Russian Nannies from Pushkin to Stalin

By
Sarah Dixon Klump

"The history of the Russian noble family is in serious need of revision," stated Steven Grant, independent scholar, Washington, DC, at a 30 April 2009 Kennan Institute lecture on his forthcoming book on Russian nannies. Having read almost 1,000 Russian autobiographies and memoirs, Grant presented "vivid pictures of history, not only from below, but also from inside the home, offering sometimes startling polarities about how Russian society viewed a central figure of domestic life," as discussant Richard Stites, Professor of History, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, noted.

According to Grant, the conventional notion of the Russian noble family holds that the great majority of them featured either physically or emotionally distant parents, with no time or care for their children. "This lack of warmth or nurturing allegedly helps explain why Russian society and culture evolved as they did," said Grant. This argument goes on to claim that the change in family life and child-rearing practices, toward more loving and permissive forms, around 1850 is what paved the way for a socially and politically rebellious generation, which led to the major upheavals of the 20th century.

"If this story were true," Grant contended, "it would help to explain the extraordinary hold of the nanny on the imagination of so many Russian nobles: the unloving mother, who is unwilling or unable to fulfill her true maternal duties, is replaced by the loving peasant nanny, who then takes the place of the mother in the life and affections of the child." On the contrary, with the exception of a handful of very famous autobiographical works by radicals with dysfunctional families, such as Alexander Herzen, Grant found little evidence for this logic.

In his research, Grant discovered evidence of nannies in the historical record, literature, and the peasant oral tradition dating as far back as medieval times. It was not until the 19th century, however, that a prolific interest in nannies manifested in Russian culture and society. "The Russian nanny was at the center of an almost perfect storm entering the 19th century," Grant explained. "Her overlapping, trifold identities—female, servant, and usually peasant—help explain why the nanny could become a matter of such widespread interest for so many people."

Grant examined each of these identities in turn. First, as women were increasingly forced from public to private life throughout the course of the 18th century, family life and children became a major social concern. The cult of domesticity that had grown in the 18th century continued to flourish in the next. "The nanny shared in the cult of motherhood, either directly or indirectly, enjoying the modest advantages, but huge disadvantages, of…the notion that women are especially, even exclusively, suited for nurturing, loving, and caring for others," Grant said. Secondly, as slavery in Western Europe, America, and Russia came to an end in the 19th century, the global culture of service began to evolve in various ways. The practice of using a nanny was affected as newer, less familial, more commercialized, and more professional forms replaced old patriarchal ones. Thirdly, a search for identity, spurred largely by romanticism, led to a widespread enterprise among many thinkers and creative artists, which frequently led them to study the folk culture of the common people, the narod.

The most legendary nanny in Russian culture is Alexander Pushkin's nanny, Irina Rodionovna Mataeva. "Pushkin marks a watershed in the treatment of Russian nannies," Grant argued, "because he was the first to connect his own nanny with his larger oeuvre." The myth that grew up around her after Pushkin's death contains many elements, namely that she was the first to introduce him to his own native tongue, that she inspired his interest in folklore and folk culture, and that she was his muse in youth and early manhood. According to Grant, nearly all of such claims are either exaggerated or patently false. Nevertheless, the "Irina myth" has become ingrained in Russian culture, serving as a kind of inspiration for countless writers, poets, artists, and composers.

"By the middle of the 19th century," Grant continued, "nannies proliferated in all literary genres, becoming a stereotype in two ways: as a literary device and as an ideological image." As a literary device, authors invoked the figure of a nanny to provide a kind of automatic chronotope, a fixing of time and place in literature, and to merely add authenticity, color, or contrast to leading characters. As an ideological image, authors often expressed through nanny characters ideas of nationalism, conservatism, and radicalism.

This image of the nanny not only permeated Russian literature, but Russian culture more generally. Grant believes that two major ideological developments encouraged and sustained the prominent place afforded the Russian nanny in Russian consciousness and national culture. "The first of the ideologies arose with the slow dying away of an old regime," Grant said. He characterized it as profoundly conservative, backward-looking, patriarchal, nostalgic, sentimental, and aristocratic, reflecting the needs and desires of those at the top of a societal structure which had flourished nearly 100 years. Grant offered the second of the ideologies as an antithesis of the first, describing it as liberal, radical, forward-looking, egalitarian, rationalistic, and demotic, reflecting the needs and desires of those at the base of that structure. To each of these ideological currents, however, the nanny became a very potent symbol. For the first, Grant explained, the idealized nanny of the past embodied all that was good and praiseworthy in the old system, while for the second, the nanny was symbolic of a wronged class, and represented a direct link with the common people.

Post-revolutionary nannies were increasingly educated and professionalized, and continued to be used by families throughout the Soviet period. First a potent symbol of the virtues of pre-emancipation life, then of the world lost after the 1917 revolution, the nanny further became the supposed essential link between upper and lower social strata, grounding the otherwise too cosmopolitan and too privileged nobility.

"Unlike many historians who have written about Russian nannies," Grant concluded, "I do not think that in real life the nanny was often a mother substitute…but rather, a mother partner." For Grant, the nanny's importance in her nursling's life was twofold – first, in the great varieties of roles she played, often serving as moral teacher, family historian, and more intangibly, the source of a different perspective, and the cultivator of the child's imagination. "Second, and I believe more significant," Grant closed, "was the idea of a nanny – the powerful image of a nurturing, loving caretaker, which remained with most children throughout their lives."

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