Book Review: Red Valkyries by Kristen Ghodsee
The Left needs a new language.
If Kristen Ghodsee’s collection of five potted biographies of noteworthy 20th century East European Socialist women, a sort of lives of the Communist saints, has a hairline crack running through it, it is precisely this: that so much of its rhetoric is couched in the stilted and, to contemporary ears, self-parodic terminology of those times. It’s hard, for instance, to read a phrase like “the Jeanne d’Arc of the proletariat” while maintaining an entirely straight face. Of course, it’s conceivable that this effect is intentional, meant to jolt hearts hardened into cynicism by the lie barrage of the current news cycle into recognising the deep sincerity of the Utopianism that went hand in glove with the first flushes of the Russian Revolution.
All the same, the way that Ghodsee uses such anachronistic flourishes throughout in Red Valkyries can’t help but give the impression that she is writing less for a general readership, and more for those who have already been won over to the cause. It’s certainly the case that her agenda is one which bridles against editorial influence. As she notes in her wonderfully terse disclaimer, “the use of the word ‘feminist’ in the subtitle of this book was the decision of the Verso marketing department”.
Moreover, Ghodsee’s selection of exemplars, individually fascinating as each might be, have a somewhat haphazard quality, as though reflecting the desire lines of her own research as Professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, rather than a more dispassionate overview. While she elects to illuminate the lives of five such women, one in particular casts a telling light on the events of 2022, throwing the ironies of history into bleak relief.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the woman in question, was born just outside Kyiv, then a part of the Soviet Union, in 1916. Having trained as a sniper, she was credited with the killing of 309 invading soldiers during her active service in World War Two. Then, of course, the opposing army would have been that of Nazi Germany. Some 80 years later, she would instead have found herself fighting off the forces of Putin’s Russia, while recognising in that enemy a familiar Right Wing Nationalism.
Following her discharge, she toured the United States, including the White House, as part of an effort to win over the hearts and minds of that country’s public. Sadly, the words of her speeches could ring just as true coming from the mouth of Ukrainian president, Volodymyrr Zelenskyy, today: “You do not know what it is to have bombs falling around you,” she said. “You do not know what it is to find the charred bodies of your own comrades burned and tortured beyond recognition.”
Set against the drama and tragedy of a soldier who was able to title her autobiography Lady Death, a woman who excelled as both sniper and orator in the face of those who sought to diminish her simultaneously for her femininity and her perceived lack of it, the biographies which follow tend to seem less consequential. Since they hint at love triangles around Lenin, arrests, and letters written in makeshift invisible ink, this perhaps says more about the charisma of Pavlichenko than any lack of lustre in the likes of Alexandra Kollontai, who helped to forge the policies which allowed Soviet women access to the type of reproductive rights under threat in the America of today.
As uncompromising and flawed as the most compelling of Ghodsee’s chosen heroines, by its conclusion Red Valkyries has largely succeeded on its own singular terms. In offering a mostly plausible counter-history of the continuing struggle for female equality, by telling unfamiliar and forgotten stories, it suggests there are other fronts on which the battle can be fought than those favoured by western feminists, even if, in doing so, it falls some way short of a new, shared language with which to sway the unconverted.
Red Valkyries: Feminist Lessons From Five Revolutionary Women is published by Verso and available to buy here.
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