Despite her kinship with European mermaids, the rusalka is unique to East Slavic folklore, where she appears (even more so than the powerful Baba Yaga) as its most ambivalent and multifaceted female figure. Long an object of fascination haunting the creative imagination of Russian writers, artists, composers and filmmakers, the rusalka is traditionally depicted as the soul or spirit of a beautiful maiden who died an untimely, unnatural death, has become an “unclean force” and poses a lethal supernatural threat – mostly to men. Traditionally imagined by male artists as a creature with enhanced feminine qualities – a beautiful (often nude) physique; long green or blond hair; and large breasts – the rusalka casts into relief the complex relationship between myth and gender in Russia, from ancient times to the present day. In male discourse, the rusalka’s demonic side typically preponderates; she is reduced to a vengeful magical creature, denied any potential for resistance and agency. But can we define the rusalka’s femininity differently?
My dissertation sets two central goals. First, I hope to recuperate a pluralism intrinsic to the ancient rusalka trope beyond the popular binary understanding of her ambivalent image. Second, I use the metaphorics of the rusalka to locate creative and productive models of gender necessary to reconceptualize Woman within the context of phallocentric Russian culture, and to unbind possibilities for thinking of gender as heterogeneous and polysemic. My project thus reflects the ongoing need for gender consciousness-raising in contemporary Russia, with a very particular (re)vision of the feminine. In the 20th- and 21st-century treatments of the rusalka which I examine, to what extent is the ancient trope tapped for subversive ends, to symbolically attack the dominant sex/gender order, so as to effect a radical transformation of feminine identity?
The dissertation does not aim to provide a comprehensive analysis of the rusalka in literature, film and performing arts. It will rather focus on several revisionist depictions of the rusalka as an alternative, more productive vehicle for the representation of gender in Russian visual and literary culture. Key themes surfacing throughout the project form the basis of my alternative vision of Otherness: divinity, animalism, gender, voice, and body. Selected “unorthodox” representations of the rusalka for this project come from the Modernist, the Soviet and the Post-Soviet periods. They have been creatively imagined by writers Zinaida Gippius, Anton Chekhov, Alexander Belyaev, and filmmaker Anna Melikyan. These diverse artists reclaim and redefine the rusalka, an age-old figure of Russian femininity long devalued and homogenized by a notoriously male-centered culture.