the authors. While absent from the demographic data, gender is conspicuous in their ethnography: all quoted interviewees are women. Indeed, the authors note that living alone and managing domestic spaces may be burdening for men but are not so for women, who tend to stress independence and self-sufficiency. It is a pity that this interesting finding has not received more attention.
Loredana Ivan explores how grandmothers in Romania use new communication technologies to connect with their children and grandchildren. She works with focus groups of older women from Bucharest to find out—unsurprisingly—that grandmothers communicate with their grandchildren (including online) much more than grandfathers do. What is interesting is the finding that this role allows for articulating a positive identity as older women. Partly, at least, this is due to intergenerational sharing. A further important motive for the broader use of IT is related to hobbies and interests within the women's own age group, such as sharing cooking recipes, urban gardening, and pilgrimage tourism.
This part of the volume ends with Olga Krasnova's research on adults in Russia. Compared to the empirically thick and methodologically rigorous neighboring studies, Krasnova's text appears rather sketchy. Although she notes that older people are not a “homogeneous mass” and can be categorized into a variety of groups based on age, gender and ethnicity, place of residence, education, family status, and so on (218), she ignores most of these groupings in order to focus on the generational one. Indeed, this perspective is relevant in the context of the social and political changes in Russia in the past decades. However, it omits a number of important factors, including not only gender, place of residence, and so on, but also the social inequalities linked to them.
The third part of the volume offers the perspective of literary gerontology, that is, the representations of old age in literature, folklore, and popular culture. Rafaela Božić discusses the thematization of age in Soviet utopias and dystopias from the period before World War II. Since the body in this literature is an “ideological sign” (238), its gender appears irrelevant, but its changes under the influence of age carry important messages to contemporaries: a “good” society ensures “good” aging and vice versa.
In one of the most captivating chapters, Jane Gary Harris examines Tolstoy's treatment of aging and old age in his magnum opus, the novel War and Peace. The writer has paid close attention to the ages of his characters, including the signs of old age: descriptions of faces, gestures, postures, voices, and conversations of his protagonists all play a part in the psychological construction of their characters, and thus the different moral meanings of their old age. Depending on the character, for example, their wrinkles can be “noble” or “coarse and unpleasant.” Thus, Tolstoy's female and male characters represent different scenarios of aging, and age as a category is analyzed in a wealth of empirical versions.
Maija Könönen's innovation is the correlation of gerontology and narratology. The author compares two caregivers’ narratives in different literary genres (diary and fiction) to trace how biomedical determinism shapes the story of dementia, and old age in general. The author focuses on how messages are dependent on the genre, which prevents her from seeing gender in the narratives and from asking about its possible significance.
The subsequent chapters of this section are devoted to Southeastern European literary cases. Ingeborg Jandl offers an intensive reading of two novels from the beginning of the twentieth century, by Borisav Stanković and Miloš Crnjanski. In different aesthetic keys—of realism and modernism respectively—both novels develop themes of traumatic aging and intergenerational trauma in female and male characters. Whether closer to mimetic or metaphorical representation, in both cases (the ugliness of) aging appears as a consequence of suffering, not the other way around.
Natalia Stagl Šcaro's research leads to deeper cultural strata in Southeastern Europe. The author connects traditional age- and gender-related roles and relationships with the age characteristics of popular female and male characters from the folklore of the region: young fairies and old witches, young werewolves and old vampires. Importantly, she notes the transformations of these images in contemporary literature: dehumanized images of old age (e.g., vampirism as a metaphor for the bloody history of the Balkans) acquire positive connotations in the context of nationalist and anti-globalist sentiments.
In the last chapter, Dagmar Gramshammer-Hohl continues the theme of literary adaptations of Slavic mythology, focusing on Dubravka Ugrešić's novel Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (2007). The author catalogues a range of associations connected with the image of the old woman in mythology—illness, winter, death, sorcery, initiation—and then traces their deconstruction in the novel. Departing from the ambivalent image of “baba Yaga,” Ugrešić's novel in Gramshammer-Hohl's reading shakes stereotypes about old age and the old woman.
I am aware that my choice to foreground gender has prevented me from doing justice to some chapters in the volume, and to other thematic lines in the reviewed chapters. Indeed, this book maps an extremely rich field for future research, pointing to more than one or two pivotal topics. My aim was to highlight the importance of gender—in fact, the impossibility of circumventing it—to the understanding of age and aging.
This publication is part of the project “Taming the European Leviathan: The Legacy of Post-War Medicine and the Common Good” (LEVIATHAN), funded by the ERC, Synergy Programme, Horizon 2020, grant no. 854503.
Wendy Z. Goldman and Donald Filtzer, Fortress Dark and Stern: The Soviet Home Front During World War II, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021, 528 pp., $34.95 (hardback), ISBN: 9780190618414.
Book review by Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild
Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University
Once again the locus of much of World War II's fighting in Eastern Europe is a battleground. Themes, memes, and tropes related to what was in the Soviet Union and is now in Russia referred to as the Great Patriotic War hold sway. The Nazi swastika is a symbol for some on both sides of the current conflict, and Ukrainians use the word “ruscism.” The Russian president is labeled a fascist, and Ukraine's Jewish president is called a Nazi.
This book could not be more timely. Wendy Goldman and Donald Filtzer have written an impressively comprehensive account of the support system that, they argue, was essential to the World War II victory of the Red Army in Europe. Using extensive archival materials, they paint a picture of a government based on an ideology of rationalism and science trying desperately to manage the chaos of an initially successful invasion, huge losses of land, people, and property, the decimation of its military, a massive evacuation, plagues, corruption, poor planning, and an exceptionally brutal occupying force. In the face of the most ferocious wartime conditions in modern European history, somehow, through a massive effort and sheer will, with some help from allies and the support of most of the populace, the Soviets prevailed.
This effort, documented incisively and in great detail, is, the authors argue, a key element in the ultimate Soviet military triumph. Stalin is notably absent from much of this story, except as a distant exhortational presence, if anything mismanaging adequate early defense preparations with his misguided trust in Hitler. For the most part, many idealistic ordinary citizens and officials contributed to the heroic effort, people from all over the multinational USSR, from Russians, Ukrainians, and Jews, to Central Asian Uzbeks and Kazakhs, among others. The Soviet people sacrificed mightily. Overall Soviet wartime losses are estimated to be about twenty-seven million. Of these, approximately eleven million were military-related. The remaining approximately sixteen million were civilian casualties. Some, such as an estimated two million Jews, victims of the Holocaust by bullets, were murdered by the Nazis and collaborators among the occupied populations, who were often susceptible to anti-Jewish racism. Some others were caught in the crossfire of the war. As the authors show, others died as a result of the desperate circumstances; in the course of frantic evacuations and mismanaged worker mobilizations; and due to lack of food and supplies, “placing demands of production over health” (278), and shortages of medical personnel and equipment.
Vladimir Putin's father, returning from the Leningrad front, found his wife, weakened by the privations of the Leningrad siege, already loaded on a wagon bound for a mass grave. Only his heroic efforts pried her from the wagon, and she survived to give birth to the current Russian president in 1952. Putin's story reflects the desperation of the times and how the serendipitous circumstance of war changed the course of history.
The authors document how the Soviet government desperately sought to control the enormous difficulties of the day-to-day management of the war, and how often orders from the top were simply resisted, sabotaged, or unrealistic. In the desperate conditions, mobilizations of thousands of workers sometimes yielded a fraction of those called up, as conditions at the factories were dire, with none of the most basic amenities, such as toilet and bathing facilities, beds and bedding, changes of clothes, heat, and water. Workers ran away, often back to the rural areas and collective farms from which they had been called. Collective farm managers, short of workers, often hid the runaways. The Soviet saying, “You pretend to pay us, we pretend to work,” was certainly applicable, especially in the early years of the war. All kinds of measures were tried; protocols were often ignored as pressure to produce for the front grew ever more intense. At numerous points, state bureaucrats tried to gain control of worker shortages by ignoring or tightening health measures: “Alarmed by the inexorable rise in absence for illness but unable to alter the fundamental conditions that caused it, the state sought to cut down on lost work time by making it harder for workers to receive sick leave” (279). Sometimes such measures worked; sometimes workers ignored or openly defied them.
Nevertheless, in the end, enough worked to contribute significantly to the outcome. As the authors demonstrate, the Soviet effort was critical to victory over Nazi Germany and its allies. By the time the Allied second front was opened with the 6 June 1944 Normandy landings, the war was essentially won. The Red Army, with the enormous efforts and support of the civilian population, saved the democratic West.
The effects, however, on the Soviet people were long-lasting. The male population was decimated; there were twenty million more women than men and the gender imbalance took years to even out. The US and Russian populations at the beginning of the twentieth century were about the same; at present, the US population is about 350 million; the Russian population is about 140 million. Life expectancy and infant mortality still lag in Russia.
This book is notable for the many individual stories culled from the archives and interviews, and for the use of statistics to make vivid the larger picture of the war's effects at different times, on different segments of the population, in the regions to which many evacuated as well as those occupied by the invaders. It is also a reminder of the resonance that the enormous suffering of the peoples of the Soviet Union still has today and the way that memories of the war shape so many of the actions of current leaders.
Reading this book, with mention of devastation in Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol, Odesa, and other areas of Ukraine, is a stark reminder of the terrible losses of World War II and the tragedy that these same places are once again scenes of destruction and human suffering. The authors conclude with words that seem especially ironic now: “At a time of resurgent nationalism and hate, [this history] commands the living never to forget that they died so that future generations could live in a world without fascism” (379).
Oksana Kis, Survival as Victory: Ukrainian Women in the Gulag, Harvard Series in Ukrainian Studies, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021, 652 pp., 78 color photos, 10 photos, €84.50 (hardback), ISBN: 9780674258280.
Book review by Vanya Ivanova
Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies
with Ethnographic Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
Deeply touching and eloquently written, Survival as Victory: Ukrainian Women in the Gulag by Oksana Kis succeeds in expanding the reader's views and elevating the spirit beyond the expected Gulag narratives. The everyday torture and struggles of the Ukrainian women who were political prisoners in the camps in the period from 1939 to 1956 are present; however, the book brings light and bears witness to the strength and humble beauty of 150 Ukrainian women's voices, along with that of the author, which are well intertwined in all seven chapters of the book. These chapters include topics such as: the daily life of women in the Gulag in research and personal memoirs; the living conditions in prisons and camps in the 1940s and 1950s; national identity and Christian faith during imprisonment; creativity and free time; humanity and femininity in captivity; the body, sexuality, and love; and motherhood behind bars—a cursed blessing. The power of female solidarity, the everyday survival strategies, and the “almost imperceptible but very effective acts of resistance to the dehumanizing impact of the regime” (2) are key notions and merits of the book.
While analyzing the memoirs of these women, sentenced for so-called political crimes, Kis insists that the modern history of Ukraine cannot be “complete, comprehensive and accurate” without answering the questions of “how these women made sense of what they went through, what exactly helped them survive the inhuman conditions and withstand the most critical moments (all of which helped preserve their physical health and sanity), and how their experience influenced their lives, world views, values, and life trajectories” (16–17). She sees the unique heuristic potential of personal stories as historical sources, alongside the factually grounded analysis that the book provides. Thus, the book brings attention to a little-researched prism of the gender-segregated spaces of the Gulag during the late Stalinist period, through the personal recollections of Ukrainian women who survived and “felt the need to testify about the crimes” (17).
The central concept of the book is women's agency, which sees women as “proactive, effective subjects in the historical process, and proper participants in History whose experience happens to have a gender aspect” (91). Thus, Kis focuses on the “typical survival strategies used by women, their ways of adapting and forms of resistance” (95). Among these acts, the survival networks built by the Ukrainian women political prisoners, and especially the ties that they maintained with care, stand out. Ukrainianness is described as a unique ethnic identity feature in their support and solidarity (witnessed also in memoirs of women of different ethnic origins, such as Polish and German women), along with the Ukrainian language, their longing for the homeland, and their grief over the fate of the Ukrainian people. The author concludes that over time these ties evolved in micro-communities among the Ukrainian women. Another important tie of support was that with the outside world, with close acquaintances from the homeland, bringing both memories from the previous life and humanness and individuality to the women. These connections were maintained through letter writing, which allowed women to “feel like they belonged to a certain social circle, [and] help them preserve this identity” (209). Another source of strength for the Ukrainian women was their practice of the Christian religion, through their creation of rosaries; the songs that they sang; and rituals during holidays like Easter and Christmas, fasting, and Sunday prayers, giving them “solace at the most difficult times” (255). The need for beauty, evidenced by the embroideries they found time to complete despite extreme exhaustion, is another form of everyday acts of resistance, showing “the inability of the regime to completely control” (246) the consciousness of women political prisoners, and affirming that “you can kill the body but not the free spirit” (259). The text is rich with different examples of how significant “the creative outlet” was for the women, through singing protests, poem writing, embroidery, reading, storytelling, and appreciating nature. These acts helped them preserve their individuality and human identity, finding its sublime form in the conscious choice to survive—“I decided to survive … ” (334). Thus, within their “small community based on national sisterhood” (505), in the barracks that “became the living space where a prisoner counterculture was born, took shape and evolved” (504), the women turned into a “moral community” that shared a common fate.
Besides its empowering and personal side, this book is also an informative and nuanced exploration and application of the theories of other scholars in the field, such as Anne Applebaum, Joan W. Scott, and Lynn M. Thomas. It has an additional encyclopedic value thanks to its listing in the appendixes of the names and dates of birth of all women prisoners whose memoirs were used, as well as the geographical locations of prisons mentioned in the texts. All the illustrations come from different memorial museum collections, revealing through their light, color, and beauty the victory of the Ukrainian women.
Another remarkable merit of the book can be found in the conclusion, where Kis systematizes the challenges that Ukrainian women managed to cope with in the Gulag camps and prisons. Among them: overcoming isolation and the information vacuum in order not to lose themselves among strangers; domesticating their living space so as not to forget who they were while in an alien environment; overcoming monotony and indeterminacy in order not to lose themselves in the flow of time; overcoming emotional decline and despair so as not to lose hope; preserving their system of values in order not to lose their moral compasses; maintaining female gender identity so as to feel that they remained women; and maintaining their Ukrainianness in order not to lose their ethnic identity (506–507).
The English-reading audience can only be grateful for the translation of this book, first published in Ukrainian, which appeals both to the professional but also the wider audience. Despite the repressive Soviet system, many Ukrainian women political prisoners survived, thus manifesting the power of female solidarity, as conveyed through the beautiful image on the cover—two women holding hands.
Yelena Lembersky and Galina Lembersky, Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour: Memories of Soviet Russia, Boston: Cherry Orchard Books, 2022, 247 pp., $17.19 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-64469-669-9.
Book review by Valentina Mitkova
St Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia
Examination of the Soviet context during the Cold War period and the multifaceted absence of freedom that defined it (physical and spiritual, personal and political), analyzed through the optics of women's experience, has been at the center of a number of powerful feminist studies in recent years. In “Women's Experience of the Holodomor: Challenges and Ambiguities of Motherhood,” for example, Oksana Kis reflects on this genocidal event in Ukrainian history as an extraordinary challenge to normative ideas and practices of mothering, an episode undermining the myth of an unconditional, selfless mothering instinct.1 In another study of hers—Survival as Victory: Ukrainian Women in the Gulag—by focusing on daily life in the Soviet forced labor camps as experienced by Ukrainian women prisoners during the 1940s and 1950s, Kis reconstructs the strategies of women's resistance to the severe reality of the camps through their preserving of key elements from their daily home routines, as well as their blurring of regional and confessional differences.2 Carrying Linda's Stones: An Anthology of Estonian Women's Life Stories, edited by Suzanne Lie, is another intellectual effort to document through telling women's stories the social experience under the totalitarian regime—in this case, the experience of the Estonian people who were displaced and misplaced during and after World War II. Focusing on the way that these processes affected women's lives in particular, the collected personal narratives articulate various tensions between national identity and questions of gender equality.3
Sharing a similar sensitivity and reconstructing history through women's lenses, Yelena and Galina Lembersky's memoir Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour combines the sober documentation of real events in Soviet Russia from the 1970s and 1980s with the emotional density of personal experience. Intertwining polar perceptions and confronting personal states—nostalgia and fear, anticipation and hopelessness, loneliness and intimacy, a sense of rootlessness and cultural belonging—it builds a vivid panorama of the turbulent, catastrophic events in the life of mother and daughter—Galina and Yelena (Alëna)—in the Soviet context during the Cold War.
Apart from depicting people's lives swept away by sociopolitical forces, the book owes its exceptional impact to its unusual interpretation of the memoir structure. It is told from a dual perspective: the first and last parts of the story are narrated by the daughter Alëna, while her memories are contextualized and logically arranged in the second part of the memoir by her mother Galina. The broken thread of the narrative, its oscillation between the experiences and subjective feelings of mother and daughter, and the alternation of space and time perspectives all act as stylistic reflections of the different identities, the sense of fragmentation, and the lack of solid grounding that mark the lives of the heroines.
The story of the two emerges from Alëna's kaleidoscopic childhood memories in Leningrad, which depict a seemingly serene everyday life, protected in the female world of mother and grandmother. Alëna is abruptly torn from her dreamy existence (and from childhood) by the family's decision to emigrate—an opportunity taken in the context of the Soviet policy on Russian Jews during the 1980s, and one which, as becomes clear from the story, has been realized at too high a price. The latter is evidenced by the set of dramatic events that infuse the life of the family after the announcement of their intention—the refusal of the absent father (a probable state informant) to let his daughter out of the country, the forced departure of Alëna's grandmother Lucia, the activation of the authorities’ suspicion of potential emigrants, the fabricated accusation against the mother, Galina, and her subsequent detention and status as a refusenik (a dissident). Spiritual isolation engulfs the existence of mother and daughter, and becomes an emotional center for Alëna, who is forcibly separated from her relatives, orphaned and living alone with her trauma; and for Galina, longing and suffering for her child, fighting to resist moral depersonalization, and trying to physically survive in the Kresty prison, the Sablino labor camp for women, and during her later exile with compulsory labor, in the town of Gorky.
The basic motive for Galina's decision to emigrate, as revealed by her narrative, is neither the traumatic memory related to her ancestors (victimized by the Stalinist regime), nor material scarcity, problematic women's emancipation, the difficulties of single parenthood that she faces in everyday life (all contextualized by the espionage in Soviet society), or the lack of individual freedoms and the increasing moral degradation among all social strata, but her desire to preserve and reveal to the world the spiritual heritage of her father—the nonconformist artist Felix Lembersky.4 Subversive and rich in Jewish symbols, channeling an artistic mission related to the preservation of memory and the guarding of spiritual roots, reinforcing a collective identity incompatible with the socialist project of a cosmopolitan citizen, Lembersky's work was banned and doomed to oblivion in his national context. Hence the lack of any other choice for Galina, who was educated to comprehend art as an omnipresent nature, a demiurgic force capable of forming “culture, memory, history, and philosophy that will last for centuries” (115), but to embrace saving her father's paintings as her life mission. The thorny path to securing for them a future abroad objectifies some of the darkest effects of the totalitarian regime in her and her family's life—the denunciations born of jealousy and the pursuit of personal benefits, the omnipresent corruption, the espionage, the extortion by the secret services, the fabricated lawsuits and sentences for nonconformists, and the other forms of oppression traced in detail throughout the story.
Although the feeling of helplessness and despair, the doubt in humanism, and the sense of decaying values are dominant in Yelena Lembersky's narrative, clear optimistic suggestions can also be found in the memoir. Among them is the idea of the healing power of art. Attending painting lessons helps the young Alëna to heal her trauma, to channel the negativity and bitterness accumulated in her soul; writing poetry is a way for Galina not only to maintain her spirit in the context of the extreme trials she undergoes, but also to participate in her daughter's life when the two are physically separated; and after all, the paintings bequeathed by Felix Lembersky are a magical cure capable of bringing back to life a forgotten, repressed cultural identity (they are the “rope bridges” (55) leading Galina and Alëna to the synagogue and to clandestine lessons in Hebrew, reconnecting them with their spiritual heritage).
Another optimistic vein refers to the indestructible bond between mothers and daughters, and the spiritual resilience transmitted from generation to generation of women. Traceable in the two-way transmitting of strength and life wisdom between Lucia and Galina, Galina and Alëna, this is a key motif associating Yelena Lembersky's narrative with the intellectual efforts of contemporary feminist research and literary and journalistic works aimed at re-actualizing women's experience, seeking the place and role of women in the historical, political, social, and cultural processes that have marked our present. This vein does not allow such a story of women's determination and resistance demonstrated in the context of life's extremes, to be washed away like a drop of ink in a downpour.
Oksana Kis, “Women's Experience of the Holodomor: Challenges and Ambiguities of Motherhood,” Journal of Genocide Research 23, no. 4 (2021), 527–546.
Oksana Kis, Survival as Victory: Ukrainian Women in the Gulag (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021).
Suzanne Lie, ed., Carrying Linda's Stones: An Anthology of Estonian Women's Life Stories (Tallinn/Woodsville: Tallinn University Press/Lakeshore Press, 2006).
Felix Samoilovich Lembersky (1913–1970) was a Russian/Soviet painter, artist, teacher, theater stage designer, and organizer of artistic groups. A World War I refugee, he grew up in Berdyczów (now Berdychiv, Ukraine) and studied art in Kiev and Leningrad. Lembersky's work was intensely spiritual, in defiance of the atheism endorsed by the Communists and the socialist realism imposed as the only allowed mode of artistic expression. He frequently included religious symbols in his paintings. Haunted by the memory of the Holocaust, he is most famous today for his “Execution: Babii Yar” series (1944–1952), the earliest known artistic renderings of the Nazi massacres in Kiev. In his later work, he persistently incorporated Holocaust symbols into his semi-abstract canvases.
Mihaela Miroiu, Povestiri despre Cadmav (Stories about Cadmav), Bucharest: Rocart, 2021, 270 pp., RON 31.00 (paperback), ISBN: 978-606-95093-0-2.
Book review by Roxana L. Cazan
University of Oklahoma, USA
I discovered Eastern European feminism at Indiana University in a graduate course on Global Feminisms taught by Drs. Maria Bucur (History) and Purnima Bose (English), when I first read work by scholars like Nanette Funk and Magda Muller, Susan Gal, Gail Kligman, Kristen Ghodsee, Doina Pasca Harsanyi, Caren Kaplan and Inderpal Grewal, Vesna Nikolic-Ristanovic, Nadezda Nartiva, Slavenka Draculic, and Mihaela Miroiu. Miroiu struck me as particularly poignant, partly because, perhaps, when reading her work, I felt that my and my mother's experiences of life in Romania in the 1980s and 1990s were finally being represented in ways I never expected. I turned eighteen a decade after the fall of the communist regime in Romania (in December 1989). Like most girls my age, I experienced sexual abuse in the streets.1 I was told that I did not have a brain for math and science, and that I would be better suited to becoming a schoolteacher. During my undergraduate years, I was discouraged from writing poetry or attending poetry salons where most participants were men. Naturally, then, even though I may not have had the language to name what was happening to me at that time, I instantly recognized the power struggle that feminist writers like Miroiu were unpacking.
Miroiu's lifelong work is notable2 not only for her groundbreaking work in Romanian feminist studies, but also for her criticism of feminisms practiced in Eastern Europe shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc, which she groups under a category she calls “room-service feminism.”3 “Room-service feminism” for Miroiu is the transfer of Western feminist theory to the Eastern European context without considering indigenous ways in which feminist thought could reflect the specific realities of Eastern Europe, apart from its Western counterpart.
Even though Povestiri despre Cadmav (Stories about Cadmav), Miroiu's recently published novel, is a recovered manuscript that she had written before beginning her graduate career, I picked up the book expecting to discover traces of Miroiu's contemporary philosophical and political commitment to feminism, the way I encountered it at Indiana University. While the coexistence of the novel's “postmodern” traits and its author's feminist politics might seem contradictory considering the tenets of postmodernist literature, I hoped that they would converge.4 However, to argue that the novel is a deliberate feminist undertaking is to ignore both the decade in which it was written (the 1980s) and the author's own acknowledgment that at the time of writing this manuscript, she had not yet been introduced to feminist philosophy.5 Considering the many kinds of feminism that Eastern European women were already practicing during communism, my expectations persisted.
Povestiri despre Cadmav tells the story of a couple. Marius, an editor for a university journal, is also a writer. His partner, Catinca, has graduated from university and teaches at a local school. The two exhibit opposite personalities: Catinca is an extrovert who profoundly dislikes the establishment and seeks ways in which she can escape it by wandering the streets and forgetting to return home for days. Marius is an introvert who stays home while Catinca is away and seeks an intellectual refuge in writing. He is the author of a set of stories that follow the adventures of Cadmav—adventures that remain very cerebral, if not somewhat whimsical. He has no idea where his partner spends her time when out of the house. Catinca and Marius share a passion for culture, idealism, spirituality, philosophy, irony, and sarcasm, and both ignore the concrete reality that surrounds them, which is heavily affected by communism's last decade and its economic recession. Catinca reads about Cadmav and becomes obsessed with this character, especially as Marius runs out of inspiration. Eventually, the couple parts ways as Marius suddenly leaves Catinca and their small communist apartment.
Their friends are similarly interesting characters. Irma, Catinca's former university colleague, is also her best friend, confidante, and perhaps a type of alter ego. To her, Catinca confesses her obsession with Cadmav and with another character that she creates but believes to be real—the watchmaker Nathaniel. Irma is also a rebel who masks her antiestablishment ideology by working in a bookstore where she can find her own escape. Other friends of Marius and Catinca's constitute their “inner circle,” all intellectuals passionate about disestablishmentarianism who gather together and smoke, drink coffee, and listen to Western music procured in obscure ways. They represent an enclave that affords them survival in this authoritarian world.
The novel proposes yet another escape from the communist quotidian through the stories of Cadmav. There are five stories that are inserted within the novel. The expectation is that the novel's reader consumes the stories along with Catinca, who tells the couple's friends about Marius's character as if he were more than just Marius's invention. However, Catinca inserts herself into one or two of these stories, as if, given her proclivities for oneiric escape, she can actually control all narrative. The novel ends with Catinca searching for Cadmav-become-Nathaniel on a construction site where she had previously visited his workshop, and finding it demolished. She slips and slides into a tomblike crevice underneath the rubble. Workers are tasked with clearing the rubble, and among them, a young man finds the remains of Nathaniel's workshop along with some loose files that he starts reading. We realize that he is reading the beginning of the novel itself, and we suspect that his name might actually be Cadmav.6
Written in impeccable, smoothly flowing, and highly intellectual language, the novel displays an incredible handling of narrative control, putting forward concentric circles of stories inside stories and characters who become avatars of others and of themselves. The characters are sophisticated and the dialogue superb and witty. However, apart from presenting two very strong female characters, the narrative does not directly address issues that one may deem as being for women only. In this sense, one cannot and should not conceive of Povestiri despre Cadmav as an example of feminist literature. However, there is something profoundly feminist in the ways that the two female characters are built, both independently from each other and in relation to each other, that justifies the reading I would like to offer of them. And while the novel itself may not represent a deliberate feminist undertaking, the writing alerts the reader to the possibility of understanding the world beyond labels and gender stereotypes as enforced by the communist regime in Romania.7
The reading I offer below is my own exercise in feminist literary interpretation, and I hope that readers will pick up their own copies of the novel. I want to acknowledge that writing in English about a novel written in Romanian entails the danger of “translation inertia,” or the assumption and reproduction of Western modalities of knowledge production.8 All English renditions of the Romanian text are mine, and so are any errors.
From the first pages, the reader will remark that the language of the novel reflects a gendered, patriarchal approach to life, which allows the text to represent the world in a way which is already discursively familiar. For instance, when friends come over to Catinca and Marius's apartment on Christmas Eve, the omniscient narrator explains that:
The women didn't engage too much in polemics, maybe also because they were attracted to a dialectical logic, maybe because of the need to discern the truth in a manly way, especially since neither one of them was attracted by a formalism or scientism of any sort. Between them, Paul, the “poet” of the group, sat like a spoiled brat, as he was the only one capable of satisfying the women's need for subjectivity and sensuality. (132)
The discourse parallels a kind of mimetic realism, reflecting a patriarchal ideology reliant on biological determinism according to which “Women are seen [as] more emotional, unpredictable, less rational, unintelligible, illogical, and ‘incomprehensible.’”9 In her essay “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” Sherry Ortner investigates this assumption and suggests that both social institutions and cultural conventions and representations must be changed in order for assumptions about women and femininity as weaker or lesser to disappear.10 In the novel, representation is not free from the ideological preference of the system that it depicts, or from the manipulation of the socially dominant. Because of this logic, then, the formation of meaning and history that is mediated by language in the novel becomes a matter of construction. The world is built with that which is immediately available.
Following Ortner's logic, one may read in the novel a critique of the notion that women are closer to nature than to culture. This happens if one notes the opposing assumptions created by discourse—in a language that is very gendered and at the zenith of “state patriarchy”—with narrative action and storytelling. The novelist allows her female characters to transcend their positions as secondary both to the protagonist and to the men in their lives and to transform the very narrative itself.
In a Derridean fashion, the author deconstructs this hierarchical binary of subject = man and object = woman by laying bare the involvement of power in the signifying process and the production of meaning. Irma confronts Catinca about her unfulfilled desire for a man, a Cadmav who wears pants. Catinca replies by suggesting that she is smitten by Marius's character, but is not expecting or desiring this character to be male. Rather, she suggests that her understanding of Cadmav is of a person whose gender is ambiguous: “This is ridiculous, and on top of it all, you are putting him in pants! Who says I am looking for a man? This character can very well be a woman” (111). Catinca eventually assumes a degree of narrative control over Marius's invention, Cadmav, who morphs into Nathaniel so that she can orchestrate his very presence, even though he is awarded free will. Irma deconstructs the dictionary, or one of the ultimate (male-)written metanarratives, and transforms the neighborhoods recently built by teams of male workers not only by renaming streets and buildings, but by reinventing urban planning. In her reconstruction, urban planning is constantly transformed by those who live in the city.
The novel also questions patriarchal, heteronormative grand narratives such as “because we cannot all marry you” (132) by developing a complex relationship between Catinca and Irma, who believes that the most valuable relationship between humans is friendship, because it can never be contained and thus altered by institutions (170). Nathaniel believes this too. Miroiu problematizes this further, pondering the possibility of rearticulating language to reflect the limitlessness, eroticism, and ineffability of friendship, and the impossibility of its capture by institutions, by proposing the synonym sufletie, or “soulship”:
this woman, she, this Catinca with her teenage flares, was really her only everlasting love. (113)
Another time, Irma tells Catinca that “in our relationship with you, Marius and I are your thoroughfare, and I don't know how reconciled Marius is with this but I … ,” thus admitting her unconditional devotion (112).
Another way in which the novel opposes the equation of woman with nature is by reimagining female revenge. Irma attempts to find Nathaniel and his workshop, but ends up on a construction site, where she is raped. The scene is terrifying, the language cinematic, and the action dehumanizing:
The man grabbed her ravenously like an animal, snoring in her ear with grotesque lust, his entire brain power concentrated underneath his pants’ zipper, in a place yielding his bestial force that outweighed the woman's force of mind, the ability to depict her state of stunned stupor, caught in this terrific intercourse without any strength left to react in some way. (176)
The rapist is the head of the construction site, the master planner of urban development, and the creator of this space that empowers his bestiality. In order to seek revenge, this is what Irma will destroy: the space, its design. She is not seeking a legal course of action, which, since this novel is set during communism, would have probably been impossible. She is not hoping to physically destroy the man. Rather, she is attacking his very narrative role, and this so-called revenge becomes a work of creation, a recreation, a redesigning of space and of narrative outcome:
Then she decided to deal with a given neighborhood based on an assigned moral trait and to rename its streets and buildings using words that described this trait … The desire to work helped her finish one entire neighborhood overnight, rewriting its names in green over the white numbers. (201)
Her plan messes up the workers’ blueprints and directions, and estranges the construction materials to the point that the construction has to halt. Paint, as a prime material, disappears.
The story of nocturnal baptisms … flopped over the chaos of brownfields where trucks would get lost and supervisors were defeated. Here, slabs of concrete would be taken to buildings where workers were putting on their finishing touches, and the tiles to the sites where they were only starting to lay foundations. (210)
During Irma's difficult process of redesigning urban planning and thus taking away her rapist's novelistic purpose, she experiences unbearable cramps and lower backache:
The sharp lower back pain and hot flashes kept her pinned under that heap of files, unable to move, her mind simmering in this slime of dark thoughts. (204)
Irma's cramp signifies her labor and the delivery of her project. These are the labor pains of a narrative and of symbolic parturition. In other words, her femininity is not shackled by victimhood and destruction, but rather triumphant in one of the most powerful abilities of the female body.
That the novel was written during communism becomes evident when one notices that references to the regime are almost absent, and at most are vague and ambiguous. The communist regime in Romania severely punished intellectual criticism, which was deemed an act of treason. Miroiu would have risked her life by publishing such criticism. However, it is important to note that the novel's approach to gender also serves to critique what Peggy Watson and others have called “the ‘natural’ and therefore silent exclusion of women from the ‘power of the empowered’” as an essential characteristic of postcommunism in Eastern Europe.11
Feminisms in Romania today take many forms. They allow, as Kristen Ghodsee and Adriana Zaharijevic explain, for the possibility “to imagine a future that is as good for women as it is for all peoples marginalized or disenfranchised by the savagery of neoliberal übercapitalism.”12 Feminist literature embraces this goal in diverse ways. For instance, poet and queer activist Ileana Negrea writes not only against a literary canon written by white men, but also against a heteronormative tradition. She argues that:
Neoliberal individualism transforms the reader into a consumer and literature into a market. It doesn't address systemic or structural inequality. The poet who deliberately opposes neoliberalism necessarily writes about and from capitalism, and it is important that we do so and that we recognize how we situate ourselves in capitalism.13
Meanwhile, Magda Carneci's multi-genre novel FEM exposes a “feminist agenda of a woman's right to choose”14 with regard to her intimacy, sensuality, and (hereto)sexuality.
Mihaela Miroiu's unintentional contribution to feminist literature, albeit much dimmed, is also worth noticing. And here is why. In an interview with Kristen Ghodsee for the Women's Studies International Forum, Miroiu recounts a conversation with her college logic professor, who said about her that she was intelligent enough to type his work, or even read and write abstracts for him. Miroiu confesses:
It was exactly this subordinate and ancillary role, the only role that he believed women could have in relation to philosophy. And I felt really humiliated at the time. In fact, as a reaction I became a feminist, an unaware feminist. I was really shocked and I really felt like I wanted to symbolically kill those guys because they would not let me be what I knew I could be. This was the issue. I felt like they were transforming me into a bonsai tree, to keep me and my women colleagues small and insignificant.15
Miroiu's female characters also encounter this type of misogyny. And they flip it the bird.
See Maria Bucur's 2017 essay “Sex in the Time of Communism: The Ripple Effect of the #metoo Campaign,” Public Seminar, 7 December 2017, https://publicseminar.org/2017/12/sex-in-the-time-of-communism/.
See Mihaela Miroiu, Gândul umbrei: Abordări feministe în filozofia contemporană [The shadow's thought: Feminist inquiries in contemporary philosophy] (Bucharest: Polirom, 2020); Convenio [Convenio] (Bucharest: Alternative, 1996); Despre natură, femei și morală [On nature, women, and morality] (Bucharest: Polirom, 2002); Societatea retro [The retro society] (Bucharest: Trei, 1999); Politici ale echităţii de gen: Ghid pentru învăţământul universitar din Europa Centrală şi de Est [The politics of gender equity: A guide for undergraduate education in Central and Eastern Europe] (Bucharest: Politeia, 2003); Drumul către autonomie: Teorii politice feministe [The way to autonomy: Feminist political theory (Bucharest: Polirom, 2004); Neprețuitele femei: Publicistică feminist [Priceless women: Feminist publications] (Bucharest: Polirom, 2006); Dincolo de îngeri și draci: Etica în politica românească [Beyond angels and devils: Ethics in Romanian politics] (Bucharest: Polirom, 2007); Lexiconul feminist [The feminist lexicon], coedited with Otilia Dragomir (Bucharest: Polirom, 2002); R'Estrul si Vestul [The (R)est and the West] (Bucharest: Polirom, 2005); Cu mintea mea de femieie [With my woman's mind] (Bucharest: Carte Romaneasca, 2017); and Birth of Democratic Citizenship: Women and Power in Modern Romania, coauthored with Maria Bucur-Deckard (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2018).
Mihaela Miroiu, “‘Not the Right Moment!’ Women and the Politics of Endless Delay in Romania,” Women's History Review 19, no. 4 (2010), 575–593,
I am using Linda Hutcheon's definition of postmodern literature as characterized by a dismantling of absolute truth, by parable and pastiche, and by narrative fragmentation, all of which are noticeable in Povestiri despre Cadmav.
Miroiu defended her PhD dissertation in feminist philosophy in 1994. See her article “An Exotic Island: Feminist Philosophy in Romania,” Signs 34, no. 2 (2009), 233–239,
For a Romanian review of the novel by Ion Bogdan Lefter, whose summary mirrors mine, see Ion Bogdan Lefter, “Un prim roman remarcabil, publicat mult după debut! Si-o ‘cheie de interpretare’ a unei mari personalități,” [A remarkable first novel, published long after its debut! And a “key to interpreting” a celebrity] Viața Românească, 8 September 2021, https://www.viataromaneasca.eu/revista/2021/09/un-prim-roman-remarcabil-publicat-mult-dupa-debut-si-o-cheie-de-interpretare-a-unei-mari-personalitati/.
See, for instance, Gail Kligman's famous book The Politics of Duplicity: Controlling Reproduction in Ceausescu's Romania (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998).
Anna Bogic, “Translation and Feminist Knowledge Production: The Serbian Translation of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves,’” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 38 (2018), 203–230, here 206, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26496375.
Magdalena Ioana Ilie, “The Evolution of the Romanian Feminism in the 20th Century,” Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences 81 (2013), 454–458, here 455.
Sherry B. Ortner, “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” in Woman, Culture, and Society, ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974), 68–87.
Peggy Watson, “Eastern Europe's Silent Revolution: Gender,” Sociology 27, no. 3 (1997), 473, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42855234.
Kristen Ghodsee and Adriana Zaharijevic, “Fantasies of Feminist History in Eastern Europe,” Eurozine, 31 July 2015, https://www.eurozine.com/fantasies-of-feminist-history-in-eastern-europe/.
“Poezia queer: Dragoste, furie, (in)justețe” [Queer poetry: Love, madness, (in)justice], interview with Ileana Negrea, https://lenesxradio.ro/episodes/021/lenesx-021-ileana-poezie-queer-RO.html (accessed 24 February 2022).
Jozefina Komporaly, “Psychedelic, Profound, a Feminist Classic: Magda Cârneci's ‘FEM’ Challenges Definitions,” Words Without Borders, 22 September 2021, https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/book-review/psychedelic-profound-a-feminist-classic.-magda-carnecis-fem-challenges-defi.
See Women's Studies International Forum 34, no. 4 (2011), 302–307, here 304.
Mie Nakachi, Replacing the Dead: The Politics of Reproduction in the Postwar Soviet Union, New York: Oxford University Press, 2021, 352 pp., $39.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0190635138.
Book review by Sylwia Kuźma-Markowska
University of Warsaw, Poland
Soviet Russia was the first country in the world that legalized abortion, doing so in 1920 in the wake of the revolution and referring in its rationale not only to the health of women menaced by illegal abortion operations, but also to women's equality and their status in a communist country. The Soviet Union's relegalization of abortion in 1955 during the post-Stalinist thaw also impacted the reproductive politics of the countries of the Soviet Bloc in the postwar period, putting the region at the legislative forefront in this sphere, compared with the countries of Western Europe or North America. The reproductive politics of the Soviet Union, in spite of their significance, have not so far been a topic of thorough scholarly inquiry. This monograph by the historian Mie Nakachi aims to fill this gap, while its interconnected focus on pronatalist and abortion policies illuminates several surprising consequences of the Soviet Union's postwar politics of reproduction.
Five chapters of Replacing the Dead discuss the 1940s and 1950s developments in the reproductive politics of the Soviet Union, finishing with a detailed discussion of the relegalization of abortion, while the sixth chapter and the epilogue shed light on the following decades and the long-term impact of the 1944 Family Law and 1955 abortion legislation. The chronological scope of the book is thus broad, similarly to its primary source base, which contains a range of archival materials, oral histories of women who lived in Soviet times, statistical data, and medical and mainstream press publications in Russian. It is worth emphasizing that several archival sources on which Nakachi relies have previously been inaccessible to researchers, and that she unearthed them not only from central but also from local archives, thus presenting developments from beyond the main large cities such as Moscow or Saint Petersburg.
The two major topics discussed in Replacing the Dead are the postwar politics of pronatalism and their consequences, and abortion legislation and practice. Nakachi analyzes the impact of the (in)famous 1944 Family Law that encouraged Soviet men to sire children with unmarried women. This law, intended to mitigate the devastating demographic impact of World War II, resulted in broken families and divorces, children deprived of fathers, and, as the author argues, in the long term, in abortion constituting the main method of family planning. One of the lasting consequences of the Family Law was the birth of a large number of out-of-wedlock children, discriminated against in Soviet society due to their legal status and societal stigma. Another detrimental effect of the postwar reproductive policies was the worsening position of women, encouraged to reproduce but often deprived of family and child welfare amenities, in a society formally claiming women's equality and emancipation.
Nakachi delves also into the policies and practices of abortion, both in the immediate postwar years—when it was illegal due to the 1936 legislation introduced because of political and demographic reasons—and in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when thanks to the efforts of mainly women's doctors and demographers, it was surveyed and debated. Her detailed analysis of the gradual steps undertaken to expand the medical and social criteria for legal abortion sheds light on the political and legal process that led to abortion de-legalization. The chapter specifically dealing with the relegalization of abortion in 1955 refers to the “women's reproductive right,” but Nakachi in fact shows in this section that the discourse of the right to abortion, which originated among women's doctors and also peppered the letters sent to Soviet leaders by common women, never became the official narrative of the 1955 abortion law, and thus did not infuse the public opinion of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the discussions about the “right” to have children were limited to the question of when to have them, and not if to have them. In this regard, the trajectory of Soviet abortion legislation differed significantly from Western legalization campaigns, in which the language of “rights” and “choice” was strongly present in the public arena.
In her discussion of post-1955 abortion practices, Nakachi also refers to the notion of “abortion culture,” a concept that originated among Western demographers and sociologists to disapprove of the reproductive practices of Eastern and Central European women during socialism and in postsocialist times. An attempt to dismantle the notion of “abortion culture” by examining the issue of abortion from the perspective of Soviet women and Soviet leaders could result in a more thorough understanding of the practice of abortion in the post-1955 period.
In spite of these minor limitations, Reproducing the Dead is an important scholarly endeavor that offers several new insights into the reproductive politics of the postwar Soviet Union. One can only hope that it will be followed by new publications on the history of reproduction during communism in other countries of the region.
Olga Todorova, Domashnoto robstvo i robovladenie v osmanska Rumelia (Domestic slavery and slave ownership in Ottoman Rumelia), Sofia: Gutenberg, 2021, 444 pp., BGN 30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-619-176-195-1.
Book review by Nadia Danova
Institute for Balkan Studies with Center of Thracology,
Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia
Olga Todorova is one of the brightest representatives of Bulgarian historiography working in the field of social history. Among her significant works are a monograph that comprehensively analyzes the role of the Orthodox Church in Bulgarian society1 and a pioneering study of women in the Balkans in the fifteenth–seventeenth centuries, introducing a hitherto missing subject into the local academic context.2 Todorova's research on childhood also contributes to filling in the historical profile of Bulgarian society, throwing light on another social group absent from Bulgarian historiography—children.3 Social phenomena such as prostitution during the Ottoman period and pilgrimage (the so-called hadzhiluk) have been the focus of her subsequent studies.4 Todorova's contribution to revealing the mechanisms of the construction of national identities is especially valuable: it deepens the understanding of how stereotypes about the religious and ethnic “Other” have been formed.5
Todorova's latest work—Domashnoto robstvo i robovladenie v osmanska Rumelia (Domestic Slavery and Slave Ownership in Ottoman Rumelia)—is a solid monographic study focusing on domestic slavery in Ottoman Rumelia, the most durable and widespread form of slavery in the Bulgarian provinces of the Empire, which so far has not been the subject of independent historical research. Domestic slavery was predominantly private, usually without serious economic dimensions, lacked a particular racial bias, was socially mobile (i.e., “opened” to the possibility of an ordinary slave entering the group of “elite” slaves and vice versa), and appeared in softer forms. In modern and contemporary times, analyzing the phenomenon of slavery is of great importance for understanding the entire Ottoman period of the Bulgarian past. This is due to the emblematic position that images of slavery occupy in public consciousness, distorting the perceptions of the period, as well as the existing explanatory models that assign slavery as the main culprit for many of the adversities in Bulgarian history.
Todorova's monograph is based on the analysis of a huge array of primary sources, among which Ottoman documentation occupies a prominent place: documents of the Ottoman central government—texts of the Sultan's lawyers—are included, as well as the Sultan's decrees issued on various occasions (fatwās), documents of private law extracted from the sijills (the record books of the local Cadi courts), and hereditary inventories. Sources of neo-Ottoman origin have also been analyzed: Western European, Balkan, and local, including travelogues, memoirs, letters, diplomatic reports, biographies, chronicles, postscripts, and folklore records. Todorova uses nineteenth-century Bulgarian books and periodicals extensively as well. The rich linguistic abilities of the author allow her to integrate her research with the achievements of her colleagues from other countries working on similar issues, as well as with the theoretical perspectives established in this field of research.
The structure of the work allows the author to delve into all layers of her complex topic. It gives her the opportunity to trace the genealogy of the studied phenomena, as well as to reveal the mechanisms of various historical factors that played a role in overcoming one or another trend in the history of domestic slavery. The territorial boundaries of the study cover the lands of contemporary Bulgaria and their nearest periphery. Its lower chronological limit is the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries—the time of the Ottoman conquest of Bulgaria and the Central Balkans—and its upper limit is the middle of the nineteenth century. The final part of the book, however, analyzes some events that took place as recently as 1876–1878 as well.
The first topic that the author concentrates on is the prehistory of the studied institution—slavery in the Islamic world in the pre-Ottoman era and the formation of the Sharia slavery paradigm, which existed from the first centuries of Islam and functioned according to norms and rules coded by Sharia law until the Tanzimat era (1839–1876). Particular attention is paid to the zimmi doctrine, which regulated the relations between Muslim conquerors and conquered people, and which influenced the evolution of the institution of slavery in the Ottoman Empire. The outlined legal framework shows that slavery faced two regulatory obstacles in Muslim countries: prohibitions and restrictions on the use of potential domestic sources of slaves, and the emphasis placed by Islamic law and religion on liberation as a virtue, which resulted in a low rate of natural reproduction among the slave population.
The second topic studied by the author is related to the sources of slaves and their ethnic composition, and she points to three main periods in the history of the phenomenon. During the first period, immediately following the Ottoman invasion, the main source of slaves was the local population. The methods used by the conquerors varied from brutal violence (the model of uncompromising jihad) to softer measures in readiness for collaboration with the conquered (the zimmi model of compromise). Todorova emphasizes Ottoman pragmatism in applying a differentiated approach to women and children. The latter were spared and sold into slavery, while men were often killed or converted to Islam. Women's slavery in the Ottoman Empire was both to the state or Sultan and private; both “elite” and “ordinary”; both “productive” (of handicrafts or, less often, in agriculture) and nonproductive; both reproductive (concubines) and nonreproductive (11). During the second period, from the middle of the fifteenth century to the middle of the eighteenth, the number of slaves of Balkan ethnic origin sharply decreased. With the permanent establishment of the Ottomans in the Balkans, the conquered people passed into the category of zimmi—protégé non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic State—and ceased to be treated as a legitimate reservoir for slaves. The ranks of domestic slaves were exclusively filled by foreign prisoners of war or people purchased at slave markets. During this period, as is clearly emphasized in the monograph, the vast majority of domestic slaves were foreigners, while most Bulgarians were free subjects of the empire. During the third period, from the middle of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, slaves from Europe disappeared and the market was fueled by commercial imports, supplying slaves from Africa and Circassians from the Caucasus. This part of the monograph, outlining the differences between the situation of foreign slaves and free non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire, including Bulgarians, is of key significance for the study.
An important question raised by Todorova relates to the stages and mechanisms of the integration of slaves into the Ottoman environment. She traces the individual path from “civil death,” exemplified by enslavement, to the “resurrection” of many people as full members of society. She emphasizes that the act of emancipation did not mean a completely independent life, but a transformation into a patronage relationship between “the master” and “the slave.” The data extracted from several hereditary inventories in Sofia make it possible to reconstruct the stories of six domestic slaves who took different paths in their free lives, ranging from poor single people to wealthy wives. Another interesting issue that Todorova focuses on is the case of nonintegrated slaves up to the middle of the eighteenth century. The registers of the Cadi courts are sources of information about slaves who lost their lives, and others who tried, sometimes successfully, to escape from slavery or joined criminal groups. Todorova pays special attention to Black slaves, whose number grew significantly in the sixteenth century, and who became dominant in the nineteenth century. The author points out the more specific way in which their integration into Ottoman society took place, revealing the nuanced approach of the Ottoman government to them. Todorova pays attention to the status, organization, and geographical distribution of Black slaves in the empire, and shares interesting data on the existing lodges of African slaves, as well as their religious and social practices.
The sections of the book dedicated to the topic of Black people in Bulgarian imagery during the nineteenth century and the latter's evolution are especially valuable for the history of mentalities. The author emphasizes that the influence of modern (secular) racism, which was formed in the West at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, was explicit in some Bulgarian sources.
The reconstruction of the profile of the Rumelian slave owner occupies a special place in the study. The vast majority of slaveholders were Muslims, but there were also new Muslims, recognizable by the patronymic Abdullah, typical of Islamic converts. Non-Muslims represented a small number of slave owners, among whom Christians subjects of the Ottoman Empire predominated. These were representatives of the trade and craft class: an Orthodox clergyman, a Dubrovnik man, and a Jew. Todorova focuses on the synchronous slavery that existed elsewhere at the time by comparing slavery in the Ottoman Empire to slavery in the rest of the world.
Based on the preserved sources, Todorova provides information on cases in which slaveholders were non-Muslim subjects of the Sultan from the zimmi community of Jews and Christians. There is data on slaves—non-Muslims or Muslims from the Ottoman Empire—whose masters were from Christian Europe. The author's observations on the ambivalent attitude of Orthodox clergy toward the institution of slavery are of great significance: on the one hand, the clergy representatives condemned slavery and tried to do what they could for the captives’ salvation, but on the other hand, they interpreted slavery as a part of the God-given order.
The book also offers important comparative data on slavery in late medieval and early modern Europe, citing numerous examples of Orthodox and Muslim slaves in Christian Europe before the French Revolution. The fundamental principle of late medieval and early modern European slavery was not of ethnic but confessional origin, and the belief that the “Other” allowed to be enslaved was only the “infidel Other” was reinforced by the deepening division between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West. Just as Sunni Muslims enslaved not only all types of non-Muslim—pagans, Christians, and Jews—but even Shiite Muslims, so did Catholics enslave all kinds of religiously different people.
In the epilogue of the book Todorova turns her attention to the history of slavery from the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, that is, the Ottoman period characterized by modernization, Westernization, Europeanization, and changes in the bourgeois spirit. The author concludes that the institution of slavery during the Tanzimat era, full of so many vicissitudes and contradictions, reflected the very uneven and tortuous path of modernization of the Ottoman Empire, when the social elite was torn between Muslim conservatism and a striving for reforms in a liberal Western spirit.
The controversial question of whether the Ottoman period can be defined by slavery is given an empathically negative answer by Todorova's monograph. Indeed, under Ottoman rule, Bulgarians, like other Christian people within the empire, were actually oppressed and felt oppressed in many different ways. However, not every oppression can be defined as slavery. The study convincingly proves that during the five centuries of Ottoman rule, the vast majority of Bulgarians did not have the status of slaves. The metaphor of servitude and slavery was pragmatically used by Bulgarian nationalists during the nineteenth century for the political mobilization of Bulgarians against Ottoman political domination and for the establishment of a modern Bulgarian nation state, in tune with similar processes throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The sources also demonstrate that the human condition of the Bulgarians at the time was qualified as slavery predominantly in the eyes of foreigners coming from the free Western world.
Olga Todorova's monograph focuses on a significant issue in the history of the Balkan region. The documentary material used by the author, combined with her historical skills, have allowed her to expand the current knowledge of the societies inhabiting the studied area. Drawing a convincing picture of unknown segments of the Balkan population, Todorova's book contributes to the consolidation of Bulgarian ideas about sociocultural processes in the early centuries of Ottoman rule, filling another significant gap in Bulgarian and Balkan historiographies.
This book is a serious and intriguing read for all people interested in Ottoman social history, both professional historians and amateurs alike.
This review was translated from Bulgarian by Valentina Mitkova.
Olga Todorova, Pravoslavnata tsurkva i bulgarite, XV–XVIII vek [The Orthodox Church and the Bulgarians, fifteenth-nineteenth centuries] (Sofia: Prof. Marin Drinov, 1997).
Olga Todorova, Zhenite ot Tsentralnite Balkani prez osmanskata epoha, XV–XVII vek [Women from the Central Balkans during the Ottoman era, fifteenth–seventeenth centuries] (Sofia: Gutenberg, 2004).
Olga Todorova, “Deteto v sveta na vuzrastnite prez XV–XVIII vek (po material ot bulgarskite zemi)” [The child in the world of adults in the fifteenth–eighteenth centuries (on materials from the Bulgarian lands)], in Kontrasti i konflikti “zad kadur” v bulgarskoto obshtestvo prez XV–XVIII vek [Contrasts and conflicts “behind the scenes” in Bulgarian society in the fifteenth–eighteenth centuries], ed. Elena Grozdanova, Olga Todorova, Stefka Purveva, Yoanna Spisarevska, Simeon Andreev, and Katerina Venedikova (Sofia: Gutenberg, 2003), 154–225.
Olga Todorova, Prostitutsiata v bulgarskite zemi prez rannite vekove na osmanskoto vladichestvo [Prostitution in the Bulgarian lands during the early Ottoman period], in Granitsi na grazhdanstvoto: Evropeiskite zheni mezhdu traditsiata i modernostta [Limits of citizenship: European women between tradition and modernity], ed. Krassimira Daskalova and Raina Gavrilova (Sofia: Izdatelstvo LIK, 2001), 63–78.
Olga Todorova, “Evreite v bulgarskata slovestnost ot nachaloto na XIX vek do Osvobozhdenieto” [Jews in Bulgarian literature from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the Liberation], in Balkanski identichnosti v bulgarskata kultura ot modernata epoha (XIX–XX vek) [Balkan identities in the Bulgarian culture of the modern era (nineteenth–twentieth centuries)] (Sofia: Institute for the Study of Democracy, 2001), 88–111; Olga Todorova, ‘“Sexualizatsiata” na edna religia: Kum problema za bulgarskite vuzrozhdenski vizii za islyama”‘ [The “sexualization” of a religion: Bulgarian images of Islam from the period of national revival], in Balkanite: modernizacia, identichnost, idei. Sbornik v chest na prof. Nadia Danova [The Balkans: Modernization, identities, ideas. Collection in honor of Prof. Nadia Danova] (Sofia: Institute of Balkan Studies with Center of Thracology, BAS, 2011), 250–277.