Male Dignity of a Female Officer: Nadezhda Durova and Gender Mode of “Honour and Dignity” in 19th Century Aristocratic Culture

A gender-curious case that happened in the 19th century and became widely famous thanks to the memoirs of Nadezhda Durova and “Hussar ballad” («Гусарская баллада») film has often been a subject of scientific research. Each of these researches is valuable in its own way but none of them poses an obvious question: why did the image of “cavalry-girl” not become the icon of Russian feminism? Even in specific works dedicated to the history of women’s movement Durova isn’t viewed as an example of female emancipation capable of inspiring the others. Existing point of view on the Durova’s biography as on “transgender triumph” (“Military spirit, persistent wish to take up arms while not changing her physiological nature), turned the gender of Nadezhda Durova in the opposite direction. In the middle of 19th century in the imperial Russia that was unequivocally moving along with habitual class and religious schemes, Durova experienced a real ‘transgender triumph’, having endured all the male identity exams both in the army and in everyday life”; at the same time she doesn’t emphasize the importance of individual nobility’s honour and dignity of a separate personality, and in our opinion this encourages a new approach towards the interpretation of her biography and image, that shall be largely based on Nadezhda Durova’s individual life “project” in the context of problematics of honour and dignity in aristocratic culture of 19 century Europe (and in Russia as its inherent part).

Surprisingly, the plea to give her, as a human being, a chance to choose a life worthy of herself that runs throughout the works of Nadezhda Durova is lost when attempting to research her biography through her family history (she ran away from her parents), gender history (she ran away to pursue her love, being deprived of possibility to make her own choice), history of the regiment (“…they even were proud of the fact that his majesty, by putting his goddaughter in their regiment, demonstrated a special level of trust and honour”), history of the country (she ran away in order to fight the Napoleon’s army). The necessity to comply with her profession’s requirement “with dignity” also became her main argument in the many years of correspondence with the army command in order to receive some material support: first, in order to be able to perform her duties and after the retirement — to receive her pension. The prolonged fight for her pension was one of the reasons to publish several autobiographic texts: she did it not for her popularity but due to the very basic necessity to earn her living.

The research of epistolary and memoir heritage of Nadezhda Durova from the viewpoint of understanding the concept of nobility’s honour and individual dignity proves very productive for both (gender?) history and the modern case of individual opposition to the “hybrid totalitarianism” (if I could use such a neologism).