The Keys to Happiness

The Keys to Happiness

Sex and the Search for Modernity in fin-de-Siecle Russia
  • Winner of the 1993 Wayne S. Vucinich Prize (American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies) Cowinner of the 1993 Heldt Prize (Association of Women in Slavic Studies)

The revolution of 1905 challenged not only the social and political structures of imperial Russia but the sexual order as well. Throughout the decade that followed-in the salons of the artistic and intellectual avant-garde, on the pages of popular romances, in the staid assemblies of physicians, psychiatrists, and legal men—the talk everywhere was of sex. This eagerly awaited book, echoing the title of a pre-World War I bestseller, The Keys to Happiness, marks the first serious attempt to understand the intense public interest in sexuality as a vital dimension of late tsarist political culture. Drawing on a strong foundation of historical sources—from medical treatises and legal codes to anti-Semitic pamphlets, commercial fiction, newspaper advertisements, and serious literature—Laura Engelstein shows how Western ideas and attitudes toward sex and gender were transformed in the Russian context as imported views on prostitution, venereal disease, homosexuality, masturbation, abortion, and other themes took on distinctively Russian hues. Engelstein divides her study into two parts, the first focusing on the period from the Great Reforms to 1905 and on the two professional disciplines most central to the shaping of a modern sexual discourse in Russia: law and medicine. The second part describes the complicated sexual preoccupations that accompanied the mobilization leading up to 1905, the revolution itself, and the aftermath of continued social agitation and intensified intellectual doubt. In chapters of astonishing richness, the author follows the sexual theme through the twists of professional and civic debate and in the surprising links between high and low culture up to the eve of the First World War. Throughout, Engelstein uses her findings to rethink the conventional wisdom about the political and cultural history of modern Russia. She maps out new approaches to the history of sexuality, and shows, brilliantly, how the study of attitudes toward sex and gender can help us to grasp the most fundamental political issues in any society.