The Untold History of a Kremlin Wife
Over the course of history, the influence of women has been wide but often veiled. At least, that’s typically been the case for those involved with powerful political men, such as “the Kremlin wives.” They were a group of wives and mistresses connected to high-level Soviet commanders during the height of Bolshevism, but their stories have fallen by the wayside.
In recent years, an array of scholarship has sought to remedy that oversight, though it has tended to examine the women through the lens of their relationships rather than as individuals in their own right. Brooklyn College Professor Brigid O’Keeffe instead sought to expand upon the biography of one such woman — the British-born writer-translator Ivy Litvinov. O’Keeffe’s article appears in the journal Slavonic and East European Review.
O’Keeffe’s historical overview of Ivy focuses on her public and private identities. Before marrying Soviet commander Maksim Litvinov, Ivy published two novels and had great literary ambitions. But after she wed, she found her identity slowly entwined with that of her husband’s. “She bridled against the expectation, too, that her life was significant only for the unique insights she might be able to offer the West about life (and death) in the Kremlin’s shadow,” O’Keeffe writes.
When Maksim’s relationship with Stalin later soured, the couple escaped by moving to the U.S., where Maksim took the position of Soviet ambassador. Despite continuing to write and publish of her own accord, the couple’s notoriety overshadowed Ivy’s work.
The press wasn’t interested in Ivy’s fiction. They wanted a memoir. “Ivy Litvinov was well aware that her contemporaries wanted to see in her a mirror not only to her husband’s world-historic life, but also a mirror into a Kremlin milieu of revolutionary devotion, privilege, tragedy and violence,” O’Keeffe writes. That project, one she “laboured and agonized over for decades,” was tentatively titled Worlds Unrealized and remained unfinished at her death in 1977.
O’Keeffe’s article highlights Ivy’s private world, illustrating her importance as so much more than a “Kremlin wife,” and setting the stage for future scholarship to follow suit.