“My fervent wish is to be of use to the cause.”
The novel Nihilist Girl by Sofya Kovalevskaya explores the breakdown of 19th century Russia societal structure through the life of Vera Barantsova. The Barantsova family is notorious for possessing “ardor and unbridled desires”–traits that would have led to ruination were it not for the intervention of “imperial grace” in the form of “new splendid estates” granted to replace those lost or gambled away. Count and Countess Barantsova retire to their country estate following a scandalous duel, and they plan to raise their three daughters in luxury with the idea that each girl will receive a portion of the estate as a dowry. Unfortunately, the Barantsovas have no idea about money management, and in the country “they continued with their free and merry ways”–wasting money while they lived like kings in an attempt to ‘elevate’ their provincial status by indulging in “refined and varied frills imported from the capital.”
The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 destroys the future of the Barantsova daughters, and the family can no longer maintain a system built on free labor. The Count who once abdicated from his financial responsibilities is now forced to face the painful truth, and this time no new estates or fortunes are sent his way. The serf system has yet to be replaced with something else, and in the meantime, the fortunes of the Barantsovas are in freefall.
Vera, the youngest of the three daughters is the one most profoundly affected by the changes taking place in Russia. While the Count and Countess hope that a stray dragoon will come along and propose, Vera is caught up in the idea of martyrdom to some great cause. Set adrift with no moral code to cling to, she dreams of China and obscure missionary work. But martyrdom proves to be much more accessible when a long-absent neighbour, Vasiltsev arrives. Vasiltsev, a subversive, has lost his position at Saint Petersburg University due to his radical notions of returning the land to the peasants. Viewed as a class traitor, Vasiltsev is under house arrest pending the Tsar’s further pleasure.
The youthful Vera is profoundly influenced by the aging Nihilist Vasiltsev, and she no longer looks to correct social injustice in China after becoming aware of the revolutionary turmoil in her own country. She longs to sacrifice herself to ‘the cause’ and just how she achieves this and whether or not it’s the right thing to do is the heart of this quiet, moving novel.
Nihilist Girl is a seemingly simple novel that tackles complex, abstract ideas. Vera is a symptom of her troubled age, and the scenes describing the shifting loyalties and behaviour of the serfs towards their former ‘masters’ are incredible. The MLA edition contains an introduction about the author Sofya Kovalevskaya, the first European woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics. Written in 1890-91, Nihilist Girl is Kovalevskaya’s only completed novel.