The Role of Women in 19th Century Russia

In 1865 Nikolai Leskov published a novel entitled “the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District”, in this story Leskov chronicles the drama of a discontented merchants wife and her enthralling, if short sighted, lover. In the long run of course, the truth comes out, and the main character Katerina is caught in the act after killing three members of her family to ensure she can remain with her young consort. Taken against the overall background of Russian society in the 19th century, one of the primary themes is made very clear, against a background of social unrest and constant modernization and westernization which threatened the fundamental social fabric of Russian society, Leskov attempts to reinforce the traditional role of women. The way in which he goes about it is rather brilliant, using a dual “carrot and stick” method.

The primary method by which Leskov attempts to make his point is by pointing out the consequences of women breaking from their roles, or disobeying men. This can very clearly be seen early on in the story when Katerina becomes bored at home, and quickly begins an affair with one of her husband’s clerks. At first, their love is idyllic, and despite both of them being somewhat concerned with regards to what will happen when they are discovered, they continue on in this affair until discovered by Katerina’s father in law, at which point she murders him and the whole story begins to spiral down. Leskov seems to be saying by this sudden downturn of fortune that Katerina should have remained faithful, and continued in her womanly duties, and though she had been bored, she would have been better off if she had simply remained in her role. Leskov also seems to point out the catastrophic consequences he believes can ensue from women breaking out of their established roles and simply doing as they please. This can be seen as a reaction to increased westernization, and modernization of Russia in the latter half of the 19th century, which eventually led (in part) to the Bolshevik revolution and the overthrow of the Russian government.

The second and more subtle method Leskov uses to drive at this theme is the implementation of incentives for women who stay in their roles. Note the powerful contrast and descriptive language used by Leskov to describe Katerina at the beginning and end of the story. As the novel starts, Leskov extols Katerina’s virtues, describing her beauty, and the idyllic, if boring life she leads with her family. Katerina is certainly not the happiest at the beginning of the story, but she is very comfortable, and for the most part content. By comparison, at the end of the story, Leskov writes little about her appearance, instead choosing to focus on how miserable she is, and how despised she is by most everyone. This seems to be directed at Russian women in a similar situation to Katerina, living idyllic but boring lives in relative comfort, Leskov contrasts this against the prisoners life and seems to offer up the former as superior, encouraging Russian women to remember their place and reap the benefits the receive, no matter how bored they may become.

All in all, Leskov’s story provides a compelling case for the women of 19th century Russia to remain where they are, and to never forget what too much mischief could get them, strongly reinforcing traditional Russian culture.


Image source: