Verbitskaya, Anastasia Alexeyevna

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(1861-1928), prose writer, playwright, scenarist, and publisher.

Anastasia Verbitskaya enjoyed a lengthy career in which she first published prose fiction in serious "thick journals," but then turned to writing novels in a popular vein, garnering herself a wide reading public on the eve of World War I. At this time she also embarked on a film career, writing scripts for several movies that brought her even more renown. Most of Verbitskaya's writing centers around the keys to happiness for the modern woman caught between competing desires and interestswork, love, sexuality, and motherhood.

Verbitskaya was the middle child of a professional military man stationed in Voronezh and a mother who was born to a provincial actress but who confined herself to performances in amateur productions. Verbitskaya was eventually sent off to boarding school, the Elizavetinsky Women's Institute in Moscow. In 1879 she entered the Moscow Conservatory to study voice, leaving after only two years to accept a job as a music teacher at her former boarding school. In 1882 she married Alexei Verbitsky, an engineer, with whom she had three sons. The family needed money, so Verbitskaya worked at various jobs, in 1883 obtaining her first stint at a newspaper. Her inaugural fiction, a novella entitled "Discord," appeared in 1887 in the thick journal Russian Thought. It contains many of the themes that will appear subsequently in much of Verbitskaya's work. The story encompasses the roles that can often be found in left-leaning fiction espousing women's liberationeconomic independence and service to the downtroddenbut also establishes new roles and goals for the heroine. Verbitskaya and other contemporary women writers would develop these themes further in the 1890s and early twentieth century: the search for self-fulfillment in relations with men, including sexual fulfillment and an exploration of one's artistic creativity.

During the 1890s Verbitskaya's fictional works became longer, and she produced her first novel, Vavochka (1898). She also wrote plays, the best of which is the comedy Mirages (1895), which was staged at the Maly Theater. By 1902, Verbitskaya had decided to become independent of others' literary tastes and created her own publishing house, issuing her own work and the translated novels of Western European writers concerned with the woman question. Not only did this venture show her quest for independence, it also showed her interest in literature as a commercial venture. Verbitskaya continued to demonstrate her commitment to the woman question through extra-literary activities. She was a member of various charitable and civic organizations that helped women, in 1905 becoming the chair of the Society for the Betterment of Women's Welfare.

In the politically charged atmosphere after the 1905 revolution and with the censorship greatly curtailed, Verbitskaya embarked on the first of her popular novels, Spirit of the Time (19071908). She seems to have found a formula that would render this and her next novel, The Keys to Happiness (19081913), bestsellers. She combined highbrow political, philosophical, and aesthetic concerns with frequent, titillating scenes of sexual seduction. Both these novels sold in numbers that were unheralded in Verbitskaya's day. She also managed to produce an interesting two-volume autobiography To My Reader (1908 and 1911) while she was writing Keys to Happiness.

In 1913 when Verbitskaya had completed Keys, she was invited to write the screenplay for a full-length film based on the novel. The film was a great box-office success, breaking all previous records, and catapulted Verbitskaya into a movie career. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Verbitskaya's career suffered because of official scorn for her "boulevard" novels. She died in 1928. However, with the revival of the commercial book market in post-Soviet Russia, Verbitskaya has made a bit of a comeback: Three of her popular novels were reprinted in 1992 and 1993.

See also: feminism; thick journals


Engelstein, Laura. (1992). The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siecle Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Holmgren, Beth, and Goscilo, Helena. (1999). "Introduction" to Keys to Happiness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Marsh, Rosalind. (1998). "Anastasiia Verbitskaia Reconsidered." In Gender and Russian Literature: New Perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rosenthal, Charlotte. (2003). "Anastasiia Alekseevna Verbitskaia." In Russian Writers in the Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, ed. Judith E. Kalb and J. Alexander Ogden. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 593. Detroit: Gale Group.

Charlotte Rosenthal

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