“Public Life through Public Death: Civic Activism, Media Spectacle, and Contested Spaces in the Funeral of Vera Kommissarzhevskaia”


by Jacob Bell

Over a decade before Vladimir Lenin’s body began its vigil beneath Red Square, the death of another beloved figure captured and enthused the Russian imagination: Vera Kommissarzhevskaia. Matthew Klopfenstein’s lecture entitled “Public Life through Public Death,” traced the outpourings of civic grief and commemoration following the death of Kommissarzhevskaia in Tashkent in February 1910, an event which sparked more public mourning than the deaths of Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tchaikovsky. Klopfenstein argued that the demonstration of civic demonstrations of grief enabled late imperial Russians to exercise new forms of civic power, rooted in the press and mass spectacle.

The actress Vera Feodorovna Kommissarzhevskaia (1864-1910), was the archetypal new, independent woman. She was a new person for new times: amidst growing sentiment that time was out of joint, she offered a new model of personhood to overcome the uncertainty of the present. Her life spoke to the accelerating cultural transformations of the late imperial era, as she represented wholeness and a shameless sense of self amid concerns of the inauthentic public and press. Popularly viewed as an independent spirit who sought to chart her own path, she became a bit of a youth idol in her day. When smallpox cut her life short in Tashkent, it sparked a national period of mourning, for many felt her death reflected the modern state of Russia. From Ashkabad to Yalta, encompassing the Baltic, the western borderlands, the Caucasus, Siberia, and Central Asia, commemorations for Kommissarzhevskaia were a truly empire-wide phenomenon.

Beginning in Tashkent and ending in St. Petersburg, the funeral procession for Kommissarzhevskaia became a contested space between civic actors. On the ground, performances near the coffin developed into a popular competition among people producing protestations of mourning and wild gesticulations. Regions and towns claimed Kommissarzhevskaia as their own, with Tashkent especially donating public funds for wreaths, creating scholarships to women’s gymnasiums, renaming streets in the city, and responding to press coverage of her death if they inferred a slight against their city. Further, the mass protestations of grief became a site of contention, pitting Conservative Orthodoxy and Reactionaries against the public displays of affection and mourning. In one instance, the Bishop of Saratov inquired into Kommissarzhevskaia’s faith when deciding whether or not to hold a requiem in the cathedral, which ignited a firestorm in the press across the empire. Municipal authorities, the Russian Orthodox Church, conservatives, liberals, reactionaries, anti-Semites, and ordinary people competed to be heard around the body of Kommissarzhevskaia, her procession becoming a microcosm for the anxieties of late-imperial society.

Klopfenstein asserted that ordinary people transformed mourning into a massive expression of civic life. Acts of mourning reflected intimacy with the deceased, transforming a national figure into someone intimately familiar and knowable. Thus, the press, which emerged as a key civic space with the flow of information enabled by the significant development of reading culture in late imperial Russia, paid special attention to weeping because it reflected sincere emotion.

Klopfenstein suggested that a need for sincerity in the face of perceived uncertainty and falsehood in the state and press justified a change of tradition to create new forms of public mourning and commemoration: ordinary peoples desired to commemorate Kommissarzhevskaia and challenged the powers-that-be through new acts of public grief.

By the time Kommissarzhevskaia’s body reached Moscow and later St. Petersburg, her death was already a national event imbued with controversy and debate. New commemorative ritual evoked sincerity of grief as justification for the public mourning and legitimized the acts the mourners undertook. Klopfenstein ended with the argument that ideas of the self, created by popular culture, did affect public action in late imperial Russia, with the death of Kommissarzhevskaia ushering in the notion that both church and state should stand out of the way of authentic emotion and “Let us be ourselves (byt’ samimi soboi).”

Jacob Bell is a PhD student in History at the University of Illinois.

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