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Anna Bek and the New Soviet Woman

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0
Vladivostok 1880
Credit: http://zolotoivek.tumblr.com/post/28717372661/general-view-of-vladivostok-1900-10s

Anna Bek began her life as a daughter of a semi-privileged “practical worker” who managed a working gold mine.  She spoke of the inhospitable nature of Siberia; how her mother described the mining town of Gugda as nothing but “mountains and stumps”. However she also spoke of the abundance that could be cultivated from this extreme climate, when her mother would grow melons “under glass”.  The climate was less regarded as something to be scorned and despised, but more of a fact of reality, and very much a part of herself.  The transformation from Tsarist to a Soviet society was less traumatic to Anna, as she was already well read on the ideas of Marx and Lenin prior to the political shift.  Anna cared less about the grandness of the ideology as much as what it would mean to help the people in her care and elsewhere.

Anna Bek was not extraordinarily extraordinary in her young life, but a simple daughter of a (relatively) middle class family in the Transbaikal.  Her mother had a great passion for books and gardening, while her father was a man prone to anger, but that anger was tempered by his wife.  He allowed for the education of his daughters, and did not mind the cost to hire teachers for them.  In this mining village there was no formal education, and education was an individual parental effort.   Eventually Anna convinced her father to send her to study at the boarding school in Irkutsk; this is where she first had a taste of the forbidden and revolutionary.

The boarding school for “noble girls” was extremely regimented even down to the meals, which according to Anna were “unpleasant”.  She was unhappy with the religious aspects of the school and its perfusion into the daily routine.  She did find happiness in reading the writings of “forbidden” authors such as Dostoevsky and Turganov. 

After returning home, a teacher in her village, Ivan Ivanovich Orlov began to court her and bring her books that fed her intellectually hungry mind.  She was still a young woman and young at heart, which led her to the trappings that many young women pine for, that of love.  She dreamed of marriage, and a working partnership in education, but soon fell disillusioned with him as she learned of his “debauched” behavior, which fell far from her high standards or intellectual conduct.

One of the pivotal events in Anna’s life was the death of her mother, which was preceded by an eight month “illness”.  At first it was believed she was suffering from Malaria, the family sent many times by horse for a young doctor who prescribed her Quinine.  The doctor kept being summoned and prescribing ever higher doses of quinine, without improvement.  It was then believed to be a blood infection due to her mother had carried a dead fetus; which although the length of illness is a bit long I believe it may have been an Ectopic pregnancy.  Anna believed that if she had been medically trained, a doctor herself, she could have saved her mother’s life.

Siberia at this time was still very much a wild place, and was on the periphery of “European Russia’s” conscience.   Siberia was a dumping ground for subversives, criminals and undesirables.  Religious minorities like the ‘Old Believers’, such as Archpriest Avvakum were forced to flee there, either by decree of by following their families.  Many of those that Anna had seen working in her father’s mines were the dregs of Russian society, or the sons of those dregs.  She spoke of them as mostly vagrants, drunkards who would drink heavily until their money ran out in the fall, when mining season ended.  They would then have to take out advances from the future season to survive the winters. 

Many of the miners no longer referenced their patronymic and family names and were called “Ivan-without-a-father” or “Ivan-I-don’t-remember” because they were either hiding from authorities or truly didn’t remember.  There were so many of these men in fact that they assigned numbers to them, such as Ivan –without-a-father 1, 2, etc.  The outlook of these workers was one of an acute fatalism, where their lives seemed to mean little to nothing, as they had nothing to look forward to, no retirement, no grand vacations or promotions, only to drink, seek excess and then begin again the following season.  The company only provided one “ration” of vodka per month, but entrepreneurial alcohol traders set up in the nearby town of Kultum to take what little money the workers had left, or gold stolen from the mines.

When the workers would leave in the fall, to Anna, the mine became more peaceful, quiet without the sounds of mining and miners echoing across the landscape.  When this happened

Anna spoke of the “howling in the forest” which signaled that the wolves were once again creeping nearer to reclaim the territory lost to man in the summers.  This land was tamed only in small portions and only for periods of time, like small pockets of human civilization that would expand and swallow the land in the summers, and shrink into small bubbles as the winter would in turn tame them.

Anna set out for St. Petersburg in 1894 to study medicine, but the sheer vastness of Siberia precluded a quick trip, as it took over a month to reach there.  When Anna reached St. Petersburg she found that the politics within the empire had shut the doors on her dream to study medicine.  In the wake of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination twelve years earlier by radical students, the Higher Women’s Medical Courses were still closed.  She then enrolled in the mathematics department due to its study of the natural sciences, which she thought a close fit to her dream of medicine.   A year later she successfully petitioned her father to allow her to travel to Paris to learn medicine there. 

In Paris she saw for the first time open democratic style politics as orators beckoned you to vote for their particular candidates where Anna remarked “At home in Russia the tsarist power would never allow anything similar.”.  In the city of Nancy Anna along with the other Russian students she had met, began their studies in the Medical Institute.  After finishing her time in France she returned to St. Petersburg as the Medical Courses were once again opened in 1897.  “Revolutionary mood” was all over St. Petersburg at the time, especially among the students who led a strike to remove a professor of Chemistry.  Anna herself acknowledges that she herself at this time had not adequately formed her own political thought but only sought to

 “overthrow the autocracy”.  Anna then joined a Transbaikal association that soon gained a “serious revolutionary temperament.” and organized a Marxist circle.  Anna’s brother Afanasy gave lectures during these meetings and Anna soon began to feel, through Marxist philosophy, a “solid ground under my feet.”.  Anna along with others soon began to call for a major strike and Anna was soon after told to “Leave Petersburg” by Tsarist Police.  By this time the Trans-Siberian railroad had already reached Chita, and her travel time was greatly reduced.

Upon reaching her home in Nerchinsk Zavod Anna began to aid in the mining hospital, awaiting her exile from the St. Petersubrug to be revoked.  It is there that she met Evgeny Valdmirovich Bek, who was a young military doctor also exiled for “political unreliability”.  Anna found Dr. E. V. Bek to be an “exceptional person” as he did not drink, debauch, was dedicated to his studies and was also (possibly most importantly), of a revolutionary bent.  After becoming married they began touring the district together serving communities that lacked regular medical care.  Dr. E.V. Bek was particularly interested in a unique bone disease now known as “osteoarthritis deformans endemica”.  This disease up until this point was unknown outside of the Transbaikal area, in which it was relatively widespread; most so among the residents of river Orov and tributaries of the Argun River.

            In 1906 the Bek’s moved to Aksha a distant and remote village. They traveled by rail to the city of Chita and then arrived in Aksha after another 220 versts (145 miles) on horseback.  The Becks commented on “The backwardness of this population could be seen…the remnants of…pre-Christian religion were still preserved here...an old woman told us…the reason the snow covered the grain in the fields is…people stopped honoring the god Perun.”.  Upon arrived, with their newborn daughter in tow, they became acquainted with the town teacher who informed them that “Life in Aksha passed boringly, monotonously….there was drunkenness and fighting” and that the town “was divided into Cossacks and petty…traders and artisans.”.  Anna was kept busy with raising her infant daughter, and E.V. Bek began his practice in town, soon earning the “confidence and love” of the people there.  As with most small remote towns in Siberia, illiteracy was a common problem and Anna wished to open a Sunday school for illiterates.  In this quest they eventually gathered the towns support, and opened a community center.  The center was used for plays, housing local historical artifacts and was the home of the town library. 

            In 1912 the Bek’s moved to the city of Chita, an important city at the junction of the Trans-Siberian railroad and the trade route south to China.  Soon after they arrived, Anna was elected the chairwoman of the society of the teachers, and began to teach courses on anatomy, physiology and psychology.  At this time revolution and revolutionary ideas were at the tips of the tongues of much of Russian society, even as far away as Siberia.  Even with these more openly accepted ‘new’ ways of thinking, the Tsarist officials were not friendly to these new ideas.  A pedagogue society was attempted to be opened but the officials feared “any kind of society” and they were not allowed to open.

            At the outset of the First World War E.V. Bek was sent to the hospital in Chita to treat the war wounded.  After arguments with the hospital administration over food rations, he was sent to the Typhus ward, a death sentence.  After Evgeny died, Anna’s hatred of the autocratic government grew, as she blamed the Tsarist’s for her husbands death.

            The Revolution brought about drastic change in Siberia and across Russia.  A teacher by the name of Semakov led a detachment of Cossacks’ and arrested the Governor in his house.  A committee of Public Safety was formed, of whom Anna and her brother both served.   Soon they established a teachers union and began plans for education of the children and populace.  Anna was courted by Socialist Revolutionaries, Social Democrats and Bolsheviks alike, but she wished to focus on her job of education and not on the individual party platforms. 

            The time around the Revolution was very chaotic in that part of Siberia as Soviet control was not yet solidified.  A group known as the Semenovites, a group of the military Semenovskii Regiment under the command of Colonel Nazimov seized power in the area.

The Semenovites closed down many of the schools and courses set up by the Committee Anna served on.  Bolshevik’s were persecuted and hunted down at this time as well as Japanese who lived in the area.  Anna was spared the arrests as her husband had been known to the Cossacks in the Regiment as a good man, and her name was “crossed out” on the list of those to be arrested.

            Soon the arrest’s ceased and Bolsheviks were no longer persecuted but the Semenov’s continued to be in power.  Anna applied to the Semenov Department of Health and was appointed to head the Chita hospital for those with mental illness.  Prior to her tenure the mentally ill were treated more like convicts then patients and were subjected to inhumane “treatments”.  This included “beating [patients] with plaited straps…rolling them up in sheets, and so on.”.  By 1920 the Semenov regime was “liquidated” by the Soviets and Bolshevik rule was permanently established.  Anna then applied to the Department of psychology at the University of Irkutsk, which may have been due to her daughter being accepted for study there.

            At the time in the 1920’s Psychology was a dominant school of thought in the new Soviet Union.  Through this field Anna was able to combine her interests in medicine, social activism and Marxism.  Anna embraced wholeheartedly the discipline of “reflexology” which is of more Eastern thought, in line with acupuncture, where certain areas of the body affected moods, pains and mental states.  She was challenged by her colleagues as to the ideological conformity it had with Marxist philosophy.  Anna deftly countered their arguments in a public debate with quotations from Marx and Engels, and received a partial validation from the Chairman of the Presidium.

During her tenure she published five articles in collected works of the University and taught courses in pedology.  Once again the “clouds were again thickening” over questions of her courses deviating from Marxism over her study of relexology.  This combined with her daughter’s marriage and having two grand children of her own led Anna to submit her resignation to the University.  Anna then traveled to Novosibirsk for half a year and was put in charge of the pedology laboratory of two institutions.  She studied the effects of abnormal vision on children’s development as she had found that in Chita 67% of juvenile criminals had congenital far-sightedness.  The Director of Communist Education then sent her to Tomsk to conduct a course of Pedology there.  At first Anna took this as an insult believing that she was not appreciated for her work and became overcome with emotion.  This was in keeping with the same reasons that she had turned down party affiliations, due to her belief she would have “disgraced myself with tears at party meetings in the face of any kind of painful criticism.”.

            In Tomsk she reached the “pinnacle of [her] ascent up the stages of public life” and was referred to as “Professor Bek”.  She no longer found opposition to her courses in reflexology, as “Pavlov’s teachings had been recognized”.  Anna was recognized as a “fighter” for the Bolshevik cause during this time, but this was soon to end.  A general counsel of the students and staff published a resolution that pulled individual sentences out of her published works as to make her seem to be “calling back the bourgeoisie order”.  Anna wrote the Central Party Committee in Moscow to explain herself and rectify any questions of her Marxist’s beliefs.    Despite her protest, the academic programs dictated by Moscow cut in half the hours the university spent on pedology, which signaled to her the decline of importance of her study. 

            Anna left the University in Tomsk and rejoined her daughter in Novosibirsk and was offered a position as a department head in the regional health department.  Here Anna attempted to publish an anthology of articles on work in sanitary establishments, from a collection of works from Doctors and pedologists.  This work was denied as the introduction from a party member was not in line with the politics of the day.  Later it was announced that pedology was a “politically harmful science” and the door to her as a teacher was “closed forever”.

            Anna then settled into work at various children’s clinics in the area, and eventually moved in with her daughter.  She also worked as a medical worker in a day care clinic near her daughter’s residence, but soon that position was terminated and as she put it, it was “The last stage in my working life”

            Anna Bek began her life in a small Siberian mining town, without much hope save for to be married off.  In St. Petersburg she recalled “What sort of prospects did I have in Nerchinsk Zavod?” which she surmised, the best possible outcome would have been to marry an engineer. This would have given them a good salary, but was repulsed by how all the wives in Nerchinsk did was order “stylish dresses from Paris, held evening card parties…competing with one another…who had the finest fruit liqueurs and wines.”.  This was not the path that Anna ever wanted; she wished to carve a new path, that of the empowered Siberian woman.  This near perfectly dovetailed with the changing  times, as the majority of Russians also wished to forge a new path in society.  Siberia was a place that many before had escaped or been sent to, but regardless of the circumstances, wished to carve out a new life from, free of the restrictions of ‘European Russia’.  In many ways Siberia was in a state of Revolution prior to 1917.  Men such as her father, with nothing more than a village education was able to rise to the position as a Mine Director, which provided a relatively high salary for the time.

Anna’s transformation to being the ‘New Soviet Woman’ was less ideological, and more driven by her own individual tenacity.  Anna very much identified with the teachings and ideology of Marxism; she held its belief in equality very close to her heart, in her writings and approach to the poor.  However, it was her drive to be somebody, to heal the sick, to care for those without, and to learn that led her to the level she achieved.  She never mentioned in her memoirs that she wished to attend this school, or achieve this goal because she wanted to overthrow the bourgeoisie, but because, simply, that is the goal she had.   Anna became the “New Soviet Woman” ex post facto, due more to her own determination and attitude than any ideologically driven internal charge.

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Bibliography

  1. Bek, Anna, and Lindenmeyr, Adele, and Rassweiler, Anne, D The Life of a Russian Woman Doctor: A Siberian Memoir, 1869-1954. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
  2. Browder, Robert and Kerensky, Alexander THE RUSSIAN PROVISIONAL GOVERNMENT 1917. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961.

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