The Problem of Female Rule – Catherine the Great

Portrait of Catherine II (1763)

Portrait of Catherine II (1763)

In the article Catherine the Great and the Problem of Female Rule, Brenda Meehan-Waters argues that Western European writers and Russian writers view the reign of Catherine the Great differently, and that these views reveal cultural reactions towards women in positions of power. Western foreigner ambassadors and correspondents alike of Catherine II almost always bring into discussion the fact that she is a women and the traits that differentiate men and women. Foreigners describe her as having “a masculine force of mind” with a “weakness vulgarity attributed to her sex” and as “an ambitious and unnatural women” giving the impression that “there was something inherently perverse in female ambition”. ((KM 380 – 382)) In general, the authors states that Westerners who felt threatened by the idea of a women ruler responded either by denying that Catherine held any real power or they exaggerated her negative qualities, therefore making her sound less qualified.

Russians, on the other hand, rarely brought up the fact that she was a women. There are two exceptions to this that the author brings up. Karamzin contrasts the masculinity and femininity of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and states that their reign complements the other but also attributes masculine traits as positive and negative traits as feminine. Sumarokov too has similar viewpoints articulates that there are strong and weak rulers and Catherine falls in between the two. ((KM 380-381)) In general though, Russians rarely focus on her femininity. The author points out that there was no ideological battle on female rule in Russia as there was in Western Europe, adding evidence that the sex of the ruler was less important to Russians. In fact, Russian empresses are often found in poetry as viewed as great warriors and strong figures. Another reason as to why the Russians view Catherine’s reign more positively is the old Byzantine idea of a hermaphroditic being that united the principles of both sexes. ((KM 384))

At the very end, Meehan-Waters points out that we more often study the reasons why Russians don’t judge her based on sex, and not why Europeans do judge her in this way and that this take on it is backwards.


Why do you think we assume that the Russian’s acceptance of a female is abnormal? How can this be explained by referring to leading Western thinkers?,_Tretyakov_gallery).jpg

The Decentralization and Gradual Decline of Kievan Rus’

The once powerful principality known as Kievan Rus’ experienced a gradual but steady decline in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact factors that led to the collapse, but it can partially be attributed to political decentralization and foreign invasions. Prior to the fall, Kievan society was characterized by uniform religion, a common language, and a common culture which kept the diverse state somewhat unified. The declining period, known as “appanage Russia”, was typified by a spreading out of political power and territories. This decentralization was caused by the custom of a ruler to divide his holdings up between his various family members following his death. As each generation brought a plethora of new, smaller principalities each micro locality became weaker and more isolated from the rest of Russia, making them easy targets for foreign invaders. The mongols took advantage of this situation and held at least some form of power over Russia from 1240 until 1480 when the Muscovite “gathering of Russia” broke away from Mongol rule. The summation of appanage Russia is a period of isolation and regression. The weakened principalities within Russia were isolated from one another and the nation as a whole was isolated from Western European nations; causing Russia to miss out on innovations and progressions and to regress culturally.

The overall decentralization of power and weakening of princely status throughout Kievan Rus was not consistent among all the principalities. The fate of princes in separate regions differed greatly. In the southwest and northwest, princes lost significant amounts of power as local elites took control over society by hand picking their own princes. This deviates from the tendencies in the prominent principality of Novgorod, a “merchant republic”, where the public imposed restrictions on the prince’s power to protect the interests of the populace and avoid tyrannical rule. The northwestern region deviated from the other portions of the nation as their princes retained unrestricted power. One of the more famous princes from this region was Dmitrii Donskoi, whose will divided  his assets up between his sons and his wife. Donskoi’s will is a clear example of the divvying up of holdings characteristic of Appanage Russia.


Was Donskoi’s leaving of land to his wife an anomaly or an indication of a more widespread tendency of giving widowed women assets?

Why did the regions differ so greatly in regard to the decline, or lack thereof, of princely power?

Works Cited

Kaiser, Daniel H. and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia to 1855. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Building a State in Post-Kievan Society

As Kiev was declining in power, Novgorod was growing and becoming more powerful, evolving into a “’merchant republic’” ((Kaiser and Marker, 84)) (Kaiser and Marker, 84). In Novgorod, princely power existed, but was limited, as seen in The First Treaty of Novgorod with Tver’ Grand Prince Iaroslave Iaroslavich.   This specific treaty lists a number of rules the prince is to follow when in power; it is interesting to note that the majority of the rules deal with land and property rights displaying the importance of land at this time. In Southwest Rus’, the Galician-Volhynian Chronicle provides insight to a different form of princely power; instead of princes in Southwest Rus’ the boyars fought for power.  Unlike The First Treaty of Novgorod however, the Galician-Volhynian Chronicle does not discuss the importance of land and property but rather the important role power plays in the creation of the state. In Northeast Rus’, The second Testament of Moscow Grand Prince Dmitrii Donskoi displays the importance of property but also provides insight to what kind of roles women had at this time. For example, Donskoi provides an ample amount of land and villages for his princess but he constantly repeats the importance of the princess in his son’s lives; she is to have the last say and the sons are to listen to her.


What can the role of property in these documents tell us about the importance of property or land at this time?


What can the role of Donskoi’s wife tell us about gender roles at the time? Can we claim that all women had an important role in society or only women in the princely, upper class?

Sputnik Generation and Gender Roles Regarding Interviews

The interviews of Natalia and Gennadii were similar in the way the interviewer approached each question, however also extremely different in terms of the answers provided by both interviewees.  Natalia and Gennadii, though they had different upbringings, were both citizens of the Soviet Union with relatively similar class status in a classless state.

Both Natalia and Gennadii recognized the type of family or social class that was drawn to their town and School No. 42.  Natalia stated that many of the school children had parents who were “of the party or a party official” and the questions asked of her seemed to be much more social and cultural related.  Gennadii’s interview on the other hand seemed extremely political, focusing mainly on questions such as “Can you tell me what you thought of Lenin and Stalin?” or his experience with and opinion on Afghanistan.

I can’t tell if Gennadii’s interview was so different from Natalia’s solely because of gender, however that is what it felt like.  Gennadii’s answers were relatively short compared to Natalia’s. He was also extremely careful with what he said concerning politics, for instance when asked about his views on Lenin he said: “You know, regarding Lenin, I probably can’t say.”  This could have either legitimately been a lack of conviction or it was retreat from a question that seemed too nosey.

These two chapters left me with a few questions regarding how journalists or novelists approached people from the Soviet Union and how they responded.  Did Soviet’s see these interviews as “digging” for information and took offense?  Was it simply the people interviewed for these chapters which made it seem restrictive? Would interviewers purposely take to males for political questions and leave cultural and social issues more to the females?

Gender in Rus Society

After having compared the  Pravda Russkaia with the Statute of Iaroslav, their treatment towards the subject of gender, women in particular, is not only apparent but different from each other as well. Specifically speaking, although both texts clearly state that women within society are more heavily governed, the methods which each text states are different.

Through out the Statute of Iaroslav the text clearly and consistently focuses on women in terms of sexuality. The text in particular focuses on laws around subjects including marriage, divorce, adultery, and cheating. Yet for the Pravda Russkaia, on the other hand, places more focus towards overall worth.

Furthermore when looking more closely to each document, in terms of  within Rus society, there was a surprisingly limited amount of information focusing on homosexuals. In the Statute of Iaroslav, in particular, the closest mention to any form of homosexual activity is found at the 28th law stating “If two brother engage in intercourse with one woman [they are to pay] the Metropolitan 30 grivnas; and take the woman into convent.” Other than this neither the statute or Pravda Russkaia made any attempt in mentioning the subject of homosexuals, which leads me to wonder if, during this time, the idea of homosexuality was so uncommon to the society that there was no need for laws to be made?

Observations on Rus Society

Having looked at the Правда Русская (Pravda Russkaia) and compared it to Iaroslav’s Statute I think that the change in the documents can tell us a lot about life in early Rus as well as the different roles that men and women played in their society. In my opinion the biggest change between the two legal codes is the shift in importance from material possessions to family as well as sexual values. In the Pravda Russkaia most of the laws are jumbled around with little regard for organization, however the central theme seems to be property and its value; however, in Iaroslav’s statute we can see Christian values starting to emerge as there are many laws pertaining to marriage and adultery in particular. These include rules about when and how people can get divorced as well as several clauses that talk about incest or sexual relations with other non Christians, actions which were both condemned.

Another aspect of this document that I think is important to look at is the role of women in Rus society. Generally when looking through history I expect to find women having very little power as compared to men. However, in Iaroslav’s Statue I saw several things that led me to believe that women held some power in early Rus. One law in particular that comes to mind is…

“if a girl does not wish to marry,[and] then the father and mother give her [in marriage] by force, and if the girl causes [harm] to herself, than the father and mother are guilty before the Metropolitan, and they are to pay the losses. Likewise with a young man [who does not wish to marry].”

Not only does this law seem to protect women from marriages they may not want, it also does something that I think is equally important. In the end of the clause it says that this practice is the same with both males and females who do not wish to marry. This leads me to believe that the people of Rus may have valued female contribution more than other societies of the time.

Lastly I also noticed that there was nothing in this legal code regarding homosexuality. I found it interesting that nothing was said, as this seems to be a very consistent topic in so dubbed “Christian nations”. The absence of this subject leads me to wonder whether or not this issue was important in Rus society or if it was a social taboo that was intentionally not included.

Gender and Sexuality under Differing Ideologies

Emily Smith

Revised Paper Proposal


In this paper, I want to examine the way that gender and sexuality are viewed under different forms of government. Gender and specifically women’s role in society has always been a controversial subject because different societies view women with varying degrees of equality. In the United States, women did not have full rights until the nineteenth amendment outlawed discrimination in suffrage based on gender. Yet women continue to have lower wages and have more difficulty obtaining jobs in certain fields than their male counterparts. When thinking about gender inequality and how women were only allowed full rights recently, a logical connection is the current debate on sexuality and how same sex couples continue to be discriminated against in much of the United States. The United States claims to be one of the most progressive societies in the world, and yet there are two major oppressed groups that are still working to gain equality in a country that claims to be the “land of the free”.

First I will examine one of the earliest works of literature to reference sexual relationships between two individuals of the same sex, Plato’s The Republic references the relationship between two males. I will examine Plato’s view on sexuality and gender, then the society which the philosopher lived in. How were the roles of women and sexuality viewed in classic Greek society? This question leads me to look to a government system essentially in opposition to the democratic republic of the United States, Soviet Socialist Russia. What are the similarities and differences in the ways gender and sexuality are treated in each society and form of government? How have these perspectives changed with time or have they changed at all? In my investigation I will attempt to expand upon these questions and why each society views gender and sexuality the way they do.

Originally my plan was to compare socialist and communist governments in general to the way democracy views gender and sexuality but when attempting to research I found that there was a lack of general information about each ideology and this made obtaining information much more difficult. In order to fix this problem I narrowed my research topic to three specific societies and ideologies. This has made research much easier and the information more related to the topic. I am in possession of Plato’s Republic, in which the philosopher strives to create an ideal state of justice and truth. In Bertel Ollman’s article, Social and Sexual Revolution, the NYU fellow discusses the changing views of sexuality in the social setting from the perspective of many different ideologies ranging from Marxist theories to radical liberalism. Another source which I will rely on is Disorders Of Desire Rev: Sexuality And Gender In Modern American Sexology, written by Janice Irvine, this work explores the evolution of sex in modern American culture. She investigates the psychological effects of these changes and the changing views of sex in the social setting. These resources and others such as: Socialism and Homosexuality, Gender and Society in Soviet Russia, and Greek Homosexuality will help me to investigate different perspectives on gender and sexuality during different time periods and under various government ideologies. There is enough information from these sources to support my investigation and comparison of these topics, with most of the sources available in full text online.

Works Cited

Ashwin, Sarah. “Gender and Society in Soviet Russia.” Well Placed Pottery. (accessed September 30, 2012).

Harrison, Thomas. “Socialism and Homosexuality  | New Politics.” New Politics. (accessed October 1, 2012).

Irvine, Janice . Disorders Of Desire Rev: Sexuality And Gender In Modern American Sexology. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2005.

Irvine explores the convoluted psychology of sexuality and gender in modern American culture. She uses social movements, government policy, debates and research to create a summation of American sexology in the late twentieth century.

Katz, Marilyn. “Ideology and `The status of women’ in ancient Greece..” History & Theory 31, no. 4 (1992): 70.

Kon, Igor S.. “The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Russia.” Der WWW2-Webserver — Website. (accessed September 30, 2012).

Loftus, Jeni. “America’s Liberalization in Attitudes Towards Homosexuality.” American Sociological Review 66, no. 5 (2001): 762-782.

Ollman, Bertel. “Social and Sexual Revolution.” The Writings of Bertel Ollman. (accessed October 1, 2012).

A more general view of the changes in perspectives in sexuality, Ollman discusses sexuality from varying perspectives and ideals. He provides useful background in different idealogies and time periods and how each viewed sexuality in a social setting.

Plato. The republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. *Primary Source*

The philosopher explores his ideal fantasy of the “perfect” state, in which all individuals are working most efficiently towards a common goal. One of the first works to ever mention the most basic ideas of communism and socialism, Plato explores the topics of family, property, government, and what it means to be truly just and whether or not this creates happiness.

van Dolen, Hein . “Greek homosexuality.” Livius. Articles on Ancient History. (accessed October 1, 2012).