New East Digital Archive

Reclaiming the legacy of Anna Bunina, Russia’s first woman poet

18 January 2022
Text: Emily Zarevich

For intellectuals and instructors around the world, Russian literature has always been a prominent centrepiece of intense study and debate. There are those who dedicate their entire careers to analysing and deconstructing the works of Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Anna Akhmatova. The name of Anna Bunina, however, is rarely listed among Russia’s literary greats — and not because she doesn’t deserve such lofty recognition.

Bunina was the first woman in Russia to make writing her career, a pioneering professional who rejected marriage and paid the bills with her pen. No easy feat in the 18th century, as fellow women writers Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft could attest.

In an era where society preferred the passionate dramas of the opera and theatre, the prolonged escapism of novels, or the antics of “mad, bad, and dangerous” rockstar-writers like Byron, Bunina stood apart, plying her trade through poetry and a life considered productive and tame. Yet, she deserves to be celebrated with equal acclaim to her more glamourous peers. Disciplined, resilient, highly intelligent, practical, and talented, Bunina ultimately prevailed in her pursuits against the odds.

Anna Bunina painted by A.G.Varnek (1823)

Anna Bunina painted by A.G.Varnek (1823)

​Early Life

Bunina was born in 1774 under circumstances that would eventually shape her creative adult life. Her mother died in childbirth, leaving the infant Bunina in the village of Urusovo. Located in what used to be the rural and sparsely-populated Ryazan district of the old Russian Empire, 200 km south-east of Moscow, Urusovo was isolated, providing the space, solitude, and natural beauty for an imaginative mind to blossom. Meanwhile, Bunina was passed from relative to relative in the hot-potato style that was typical at the time for well-connected, middle-class orphans. Being a girl, and therefore barred from any sort of profession, Bunina’s caregivers did not consider her education a priority, though there were exceptions. A relative, B.K. Blank, encouraged her to read and write, as did a close friend and mentor, Peter Shalikov. Both were poets in their own right, and they recognised great potential in this young, precocious country girl.

At the age of 28, Bunina inherited a small fortune from her father’s side of the family. It wasn’t much, but it was freedom from her status as the “poor relation” in the homes of others. Now financially independent, she moved to St Petersburg, the great cultural hub of Russia, and established the closest thing a woman at the time could have to a university experience. She set up a home, hired an array of private tutors, and threw herself into a strict regime of study. Steadily, she succeeded in nurturing a much more sophisticated writing style.

“View of Palace Square from the beginning of Nevsky Prospect by Benjamin Patersen, early 1800s

“View of Palace Square from the beginning of Nevsky Prospect by Benjamin Patersen, early 1800s

Career and Major Publications

In 1808, she completed and published French-to-Russian translations of Abbot Batte’s Rules of Poetry and Nicolas Boileau-Depreo’s Science of Poetry. In 1809, she published her own poetry collection, The Inexperienced Muse, with a second volume sharing the same title following in 1812. By the time her Collected Works appeared in 1819, she had established a reputation as a serious, revered writer. Her work, with its clever charm, steely astuteness, neat rhymes, and feminist themes, caught the interest of the cultivated Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna, who arranged for Bunina to receive a small but much-needed pension. This injection of funds was, for Bunina, nothing less than a godsend. Most of her inheritance had been drained paying her tutors’ salaries and her own living expenses. A quasi-bohemian lifestyle in bustling metropolis St Petersburg did not come cheap, even with Bunina’s careful budgeting and simple tastes.

Meanwhile, Bunina socialised with the glamorous literary circle of admiral and writer Alexander Shishkov, her patron and supporter, and fellow poet Gavrila Derzhavin. In 1811, she was made an honorary member of the literary society, “The Colloquy of Lovers of the Russian Word.” This was, unfortunately, something of an empty gesture, as Bunina’s sex prevented her from performing her poems in front of the others at the monthly meetings held at Derzhavin’s family mansion. The society was, at its core, conservative, and the attitude of the period was that a woman willing to perform on a public stage, whether as an actress, opera singer, or even as a presenter of political speeches, had to be of loose morals. A respectable woman, especially one of Bunina’s class — she was being bankrolled by the royal family, after all — was seen, but not heard.

View of the Palace Embankment from Peter and Paul Fortress (1794) by Fyodor Alekseev

View of the Palace Embankment from Peter and Paul Fortress (1794) by Fyodor Alekseev

Decline and Death

In 1815, Bunina travelled to Britain, but this trip abroad was, unfortunately, not the adventurous and educational Grand Tour enjoyed by her male contemporaries. She was suffering from breast cancer, and Britain offered some experimental treatments which, tragically, did not bring much relief. Bunina returned to Russia, where she finally succumbed to her long, painful illness in 1829, at the age of 55. In the end she returned to her roots and was buried in her native Urusovo.

The sharp decline of her position amongst the literary elite can largely be blamed on a spiteful smear campaign conducted by Alexander Pushkin and the conservative Arzamas Society. Though Pushkin’s novels and plays are remarkable staples of Russian literature, it must be admitted that, as a person, he could be despicable, cruelly mocking Bunina in correspondence with friends. His crowd’s nitpicky criticism of Bunina’s body of work, which was considered trivial and too simple, led to its fall from grace. Her style, which she’d worked so hard to develop, was no longer fashionable.

Predictably, Bunina was also mocked for having never married, as her devotion to her studies had been the great love of her life, and her reason to face life with such strength. Egotistic and misogynistic, these men did not understand — or did not want to understand — the trials of women who wanted to live and achieve like they did. This is best reflected in Bunina’s “A Conversation Between Me and The Woman,” translated into English by author Sibelan E. S. Forrester:

“It’s true, my dears, you are no less.

But understand,

With men, not you, the courts of taste are manned

Where authors all must stand,

And all an author’s fame is in their hands,

And none can help loving himself the best.”

Today, although efforts have been made to translate Bunina’s poems into English, her name is still largely unknown. Moving forward, one can only hope that uncovering the missing pieces in the history of women’s literature will become more of a priority. Bunina many have been Russia’s first woman poet — but she is certainly not the only one to see her legacy overshadowed.

This article is part of our series Women, recollected, an ongoing project shining a light on the forgotten women pioneers of 20th-century culture.

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