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LHMP #307 Engelstein 1990 Lesbian Vignettes: A Russian Triptych from the 1890s

Full citation: 

Engelstein, Laura. 1990. "Lesbian Vignettes: A Russian Triptych from the 1890s" in Signs vol. 15, no. 4 813-831.

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While the study of homosexuality was developing in Europe in the later 19th century, theories and publications on the topic made their way to Russia, but did not necessarily shape how Russian culture and medical/psychological professionals viewed people in same-sex relationships. Direct evidence about female homosexuality in Russia is scanty, but a collection of three case studies were written up by a Russian gynecologist in 1895, based either on direct contact or on documentary evidence.

This article summarizes those cases and notes ways in which the Russian attitudes revealed in the document differ from those of Western Europe. In the few 19th century Russian texts that discuss homosexuality (e.g., in a criminal context), references to lesbianism are even rarer than they are in Western texts. The Russian commentaries (including these case studies) appear to discount the idea of connections between lesbianism and criminality that are made in European studies. The case studies also make a significant point of excluding either physical, intellectual, or psychological abnormalities as being associated with the specific individuals being discussed. The case studies make a point that homosexuality is found among all social classes and that the women engaged in it were “normal” by all other measures. One peculiarly Russian attitude that he contradicted was the idea that the “common people” were free of sexual excess or “corruption” that was thought to be characteristic of the urban elites, influenced by Western (foreign) values.

This is not to say that the doctor approved of the women he described. His attitude is inconsistent in some areas, considering homosexuality to be “abnormal” while a the same time emphasizing the normality of his subjects. Engelstein notes that the resistance to overtly stigmatizing homosexuality may be due to a discomfort among Russian medical professionals to being co-opted as part of authoritarian practices by the government.

Case 1: the peasant Shashnina (1886)

[Note: the narrative is somewhat circuitous and follows the revelations of the legal investigation, but I’m going to reorganize it somewhat for brevity.]

In a rural community, Mariia Pavlovna Shashnina was popularly known to be “double-sexed” or “double-rigged” (dvukhpolaia, dvukhsbruinaia), i.e. with both types of sexual organs, and that she associated only with girls and avoided men. She had some masculine habits, such as smoking, and resisted the authority of her mother and brother. She engaged in sexual relations with women by tribadry (techniques are discussed in detail) and several of her lovers testified that she had penetrated them with a sexual organ similar to a penis.

Shashnina had engaged in sexual relationships with multiple women, including one named Ekaterina prior to the latter’s marriage and Ekaterina testified that she had lost her virginity to Shashnina by means of “something resembling a male member”. After Ekaterina’s marriage, Shashnina began encouraging her to poison her husband, arguing that she was a better partner because she would never get Ekaterina pregnant, as well as being richer and more clever than the husband. Together they procured poison and killed him.

While in prison for this crime (or maybe before trial?) Shashnina began a love affair with another prisoner, courting her with gifts and pledges of affection. This led to a physical examination in the prison hospital, which was one of several examinations recording contradictory evidence, meant to determine if there were some physical explanation for her behavior. Although the various examinations differed on some details (such as whether Shashnina was a virgin), they all concluded that there was no evidence of abnormal genitalia, in particular no penis analog as described by her lovers. In view of these conclusions, she was released from the hospital. [There doesn’t seem to be any discussion of her legal fate, but that may not have been of interest to the author.]

Case 2: the prostitute (1888)

[Note: again, I’m condensing and rearranging the case study from it’s original rambling structure.]

Pelageia Kuritsyna was living in a brothel run by a man named Neiman in the area of St. Petersburg, accompanying her friend Ida Chernova. (There seems to have been a form of debt-servitude involved.) The two women were discharged shortly thereafter due to complaints that the two were lovers and were neglecting their clients in favor of each other, with Pelageia playing “the man’s role.” [Note: the text says that the two were called koshki, she-cats “as such women are usually called.” I believe this is an ordinary term for a cat, so the slang term may not have been overtly vulgar.]

While Pelageia was employed at the brothel, Nikolai Krasavin (one of the clients?) fell in love with her. When she was discharged, he paid her debt to Neiman and installed her in his apartment until, a year and a half later, he decided to marry her. The marriage broke up shortly thereafter and Pelageia returned to one of Neiman’s brothels, this time as a housekeeper. In her initial position, the tried to initiate a relationship with some of the other prostitutes unsuccessfully, but after being transferred to a different location, she began a sexual relationship with a prostitute there named Mania. Evidently her erstwhile husband, Nikolai, was still visiting her there and the other women said that Pelageia would pay them off to entertain him while she spent her time with Mania. This was all reported to Neiman who fired her, after which Mania quit as well.

Nikolai seems to have been in denial about his wife’s sexual preferences, despite the fact that Pelageia and Mania had moved in together with one of Mania’s relatives. But he became convinced when he intercepted letters between the two which “were filled with tender names and expressions of love.” [Note: I wish we could have transcripts of the letters, which were later presented as legal evidence. But I get ahead of myself...] Pelageia offered to earn money for her husband by renting an apartment and taking in some coincidence including Mania and another prostitute. Nikolai would visit her there and sometimes spend the night until, suspicious of how his wife would go to bed with Mania (and not him) he spied on them and saw them engaged in sex.

Nikolai thereupon decided to murder his wife and--after bolstering his intent with significant amounts of alcohol--stabbed her to death, also wounding Mania which she came to Pelageia’s defense.

Pelageia was autopsied as part of the investigation and a detailed description of her physiology and sexual organs is included, pronouncing her anatomy to be that of a normal woman. The author adds his commentary that she “was not a stupid woman but crafty and completely in command of her mental faculties... All her actions...were entirely expedient and rather well thought out.” That is, he concluded that her homosexuality was not due to anatomical, mental, or psychological defects.

Case 3: the widow and her lover (1889)

[Note: Based on the description of the behavior and reactions of the person identified as N, I would suggest that N might identify today as a trans man, rather than a lesbian. Or perhaps not, if N had access to other social models for their experiences and identity, though I think the transgender case is much stronger. The Russian author of the original account, and the author of this article use female language to refer to N. I am going to follow the practice I have been developing and use they/them for N in order to highlight the uncertainty. But read my summary with the understanding that I am both misrepresenting the text and probably misrepresenting N’s gender with this compromise. As with the previous two cases, I’ve rearranged the narrative somewhat.]

The doctor met this couple through V (N’s partner) who came to him for treatment of a gynecological issue. The case study of V (at the end of the article) describes her as a “passive tribade” who had always presented in a feminine manner. At school, she had fallen in love with a number of girlfriends, and at age 15, one of those girlfriends had "taught her to masturbate” [note: a common way that f/f sex was described in historic literature] V was attracted to N at their first meeting and soon fell in love. V has also been attracted to men and felt that she was capable of falling in love with a man and getting married, but since she is completely happy and satisfied with her relationship with N, she has no intention of doing so. V saw the doctor (author) for an infection of the vulva. When he suggested that it might be due to masturbation, V became embarrassed but was eventually pursuaded to answer questions about it in writing, explaining her relationship with N.

The doctor procured an introduction to N and treated them for a non-gynecological issue, then pursuaded N to write a detailed autobiography in response to questions. The doctor notes that N is “well-educated, sensible, dependable, and serious,” that they are feminine in appearance but has some mannerisms that are considered masculine. Later in the article, the doctor notes that he was able to examine N’s external genitals and found them small but otherwise normally female. N refused to allow any more invasive examination. [Note: Good for N!]

The rest is based on N’s reported autobiography. N enjoys reading and literature and attending the theater and opera, but doesn’t care for needlework or attending public balls, though they enjoy private dancing among friends in which they always take the male role. N dresses in feminine garments but doesn’t follow stylish fashions and chooses garments that have slightly masculine overtones in style.

As a child, N preferred the society of boys and active play. They disliked dolls and thought girls were timid and listless. When N was 9 their mother died, leaving three children: N and two younger boys. After this N’s father included them in masculine activities such as riding and hunting and N acquired the masculine nickname “Misha” rather than feminine “Masha”. [Note: “Misha” is a nickname for Mikhail, “Masha” for Maria. The doctor’s shorthand of N is presumably from their surname.]

N was then sent to boarding school and attached themself to an older girl who had a reputation for daring active escapades. Later N acquired a girlfriend who enjoyed kissing and caressing, which N found pleasant and reciprocated such that they became known as “the inseparables.” Their affection evolved into sexual activity, but the girlfriend developed emotional problems and was taken home by her parents. N enjoyed relationships with several other girls after that and began wondering if they might be a man.

While N was at school their father and brothers died within a short period and N went to live with their aunt. At first N’s girlfriend visited and they shared a bed in a separate room, but N was inconsolable when the girlfriend had to leave. N met another young woman and fell in love again. (This was V.) N’s aunt encouraged the relationship as N’s emotional outlook was much improved and V was encouraged to join their household.

N’s aunt tried to encourage male suitors for N but N rejected them. One refused to be put off and gained the friendship of N and V over conversation and intellectual pursuits. When N’s aunt began a fatal decline she urged N to marry the man in order to stabilize her future, as life for a wealthy unmarried woman would be precarious. N initially disagreed but then concluded it was good advice. N laid out the necessary conditions: it would be a friendly relationship but not sexual. N and V would continue to share a bedroom and N’s husband would have a separate bedroom and study.

N’s husband agreed and the marriage proceeded, but he soon began initiating physical affections which “enraged and irritated” N who was frustrated that the situation had become dissatisfactory. Then one evening N’s husband accidentally(?) walked in on N and V in the middle of making love. He withdrew in embarrassment and confusion. N and V spent that night discussing the situation and concluded the only answer was for them to leave. But on rising, they found that N’s husband had committed suicide, leaving a note for the police and a separate note telling N “I was convinced that my happiness was impossible; I am removing myself in order not to interfere with yours.” Now N was a (wealthy) widow and free to continue life with V.

N dicusses their gender identity. [Since this is a direct quote, it uses female pronouns.] “When only fifteen she first became aware that she was made to be a man, though mistakenly endowed by nature with female sexual organs. She experienced a man’s attraction for girls and women but none at all for men, whom she merely found pleasant and intelligent to talk to. She long ago recognized her peculiar condition, as she calls it. Though she realizes she does not resemble other women, she does not consider herself a monster but only an error of nature. All her feelings are exclusively masculine; she unconsciously, instinctively does everything in a masculine way. She would very much like to dress as a man and restrains herself only for the sake of propriety. She does not wear her hair in a feminine way and always dreams of herself as a man, sometimes even with whiskers. In the company of women she knows well, she feels entirely manly and is always in excellent spirits. In the company of men, by contrast, she feels shy and constrained, like a school child in the company of preceptors and teachers.”

N notes that all their acquaintances are women, though she only feels love for some of them. Since their husband’s death, they interact with men rarely and only for business. “She has tried several times to imagine herself involved with a man, in particular with her late husband, but is seized each time by a horrible, repulsive, unbearable feeling of disgust.” When asked whether they wanted to be “liberated” from their condition, N answered, “What for? I am happy the way I am. Transformed into an authentic woman, I might not be as happy; indeed that would be impossible. To change in that way, I would have to be reborn in either body or soul.”

Time period: 

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