Between the Fields and the City: Women, Work, and Family in Russia, 1861-1914.

Between the Fields and the City: Women, Work, and Family in Russia, 1861-1914. – book reviews

Michael F. Hamm

Urbanization in nineteenth-century Russia favored men; they found more jobs, higher pay, and friendly public spaces such as taverns and pubs that were generally off limits to women. Why then did women leave the villages? What kind of life awaited them in the towns? Barbara Alpern Engel’s richly documented Between the Fields and the City seeks to answer these questions, focusing on the towns and villages of Russia’s Central Industrial Region.

If cities offered women a wider menu of personal choices, relative anonymity within which to pursue those choices, and havens for the abused and the abandoned, they also acquired reputations for loose morals. “Here in the factory regions it is considered no crime for a girl to lose her virginity,” (p. 119) one ethnographic correspondent wrote, apparently in the 1880s. While such concerns were not groundless, Engel believes that anxieties over losing control over women led both middle-class and peasant men “to exaggerate the impact of wage earning on women’s sexual behavior before and after marriage.” (p. 121)

In contrast to France, where women were more likely to leave the countryside than men, Russian women were far more likely to remain in the villages. Since men could make more in the cities than women, it made sense for women to remain at home, tending the land and the children. In addition, Engel argues that patriarchal values reinforced and often superseded economic calculation. Women who went off to work and live alone and without male supervision would lose their modesty and submissiveness, it was feared. In one 1913 divorce proceeding, for example, tensions arose initially because the wife had worked in a factory prior to her marriage. Mocked and ultimately beaten, she refused to accept her punishment as part of the natural order. “The growth of women’s self- assertiveness was exactly what peasants feared would happen if women migrated,” (p. 83) Engel concludes.

Village women often had to endure separation from their city husbands for lengthy periods of time, sometimes even two years, and some took up with other men. The consequences often involved brutal public beatings, but Engel finds that in conflicts resulting from lengthy separation, even if peasants did not condone a woman’s adulterous behavior, “their beliefs about women’s unruly nature and the need for male supervision often made them more understanding of it.” (p. 56)

Engel provides a lengthy discussion of prostitution, noting that while many prostitutes were victims of circumstance, many others joined the profession because of its income potential. Frequently, women who became prostitutes “lacked fathers to protect and restrain them in a society where the patriarchal family and not the state served as the primary source of welfare and of social control.” (p. 197) For many officials, Engel believes, the most troublesome feature of prostitution was the fact that the women involved were operating beyond the restraints of traditional patriarchal authority.

Barbara Alpern Engel has compiled a rich variety of personal stories and anecdotes that collectively tell us much about the human dimension of nineteenth-century Russian urbanization. Her initial chapter, “Patriarchy and its Discontents,” could be used as part of a reading assignment on peasant culture in a course on Russian history. For scholars, Engel’s work contributes substantially to an understanding of how people interacted in the urban environment, and particularly in its socially heterogeneous housing. It also testifies to the pitfalls of using categories such as “proletarian.” Engel appends a brief but useful description of the archival fondy that she used, one of which contains data on residents in 500 St. Petersburg houses from 1849 until 1922. Although the writing is repetitious at times, Between the Fields and the City is an engaging work for anyone interested in Russian social history.

Michael F. Harem Centre College

COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group