Part 4: St. Petersburg; First Journey to Western Europe, Section 6

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Part 4: St. Petersburg; First Journey to Western Europe, Section 6

This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.





    THE only bright point which I saw in the life of St. Petersburg was the movement which was going on among the youth of both sexes. Various currents joined to produce the mighty agitation which soon took an underground and revolutionary character, and engrossed the attention of Russia for the next fifteen years. I shall speak of it in a subsequent chapter; but I must mention in this place the movement which was carried on, quite openly, by our women for obtaining access to higher education. St. Petersburg was at that time its main center.

     Every afternoon the young wife of my brother, on her return from the women's pedagogical courses which she followed, had something new to tell us about the animation which prevailed there. Schemes were laid for opening a medical academy and universities for women; debates upon schools or upon different methods of education were organized in connection with the courses, and hundreds of women took a passionate interest in these questions, discussing them over and over again in private. Societies of translators, publishers, printers, and bookbinders were started in order that work might be provided for the poorest members of the sisterhood who flocked to St. Petersburg, ready to do any sort of work, only to live in the hope that they, too, would some day have their share of higher education. A vigorous, exuberant life reigned in those feminine centers, in striking contrast to what I met elsewhere.

    Since the government had shown its determined intention not to admit women to the existing universities, they had directed all their efforts toward opening universities of their own. They were told at the ministry of education that the girls who had passed through the girls' gymnasia (the high schools) were not prepared to follow university lectures. "Very well," they replied, "permit us to open intermediate courses, preparatory to the university, and impose upon us any program you like. We ask no grants from the state. Only give us the permission, and it will be done. Of course, the permission was not given.

    Then they started private courses and drawing-room lectures in all parts of St. Petersburg. Many university professors, in sympathy with the new movement, volunteered to give lectures. Poor men themselves, they warned the organizers that any mention of remuneration would be taken as a personal offense. Natural science excursions used to be made every summer in the neighborhood of St. Petersburg, under the guidance of university professors, and women constituted the bulk of the excursionists. In the courses for midwives they forced the professors to treat each subject in a far more exhaustive way than was required by the program, or to open additional courses. They took advantage of every possibility, of every breach in the fortress, to storm it. They gained admission to the anatomical laboratory of old Dr. Gruber, and by their admirable work they won this enthusiast of anatomy entirely to their side. If they learned that a professor had no objection to letting them work in his laboratory on Sundays and at night on week days, they took advantage of the opportunity.

    At last, notwithstanding all the opposition of the ministry, they opened the intermediate courses, only giving them the name of pedagogical courses. Was it possible, indeed, to forbid future mothers studying the methods of education? But as the methods of teaching botany or mathematics could not be taught in the abstract, botany, mathematics, and the rest were soon introduced into the curriculum of the pedagogical courses, which became preparatory for the university.

    Step by step the women thus widened their rights. As soon as it became known that at some German university a certain professor might open his lecture-room to a few women, they knocked at his door and were admitted. They studied law and history at Heidelberg, and mathematics at Berlin ; at Zürich, more than a hundred girls and women worked at the university and the polytechnicum. There they won something more valuable than the degree of Doctor of Medicine; they won the esteem of the most learned professors, who expressed it publicly several times. When I came to Zürich in 1872, and became acquainted with some of the students, I was astonished to see quite young girls, who were studying at the polytechnicum, solving intricate problems of the theory of heat, with the aid of the differential calculus, as easily as if they had had years of mathematical training. One of the Russian girls who studied mathematics under Weierstrass at Berlin, Sophie Kovalévsky, became a mathematician of high repute, and was invited to a professorship at Stockholm; she was, I believe, the first woman in our century to hold a professorship in a university for men. She was so young that in Sweden no one wanted to call her by anything but her diminutive name of Sónya.

    In spite of the open hatred of Alexander II. for educated women, - when he met in his walks a girl wearing spectacles and a round Garibaldian cap, he began to tremble, thinking that she must be a nihilist bent on shooting at him; in spite of the bitter opposition of the state police, who represented every woman student as a revolutionist; in spite of the thunders and the vile accusations which Katkóff directed against the whole of the movement in almost every number of his venomous gazette, the women succeeded, in the teeth of the government, in opening a series of educational institutions. When several of them had obtained medical degrees abroad, they forced the government, in 1872, to let them open a medical academy with their own private means. And when the Russian women were recalled by their government from Zürich, to prevent their intercourse with the revolutionist refugees, they forced the government to let them open in Russia four universities of their own, which soon had nearly a thousand pupils. It seems almost incredible, but it is a fact that notwithstanding all the prosecutions which the Women's Medical Academy had to live through, and its temporary closure, there are now in Russia more than six hundred and seventy women practicing as physicians.

    It was certainly a grand movement, astounding in its success and instructive in a high degree. Above all, it was through the unlimited devotion of a mass of women in all possible capacities that they gained their successes. They had already worked as sisters of charity during the Crimean war; as organizers of schools later on; as the most devoted schoolmistresses in the villages; as educated midwives and doctors' assistants among the peasants. They went afterwards as nurses and doctors in the fever-stricken hospitals during the Turkish war of 1878, and won the admiration of the military commanders and of Alexander II. himself. I know two ladies, both very eagerly "wanted" by the state police, who served as nurses during the war, under assumed names which were guaranteed by false passports; one of them, the greater "criminal" of the two, who had taken a prominent part in my escape, was even appointed head nurse of a large hospital for wounded soldiers, while her friend nearly died from typhoid fever. In short, women took any position, no matter how low in the social scale, and no matter what privations it involved, if only they could be in any way useful to the people; not a few of them, but hundreds and thousands. They have conquered their rights in the true sense of the word.

     Another feature of this movement was that in it the chasm between the two generations - the older and the younger sisters - did not exist; or, at least, it was bridged over to a great extent. Those who were the leaders of the movement from its origin never broke the link which connected them with their younger sisters, even though the latter were far more advanced in their ideals than the older women were.

    They pursued their aims in the higher spheres; they kept strictly aloof from any political agitation; but they never committed the fault of forgetting that their true force was in the masses of younger women, of whom a great number finally joined the radical or revolutionary circles. These leaders were correctness itself, - I considered them too correct; but they did not break with those younger students who went about as typical nihilists, with short-cropped hair, disdaining crinoline, and betraying their democratic spirit in all their behavior. The leaders did not mix with them, and occasionally there was friction, but they never repudiated them, - a great thing, I believe, in those times of madly raging prosecutions.

    They seemed to say to the younger and more democratic people: "We shall wear our velvet dresses and chignons, because we have to deal with fools who see in a velvet dress and a chignon the tokens of 'political reliability;' but you, girls, remain free in your tastes and inclinations." When the women who studied at Zürich were ordered by the Russian government to return, these correct ladies did not turn against the rebels. They simply said to the government: "You don't like it? Well, then, open women's universities at home; otherwise our girls will go abroad in still greater numbers, and of course will enter into relations with the political refugees." When they were reproached with breeding revolutionists, and were menaced with the closing of their academy and universities, they retorted, "Yes, many students become revolutionists; but is that a reason for closing all universities?" How few political leaders have the moral courage not to turn against the more advanced wing of their own party!

    The real secret of their wise and fully successful attitude was that none of the women who were the soul of that movement were mere "feminists," desirous to get their share of the privileged positions in society and the state. Far from that. The sympathies of most of them went with the masses. I remember the lively part which Miss Stásova, the veteran leader of the agitation, took in the Sunday schools in 1861, the friendships she and her friends made among the factory girls, the interest they manifested in the hard life of these girls outside the school, the fights they fought against their greedy employers. I recall the keen interest which the women showed, at their pedagogical courses, in the village schools, and in the work of those few who, like Baron Korff, were permitted for some time to do something in that direction, and the social spirit which permeated those courses. The rights they strove for - both the leaders and the great bulk of the women - were not only the individual right to higher instruction, but much more, far more, the right to be useful workers among the people, the masses. This is why they succeeded to such an extent.

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January 21, 2017 17:26:27 :
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