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The Most Heroic Women in Russian Literature

Picture of Anastasiia Ilina
Updated: 9 January 2018

Russian literature isn’t lacking in heroic women, even though Russian society has oppressed women for centuries, giving them only the right to be wives and mothers with little choice over their own fates. The characters that stand out in these stories are brave enough to make their own decisions and are not afraid to take responsibility for them. There may be some spoilers ahead, but they won’t take away from the pleasure of reading these books. Here are seven of the most heroic women in Russian literature.

Sonya Marmeladova from Crime and Punishment 

Sonya is one of Dostoevsky’s most idealistic characters; so much so that she has been called an improbable character by critics. A uneducated daughter of a drunkard, Sonya is forced to resort to prostitution. Raskolnikov, the main character of the novel who commits murder because of his impoverished circumstances, opens up to Sonya and tells her about the motives of the murder. In her heart, she finds the ability to forgive him because she believes everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

Masha Mironova from Captain’s Daughter 

This novel is set during the peasant rebellion of Yemelyan Pugachev, who was a self-proclaimed member of the royal family, but in fact, was just an ordinary serf who managed to organize an army. During his invasions, many members of high society, who refused to join him, were publicly executed. Such was the fate of Masha Mironova’s parents.

In the story, the fortress where Masha’s father serves is taken by the rebellion. A young officer named Pyotr Grinev falls in love with Masha and helps her escape from the fortress, but he gets arrested and sentenced to exile in Siberia. Masha, wanting to defend her beloved, writes to the Empress Catherine the Great explaining Grinev’s situation. In the end, she manages to save him from his fate.

Margarita from The Master and Margarita

Margarita is an ordinary Moscow housewife, who is married to a man she doesn’t love. She soon falls in love with a writer, who is known as, ‘The Master’, and inevitably leaves her husband. One thing leads to another and Margarita eventually becomes a witch and flies away on a broom to host Satan’s Ball.

Ok, so maybe Margarita’s actions aren’t too heroic, but her exploits are fairly impressive for someone who started out as a simple housewife. Some sources suggest that Margarita was inspired by Bulgakov’s (author) third wife, Elena Bulgakova.

Olenka from The Darling

Olenka, or ‘the darling’, is a quiet, complying woman who marries twice and becomes a widow both times. As a wife, she devotes herself completely to her spouse, helping with his work and learning about his trade. She falls in love a third time with an army veteran and marries him, but he soon leaves her when his division is moved. Years later, he returns with a new wife and a child. Olenka gives up her house for them and starts caring for the veteran’s son, who becomes the centre of her life. On the outside, Olenka may come across as a pushover character, but her heroic act is the selflessness in which she treats others, always putting her loved ones before herself.

Masha Troekurova from Dubrovsky

This story begins with a feud between the Dubrovsky and Troekurov houses that leads to a lawsuit and a long-lasting rivalry between the two fathers. The children of the houses though are immune to their parents’ arguments and fall in love. Troekurov does not want his daughter Masha involved with young Dubrovsky and decides to marry her away. She doesn’t get any say in her choice of husband and is forced to marry a fifty-year-old man.

On the way to the ceremony, young Dubrovsky tries to rescue Masha, but she refuses because she has made promises to her father and future husband. She chooses to remain loyal to her word, even if it means she will be unhappy.

Nastasya Filippovna from The Idiot

Nastasya is a woman of great beauty, who gets caught up in a rivalry between a prince and brute. At a young age, she loses her parents and is brought up by the landowner’s family. As she grows up, Nastasya becomes a captive of her guardian, who keeps her confined to the house.

Nastasya eventually meets Prince Mishkin, a naive and incredibly kind man, who offers his hand in marriage. She believes in Mishkin’s intentions, but doesn’t want to stain his honour with her strange and soiled reputation. She feels that she doesn’t deserve him, so she gives up a potential life of happiness and rejects him. Instead, she punishes herself and enters into a deadly relationship with Rogozhin, a lustful and violent man.

Anna Karenina from Anna Karenina 

Anna Karenina is married to a respectable man, is well-known in the capital’s social circles and lives in a beautiful home. Yet she betrays her husband and son for her lover Vronsky. She even leaves her family and life of comfort to be with him.

In the face of these wrongdoings, Anna decides to repent for her actions. She is first made an outcast by her previous social circles. Then she is forsaken by her husband and is not allowed to see her family. However, her bravery for following her heart, forsaking social norms, taking responsibility for her actions and accepting the punishment for her sins has made her one of the most heroic women in Russian literature.