Kovalskaia, Elizaveta (1851–1943)

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Kovalskaia, Elizaveta (1851–1943)

Russian feminist and revolutionary who was active in the Populist movement of the 1870s. Name variations: Elizabeth Koval'skaia or Kovalskaya; Kobalskaya. Pronunciation: Ko-VAL-sky-ya. Born Elizaveta Nikolaevna Solntseva on July 17, 1851 (o.s.) in Solntsevka, Russia; died in the Soviet Union in 1943; illegitimate daughter of Colonel Nikolai Solntsev (a landowner) and a female serf on his estate; educated by home tutoring, 1858–62; attended girls' gymnasium in Kharkov, 1862–67, and Alarchin courses in St. Petersburg, 1869–71; married Iakov I. Kovalskii, late 1860s; married M. Mankovskii, around 1900; children: none.

Was a serf until 1858 when she was adopted by her father and brought up as a noble's daughter; conducted women's courses in Kharkov (1867–69); was a member of female study circles in St. Petersburg (1869–71); lived in Zurich and became a follower of Bakunin (1872–73); was an active participant in the Russian Populist movement (1874–80); was a member of Chernyi Peredel (1879); was co-founder of South Russian Workers Union (1880); arrested (1880), tried (1881), and sentenced to exile and confinement in Siberia until 1903; immigrated to Switzerland (1903–07) and France (1907–17) where she was active in the maximalist wing of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party; returned to Russia after the October Revolution; was a researcher in the State Historical Archives in Petrograd (1918–23); was a member of the editorial board of Katorga i ssylka in Moscow (1923–35).

Selected publications:

"Avtobiografiia" (Autobiography), in Entsiklopedicheskii slovar' (vol. XL, 1927,pp. 189–199, reprinted in Deiateli SSSR i revoliutsionnogo dvizheniia Rossii [Personalities of the USSR and the Revolutionary Movement in Russia], Moscow, 1989); Iuzhno-russkii rabochii soiuz, 1880–81 (South Russian Workers Union, Moscow, 1926).

After midnight on a warm summer's night in 1880, Elizaveta Kovalskaia stood before more than a hundred workers in Baikov Grove outside Kiev. This was "an enormous number for those times," she later recounted in her autobiography, and even more remarkably the process was repeated every evening for a week with a different group of workers. The men and women who attended these all-night gatherings belonged to the South Russian Workers Union which Kovalskaia and Nikolai Shchedrin had organized the previous spring. They listened to their young agitators, both of whom were in their 20s, describe the causes of the oppression which beset tsarist Russia and the need for "economic terror" and social revolution. This was a message which Kovalskaia and other agrarian socialists had been preaching in the villages of Russia for over six years. Never before, however, had the Populists been so successful in tying the concept of armed struggle to a mass organization. Kovalskaia knew she was living on borrowed time. The union which she had helped establish was itself illegal and the nocturnal meetings she addressed were easily infiltrated by police agents. On October 22, 1880, the inevitable happened. She and Shchedrin were arrested as they left their home in Kiev; and the next May, shortly after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by Populists in St. Petersburg, she was sentenced to a life of hard labor in Siberia. After 22 years confinement, she was released and resumed her revolutionary activity in Western Europe. In late 1917, Kovalskaia, now in her 60s, returned to a productive life in a new Soviet Russia.

It was not unusual that a woman should play a leading role in the Populist movement; many were attracted by the sexual equality and personal commitment which Populism offered. What set Elizaveta Kovalskaia apart was her origin. Unlike almost all of her revolutionary contemporaries, she was born a serf. Her father, Colonel Nikolai Solntsev, was a wealthy landlord who had an affair with a peasant woman on one of his estates near Kharkov in southern Russia. After her birth on July 17, 1851, a decade prior to the Emancipation, Elizaveta spent seven years as a serf before her father was persuaded to free her and her mother and to bring her up as a young lady in his own house. Despite receiving a good home education from tutors hired by her father and having other belated advantages of wealth, Elizaveta never forgot the sexual exploitation of her mother, the stigma of her own illegitimacy, or her early childhood fear that she might be sold to another land lord. At the age of 11, she cajoled her repentant father into allowing her to enroll in a girls' gymnasium in Kharkov. For the next six years, she was exposed to the literature and ideas of the 1860s with their message of personal and political liberation. In her memoirs, she tells of setting up a "circle for self-education among the girls" where they discussed the "woman question." She also organized trips to a local court to observe trials of peasants accused of rebellion and of women who had murdered abusive husbands. According to Barbara Engel , by the time Kovalskaia graduated from the gymnasium in 1867 she was "already a committed feminist."

At about the same time, her father died, bequeathing her his substantial estate. She promptly turned one of his houses in Kharkov into an educational center for women. Osip Aptekman, who knew her during this period, described her as "young, beautiful, intelligent, sensitive to all social undertakings, a zealous defender of female emancipation." Kovalskaia sought to further the cause of women by offering informal courses to upper-class women seeking some form of higher education and by providing more basic skills to working-class women she met through her volunteer work at the Kharkov Society for the Promotion of Literacy. In these courses, she and the other lecturers called attention to the class and gender inequities of Russian society, but as she admitted, at this stage "I myself had no idea how injustice could be righted." One of her fellow teachers was Iakov Kovalskii who she married while still in her teens and who accompanied her to St. Petersburg in 1869 after the police had closed down her center.

Kovalskaia's intention in going to the Russian capital was to attend the Alarchin courses which for the first time provided advanced education for women but without conferring on them a university degree. Every evening from 6 to 9 pm, she and over 200 other women from diverse upper- and middle-class backgrounds attended lectures at a boys' high school given by well-known professors. Perhaps more important than this instruction were the contacts made with other women. These led to the formation of study circles made up exclusively of women in which they debated not only the "woman question" but also social and political issues. The two years Kovalskaia spent living alone in St. Petersburg—her husband had returned to Kharkov and was no longer a part of her life—were important in developing her self-reliance and in deepening her social understanding. They also served to change her focus from ways of helping members of her gender to means of achieving broader social change. Crucial in this transition from feminism to socialism was a year spent in Zurich. She does not appear to have attended classes in the medical faculty of the University of Zurich, as did so many other women denied a university education in Russia, but she was actively involved in the political debates between the Lavrovists and Bakuninists which raged in the emigre colony over the proper means of achieving peasant socialism. By the time she left Zurich in 1873, she considered herself an adherent to the more radical theories of Michael Bakunin.

Like a huge wave, the movement to liberate women [in the 1860s] swept over all the urban centers of Russia. I, too, was caught up in it.

—Elizaveta Kovalskaia (1925)

Kovalskaia returned to Russia intending to participate in the "To the People" movement of the "mad summer" of 1874 when several thousand students flocked to the villages to convince the peasantry of the virtues of socialism. Poor health, however, kept her from joining the pilgrimage but it did not prevent her from getting a job as a schoolteacher near Tsarskoe Selo out-side St. Petersburg. During her spare time, she conducted propaganda circles and passed out leaflets among the local factory workers. Imminent police arrest forced her to move to St. Petersburg where she carried out the same illegal activity. Unlike most of her fellow Populists, she shunned formal organizations such as Land and Liberty and she was in the minority in concentrating her attention on urban factory workers rather than agitating the peasantry themselves. She felt that the more advanced workers, who themselves were often ex-peasants, were more susceptible to the ideas of agrarian socialism which they would spread when they returned periodically to their villages.

In 1879, when Land and Liberty split, she briefly joined Chernyi Peredel (Black Repartition) rather than the more extreme Narodnaia Volia (The People's Will). Early the next year, she left for Kiev with Shchedrin to establish the South Russian Workers Union. Not only did they succeed in organizing 700 workers and in holding a regular series of evening agitational meetings, they also printed three revolutionary leaflets and laid plans for an underground newspaper. In all of these endeavors, they preached the doctrine of "economic terror," i.e., attacks on police officials and factory administrators who had the closest contact with the workers as a means of building up the confidence of the masses. While she often carried a revolver, Kovalskaia does not appear to have been involved personally in any political assassinations.

At her trial in 1881, Kovalskaia denied the court's right to sit in judgment of her, and she refused either to have a lawyer defend her or to make a final statement on her own behalf. Her obstinacy continued during 22 years of exile and confinement in Siberia. On three occasions, she tried unsuccessfully to escape, and on another she attempted to commit suicide. She also engaged in a hunger strike, attacked a prison official with a knife for beating a fellow female prisoner, and refused to stand in the presence of the governor-general of the Amur Region. For this insubordination, she was abused by a prison administrator and transferred to a camp for common criminals.

Shortly before her scheduled release in 1903, Kovalskaia married M. Mankovskii, an Austrian citizen sent to Siberia for revolutionary activity in Poland. On the basis of his citizen-ship, she petitioned to go abroad with him rather than being forced to remain in exile in Iakutsk. The petition was grudgingly granted but she was forbidden to return to Russia. Kovalskaia had no intention of giving up her revolutionary work. She went immediately to Geneva where, in the absence of her second husband, she became involved in the publishing activities of the maximalist wing of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party. A botched assassination attempt by another female maximalist in 1907 forced Kovalskaia to flee to Paris. Undeterred, she helped form a new revolutionary group in the French capital and assisted in the publication of Trudovaia respublika. In 1914, her Austrian passport, which had been an asset 11 years earlier, suddenly became a liability as France went to war with the Central Powers. To escape detention, she was compelled to live illegally in southern France until Tsar Nicholas II was over-thrown in February 1917. The new Provisional Government granted her a Russian passport in the name of her first husband, and with this she traveled back to her native land by way of England and Norway. She arrived in Petrograd shortly after the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917.

Little is known about the life of this durable and fascinating woman after this point. Her brief autobiography written in 1925 mentions simply that she was employed as a researcher in the State Historical Archives in Petrograd from 1918 to 1923 and then moved to Moscow to join the editorial board of Katorga i ssylka, a journal devoted to the memory of exiles and political prisoners such as herself. While the journal was closed by the Stalinist regime in 1935, Kovalskaia's age spared her the fate of many former revolutionaries who perished during the purges. She died at the age of 92 in 1943.


Engel, Barbara Alpern, and Clifford N. Rosenthal, eds. and trans. Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

Engel, Barbara. "Koval'skaia, Elizaveta Nikolaevna," in Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History. Vol. 18, 1980, pp. 7–9.

Koval'skaia, E.N. "Avtobiografiia," in Entsiklopedicheskii slovar'. Vol. XL, 1927, pp. 189–199.

suggested reading:

Engel, Barbara Alpern. Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-Century Russia. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Levandovskii, A. E.N. Koval'skaia. Moscow, 1928.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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Kovalskaia, Elizaveta (1851–1943)

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