“And we are not ashamed to talk about it”

On 14 June, the Centre for Comparative History and Political Studies hosted a lecture by Yulia Safronova titled “And we are not ashamed to talk about it”: conversations about the intimate in private correspondence in the last third of the XIXth century (based on the correspondence between Alexander II and Yekaterina Dolgorukova) (18+ age limit).

  • Yulia Safronova - candidate of historical sciences, deputy dean of the History Department, European University at Saint Petersburg.

At the beginning of the lecture, Yulia Safronova stressed the importance of the epistolary heritage of the past as a valuable source for researchers. According to her, epistolary heritage of the second half of the XIXth century is a significant part of archive and museum collections; e.g. private letters belonging to many participants of Alexander II's 'great reforms' were released in large quantities. Nevertheless, virtually, there are no case studies of love and family correspondence, the focus of which would have been exactly on the language spoken at home, correspondents’ feelings, and ways of expressing intimate experience. Mary Cavender showed the high emotionality of family relationships on the example of family correspondence, refuting the thesis of cold officialdom of aristocratic culture in the middle of the XIXth century. Cavender claimed that these feelings were expressed in constant underlining of love and intimacy in the letters between relatives. From her point of view, the expression of emotions, the use of nicknames and spoken language was necessary to create close family relations. Furthermore, these actions were part of the epistolary tradition of the time, as well as the use of the French language for conversations between men and women. At the same time, family correspondence was usually silent about the intimate life. Perhaps a couple permanently living together did not need to discuss its bedroom experience in writing, although it was likely that they were talking about it behind the doors of family bedrooms.

Yulia Safronova noted that since 1980’s western historiography has begun to overcome the earlier stereotype about the repression of female sexuality during the Victorian era. As Peter Gay showed, bourgeois morality did not exclude a variety of sexual practices and, more importantly, the joy for both men and women. Safronova stressed that the study of the history of sexuality of the second half of the XIXth century based on Russian primary sources is fragmentary as it is based on the evidences from doctors, anthropologists, theologians and lawyers. Thus, the focus of these primary sources is on reproductive behavior and on different deviations. Natalia Pushkareva wrote that “sexual and erotic motivation of individual behavior in every possible way was veiled and muted by the scholars describing one or another aspect of sexual behavior of their contemporaries.”

Yulia Safronova divided her speech about the correspondence between Emperor Alexander II and Yekaterina Dolgorukova into two parts. During the first part Yulia Safronova gave an overview of the epistolary complex, analyzed the features of the correspondents’ language and tried to debunk the myth about the uniqueness of this source. In the second part, she described the language of intimate experience created by the couple to discuss their sexual life. The speaker noted that the correspondence included specific texts that consisted of ritual phrases with hidden meanings. The speaker analyzed the discussion of sexual life of Alexander II and Yekaterina Dolgorukov as a language game.