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Comptes rendus
Russie ancienne et impériale

VAL´KOVA Ol´ga A., Shturmuia tsitadel´ nauki. Zhenshchiny-uchenye Rossiiskoi imperii [Storming the citadel of science: Women scientists in the Russian Empire]

Anastasia Fedotova und Marina Loskutova
p. 520-527

VAL´KOVA Ol´ga A., Shturmuia tsitadel´ nauki. Zhenshchiny-uchenye Rossiiskoi imperii [Storming the citadel of science: Women scientists in the Russian Empire], Moscou: NLO, 2019, 800 p.


  • 1 Ol´ga A. Val´kova, Shturmuia tsitadel´ nauki: zhenshchiny-uchenye Rossiiskoi imperii [ Storming the (...)
  • 2 Ol´ga A. Val´kova, “Zhenshchiny-estestvoispytateli Rossiiskoi imperii (konets XVIII – nachalo XX v. (...)
  • 3 See, for example: Mary R.S. Creese, Ladies in the Laboratory IV: Imperial Russia’s Women in Science (...)
  • 4 See for example: Ol´ga A. Val´kova, “Gendernaia istoriia nauki v Rossii. Nachalo [Gender history an (...)
  • 5 For current trends in women’s opinions about their own careers in science see, for example: L.A.  G (...)

1Ol´ga Val´kova monograph is devoted to women’s gradual entry into the academic community of the Russian empire in the late 18th – early 20th century.1 The book is essentially a reworked doctoral dissertation that Ol´ga Val´kova successfully defended at the Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Moscow, in 2014.2 We should certainly welcome this publication, as Ol´ga Val´kova’s research fills a manifest gap both in the social history of science in Russia and in Russian gender history. Indeed, while specialists can easily recollect academic papers and monographs focused on female education or women’s movements in the Russian empire, the problem of women’s entry in the field of scientific research in this country has so far been examined in isolated biographical studies and incomplete entries in encyclopaedias and biographic reference books.3 Very few conferences devoted to the history of science in Russia consider this problem.4 We believe that recent conservative trends in Russian public opinion not only discourage interest in this topic – they might potentially endanger the very position that women had already won in academic research.5 That is why the publication of Val´kova’s book seems to us a very important event not only in the historiography of science in Russia but also in recent Russian publishing in general.

  • 6 Ol´ga A. Val´kova, Ol´ga Aleksandrovna Fedchenko, 1845–1921 (M.: Nauka, 2006).
  • 7 For new data on the Turkestan expedition see: Ol´ga A. Val´kova, “«Nauchnaia sem´ia» v Rossii v ser (...)

2Ol´ga Val´kova had already produced high-quality academic research when she published a detailed biographical study devoted to Ol´ga Aleksandrovna Fedchenko (1845–1921).6 Thanks to Val´kova’s monograph, readers for the first time comprehended the enormous contribution made by that remarkable woman. In all earlier studies that considered the famous Russian expedition to Turkestan in 1868–1872 and its scientific contribution, Ol´ga Fedchenko had always been portrayed as the wife and assistant of Aleksei Fedchenko but not as a botanist, explorer, organiser and leader of large-scale scientific projects in her own right. Predictably, Ol´ga Fedchenko’s career in science has become one of the most captivating parts in the monograph under review.7

3The recent book by Val´kova, however, cannot be reduced to a mere reconstruction of the lives and academic careers of a few outstanding female scientists, even if the biographical approach remains the principal strategy of this monograph. Characteristically, Sof´ia Kovalevskaia’s contribution to mathematics or Nadezhda Suslova’s career in medicine have been mentioned only in passing, while these names are typically associated with the story of women’s achievements in science in 19th century Russia. Val´kova’s intention was to create a collective portrait, or rather a gallery of portraits representing several generations of women and several strategies of their gaining access to scientific research, without bringing to the limelight only a few iconic personalities. The author made painstaking efforts in reconstructing the biographies of previously unknown, minor figures who were members of various scientific societies, or attended scientific congresses, or published academic papers, or collected naturalia, or served as technical assistants in laboratories and other research institutions.

4The book’s title, which can be translated as ‘Storming the bastion of science’, might seem a bit strident for an academic monograph. However, the work does graphically demonstrate the immensity of efforts spent by women in their struggle with the defenders of this ‘bastion’ who were so very reluctant in acknowledging their female colleagues as their equals.

5In Russian, the word ‘nauka’ encompasses both sciences and humanities, while ‘uchenye’ should be, respectively, understood as scholars, not just scientists. However, this particular work deals only with natural sciences. Val´kova does briefly refer to prehistorical archaeology and ethnography – to the extent these disciplines were pursued in the Russian Geographical Society in St. Petersburg and the Society of Enthusiasts of Natural Sciences, Anthropology and Ethnography in Moscow. This narrowing of the research framework seems to be justified, as the topic itself has been poorly studied, while research practices with associated life-styles and career options were certainly different in natural sciences and humanities.

  • 8 D.Iu. Guzevich, I.D. Guzevich, “Porokhovykh del masteritsa Val´ Elena (Valentina) Ivanovna, de,” [“ (...)

6One of the programmatic statements made in this book is the author’s decision to expand its chronological framework. Earlier research assumed that Russian women developed an interest in science not earlier than the 1850s, while they became especially active in the Great Reforms era of the 1860s. However, Ol´ga Val´kova demonstrates that the first data on female participation in various forms of science in the Russian empire go back as early as the 18th century. Certainly, for the 1700s one could find only very few isolated cases that have already been mentioned in scholarly literature. Among these women were Dorothea Maria Graff (1678–1743), a daughter of the Dutch female naturalist and artist Maria Sybilla Merian, and Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova (1743–1810). Dorothea Maria arrived in St. Petersburg with her husband Georg Gsell and worked as a graphic artist at the Imperial Academy of Sciences in the early 18th century, while Ekaterina Dashkova presided over the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy in the 1780s–1790s. We still have a very poor knowledge of the 18th century and further research might reveal more women engaged in scientific pursuits. For example, recently historians working on the early 18th century have uncovered some data on a ‘craftswoman’ Elena de Val who supervised technical works at the St. Petersburg gunpowder plant in the 1720s–1740s.8

7Ol´ga Val´kova has managed to identify a much wider group of women interested in science at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Val´kova suggests that it was in the 1790s–1810s when the very collocation of a ‘learned woman’ (uchenaia zhenshchina) entered the Russian language, with the term ‘filosofka’ (a female philosophe) used as its synonym. In the same decades the first public debates about the capability of women in scholarly pursuits emerged on the pages of Russian books and periodicals (Chapter 1.2). Once we examine the arguments advanced in these years, as Val´kova retells them, we are stunned by their familiarity, as most of them are still recycled more than two hundred years later. Val´kova gives a detailed analysis of the education received by young noble women in the 1800s–1850s and graphically disproves a widespread idea that women’s education in sciences was much inferior to the one acquired by their male peers in that period. Moreover, their home education, which was much criticised in the later decades of the 19th century, meant that in noble families, girls and young women studied from the same books and with the same tutors and took the same courses as their male contemporaries (Chapter 1.3). The book contains very interesting sections devoted to female collectors of naturalia (Chapter 1.4) and those women who attended public lectures on natural sciences in the first half of the 19th century (Chapter 1.5). Ekaterina Dashkova assembled magnificent collections of naturalia, which she donated to the Moscow University (they perished in the great fire of 1812, during the Napoleonic invasion). Thanks to Ol´ga Val´kova at least we have become aware of these lectures and collections, while the fate of a massive collection accumulated by Elena Pavlovna Fadeeva (neé Dolgorukaia, 1789–1860), which among other exhibits included dozens of volumes with drawings of plants from the Caucasus, still remains a mystery.

  • 9 Similar observations were made as early as 1890s by Elena Likhacheva: see E.O. Likhacheva, Material (...)

8Ol´ga Val´kova does make a very useful distinction between an interest in natural sciences and professional research in these fields. She suggests that women in Russia started entering the realm of professional scientific research in the 1850s when the Russian periodical press (aside from the discussion of the female capacity for scholarly pursuits – a habitual topic) raised an entirely new theme. Some authors in the 1850s called for women to be paid for their work in science and demanded the lessening of restrictions concerning their access to this field (Part 2 of the book). The monograph considers in detail the legal framework that hindered women’s engagement in professional scientific research. In the case of the Russian empire, legal restrictions mostly concerned access to positions in the state service, which encompassed the vast majority of academic institutions – the Academy of Sciences, the universities and other institutions of higher education, laboratories affiliated with various ministries and governmental agencies. While considering career options open for young women who were interested in science in the 1870s–1880s, Val´kova highlights the choices they faced: they could either leave the country to study and work abroad, or fight at home to obtain a university diploma and a position in the state service. There was a third option: they could pursue scientific research in private, supported by their own (family) means or by funds provided by those various learned societies who were sympathetic to women. In the long-term historical perspective, it was a determined struggle for the equality of legal rights that ensured future opportunities for women to engage in scientific research. However, if we consider the impact left by women of this particular generation in various branches of science, it seems that private research was a much more effective strategy. Up to the 1910s, only women from wealthy and supportive families could seriously engage in scientific research. Even in these cases, however, they still remained at a disadvantage because they could not have a position at the Academy of Sciences or in a university within the empire, and that meant they had problems with the usual ways of exchanging scientific information, testing and verifying their research hypotheses and achieving recognition from their colleagues. As a result, until the early 20th century, that is until the emergence of the first non-governmental scientific and educational institutions and some liberalisation of the legal framework, it was the learned societies that provided the only window of opportunity for women’s scientific research. The learned societies, however, typically did not provide research funding. It is also important to realise that previous scholarship in the history of science in Russia has been mostly focused on the leading contributors to various disciplines, most of whom were men, while everyday work performed by all sorts of technical assistants – among whom women could be found – has still remained to be explored. Biographies of ‘distinguished scientists’ created a lasting impression that the very reform movement for granting women permission to study and work in the universities of the Russian empire was led by male professors, while their daughters, sisters, wives and female friends played only an auxiliary role. The book under review and other works by Ol´ga Val´kova convincingly demonstrate a more complicated picture: some professors, undoubtedly, were instrumental in advancing the cause of women’s admission to higher education and professional scientific research, however, in return, female scientists performed dreary and poorly paid tasks processing field and laboratory data or curating collections.9

  • 10 Ol´ga Val´kova has recently produced a new monograph focused on Nina Subbotina (1877-1961). The boo (...)

9The next section of the monograph examines the biographies and contribution to science made by women in the Russian empire from the late 1890s until the revolution of 1917 (part 4). Here Val´kova emphasises the increase in numbers of women who received higher education in natural sciences in this period and who were determined to pursue a career in academic research. At the same time, however, in most cases these careers, unlike those of their male peers, lasted only for a short time. Women still had extremely limited access to positions in the state service and paid research positions in general – and that, apparently, constituted the principal factor that barred them from active participation in science. When in the late 1890s, a few ladies managed to get employment in leading institutions, such as the Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences or the Main Chamber of Weights and Measures, it happened because of support and perseverance extended by their directors – academicians Oskar Backlund and Dmitri Mendeleev. In the early 20th century women still experienced considerable difficulties when seeking to get higher education and find opportunities for further scientific research. Even in this period most productive, in terms of their contribution to natural sciences, were those women who could not be classified as professional scientists – they lived from their private means – and among the older age cohort, had no formal academic training or degrees. Yet, unlike in the earlier decades, this period witnessed the emergence of private research institutions – botanical gardens, small astronomical observatories, natural history museums funded by amateur female scientists (Ol´ga Fedchenko, Nina Subbotina10, Ekaterina Sheremeteva).

10In the last section of her book, Ol´ga Val´kova adopts a different research strategy by undertaking quantitative analysis of the problem: she examines the lists of women who took part in the congresses of Russian naturalists and physicians – the most important academic convention of the Russian empire which took place in various cities of the country between 1867 and 1913. Particular attention is given to those women who not only attended the congresses but also presented papers and chaired sessions. We should point out, however, that this part of the book, even if it contains some very interesting observations, is poorly connected to the rest of the monograph, as Val´kova does not provide the reader with the necessary background information concerning the role of these events in the professionalization of scientific research in Russia and the formation of academic communities in different fields.

11The book certainly has many merits: a broad chronological framework, attention given to women’s contribution to many different disciplines and rich biographical details. Women remain hidden from history and it takes a lot of effort and ingenuity to locate primary sources for reconstructing their life histories and details of their research. However, we would still like to point out those questions that definitely need further exploration by future historians. Indeed, this monograph, like many other serious pieces of scholarship, prompts more questions than it answers.

12The first and most serious problem with this research is that it does not analyse the changing nature of the very concepts of scholarship that took place in the 18th – 20th centuries. When the author examines the professionalization of women’s work in science, she implicitly assumes that men who were active in science were professional scientists by default. In her perspective, even in the late 18th – early 19th century the distinctions between amateurs and professionals in science were clearly defined. It was certainly not the case but for the Russian context there are no studies that examine the dissolution of the older social identities of a ‘virtuoso’, collector and travelling naturalist, and the making of a new dominant one – a university professor of the 19th century. At the same time, the latter figure still overshadows all other social roles in 19th century scientific research, and thus makes it difficult to appreciate the contribution of aristocratic women who amassed valuable scientific collections.

13Ol´ga Val´kova provides a few very interesting observations concerning women’s participation in various learned societies of the Russian empire. However, these data are difficult to interpret without having some background knowledge about the social and professional composition of these societies and the very process of professionalization in different branches of science. We know, for example, that amateur naturalists composed a significant proportion in the ranks of the Russian Entomological Society (created in 1859) – these people did not hold any positions in the academic institutions of the Russian empire, they often did not have even a university education in life sciences. The same was true about the Russian Geographical Society (created in 1845). Was it also typical, however, for the Russian Physical and Chemical Society (created in 1878) or the Russian Astronomical Society (created in 1890)? How many members of the Russian Physical and Chemical Society worked in an industrial environment? How keen were chemical laboratories located within private industrial enterprises on employing female specialists in chemistry?

  • 11 Mary R.S. Creese, “Early women chemists in Russia: Anna Volkova, Iulia Lermontova, and Nadezhda Zib (...)

14We would certainly very much like to read a work that would provide a comparative analysis of the position of women in science in the Russian empire and other European countries in the 19th - early 20th centuries. In part 3.6 of her book Val´kova gives just one example of such analysis when she considers women in chemistry, which she has borrowed from elsewhere.11

15We would also like to find out more about the legal framework that defined academic employment for women, and its changes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Val´kova briefly mentions that at least in the second half of the 19th century, women in the Russian empire could be admitted to the state service as midwives, apothecaries, telegraph operators and school teachers. However, the book gives no details. In chapter 4.4, Val´kova provides a short overview of the changes in legislation, governmental policies on women’s higher education and employment, as well as public opinion, in the early 20th century. However, it seems that some of her conclusions might be premature. For example, Val´kova describes the legislative changes that took place in the late months of 1911 as a radical policy turn, which happened just because the Ministry of Education all of a sudden ‘found it convenient’ to allow women to take the examinations for a real higher education diploma (and not just a certificate of the higher women’s courses) and for master’s and doctoral degrees. This interpretation is supported only by a few citations from a draft of the imperial decree prepared in the Ministry of Education and its supplementary materials.

  • 12 Val´kova, Shturmuia tsitadel´ nauki, 341.

16Likewise, Val´kova considers the recognition of the equality of men and women in higher education in 1918as ‘a brilliant tactical move, which cost nothing to the new regime’, that is as a populist measure intended to secure support of female scientists,12 but his needs to be substantiated.

17Finally, while the book claims to examine the history of women in science in the Russian empire, it says nothing about those regions where science and scientists spoke languages different from Russian – like Finland, Russian Poland, the Baltic, and Western provinces. Certainly, a comparative analysis with these regions would require further exploration, and we would not have expected Ol´ga Val´kova to undertake this enormous task in her fine book, but the very fact of this (perfectly understandable) omission should, in our view, have been mentioned in the introduction.

18Last but not least, we admire Val´kova’s literary style – her succinct manner in conveying women’s life stories does not make them dull and unemotional, scholarly precision of expression still leaves some space for subtle irony or even sarcasm. It will certainly be very pleasurable reading for anyone interested in the history of science and gender history in Russia.



1 Ol´ga A. Val´kova, Shturmuia tsitadel´ nauki: zhenshchiny-uchenye Rossiiskoi imperii [ Storming the citadel of science: Women scientists in the Russian Empire] (M.: NLO, 2019).

2 Ol´ga A. Val´kova, “Zhenshchiny-estestvoispytateli Rossiiskoi imperii (konets XVIII – nachalo XX v.) [Women naturalists in the Russian Empire (the late eighteenth – early twentieth century)]” Dissertation submitted for the doctorate of science degree in history. Vols 1, 2. Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Russian Academy of Sciences. Moscow, 2014.

3 See, for example: Mary R.S. Creese, Ladies in the Laboratory IV: Imperial Russia’s Women in Science, 1800–1900: A Survey of Their Contributions to Research (Lanham – Boulder – New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015); S.A. Sycheva, Zhenshchiny-pochvovedy. Biograficheskii spravochnik o rossiiskikh i sovetskikh issledovatel´nitsakh pochv [Women in Soil Science. A Biographical Reference-Book on Russian and Soviet Female Soil Scientists] (M.: NIA Priroda, 2003).

4 See for example: Ol´ga A. Val´kova, “Gendernaia istoriia nauki v Rossii. Nachalo [Gender history and history of science in Russia. The beginning],” Nauchnye vedomosti Belgorodskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta. Istoriia. Politologiia, 46, no. 3 (2019): 544-554.

5 For current trends in women’s opinions about their own careers in science see, for example: L.A.  Gritsai, “Materinstvo i nauka: k voprosu o roditel´skikh ustanovkakh sovremennykh rossiiskikh zhenshchin-uchenykh [Motherhood and science: on the issue of current predispositions of Russian women in academic research towards parenting],” Sotsiologiia nauki i tekhnologii, 2, no. 4 (2011): 99-104.

6 Ol´ga A. Val´kova, Ol´ga Aleksandrovna Fedchenko, 1845–1921 (M.: Nauka, 2006).

7 For new data on the Turkestan expedition see: Ol´ga A. Val´kova, “«Nauchnaia sem´ia» v Rossii v seredine XIX veka [“Academic family” in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century]” in Z.Z. Mukhina et al., red., Gender v fokuse antropologii, etnografii sem´i i sotsial´noi istorii povsednevnosti [Gender from the perspective of anthropological and ethnographic research on families and social history of everyday life] (M.: Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, 2019) 54–64. Among other things, the article answers the question why Governor-General K.P. Kaufman was interested in inviting Aleksei and Ol´ga Fedchenko to join the expedition.

8 D.Iu. Guzevich, I.D. Guzevich, “Porokhovykh del masteritsa Val´ Elena (Valentina) Ivanovna, de,” [“Gunpowder craftswoman Val´ Elena (Valentina) Ivanovna de”] in V.S. Rjeoutski, D.Iu. Gouzevitch, eds., Inostrannye spetsialisty v Rossii v epokhu Petra Velikogo. Biograficheskii slovar´ vykhodtsev iz Frantsii, Vallonii, frankoiazychnykh Shveitsarii i Savoii: 1682–1727 [Foreign specialists in Russia in the epoch of Peter the Great. A biographical dictionary of immigrants from France, Wallonia and the French-speaking parts of Switzerland and Savoy] (M.: Lomonosov, 2019), 136–137.

9 Similar observations were made as early as 1890s by Elena Likhacheva: see E.O. Likhacheva, Materialy dlia istorii zhenskogo obrazovaniia v Rossii, [Materials for the history of women’s education in Russia] 4 vols. (SPb.: Tip. M.M. Stasiulevicha, 1890-1901).

10 Ol´ga Val´kova has recently produced a new monograph focused on Nina Subbotina (1877-1961). The book is expected to be published soon: Ol´ga A. Val´kova, Zhizn´ i udivitel´nye prikliucheniia astronoma Subbotinoi [The life and amazing adventures of the astronomer Subbotina] (M.: NLO, 2021).

11 Mary R.S. Creese, “Early women chemists in Russia: Anna Volkova, Iulia Lermontova, and Nadezhda Ziber-Shumova,” Bulletin for the history of chemistry, 21 (1998): 19-24.

12 Val´kova, Shturmuia tsitadel´ nauki, 341.




Anastasia Fedotova und Marina Loskutova, „VAL´KOVA Ol´ga A., Shturmuia tsitadel´ nauki. Zhenshchiny-uchenye Rossiiskoi imperii [Storming the citadel of science: Women scientists in the Russian Empire]“Cahiers du monde russe, 61/3-4 | 2020, 520-527.


Anastasia Fedotova und Marina Loskutova, „VAL´KOVA Ol´ga A., Shturmuia tsitadel´ nauki. Zhenshchiny-uchenye Rossiiskoi imperii [Storming the citadel of science: Women scientists in the Russian Empire]“Cahiers du monde russe [Online], 61/3-4 | 2020, Online erschienen am: 01 Juli 2020, abgerufen am 16 Mai 2021. URL:; DOI:



Anastasia Fedotova

St. Petersburg Branch of the Institute of the History 
of Science and Technology, Russian Academy of Sciences

Marina Loskutova

Department of History, National Research University – Higher School of Economics, St.Petersburg



© École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris.

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