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Forgotten Women: International Women's Day in Russia, 1917

Quote from Dr Graham Griffiths

That the Russian Revolution of 1917 was sparked on International Womens Day in St Petersburg is often overlooked. The so-called 'February Revolution' actually took place on 8th March, owing to Russia's use of the Julien calendar until 1918. By the end of the day, a third of the city's industrial work force were taking part in demonstrations.1

As today marks 100 years since the revolution began, we hear, for the first time, the story of Leokadiya Kashperova; a female composer once embedded in the bourgeois life of St Petersburg, and her musical life in the wake of the revolution.

We talked to Dr Graham Griffiths (City, University of London) about Kashperova's remarkable story, and the subject of his current research.

Photograph of Leokadiya Kashperova
Leokadiya Aleksandrovna Kashperova (1872-1940), Russia's earliest-known female composer of international stature

Dr Griffiths first introduced us to Kashperova at the Female Composers Workshop, a joint venture between the AHRC and BBC Radio 3. The project will explore the works of long-forgotten women, and record with the BBC Orchestras and Choirs their previously unheard works. Mindful of the centenary of the Russian Revolution, we wanted to hear more about Kashperova.

"Leokadiya Kashperova is chiefly remembered as ‘Stravinsky’s piano teacher’", explained Dr Griffiths. "but the research I have carried out over the past four years has revealed her to be not only a brilliant pianist (Glazunov’s and Balakirev’s preferred interpreter) but also an active and well-respected composer in her own right. Her wide-ranging output – including a symphony, a piano concerto, choral works, chamber music, piano solos and art-songs – establishes Kashperova as the earliest-known female Russian composer of international stature. She graduated from the St Petersburg Conservatoire in 1895 conducting her cantata Orvasi (to texts by the symbolist poet Merezhkovsky) and over the next twenty years almost all her major works were premiered and published."

Like so many 'bourgeois women, Kashperova's life dramatically changed once the revolution began, but Dr Griffiths highlighted that it was Kashperova's marriage - rather surprisingly - to a Bolshevik that argubably had the greatest impact.

"In 1916 Kashperova’s steady professional ascendency was dramatically interrupted by her impulsive, indeed unlikely, marriage to her pupil Sergei Andropov, a Bolshevik revolutionary and close associate of Lenin. In 1918 Andropov engineered their flight from Petrograd. Thereafter, Kashperova presented very few recitals; her music was never again published or performed. My most recent research-visit to Russia (in November 2016) has unveiled a cache of unpublished compositions written, probably in secret, during her last twenty years."

"Nowadays no-one has heard of Kashperova", said Dr Griffiths, "not even in Russia. Yet her music reveals an attractive, subtly original voice expressed via unpretentious refinement, poignant lyricism and, as Yastrebtsev commented to Rimsky-Korsakov in 1906, ‘an uncommon musicality’. The Russian Musical Gazette noted appreciatively in 1912: ‘Her gifts as a composer are a most welcome phenomenon of St Petersburg’s musical life.’ The Sunday Times (London, 1907) observed that ‘Mlle Kashperova’s music shows a decided talent [being] very attractive in its tunefulness, grace and Russian fitfulness of mood’.

Photograph of the St Petersburg Conservatoir in 1894
Photograph of the St Petersburg Conservatoire in 1894

We were intrigued as to how Dr Griffiths came across Kashperova, who is so remarkably placed in history.

"Kashperova’s name first presented itself to me a long while ago, in 2002, when I was starting my DPhil at Oxford and reading an enormous amount of Stravinskian studies and literature on Russian music generally. I noticed that she was referred to by Stravinsky in his autobiography in the most disparaging terms, just as he spoke so badly about all his former associates in Russia. Yet, he did have the grace to acknowledge how she had given him not only a brilliant piano technique but also ‘a sense of métier’. To explore this further I needed to investigate Stravinsky’s musical and pianistic education while he was growing up in St Petersburg. So, naturally, Kashperova became the centre of my attention. I was soon fascinated to discover that she wasn’t remotely ‘antiquated’ or the ‘blockhead’ that Stravinsky had described; in fact, she was a pianist-composer and a very successful one - something that took Stravinsky another twenty years to emulate. As for why I became so interested in Kashperova, that is more complicated! At the start, perhaps, I was offended by Stravinsky’s unkind comments for I had received such encouragement from my own piano teacher when I was young. (Out of gratitude I had chosen to dedicate my Stravinsky book to her). Yet, as soon as I began uncovering Kashperova’s lyrical and beautifully-crafted music I realised that Kashperova had been unjustly overlooked not just by one ungrateful pupil; her considerable achievements had been erased by the misfortunes of History… Truly, I feel that after a century of neglect, this long-forgotten and quite excellent composer thoroughly deserves re-discovery."

Photograph of Leokadiya Kashperova
Dr Graham Griffiths giving his presentation on Leokadiya Kashperova at the BBC Radio 3 Female Composers Workshop

The source material Dr Griffiths uses in his research has the double-issue of being both unpublished and unedited, and in Russian. Dr Griffiths has also made several trips to Russia, exploring extraordinary archives, to conduct his research.

"It was only after my Stravinsky book was published (in 2013) that I had the opportunity to make a research-trip to St Petersburg", said Dr Griffiths. "I travelled to Russia specifically to explore Kashperova’s biography and to seek out her compositions. At the start, apart from the briefest entries in century-old music dictionaries, there was nothing to go on. So, I had to traipse up and down St Petersburg – treading those unyielding granite paving-stones – visiting all the libraries and archives I could find: the Russian National Library, the Conservatoire library, annexes all over the city… I even obtained permission, at my third attempt, to visit the rarely accessed Russian State Historical Archive which guards material from Tsarist, pre-Revolutionary times. Later researches have taken me to Moscow and, via internet, elsewhere in Russia – to the Caucasus, for example, for I believe she lived there for two years after fleeing Petrograd and before arriving in Moscow."

Clearly the events of March 8th 1917 had a major impact on Kashperova, who circulated amongst the upper-class and educated society of Tsarist Russia. Asking Dr Griffiths how the revolution would have impacted Kashperova raised some powerful insights, especially given Kashperova's marriage to a leading Bolshevik.

"I cannot help but highlight the most astonishing aspect of Kashperova’s biography: her marriage, at the age of 44, to the Bolshevik agitator Andropov I mentioned earlier. I have come to the conclusion that he probably saved her life!"

Photograph of demonstrations on 8th March 1917
Photograph of women involved in demonstrations on 8th March 1917

"Let me explain", continued Dr Griffiths, "when they first met, in early 1916, she was in the process of applying for the post of piano teacher at the Smolny Institute. This famous establishment had been founded by Catherine the Great in the 18th century to offer education to the daughters of the Russian nobility, or ‘noble maidens’ as this is also charmingly translated. Not only were the young pupils titled, many were princesses. There is an entire exhibition room in the Russian Museum, well worth a visit, filled with portraits by Dmitri Levitsky of the most celebrated Smolyanki, as they were known, busily occupying themselves with such aristocratic arts as dancing, harp-playing and, more surprisingly, engaging in scientific experiments. Yet, correspondence I located in the Historical Archive revealed that no sooner had ‘Mlle Kashperova’ been received into this noble milieu than she was hastily writing again to resign her post before she had even taken it up."

"At first I thought that she had been coerced into this resignation by her husband who would clearly have had the horrors at explaining to his Bolshevik colleagues where his new wife was employed", explained Dr Griffiths, "but now I sense that Andropov might have had a premonition, if not inside knowledge, that impelled him swiftly to extract his bride from this potentially dangerous association. Upon Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd the Smolny Institute was immediately closed down and its palatial neoclassical buildings co-opted as the command centre of the Bolshevik Party. It was there Lenin had his office, and where Kirov would be assassinated in 1934."

Moving to the heart of our discussion, Dr Griffiths shared two poignant examples of how women were affected by the revolution.

Image of the Smolny Institute
The Smolny Institute in 1823: the Institute was Russia's first educational establishment for women. The institute was founded by the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great and functioned until just before the 1917 revolution. After the revolution it was chosen by Lenin to serve as the Bolshevik headquarters

"I would just like to offer you two striking and very contrasting examples of how the upheavals of those years affected women in Russia at opposite ends of the social spectrum. Both images move me profoundly and illustrate the desperate sadness of those desperate times… First, a witness-account of morning prayers at the Smolny Institute on the day after the Tsar’s abdication. For the first time in about two centuries there was to be no prayer for the Tsar and his family. The young student chosen to lead the assembly in prayer that morning broke down, unable to pronounce ‘Let us pray for the Provisional Government’ provoking all pupils and staff present to join her in tears and sobbing. Secondly, I recall the image of Orthodox priests in Moscow’s Red Square blessing the newly-formed ‘Women’s Battalion of Death’ - soon to be sent to the front line in a ploy designed to shame the Russian army into more manly, more patriotic action… Both images are poignantly expressive of that immense social upheaval, of such violence prevalent in so many forms amid the chaos caused by the simultaneous impact of revolution and war."

"As for Kashperova," said Dr Griffiths, "I believe that by 1917 she was living – in hiding, perhaps – with her husband’s family in Rostov-on-Don, though I am still researching this. In time, the Bolsheviks would buy in to the Marxist view of gender equality though in reality the life of the new Soviet woman was as hard as ever, a pale reflection of the muscular heroism of the female figures portrayed in those Communist propaganda posters. I have found no evidence of Kashperova giving any concerts between 1916 and 1920; these were very difficult and dangerous times. In fact, even after her arrival in Moscow, and living in close proximity to the Conservatoire, she appears to have given no public performance of her own music during the last twenty years of her life. (She died in 1940.) In her rare concert appearances she performed music by Glazunov or by her great friend Balakirev, and then only in recitals shared with several other pianists. Gone forever, it seems, was her celebrity status as a solo performer. Clearly, she could not remind a soul of her former high standing in ‘good old St Petersburg’… much less could she demonstrate her late-romantic compositions now stylistically in conflict with the new dictates of socialist realism, and dangerously so. Nor would it have been wise to attempt to impress the authorities with tales of the positive reception she had been afforded in the capitalist West – in Leipzig and Berlin and on her two visits to London in 1907. Events in Russia effectively silenced Kashperova. Now we have the precious opportunity to bring her back to life."

Dr Graham Griffiths (City, University of London) in conversation with the AHRC about the subject of his current research: Leokadiya Aleksandrovna Kashperova. 8 March 2017


1. Rex Wade, The Russian Revolution, 1917 (Cambridge University Press, 2017) p.29

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