She was completely engrossed in a single thought

Dear Sofia,

Nihilist Girl, tr. Natasha Kolchevska and Mary Zirin (2001. Original: Нигилистка, 1884) reads like a tale with a void inside, wrapped-up in a blue-tinged layer of melancholy: at its core, we cannot help but feel a slight shadow of disillusionment.

The narrator, a twenty-four-year-old woman who has just returned to Russia after completing her PhD in Germany, is approached, one day, by a young gentry woman, Vera Barantsova, who is seeking a way to contribute to what she calls as “the cause.” Vera was the youngest daughter of a country squire whose estate has gone into decline due to bad management, particularly after the emancipation of the serfs by Alexander II in 1861.

As the youngest daughter, Vera was the one most affected by her family’s decline: because of the lack of money, she was denied the opportunities and access to education that had been granted to her sisters. By a strike of luck, she has the chance to be tutored for free by the family’s new neighbour, Vasiltsev, a former professor who has lost his position at the University in Saint Petersburg. As the story evolves, we learn that he is a subversive, sent to forced exile in his home in the countryside, because of his radical, anti-tsarist views.

When Vera first meets him, she is an impressionable fifteen-year-old girl obsessed with the lives of the Christian martyrs. Her education had been erratic, and, for the most part, she had been left alone to wander around the estate. At home, the only thing she found to appease her restlessness and curiosity were religious books. Having read about the lives of the saints, and feeling stifled by her current lack of perspectives in life, Vera starts to dream about dedicating herself to martyrdom and missionary work.

Vera’s ardour and imagination prove to be a fertile ground for Vasiltsev’s radical views: she is looking for a great cause, and he believes to have one. The girl’s natural inclination towards Christian martyrdom gradually shifts to a strong desire to dedicate her life to what she thinks of as “the movement”. However, even after many years have passed, when she is already a grown-up woman with an income of her own, Vera still doesn’t know exactly what “the movement” is: she just has a vague idea that it might revolve around sacrificing oneself to a great cause – and that’s enough for her.

Looking for someone who might introduce her to “the cause”, Vera moves to Saint Petersburg, where she gets in touch with the narrator – who, as a renowned young female academic might (so Vera thinks) tell her how to join “the movement”. As it turns out, our narrator professes a different kind of dissidence, less overtly radical: she advices Vera to educate herself and to take classes at the university. Our Vera, however, is impatient for change: she prefers a quicker solution, even if it comes with great personal cost; and she sees no point in any mission devoid of some kind of martyrdom.

Nihilist Girl touches upon the breakdown of 19th-century Russia class structure – albeit in a less playful and satirical way than in Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, tr.  Nora Seligman Favorov (2017. Original: Городские и деревенские, 1863), a novella which is also set around the time of the emancipation of the serfs.

As Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya’s The Boarding-School Girl, tr. Karen Rosneck (2000. Original: Pansionerka, 1861), Nihilist Girl is a story about a girl coming of age under the mentorship of an older man exiled for his political opinions; and, albeit in a less layered and allegorical way, your book also touches upon gender and class inequalities, women’s education, women’s new roles in society, tsarist censorship, and political repression.

The nihilists were the Russian radicals of the 1860s. The term is based on Barazov, the protagonist of Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, tr. Richard Freeborn (Original: Отцы и дети, 1862), who ‘believes in nothing’ and entertains radical ideas. We are tempted to read Vera as the nihilist girl alluded to in the title: she is the one who longs to dedicate herself to “the radical cause”. However, I cannot help but feel that our narrator could also be considered a nihilist girl: critical of her society, she choses to effect change from the inside, by defying gender norms and entering the public arena of academia; moreover, she is deeply sceptical as to whether Vera’s martyrdom is able to promote any concrete social change.

We are tempted, even further, to think that, by choosing to become a martyr by getting married to a prisoner sent to Siberia so as to save him, Vera is not subverting, but just making a slight shift in the role traditionally expected of her as a woman: hers is only another way of falling into self-sacrifice, passivity, and devotion to a man, instead of a more comprehensive struggle for personal and social independence; her ardour is less a political stance than a manifestation of her former religious faith.

Be that as it may, in the Nihilist Girl, we have an interesting take on women’s roles in Russian 19th-century society: on the one side, there is Vera, a woman who sees no point in dedicating her life to science and academia, when she knows there is so much suffering around her, demanding more immediate action and radical self-sacrifice; on the other hand, we have the narrator, a woman who believes that true change can only happen gradually, through education – and, for women, through professionalisation and active participation in the public sphere.

Although you make no clear choices between the two characters, the narrator’s point of view is slightly tinged with a kind of melancholy, a sense that Vera might be giving up her potential and wasting her life for nothing, when she chooses to sacrifice herself. In the end, our brave Vera has not achieved the most that she could, and yet she has given everything that she has – it is a very small thing, and yet it is her life.

Yours truly,


Nikolai Yaroshenko,’The Girl Student’, 1883.

“‘Oh no, Michel, our peasant is a beast, our peasant is worse than the French!’ In her agitation, Mama rose slightly from the settee, leaning on her elbow: “You know that the peasants hate us…” – Nihilist Girl

There is nothing sadder than a landowner’s fanciful garden that has fallen into neglect. – Nihilist Girl

Many suspected him of being a dangerous conspirator, a suspicion that enveloped him in a mysterious aura that was at once both appalling and attractive, since even conservative Russians, unless they belong to the secret police, have an involuntary, instinctive respect for any political prisoner. – Nihilist Girl

To tell you the truth, in a country where things like this can happen, you hardly have the right to think about your own love and happiness. – Nihilist Girl

She was completely engrossed in a single thought – to find a purpose, a goal in life. – Nihilist Girl

About the book

  • Modern Language Association of America, 2001, tr. Natasha Kolchevska and Mary Zirin, 182 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 1884
  • Original: Нигилистка
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • I read this book for Novellas in November

2 thoughts on “She was completely engrossed in a single thought

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