I. Grekova (GREH-koh-vah) is one of the most influential Russian women writers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Elena Sergeevna Dolgintsova was born into a traditional family of the prerevolutionary intelligentsia, and early on she developed a love for literature and such novelists as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski. She was raised under the tutelage of her father, a mathematician, whose profession she herself adopted. She married a specialist in ballistics, Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Venttsel’, and together they taught at the Zhukovskii Military Aviation Academy in Moscow. In addition to being the mother of three children, Grekova attained the rank of Doktor Nauk, Doctor of Science, a prestigious degree awarded to very few.
Grekova’s writing career did not begin until 1962, seven years after the death of her husband. While continuing to teach at the Zhukovskii Academy, she began writing stories; the first to be published, in 1962, was “Beyond the Gates.” She joined the Writers’ Union in 1966 but never gave up her career in mathematics, even at the behest of Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor-in-chief of the influential literary journalNovyi Mir (new world).
She fashioned her pen name from the name of the Latin letter igrek, which does not exist in the cyrillic alphabet but is used frequently as a mathematical symbol for an unknown quantity. Unlike the symbolism of many other literary pseudonyms in Russian literature (for example, Belyi, “White”; Gorky, “Bitter”), Grekova wished, even in her prose fiction, to affirm her ties to the world of science and to extend her dominion beyond simple words. The use of a pseudonym may not have been entirely voluntary. During the 1960’s and 1970’s the Soviet government kept strict watch over printed material and tended to prevent anyone with “sensitive” knowledge from publishing at all.
Grekova’s style has been characterized as simple, laconic, and straightforward, traits she herself seems intent to cultivate. Yet although her prose is not ornate it is laden with traditional literary symbols and techniques, used, however, in a fresh context and with different values substituting for the iconic Soviet ones. Thus in the story “Ladies’ Hairdresser” the director holds a party where the participants clearly see themselves in parody instead of as good, red-blooded Soviets. In “Rothschild’s Violin” the teacher delivers a lesson in good Soviet Socialist style, the twist being that she uses a pre-revolutionary story by Anton Chekhov to make her point.
If there are attributes of Socialist Realism in Grekova’s work, they appear in parody and with the most obvious dissimilarity that Grekova actively courts the ambiguity of a situation, without offering the kind of single, stereotypical, pedantic focus of the former type of writing. There are no outcomes, no morals, no lessons in her writing.
Grekova’s most prevalent themes center on the lives of women and on women’s views of life. Her main characters are typically women who work and are members of the intelligentsia. Often they are mothers, but not the kind of mothers who suffer guilt and frustration from not achieving on the level of their male counterparts; what seems compromised, rather, is more often the demands of science....
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