Senior Thesis on Soviet Peasant Women During World War II

John Siragusa, Class of 2007

Thanks to the Evalyn Clark Memorial Travel Fellowship, I was able to conduct research for my thesis at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. During one week in the beginning of January, I used the resources of the European Reading Room to further my study of Soviet peasant women during World War II. I was originally attracted to this topic by the war’s powerful impact on the Soviet psyche and its status as a cultural symbol and point of memory. However, my original research revealed that while soldiers, workers, urban women, and of course Stalin had all received historical tributes for their part in Soviet victory, the history of peasant women remained mostly unwritten.

Yet in exploring the war experience of rural women, the paucity of memoirs and other testimonials from this period made research for my thesis frustrating at best and placed severe limitations on my ability to conduct research. Fortunately, the Library of Congress maintains extensive holdings of Soviet publications, and I was able to search through the entire wartime runs of magazines such as Krestianka (Peasant Woman) and Rabotnitsa (Worker-Woman) and the Red Army’s daily newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). Using Krestianka allowed me to examine the official discourse specifically as it was adapted to peasant women. Deciphering the trends within it, especially its consistent praise of heroic individual accomplishments, helped me to distinguish which issues the government found of interest or of concern to peasant women and, more precisely, the patriotic and self-sacrificing attitudes the authorities encouraged among them. These official representations simultaneously recognize the hardships overcome by high-achieving women capitalizing on the opportunities for advancement provided by the war, and serve as exemplars of appropriate behavior. Moreover, these representations blurred the lines between the battlefront and the home front, analogizing the contributions of peasant women to those of active soldiers. Studying Krasnaya Zvezda and Rabotnitsa confirmed these conclusions and helped me view the construction of heroes and heroines in all sectors of society as a phenomenon designed to aid the war effort.

Moreover, LOC librarians directed me to case studies of individual collective farms during the war as well as compilations of war-related peasant songs collected by Soviet ethnographers and folklorists. These less official sources presented a strikingly different view of the war, with peasant women’s songs focusing on separation, hardship, and the disruption of daily life. These sources proved invaluable in balancing my research and prevented me from getting too swept up in the celebration and “revolutionary optimism” that pervaded the highly censored Soviet press. They reminded me that as much as the history of peasant women in war should address their triumphs, it is also a narrative of loss and of adversity.

The resources I acquired at the Library of Congress have offered my thesis a depth and nuance only attainable from contemporary documents, which otherwise would have been entirely unavailable. It is no exaggeration that without the assistance of the Clark Fellowship, my study of peasant women in wartime would have proven impossible.