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BETWEEN KOLYMA AND GUILLOTINE: feminism that’s almost forgotten about

BETWEEN KOLYMA AND GUILLOTINE: feminism that's almost forgotten about
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We like to repeat «Ukraine is Europe!» But do we correctly visualize the complex and non-obvious connections that unite Ukraine and Europe into one cultural space? For example, what do we know about the Ukrainian contribution to global feminism?




Recently we told about the visit to Ukraine in 1964 of the French writer Simone de Beauvoir, who accompanied her husband, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, on this trip. In her book «The Second Sex», published in 1949, she raised a number of questions, the answer to which had a colossal cultural and even civilizational significance for Europe.

The book opened a new revolutionary page in the philosophy of feminism, turning upside down the framework of the usual patriarchal world. And so significantly that the Vatican forbade its reading under threat of excommunication. Simone was perhaps the most iconic figure of «second wave» feminism. There were, as we know, three of them.

These waves began to rise as early as the 70s of the XVIII century. Abigail Adams, the wife of the second president of the United States, urged her husband to grant women the right to vote in elections. She stated that women would not enforce laws they had no part in making.

They are not obliged to obey authorities that do not represent their interests. In principle, everything is logical, although, for some reason, we still feel pity for poor John Adams…


Симона де Бовуар в Париже,1949 год
Simone de Beauvoir in Paris, 1949 /




In the same XVIII century, without colluding with the first American lady, the French writer Olympe de Gouges asked an almost similar question: «If a woman can climb the scaffold and die under the guillotine as a man, why can’t she vote?».

Gouges asked this also quite a logical question during the Great French Revolution, when the terrible terror was mowing down its enemies right and left, not discriminating between genders. And the most important document adopted by this revolution was the «Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen». 

It defined man as exclusively male. De Gouges considered this an insult to the entire female sex and, in spite of the revolutionaries, published the «Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen.» Naturally, it was accompanied by a demand to grant women the right to hold public office and to vote.

But even the revolutionary-minded and freedom-loving French seemed a mockery of common sense. Olympe was not given any rights and positions but was still put on the scaffold — why break such a good tradition?

Against her background, it can be considered that Abigail Adams was very lucky — Americans just laughed at such an unspeakable female impudence.


Эбигайл Адам — (22 ноября 1744 – 28 октября 1818) — первая американская феминистка, первая леди США с 4 марта 1797 по 4 марта 1801 года, жена президента США Джона Адамса
Abigail Adams — (November 22, 1744 – October 28, 1818) — the first American feminist, First Lady of the United States from March 4, 1797 to March 4, 1801, wife of U.S. President John Adams /




At one time, the ancient Greeks considered even the presence of Etruscan women at the same meal with a man to be unbelievably lascivious. And suddenly, to give them the right to participate in elections — for thousands of years in the male world, this idea was considered the height of madness! And yet history teaches us that if a woman asks for something, she must be given it; otherwise, she will take it herself.

The process was unstoppable. In the first two decades of the XIX century, women’s rebellion brought its fruits, and women in European countries began to give women the right to vote. In the late 40s of the next century, Simone went even further, pointing out that the right to vote did not mean real equality for women.

Society was still a male-dominated system, and its treatment of the «weaker sex» was still governed by the wildest myths and prejudices. Once again, everything was exceptionally logical. Indeed, how could a woman exercise the right to control her body, the right to work, to education, and to private property in a society where it is believed that on the days of menstruation, her touch spoils meat?


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The general European trends of women’s emancipation have not bypassed Ukraine. Moreover, it was probably more ready for it than many European countries. How many of them can boast that a girl has the right to choose her own groom? The ancient tradition of matriarchy in the Ukrainian territories is the basis of feminocracy, which, like the images of the Great Mother, is firmly embedded in the cultural code.

Let us recall at least how Ivan Franko spoke of Lesya Ukrainka as «the only man» in Ukrainian literature! Ukrainian culture knows an incredible number of strong-willed, emancipated women whose activities do not fit well into the ideas of the «norm» of patriarchal society.

These are not only Lesya Ukrainka but also Marko Vovchok, Olha Kobylianska, Maria Bashkirtseva, Lina Kostenko, Oksana Zabuzhko, and others. Therefore, Ukrainian feminism can hardly be explained, following the example of Soviet propagandists, solely by the «corrosive influence of the West». It was a continuation of a long-standing, organic tendency for Ukrainians.


Леся Украинка (25 февраля 1871 – 1 августа 1913) — украинская писательница, переводчица и культурный деятель. Входит в перечень самых известных женщин древней и современной Украины
Lesya Ukrainka (February 25, 1871 – August 1, 1913) was a Ukrainian writer, translator and cultural activist. Included in the list of the most famous women of Ukraine /




At the turn of the XIX-XX centuries in Ukraine, there were organizations actively defending women’s rights. For example, the «All-Russian Union for Women’s Equality», «The Women’s Community of Bukovina», and «The Union of Ukrainian Women». The latter had numerous branches and even elected its leader, Milena Rudnytska, as an ambassador to the parliament. However, later Soviet authorities left not much of feminism. In a full-fledged form, it preserved only the right to work.

By the time de Beauvoir arrived in Ukraine, the domestic history of the struggle for women’s rights had been thoroughly forgotten. It was believed that in an «ideal» society, women’s rights are respected by default! We can only regret that Simone de Beauvoir and Nadiya Vitaliivna Surovtseva, once one of the leaders of the international women’s movement, did not meet at that time. They would have had a lot to talk about.

Of course, the Soviet authorities made concessions to the French guests and allowed some Ukrainian dissidents to visit them. But after 30 years in the Gulag, inviting Surovtseva to meet Sartre and Beauvoir would have been too much.




According to the memoirs of Leonid Plyushch, a prominent Ukrainian human rights activist, Surovtseva liked to make sophisticated mockery of cagebusters even during interrogations. He wrote that «she had enough sarcasm and irony for the entire KGB». The incredible fate of this woman deserves to be embodied in books and films.

Nadiya was born in Kyiv in 1896. Her father, a lawyer, did everything to ensure that she received a brilliant education. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Surovtseva finds herself in France, in the society of Ukrainian nationalists. Next, she goes to Vienna. Here at the university, she defends her doctoral thesis, «Bohdan Khmelnytsky and the idea of Ukrainian statehood», translates Ukrainian authors and folk tales into German, and joins the Communist Party of Austria.

She takes an active part in the congresses of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, held, in addition to Vienna, in Dresden, Hague, Amsterdam, Paris, and Washington. In 1924, Nadiya went to the United States, where she published and spoke to representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora.


Надежда Суровцова (17 марта 1896 — 13 апреля 1985) — украинская общественная деятельница, журналистка, переводчица. Доктор философии. Жертва сталинского террора
Nadiya Surovtseva (March 17, 1896 – April 13, 1985) was a Ukrainian public figure, journalist and translator. Doctor of Philosophy. Victim of Stalin’s terror /




Unable to think of herself without Ukraine, Surovtseva asks the Soviet ambassador to help her return to her homeland. She taught at Kharkiv University, cooperated with the Telegraph Agency of Ukraine, engaged in translations, and wrote books. But already in 1927, she is arrested, and since then, begins her endless wanderings through the Gulag system.

Ten years before the peak of repression, the regime sensed something wrong. A free and strong woman was a challenge to the patriarchal Soviet cult of the Great Father. After Stalin’s death, Surovtseva was rehabilitated.

She passed away in 1985 in Uman, where she worked on a voluntary basis in the local museum of local lore. Nadiya Vitalievna left us beautiful memoirs. They show that love, friendship, and creativity can be found even at the bottom of hell. Her story reveals the essential features of Ukrainian feminism.

It is not only that, since the time of Olympe de Gouges, guillotines have been replaced by Kolyma. If the first feminists defended their legal and political equality with men, then women like Surovtseva, with their whole life, asserted the human right to the homeland, dignity and freedom. And this, you must agree, is something that goes beyond the issues of sex and gender.


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