TheTriumvirate: The Women Who Changed Education Forever

Grace Ryan

© Copyright 2020 by Grace Ryan

Pictures of the three women.

The story of Anna Filosofva, Maria Trubnikova, and Nadezhda Stasova is the story of three women who used their power, money, and privilege to fight for women to be granted admittance to Russia's universities. Against the backdrop of revolution, these three women battled discrimination and bureaucracy to improve the quality of life for all women in Russia and paved the way for the rest of the world to follow suit.

The rise to power of Tsar Alexander the Second in 1855, ushered in a new era of social and political change in Russia. Revolution was in the air among the lower classes, and every day there was more and more reason to hope that the new, progressive leader would revolutionise Russia’s social and political systems. There was excitement that Marxist, anarchist, and Populist movements would provide the economic reform needed to bring people out of poverty. Among this revolutionary spirit, three babies were born who would their power, wealth, and status to reshape the way world thinks about the power of educating women, forever.
Our story begins with Anna Filosofva. Born Anna Dyagileva on August 5th, 1837 in Perm, Filosofva began her life as a home-schooled girl from the very wealthy Dyagileva family. Growing up, playing in the halls of her glamorous apartments paid for by her fabulously rich ancestors, Filosofva was not forced to consider the harsh realities of poverty until she married Dmitryevich Filosofov, a powerful official in the Ministry of War and Defence who came from a very rich, serf-owning family. It was while living with her husband and his family that Filosofva began to reflect on social issues affecting the lower classes. Christine D. Worobec’s book ‘The Human Tradition in Imperial Russia’ describes Dmitryevich’s father as “a tyrannical figure” and noted that the cruel ways in which her father-in-law would exploit the peasants living on his estate for financial gain.

It was childhood friend Maria Trubnikova however who inspired Filosofva to turn her reflections on social and economic issues affecting the poor, into action. Maria Trubnikova was of an even higher social class than Filosofva, being a blood relative of Princess Ekaterina Khovanskaia, her aunt who took Trubnikova in after the death of her mother. Trubnikova’s aunt gave her an education more sophisticated than most aristocratic men would have received at the time, becoming educated on many issues, particularly the social and economic difficulties faced by women. After her marriage to Konstantin Trubnikova at age 19, she began to edit for his left-wing magazine and become even more knowledgeable about the inequalities present in modern Russian society.

And it was in the wooden libraries of Trubnikova’s home, between the shelves stacked with feminist literature, and in the rare moments when the seven Trubnikova children were quiet, that the seeds of revolution were sown. Trubnikova began to educate Filosofva on the feminist movements in England and the two of them began to discuss the ways they could respond to the issues they saw in society. Filosofva described Trubnikova as “an angel, gentle and patient. She developed me, read with me. This was hard, since I didn't know anything.” And so in 1860, the two of them hatched the plans for the "Society for Cheap Lodging and Other Aid to the Residents of Saint Petersburg"

While the "Society for Cheap Lodging and Other Aid to the Residents of Saint Petersburg" may not have had the catchiest name, it did have the simple goal of providing cheap and stable accommodation to women living in poverty. In establishing and financing the hostels, Filosofva and Trubnikova recruited the help of Nadezhda Stasova, another woman from a wealthy upbringing, determined to rectify a number of social and economic issues in Russia.

Stasova had a very carefree youth, being educated at home until she was 16. At age 16, however, her family pressured her into marriage, arranging a marriage to a much older Russian general for her. But on the day of her wedding, as Stasova was standing covered head to toe in white lace preparing to walk down the aisle, her fiancé declared that he could not marry Stasova as he had fallen in love with a much younger woman. Completely humiliated and struggling with the lack of control Stasova had over her own decisions, she vowed to never marry again. Her wedding fiasco inspired a deep panic within Stasova, as she began to question her purpose in life and went in search of a career which would provide her with some sense of fulfilment and control over her life. Stasova began her quest by caring for her disabled sister, Sofia who was unable to walk and suffered from an intellectual disability. In caring for Sofia, Stasova developed a deep empathy for the plights of marginalised people. Upon the death of her sister in 1858, Stasova met Trubnikova and joined her and Filosofva to help them reach the goals of the society.

And the goals of both the society and the Triumvirate – as Anna, Maria, and Stasova would be known by 1863 – started simply. They aimed to provide cost housing to women who would otherwise find themselves homeless. However, amongst the overcrowded hostels bursting at the seams with widows, abandoned mothers, and lower-class women the Triumvirate recognised that it was the limited access women had to training that was stopping women from finding stable employment and earning an income with which to live off. This recognition led the society to expand its services; beginning to provide training in the use of sewing machines and other textile industry machines, in an attempt to make their patrons more employable and hopefully lift some women out of poverty.

Despite this training, the society did not see enough of an increase in employment to make a considerable dent in the poverty of the women. In an attempt to rectify this and expand the number of employment opportunities present for lower-class women, the Triumvirate opened a publishing company called the ‘Women’s Publishing Artel’ which employed women as writers, translators, editors, and type setters. The Artel provided women with stable employment and aimed to preserve workers rights by creating clean and safe working environments which paid women fairly for their labour.

However, despite working closely with women to boost their skills and find stable employment, women were not being employed at a particularly high rate. The Triumvirate realised that it was their own educations which inspired them to embark on their political work and gave them the knowledge they needed to work properly. They all received high quality educations from their very wealthy families, an education which was developed by their personal experiences later on in life. Trubnikova received her education in the ways of the word from her Aunt. Filosofva was taught by Maria, who guided her through an education in the systemic inequality present in society. And Stasova learned about the difficulties faced by minority groups through caring for her disabled sister. Without this education, the Triumvirate realised that they would not have been able to build their careers and the same must hold true of all women. The Triumvirate soon realised the importance of properly educating all people, and came to understand that the limited access women had to formal education was what was really keeping them in poverty.

And thus, the Triumvirate embarked on their most well-known and influential mission: University education for women.

In 1867, after the Crimean War when universities began to open their doors to non-noble men, the Triumvirate began their campaign to grant women access to tertiary education. Their work began with the creation of a petition which demanded that the Tzar and his government grant Filosofva, Trubnikova, and Stasova permission to open the first higher education courses for women at the Saint Petersburg State University, which would allow them to earn a formal qualification. There was strong resistance from conservatives, including the education minister Dmitry Tolstoy, who believed that “women were inadequately prepared for university level instruction.” He ultimately refused the Triumvirate the right to start their formal university courses. However, he did not outright dismiss the demands of the petition, and in 1871, Tolstoy conceded women the right to informally attend university lectures for free without receiving any formal qualifications. In the evenings, after the men had all left and the Vladimirsky building should have stood darkened and quiet, women filled the hallways with light and sound – coming from all over Russia to learn about everything from mathematics, to art history, to philosophy. These informal classes were named the Vladimirsky courses, named after the college where the classes were held.

The reaction to these classes was decidedly negative, with many wealthy families withdrawing their daughter’s enrolment after receiving criticism from their rich friends. The courses also received, heavy backlash from a number of conservative groups and internal pressure from some government officials. This, coupled with the fact that the courses did not receive much in the way of government funding, with most of the money coming directly from Stasova and the library being run entirely out of her personal apartment, lead to the closure of the Vladimirsky courses in 1875.

Not to be defeated however, the Triumvirate regrouped in Trubnikova’s library and continued to function as an aristocratic pressure group with the goal of providing women with access to university-level education. The three of them used their contacts in the Russian government, and with western feminists like Josephine Butler to eventually obtain official permission in 1876, to open the first Russian women’s university, known as the Bestuzhev courses. Two years later in 1878, after much planning, research, and petitioning the Bestuzhev courses officially began, with qualified professors teaching courses which would lead to formal degrees and qualifications. These degrees did not come cheap, however and so the Triumvirate, with Stasova at the helm – still running the library from her apartment which was proving to be quite a challenge as women would try to come to her apartments at all hours of the night to study (students have always been students) – began a program to raise money to pay for the education of women who could not afford to pay their own way; continuing their commitment to equal access to educational opportunities for all people.

While Triumvirate were enjoying great amounts of professional success, the same could not be said of their personal lives. The 1860’s, Trubnikova’s husband began to resent her outside, feminist work, feeling that it kept Trubnikova from fulfilling her domestic duties in the home. This resentment led to outright physical and emotional abuse, with her husband becoming a tyrannical figure in the household. Her husband began to gamble irresponsibly and over the course of seven years he gambled away much of Trubnikova’s personal fortune. The physical abuse, coupled with the toll seven pregnancies in ten years took on her body, left Trubnikova unable to walk without the assistance of a cane or wheelchair. In 1869, the physical and phycological abuse became to much and Maria had a nervous breakdown which lead to her leaving her husband, taking what was left of her fortune, and purchasing her own apartments.

Meanwhile, Russia was experiencing the ramifications of a noticeable change in the ruling style of Tsar Alexander the Second of Russia. After left-wing revolutionaries made an attempt to assassinate Alexander II because they thought his policies did not go far enough to support an economic revolution, he began to behave in more paranoid and reactionary ways. The Tsar made a number of appointments to his cabinet, replacing existing left-wing minsters with more conservative ones, and shifting university curriculums so they included less exposure to liberal thought. He also established the position of ‘governor-general.’ Those appointed to the position were granted the power to prosecute people in military courts and exile political offenders. This spelt trouble for Triumvirate, as their political activism and radical sympathy had angered a number of very powerful government officials.

In 1879, Anna Filosofva was exiled from Russia indefinitely for her aid of revolutionary groups which the Tsar deemed to be a threat to his autocracy.

This was the beginning of a very tense period in the lives of the Triumvirate. With Filosofva being sent away (probably to Siberia although her exact location is unclear) and unable to contact anyone, the responsibility to continue their political activism fell solely to Trubnikova and Stasova, who struggled with the devastation of losing their best friend and fear that she may never be allowed to return to Russia. This, coupled with the fact that political decent was, shall we say, heavily discouraged their activism became increasingly difficult. But, in true Triumvirate fashion, they didn’t let that stop them. And in Trubnikova’s cosy apartment which served as a safe haven from her ex-husband, the two of them hosted illegal candle-light meetings of political activists where revolutionist thoughts were shared away from the prying ears of the government. They also hid revolutionary literature in between copies of Russia’s newest bestselling novels from up and coming authors like Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, in a time when critique of the government would result in persecution. Trubnikova and Stasova, not content with hosting illegal meetings that would have had them thrown in jail if they had been caught, also used governmental contacts and legal knowledge to ensure that many arrests of revolutionaries were overturned and continued to work on Anna’s case, desperate to bring her back to them.

After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, Tsar Alexander III overturned many political prisoners’ convictions and Filosofva was finally allowed to return home to Russia. Although their union was a happy occasion for everyone, Trubnikova’s physical disabilities and mental condition forced her to withdraw from political and feminist activities. The three women remained close friends for the rest of their lives, supporting each other through their many endeavours and regularly meeting in Maria’s apartments to discuss feminist literature over cups of tea.

Stasova and Filosofva both continued to work well into their late lives. Stasova continued in her position as director of the Bestuzhev courses until she is removed by the Tsar in 1889, despite loud and very brash protest on Stasova’s part. After her removal she enjoyed a well-deserved retirement before passing away on September 27, 1895. Trubnikova also passed away two years later on April 28th, 1897, leaving a grief-stricken Filosofva to do what she does best; carry on.

And carry on she did. In 1895, Filosofva continued her dedication toward brightening the economic and social prospects of the lower-classes by founding the ‘Charity Association of Russian Women.’ This organisation was a secret political group disguised as a charity, dedicated to furthering the rights of newly emancipated serfs, the working class, and ethnic minorities, who were not paid fairly for their labour, could not buy or sell their land, were barred from voting, unallowed to unionise, and banned from many schools. This led to her to participate in the Russian Revolution in 1905, which was a mass political and social movement working for the same causes as the ‘Charity Association of Russian Women,’ and was not an official war like the Russian Revolution of 1917. During this time, she joined the Constitutional Democratic Party, a newly founded left-wing political party which supported the Russian Revolution. Filosofva eventually rose through the ranks of the party and became chairman of the women’s branch in 1908.

In 1911, Russia celebrated the fiftieth jubilee of Filosofva’s political and feminist work, and her contributions to the education and advancement of women and other minority groups in Russia. The jubilee festivities were attended by more than one hundred women’s organisations and foreign political groups, who gave speeches and honoured Filosofva’s contributions to Russia’s political and education systems. Revolution was in the air among the bustling crowd, and every day there was more and more reason to hope that the work three selfless, progressive, and generous women had forever changed the way women and the lower classes would access education and training. Among this revolutionary spirit, Anna Filosofva passed away on March 17th, 1912, and although she as a public figure has long since been forgotten, her legacy – and the legacy of Nadezhda Stasova and Maria Trubnikova live on, three women who used their power, wealth, and status to reshape the way the world thinks about the power of educating women, forever.

Grace Ryan is a young, Australian writer who can often be found hunched over her laptop, fussing over comma placement and line spacing. Grace lives with her loving family and her grumpy cat, and she enjoys playing music in her spare time. Grace is an amateur writer who has an incredible passion for writing and is excited to share her work with others.

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