“COCKING YOUR NOSE HIGHER THAN YOUR BRAIN”,
OR “WHY ARE PEOPLE SUCH TRASH?”
(Letters from Nadezhda Sanzhar’ to Aleksej Suvorin,
Viacheslav Ivanov, Aleksandr Blok and Aleksandr Serafimovich)
Edited, preparation of the text, introduction and notes by A. A. Aksenova
Nadezhda Dmitrievna Sanzhar’ was one of the most odious figures in Russian literature of the first third of the twentieth century. Her mother was a Don Cossack, who had earned her living through prostitution, and her father was a state peasant, who had served time for a criminal offence. Before the revolution Sanzhar’ tried with all her energy to establish herself in a literary milieu; she bombarded Suvorin, Blok, Viacheslav Ivanov, Veresaev and others with semi-literate letters, justifying the extravagance of her style by the difficulties of her life. In each of these letters, Sanzhar’ invariably attuned herself to her correspondent, not only transforming her style or topic, but even “rewriting” her biography in accordance with what she imagined the ideology of the addressee to be. Her idée fixe of the time could be defined as a “Virgin Mary complex”: Sanzhar’ was proud of her virginity, preserved despite her marriage to an elderly Jew, who was much older than she, but at the same time she wanted to have a brilliant child, a “superman”, by some literary celebrity (Sanzhar’ bluntly appealed to Leonid Andreev, Blok, Gor’kij, Viacheslav Ivanov and many others with such requests). After the revolution Sanzhar’ once again abruptly changed her manner, appearance, and tone: “The offspring of a carpenter and a cook”, she wrote of herself to Serafimovich in the second half of the 1920s. Even her handwriting, which had once resembled calligraphy, became quite coarse, the characters doubling or tripling in size.
Nadezhda Sanzhar’ was born in September 1875, in Novocherkassk. She earned her own living from the age of eleven. Early in the 1900s, Sanzhar’ moved to Petersburg, where she began to publish, mainly in children’s magazines. Her autobiographical tale, Anna’s Notes (1909) attracted critical attention; Blok, in particular, commented on it. In many ways, the point of the tale lies in a revision of conventional views of sex: the author calls for renunciation of the sexual life for the sake of the intense inner work needed to create a harmonious, spiritualized identity. The heroine of the story, Anna, cannot find a man who might be worthy of her among the “monsters” surrounding her. In general, the militant misandry, the denial of any superiority whatever of the “strong sex” over the “weak”, the rejection of marriage, the striving for sexual self-satisfaction, and similar views compel us to regard Sanzhar’ as a kind of prophetess of the modern feminist movement.
Almost all her works are markedly autobiographical. Apparently, Sanzhar’ could describe only her own experiences. In any case, she declared more than once that her works were not literature but a real-life document, and that she herself was her best work of art. Peculiar to her writing and her letters in equal measure are didacticism, bombast, rapture, and the idea of human being as a mechanism capable of self-perfection and self-adjustment, but the main thing is an obsession with the renunciation of sexual life in the name of the victory of “man over beast”. The author planned a cycle of books on education under the general title Humstud (that is the study of humankind). As a model for imitation, Sanzhar’ offered herself.
Sanzhar’ and the Communists shared a conception of the re-educability of man and a hatred of the Intelligentsia and of culture. She joined the Communist Party in 1920 in Kiev and soon afterwards moved to Moscow, where with Briusov, and then with Serafimovich, she directed the work of LITO (The Literary Publishing Department of the People’s Commissariat of Education). In 1922, offended by the failure of her comrades-in-arms to take her theories seriously and publish her books, Sanzhar’ resigned her Party membership. In the second half of the 1920s she published under the pseudonyms Mix. Avilov and N. Briliant. Sanzhar’ believed she had fallen into disfavour because of her honesty, adherence to principles, and incorruptibility. She died of breast cancer in March 1933.