Durova, Nadezhda (1783–1866)

views updated

Durova, Nadezhda (1783–1866)

Russian author and military veteran, the first woman to hold officer's rank in the Russian Empire and the first to be awarded the Cross of St. George, whose most important work, The Cavalry Maiden, describes her adventures disguised as a man while serving for nine years in the Russian Imperial cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. Name variations: Nadezha; while serving in the Imperial Russian Army she used the name Aleksander Andreievich Aleksandrov. Born Nadezhda Andreevna Durova in September 1783 in Kherson, Russia; died on March 21, 1866, in Elabuga, Russia; daughter of Andrei Vasil'evich Durov and Nadezhda Ivanonvna Durova; sister of Vasily Andreievich, Evgeniia Andreievna , and Kleopatra Andreievna ; married V.S. Chernov; children: one son.

The daughter of a cavalry captain in the Imperial Russian Army, Nadezhda Durova was born in Kherson but in 1789 moved with her parents to the town of Sarapul when her father received an appointment as governor there. Attracted from her childhood to the military life, young Nadezhda loved to ride horses during all seasons and hated the restrictive attitudes of her mother, who looked ahead to her daughter becoming a wife and mother. At age 18, Nadezhda married a young jurist, V.S. Chernov. Soon it became clear to her that while she had escaped from a repressive mother her marriage was loveless and her husband indifferent to her emotional needs. After three years with Chernov, she returned home with her young son. But the desire for freedom was too strong, and on September 17. 1806, dressed in men's clothes, Durova joined a troop of Cossacks moving west. Despite her lack of papers, she was accepted and after three years was able to transfer to an Uhlan regiment which fought in the Prussian campaign. Most if not all of her fellow soldiers must have suspected that she was not a man, given the fact that she was unable to grow a gallantly twirling mustache, the fashion of the day. During these years, she served first in a Polish Uhlan regiment in Grodno, then was attached to the Mariupol Hussars regiment and, from 1811, to a Lithuanian Uhlan regiment.

Durova's father attempted to track down his daughter and in time the Russian tsar, Alexander I, received reports on her case. Won over by her war record and her impassioned pleas, the tsar decided not to send her home; instead, in December 1807, he granted her a commission and the right to officially call herself Aleksander Andreievich Aleksandrov. After several years of peace, Russia again found itself at war when Napoleonic France invaded her vast territory in 1812. Excited by the opportunity to once again be in combat, Durova participated in the bloody battle of Borodino, receiving a foot wound. After her recovery, she was appointed an orderly to Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov and was able to participate in the Russian pursuit of the defeated French-led forces into Western Europe. In 1816, with Russia victorious and at peace, Durova retired from the cavalry, receiving a Captain's pension. Before her retirement, she was awarded the prestigious Cross of St. George—the first Russian woman to receive this honor.

Although she had received little formal education, Nadezhda Durova's command of the Russian language was more than adequate, and she kept extensive diaries during her military career. In the mid-1830s, more than two decades after the Napoleonic Wars, her writings came to the attention of Russia's great poet, Alexander Pushkin. Deeply impressed by her literary talent and her skill at evoking the chaos of war, he was instrumental in editing and publishing her war memoirs in his journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary), for which he wrote a highly laudatory introduction. In book form, Durova's war memoir was published as The Cavalry Maiden: It Happened in Russia. The much-feared and powerful literary critic Vissarion Belinsky was convinced that because of its literary quality, this work had to have been written by Pushkin. When Durova began to publish works of fiction starting in 1837, her literary reputation soared and her memoirs, which had not sold well at first, became a bestseller. In 1839, she published additional material from her war diaries under the title Aleksandrov's Notes: More about the Cavalry Maiden.

Recognized by her contemporaries in Russia as a remarkable commentary on the phenomenon of war, The Cavalry Maiden has been increasingly viewed by modern critics as a major literary portrait of human conflict in wartime. Before battle, Durova is filled with abstract love of nation and the Russian soil, determined to die in battle come what may, and utterly unafraid of the future. Once the battle begins, however, she finds herself to be cold, tired, hungry and confused by the utter turmoil that is warfare. She finds herself at times to hate and resent her superior officers almost as much as the foe. It is this utter honesty that makes her book take its place in the ranks of such classic portrayals of the chaos of war as Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma and Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage. Although her prose style is often awkward and artless, certain passages including her description of the accidental death of her beloved horse Alcides, are genuinely moving in their folk-like lyrical pathos: "You who carried me on your spine so obediently in my childhood years, who passed with me across the bloody fields of honor, glory, and death; who shared my rigors, dangers, hunger, cold, joy, and contentment! You, the only creature of the animal kingdom who loved me! You are no more. You exist no longer." Returning to Russia after victories in the West, Durova concludes her memoir on a gloomy note. Departing from its comfortable billets in the German province of Holstein, she and her regiment reach the impoverished town of Vitebsk where she writes sorrowfully: "Here we are back on our native soil again. I am not at all pleased, I can't forget Holstein."

Nadezhda Durova's novels and stories—Fate's Toy (1837), Elena, the Belle of T. (1837), Gudishki (1839), The Summer House (1839), Sulphur Spring (1839), Nurmeka (1839), Buried Treasure (1840), Yarchuk, the Dog Who Saw Ghosts (1840), and The Corner (1840)—are written in the grand tradition of European Romanticism. The plots are convoluted, often Gothic in character, and range in subject matter from the tragic chronicle of a woman who died of a syphilitic infection received from her dissolute husband (Fate's Toy), to the conflict of Christian and pagan cultures in medieval Lithuania (Gudishki), to the mysterious tale of a Polish priest's love for his ward and its eventual bloody result (The Summer House). At first, Durova was lionized by the literary elite of St. Petersburg but the novelty of inviting the new literary celebrity from the provinces wore thin. She recorded her disillusionment over the comet-like nature of her fame in a memoir entitled A Year of Life in Petersburg, or The Disadvantages of the Third Visit. Here she noted how during the first visit to the elite salons of Russia's intelligentsia she had been fawned over. The mood changed considerably during the second visit, when she was usually treated no more than politely. The third visit found her generally being ignored, with herself sitting quite neglected in a corner of the room. Mary Fleming Zirin , a leading expert on Durova, has suggested that these insights into the nature of literary celebrity remain valid and can with justice be codified as Durova's Law of Lionization.

By 1840, the plaudits for Durova had ended, and she returned to live in the remote town of Elabuga in the Ural Mountains. Whether she had found herself uninspired and incapable of discovering new artistic inspirations or, as is more likely, she had become thoroughly disillusioned by the transitory nature of fame, Durova ceased to write at this point in

what would turn out to be a long life. Once again obscure, she ended her days as an amiable eccentric. She continued to dress as a man, and insisted that she be addressed as "Aleksander Andreievich." In 1858, eight years before her death, she wrote one last essay (never published) in which she voiced not only her patriotic sentiments but also her passionate belief that women must play a larger role in the modern world:

In our times a woman who is bored, who cannot find a way to occupy herself, and who languishes in inactivity, is more out of place than ever. Now more than ever Russian society needs active, hard-working women who sympathize judiciously with the great events taking place around them and are capable of adding their might to the structure of social welfare and order which is being erected by common efforts. Now Russian society has more need than ever not of women-cosmopolites but of Russian women in all the fine sense of the word.

Throughout the many years she lived in Elabuga, Nadezhda Durova's generosity to those who were poor and ill invariably reached the point of endangering her own survival. At her death of 1866, her estate consisted of only one ruble, despite the fact that she had received a generous pension of 1,000 rubles annually since 1824. She was buried with full military honors, and the local populace retained fond memories of her long after her death; in 1901, a new monument was erected over her grave.

Given the fact that she had been proud to be a loyal subject of her tsar, Durova's reputation was in eclipse during the first 25 years of Soviet rule. During World War II, however, a new form of Soviet patriotism rehabilitated many of the military heroes of the tsarist era, and by 1942 biographies and plays about this remarkable woman, the first to hold officer rank in Russia's armed forces, were being published in the Soviet Union. In 1957, an opera based on her life was written, and the film Ballad of a Hussar, celebrating her exploits, was produced in 1962. The same year a marble bust in the park near the cemetery where she is buried was unveiled in Elabuga. As late as the early 1960s, Soviet abhorrence of tsarism still motivated omissions from editions of her memoirs, and Durova's rhapsodic description of her interview with Alexander I was purged from the 1960 and 1962 editions of her best-known work. Not until 1983, when her birthday was celebrated with considerable enthusiasm in the Soviet Union, was a complete and unabridged edition of The Cavalry Maiden made available to the reading public.


Durova, Nadezhda. The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars. Translated by Mary Fleming Zirin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

——. "My Childhood Years," in Domna C. Stanton, ed., The Female Autograph. Translated and edited by Mary Fleming Zirin. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp. 119–142.

Heldt, Barbara. "Nadezhda Durova: Russia's Cavalry Maid," in History Today. Vol. 33. February 1983, pp. 24–27.

——. A Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia